Monday, 16 July 2012

Servitude and Leighton Buzzard

The Greenacres Slavery case has reached a verdict on some of the charges, although the jury couldn't agree a verdict for a couple of dozen other charges, some of which will be retried. This means that Medawar isn't totally free to comment on every aspect of the case.

This link and this one give a pretty fair impression of the basic news and journalistic reaction, so far.

However, there are two aspects arising from the charges that have been dealt with, upon which it is permissible and necessary to comment. Both, really, a product of the fact that when Parliament passed the current servitude legislation, it didn't really know the gravity and extent of the practices it was attempting to outlaw. This is nobody's fault; it's a product of shining a light into a very dark hidden corner, that something much worse than expected may crawl out.

One of those convicted was given an eleven year sentence, out of what Medawar believes is an absolute maximum of fourteen years. Until the facts of the Leighton Buzzard case were examined in court, eleven to fourteen years must have seemed adequate or even harsh, because the laws were really introduced to prevent the sort of abuse of foreign workers which immigration authorities and the gangmaster licensing authority, knew about prior to 2010. That included unlawful detention, poor housing, excessive work, no pay, coercion and inadequate provision of food and minimal care and concern for safety. But it was envisaged that these unacceptable things were happening over a period of weeks or months.

One of the slaves who was freed by Bedfordshire police from the Greenacres Traveller's site, had been held there for fifteen years: more than the maximum sentence available to judges for punishing those holding him there. He was held in conditions unquestionably worse than those in any English jail, and subject to threats of violence and abuse of a kind which would be extraordinary in any context, even inside jail. This does not mean that the practice of abducting and keeping homeless and mentally-ill men as slaves started fifteen years before the police raid: there's some evidence that it had been going on for something more like thirty years. This takes us back pretty well exactly to the period when the Thatcher government repealed previous anti-slavery legislation, mainly in surrender to European pressure to get rid of any remaining English and Scottish laws still carrying the death penalty. As far as one can tell, and it's not a subject on which those directly responsible are ever likely to enlighten us, the practice of some Irish Traveller clans using homeless men as forced labour started immediately it ceased to be a potentially capital offence to do so.

In the light of severity and sheer duration of the cruelty inflicted via Greenacres, there needs to be an urgent modification to the sentences available to judges in forced servitude cases. Not necessarily to increase the amount of time actually served in jail, but in order to alter the legal basis on which they are released, having served it. And it does seem possible that if this is how bad it looks on what is only the third or fourth occasion a servitude case has come to court under the new laws, that we're going to see even worse, perhaps quite soon. Judges are going to have trouble responding properly to the very worst cases.

The solution is to make life sentences available. The crucial difference between a life sentence with an eleven year tariff, and an eleven year sentence, is that release from prison from a life sentence, is only ever done on licence. The licence can be revoked at any time and the offender recalled to prison if there appears to be any likelihood of a further offence. And release from a life sentence does not happen in the first place, if the offender appears to be unrepentant.

The second problem with the servitude laws as they stand is this:
More particularly in connection with another case, involving offenders with the same family name as those from Leighton Buzzard and tried in Luton, but officially unconnected and tried in Hampshire, evidence and testimony emerged of individuals abducted from the streets and dole queues and used as forced labour, were traded and sold between different individuals and between different branches of the same family living and working from different sites.

Men were trafficked and sold within England. There is also a body of authoritative and officially-published evidence that men seized for the purposes of forced labour in England, have been taken to and from the Skane region of Sweden.

The servitude laws do not really address the sale and trafficking of forced labourers, and this kind of trade is only vigorously pursued by the police and customs if it involves sexual offences and/or children.

This needs to change: trading in slaves was outlawed by Parliament a whole generation before keeping slaves was outlawed. Largely because it was in the trade and transport of slaves that the worst cruelty and abuse was perceived, by Georgian society, to be happening.

There need to be specific offences of trading in forced labour and profiting from servitude, because it's possible that those profiting most from the practice of forced labour, may be far removed from the day-to-day administration of it. As things stand, someone who puts up the capital or resources in kind for someone to set up in the forced labour trade, is going to be exceptionally difficult to prosecute, even though the offence simply would not be happening without their, distant, involvement.

It must be made more straightforward to prosecute those who provide the capital, sites vehicles and equipment for acts of servitude. It must also be possible, where appropriate, to prosecute those who award contracts to gangmasters or "subcontractors" using forced labour. And that prosecution must be a significant charge with a severe penalty, and not something that can be viewed as an administrative risk or expense.

The final issue is this: 
All the media reports and political debate uses terms like "virtual slavery" and "slavery-like conditions" to describe something which meets any reasonable, let alone dictionary, definition of slavery. It is fairly obvious that the sole reason for doing this, is that white journalists are afraid that the black community will take them to task for implying that there's any connection between what happened to white people at Greenacres and what happened to Afro-Caribbean communities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

There is a connection: it is the same thing. We need to use the same word, or we devalue the language, we mitigate the guilt of the modern slaver, and we betray all those who suffered in previous centuries, including those Cornishmen kidnapped as slaves by Barbary pirates and those from so many countries and cultures who was taken as slaves to Rome, by letting it happen again.

Taking men by a mixture of trickery and force, keeping them by pure force and threats of death, making them work the same way and maintaining this oppression and exploitation, year in, year out, is slavery pure and simple and to pretend otherwise, or demand some other weaseling form of words, is both dishonest and complicit.

Anyone who will not call a slave a slave, is ultimately making life easier for the slave-master.


ML said...

I hope you have sent copies of this to all the newspapers, because this needs to be run as an editorial in as many of them as possible.

Medawar said...

They may chicken out, of course.

However, if there are sufficient links to this on the web, it will come up on top of the google search lists.

There's not been a lot else happen around Leighton Buzzard since the great train robbery, just down the track at Linslade.