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Defacing statues of our war dead does nothing to help tomorrow’s victims of racism and slavery

In her latest blog, Alison discusses recent events and tackling modern slavery.

If you suspect modern slavery, contact the Modern Slavery Helpline (08000 121 700) or D&C Police

Slavery might have been outlawed almost two centuries ago, but as we have seen in the last fortnight the ramifications of this most barbaric industry are still being felt in modern Britain.

As statues of those who built their fortunes and empires on the backs of others have been toppled and defaced passionate discussions have taken place about what to do with the street names and sculptures dedicated to those whose views seem abhorrent to us today.

I am a believer in free speech and will passionately defend people’s right to air their views in public, as #BlackLivesMatter campaigners have done recently in locations including Exeter, Torquay, Barnstaple, Plymouth and the Isles of Scilly.

Our police have been proactive in playing a critical role in liaising with the organisers of these demonstrations – particularly during the coronavirus crisis – to ensure that everyone concerned is kept safe. Here in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly people have made their views known without the need to resort to violence or vandalism.

I do, however, strongly disagree with the mob rule we saw in Bristol, where the statue of Edward Colston was ripped from its plinth. Colston made his fortune as a slave trader and the statue has long been a bone of contention, but the correct way to remove it would have been through the local authority which owned it and with a democratic mandate to do so.

The following days saw acts of vandalism carried out at statues including the one created to memorialise the 55,573 Bomber Command air crew killed defending this country from fascism.

On Friday we saw the sad sight of the Cenotaph and Winston Churchill’s statue having to be covered up to prevent attacks on them by a few who are undermining the important message of equality that campaigners had been voicing.

I also believe councils need to be cautious before jumping to decisions about their questionable built heritage. I disagree with the decision to rename Sir John Hawkins Square in Plymouth (Hawkins too made his money in the slave trade) without a proper public consultation.

Trying to impose modern values on people who lived in different times is not, I think, a healthy practice.  

Like it or not, these characters will always be part of Britain’s heritage, removing them from our public spaces in an attempt to sanitise history is the practice of totalitarian regimes and ultimately conflicts with the very freedom of speech that the #BlackLivesMatter campaigners are rightfully enjoying at the moment.

I also think believe the vandalism and unrest we’ve seen on our streets turns a good number of people off what is a very important issue. Black and minority ethnic people are victims of racism, both casual and institutional, in Britain, today, right now.

The slavery of the 18th Century we can do nothing about other than acknowledge. The modern slavery of both adults and children present in some of the UK’s car washes, nail bars and farms is breeding misery and risking people’s lives right underneath our noses.

The number of people identified as victims of modern slavery has been rising year on year, with over 10,000 people referred to authorities in 2019. The real number of people trapped in slavery is estimated to be much higher.

I am proud to have in Exmouth the national Modern Slavery Police Transformation Unit, which trains police officers and staff from around the country in how to spot and deal with modern slavery cases. Funded by the Home Office, it aims to increase prosecutions this year, supporting victims to come forward and training the Crown Prosecution Service to better understand how to use modern slavery legislation to secure longer sentences.

In terms of equality and the police, there is progress to be made but some excellent work being done. My office still proactively explores what affects police decision making and scrutinises the use of their powers regularly so that any noticeable changes can be highlighted quickly and be addressed. 

The force is also working hard to ensure that, as we grow officer numbers through the largest recruitment drive for decades, it is more representative of the ever changing and evolving communities that it seeks to protect.

So, if you are interested in building a fairer society by all means lobby and campaign for change, but don’t get too hung up on the past at the expense of tackling the slavery of the present and task of building a brighter future for us all to enjoy together.

Alison Hernandez