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From recent slavery to the House of Lords

Baroness Hussein-Ece

In many ways the recently appointed Baroness Meral Ece’s family background, including her own journey to the House of Lords, belongs to one of those great epic tales. It is a tale so fantastic it conjures up the Arabian nights, the  Count of Montecristo, and Beau Jeste. The difference is that Ece’s tale is not fiction, but fact.

In her maiden speech she refers to this and other aspects of her life. She
also recounts some of this in a recent article, published in the Sunday Times,
extracts of which feature below:

The Sunday Times.

The Liberal Democrat peer surprised the Lords in her maiden speech last week when she disclosed that her great-grandfather had been kidnapped from his home and sold into slavery.

Slavery was still part of life in Sudan in the 1860s when Abdullah, 13, went fishing by a river with his sister, 12. Their father was a wealthy landowner and the children believed they were safe on his estate. But slave traders dragged them into their boats.

“The father and his people gave chase on horseback. The horses collapsed, they were riding so hard. It was too far. It was the north of Sudan. They took them to a port in Cyprus, probably Larnaca, and sold them at auction,” said Baroness Hussein-Ece.

Although Abdullah took care of his younger sister on the ship, they were separated at the slave auction and lost touch

Abdullah, who was a tall and striking lad, was purchased for a high price by a wealthy Greek-Cypriot trader who soon entrusted his slave with taking camel trains and horses around the island trading goods. But the trader was a Christian and was adamant that his new slave should convert from Islam. He tried to force him to give up his faith, hanging him upside down in the heat from a tree all day, but he failed to convert him.

The slave was later sold to a Turkish trader who accepted his faith and treated him well.’

After years of service, the slave was granted his freedom. He set up as a merchant himself. He remained near Larnaca and became so successful that he built his village’s first mosque and married the local midwife.

Maiden Speech by Baroness Hussein-Ece:

My Lords, it is a great privilege to speak for the first
time in your Lordships’ House. I have been humbled by the extraordinary
welcome and support from my sponsors, my noble friends Lady Scott and Lady Garden,
and from other noble Lords across the Benches. They have shown me great kindness,
welcoming me and guiding me on the ways of the House. I also thank the dedicated
staff, who serve this House so well, for their unfailing help and support. They
are always on hand literally to point me in the right direction. For someone
of my background, it is a huge privilege to serve in your Lordships’ House,
although some have assumed that by taking the title of Highbury I was somehow
able to get tickets to Arsenal matches.

My father, a Turkish Cypriot and a Muslim, came to this country in 1948 as
a young man from Cyprus to seek work. He had served as a policeman during the
1940s, when Cyprus was a British colony. My mother arrived in 1952 to stay with
her brother, who had settled in the UK after serving in the British forces during
the Second World War. He had been captured by the Nazis and held in a prisoner-of-war
camp until the end of the war. My maternal grandfather, Abdullah, was the son
of a slave, who was captured as a young man in the Sudan and sold to a Cypriot
merchant. In later life he was given his freedom and went on to marry my Turkish
great-grandmother.

My parents were married in London. They brought with them the extraordinary
work ethic that many post-war migrants shared when they came to Britain. I was
born in Islington, well before it became a byword for the chattering classes.
I went to school with children from some of the most deprived backgrounds and
spent my school holidays with my family in Turkey and Cyprus. My early formative
years have left me with a lifelong passion for, and commitment to, championing
the cause of a more equal society. Islington is still a place with extremes
of poverty and wealth and, in common with other London boroughs, great inequalities.
I hope therefore to contribute to future debates on the rich social diversity
of modern-day Britain.

The topic today is of immense importance and one that presents our society
with huge challenges, so I am very grateful to be able to make a contribution
to this debate. The London Borough of Islington, where I served as a councillor
until May this year, has two prisons-Holloway and Pentonville-the latter, I
was told, being the largest prison in Europe. I had the opportunity to visit
these prisons on a number of occasions and to talk to both staff and offenders.
I was a member of the PCT board when it took over responsibility for primary
healthcare in those prisons.

As has already been mentioned, the prison population in England and Wales stands
at a record high. Overwhelming evidence highlights that there are now more people
in prison with long-standing mental health problems and learning disabilities
than ever before, as mentioned earlier by my noble friend Lord Thomas. Many
of these people end up in prison because, as the staff told me, there is simply
nowhere else to send them. Many prisons lack the resources that they need to
conduct full psychiatric assessments of those they receive, while a wider concern
is that too often prisons use segregation units to hold people who are seriously
ill until a transfer can be arranged.

Of ongoing concern is the over-representation of prisoners from minority ethnic
groups-just under 27 per cent of the prison population, many of whom had undiagnosed
mental health conditions until they came into contact with the criminal justice
system. Furthermore, research carried out in the past few weeks by the University
of Leicester has revealed that the number of women in prison is growing at a
much faster rate than the number of men. This is despite their crimes often
being less serious, with 94 per cent convicted for minor offences, compared
with 76 per cent of men.

Women often serve shorter sentences for lesser offences, which means that prison
is far more disruptive for them, and usually for their children. Women are normally
the primary carers for elderly relatives and children, as mentioned earlier
by my noble friend Lady Kennedy. Around 55 per cent of women in prison have
a child under the age of 16, and 20 per cent are lone parents. Because of the
relatively small number of women’s prisons, and due to their geographical
location, women tend to serve their sentences further from their homes than
male prisoners. This can place additional pressure on important links with family.

We know that around 71 per cent of children in custody have been involved with,
or have been in the care of, social services before entering custody and that
less than 1 per cent of care leavers go to university. As the noble Lord, Lord
Low, mentioned earlier, a recent survey found that over 90 per cent of prisoners
had poor reading skills. These figures are of huge concern.

As Islington’s cabinet member for health and social care during my time
as a councillor, I was for a period responsible for the looked-after children
in the council’s care. As a corporate parent, I met regularly with young
people in our care, and I also did some mentoring. I was struck by something
that a young man who had spent most of his life in care said to me. He said:
“You”-meaning the council-”are my parents, and like other parents,
aren’t you supposed to make sure I get a good education and a job?”.
Of course, he was right.

Most of us who have children do all we can to ensure that they receive a good
education and then eventually take up meaningful employment and reach their
full potential. As the largest employer in the borough, as most councils are,
I pulled together a senior-level board of all departments and partners to work
together to improve the life chances of children and young people in our care.
The Corporate Parenting Board met monthly and required every council department
at the most senior level, and the council’s key partners, to set aside
apprenticeships and trainee posts for Islington’s care leavers. This project
was emulated by other councils across the country and proved to be quite groundbreaking
at the time.

To effect real change in the way that we deal with offenders we have to look
at investing more in diversionary and preventive methods, not only for people
with mental health problems but for the way in which we as a society support
children who are placed into care. Too often I was told by the young people
in the council’s care that they felt that no one really cared. Of course
we are all too well aware that in the present climate there are pressures on
budgets and other restrictions that might prevent a more consistent approach
across the country, but society will end up paying one way or another. The cost
to the public purse for each prisoner is around £40,000 per annum and
the cost of a young person leaving the care system who ends up offending further
down the track is enormous. Is it not better to invest in that young person’s
education and training?

I believe that instead of expanding prisons we should be looking at meaningful
ways to reduce the prison population. Mental health trusts in partnership with
local authorities should be compelled to allocate adequate resources to treatment
and to divert offenders with mental health and drug and alcohol problems to
those appropriate healthcare services. Reoffending would surely be reduced with
investment in increasing literacy skills. Practical and consistent rehabilitation
is surely a better investment.

This is one special woman who makes history by becoming the first senior Muslim
politician of Turkish origin. She is a good friend of OBV and resolute race equality
campaigner.

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