House of Commons debates
Wednesday, 2 February 2005
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton
South West, Lab)
I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister. I know that
she takes a great interest in the Punjabi community
in the UK and is very knowledgeable about it, as are
many right hon. and hon. Members.
Since I was elected to Parliament almost four years
ago, I have had the honour and pleasure of being treasurer
of the all-party parliamentary group, Panjabis in Britain.
As the Minister and other hon. Members know, Wolverhampton
has a large and successful Punjabi community, which
is an integral part of our city. In my constituency
there are four gurdwaras, five mosques, one Buddhist
vihara and one Hindu temple. There is also another Hindu
temple just 30 m across the boundary. One example of
the outward-looking and generous nature of the community
is the fact that Sikhs, Ravidassi, Muslims and Buddhists
in Wolverhampton have so far raised about £100,000
for the tsunami appeal.
Wolverhampton's diverse communities are one of the
many strengths of our great city, and we all work hard
together successfully to build and maintain good community
relationsa far cry from the situation that existed
when my predecessor Enoch Powell was the local Conservative
Member of Parliament.
Punjab, as many Members will know, was divided by partition
in 1947; part of it is in India and part in Pakistan.
Indeed, I believe that Pakistan is an acronym in which
the P stands for Punjab. There are many Sikh holy sites
in Pakistan, most notably the birthplace of Guru Nanak.
The large Punjabi community in the UK originates from
both sides of the border. The biggest proportion of
that community consists of Sikhs, who number about 700,000
in the UK.
I paid a private visit to Punjab last October. Because
some people have questioned me about that, I make it
clear that I paid for the visit myself. I was keen to
learn more about Punjaband what a wonderful experience!
I very much hope to go there again. I visited Amritsar,
where of course one finds the Golden Temple complex,
and within that the Golden Temple itself, the Harmandar
Sahib. I visited Chandigarh, the state capital. Both
the state legislature and the city itself were designed
and built by Le Corbusier in the 1950s; it is a modern
city. I visited the ancient city of Anandpur Sahib,
the birthplace of the Sikh Khalsa in 1699. I also visited
Jalandhar, a bustling commercial city and the centre
of the district from which many Punjabi families in
I take this opportunity to congratulate the UK Government
on opening a visa screening office in Jalandhar about
18 months ago. It is run by a subsidiary of Kuoni Travel.
I visited the office and spoke to the staff; it is an
It is important when talking about the Punjabi community
in the UK to stress that their principal concerns are
similar to those of most other people in the UK: a stable
economy, jobs, rights at work, support for families
and pensioners, and continued investment in public services
such as the NHS and education. However, there are certain
specific issues facing Punjabi communities in the UK,
and I shall touch on a few of those.
The first is pension credit. My hon. Friend the Minister
will no doubt be aware of early-day motion 1730, tabled
in the last Session by my hon. Friend the Member for
Kingswood (Mr. Berry). To maintain links with their
families, many Asian-English pensioners return to the
subcontinent for several weeks each year. However, pension
credit recipients who are abroad for more than four
weeks have to reapply for pension credit on their return
home to the UK. Thirteen weeks, as called for in the
motion, would be a much more appropriate interval. Will
the Government consider changing that rule?
Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham,
Perry Barr, Lab)
My hon. Friend gave an approximate figure for the number
of Sikhs in this country, and rightly raised the issue
of services for the community. Does he agree that the
Sikh community should be included in the census figures,
so that we can be sure that we have the right figures
to determine what service provision is needed?
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton
South West, Lab)
I agree with my hon. Friend. I intended to deal with
that point. I and many other right hon. and hon. Members
support the call for the separate monitoring of Sikhs
in the United Kingdom census. That has cross-party support.
Since 1982, following the Mandla case involving a schoolboy,
Sikhs have been recognised under the race relations
legislation as a separate race within the United Kingdom
for those purposes. We need separate monitoring to discover
the demographic profile and to help to target the provision
of services. Do the Government support the separate
monitoring of Sikhs in the United Kingdom census?
To help provide appropriate services, we need both
separate monitoring and consultation with the Punjabi
communities in the UK. What mechanisms are there for
ensuring that the diverse views of the Punjabi communities
are taken into account by Government? What steps are
the Government taking to encourage an increase in the
number of appointments of members of the Punjabi communities,
especially women, to local and national decision-making
I draw the Minister's attention to early-day motion
464, which I tabled, regarding English language proficiency
for Sikh priests. A similar early-day motion was tabled
by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) regarding
English language proficiency tests for Hindu priests.
That is a live issue in the Punjabi communities in the
UK. The rules were changed last August, to the effect
that a priest applying for a visa to come to work in
the United Kingdom as a religious office holder must
have level 4 proficiency in English. Under the current
arrangements, that will be raised in time to level 6
proficiency in English, which is proficiency in reading,
writing and speaking English.
Ironically, about 18 months ago the Ramgarhia board
gurdwara in my constituency was initially refused entry
for a priest. The reason given was that he spoke English
too well, and the entry clearance officer feared the
priest might disappear once he had arrived in the UK.
His application was allowed on appeal, and I can reassure
the Minister that I saw him last Sunday. He is still
working at the gurdwara and doing a fine job.
I understand the desire to encourage the use of home-grown
priests who speak English as a means of helping to pass
on culture and beliefs to the younger generation. That
is a matter for the temples to decide. However, no Government
should seek to dictate the language in which a religion
is practised in our country. That is a private matter
for the followers of that religion. I urge the Government
to think again, particularly about priests on short-term
As hon. Members know, Vaisakhi is a Punjabi lunar harvest
festival, which is usually celebrated in April. I am
pleased that it is now celebrated by the Government,
with a reception at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
last year, which I attended and at which the Minister
spoke. In Wolverhampton Vaisakhi has grown into a big
event for the whole city, not just for Sikhs, with a
relaxed and festive march ending in West park in my
constituency. The event is run by the Wolverhampton
Council of Sikh Gurdwaras, led by the very able and
committed Dr. Sadhu Singh. However, there are problems
every year with getting police agreement for road closures
and so on. Will the Government please issue guidance
on such matters? What Government support is there nationally
for Vaisakhi celebrations?
On faith schools, I know that the Minister is familiar
with the Sikh secondary school in Hayes, adjacent to
her constituency. I understand that a Sikh primary school
is being built in Hayes. What further Government support
will there be for faith schools?
Most Sikh men and women carry a kirpan as a sign of
their faith. Too often, it is misunderstood. Wolverhampton
local education authority has issued very good guidance
on the matter for schools. A kirpan is a ceremonial
knife, one of the five Ks of Sikhism. It is never used
aggressively. As far as I am aware, there has never
been an incident in the United Kingdom of a Sikh using
his or her kirpan aggressively. What progress has been
made on the issue of the wearing of kirpans by Sikh
employees in restricted areas at UK airports?
Some hon. Members will know of the case of Mr. Fauja
Singh, who is a marathon runner. He is in his 90s and
he runs the London marathon. Because of his athletic
prowess, he was invited to the London Eye for a celebration.
When he got there, he was refused entry because, understandably,
he refused to remove his kirpanhe is a devout
Sikh. What steps are the Government taking to widen
knowledge of the importance of the kirpan and the sensitivities
In France last year the wearing of religious symbols
in French schools, such as the hijab or the turban,
was banned. That is of concern to the Punjabi communities
in the United Kingdom, because the UK and France are
both part of the European Union. I should like to know
what representations the UK Government have made to
the Government of France and to the EU on the issue.
The final issue of concern to the Punjabi communities
in the UK that I want to raise tonight is that of human
rights. Hon. Members will remember Operation Bluestar
in June 1984, when the Golden Temple complex was stormed
by the Indian army. I tabled early-day motion 664 in
the last Session on that issue. It was followed in November
1984 by the pogroms, particularly against Sikhs, in
Delhi and elsewhere in India. I tabled early-day motion
662 on that issue in the last Session.
Those outrages and human rights abuses, which continued
for many years when the Indian part of Punjab was in
fact closed, were never properly investigated. There
has never been a proper independent investigation. As
far as I am aware, no criminal charges have ever been
brought against, for example, any police officer, for
well documented cases when, to put it mildly, the police
stepped out of line. What further pressures are the
UK Government and the EU bringing to bear on the Government
of India for a proper investigation and, where appropriate,
for proper criminal charges to be brought and convictions
secured, particularly against police officers, for those
human rights abuses in June and November 1984 and for
many years after that?
On a happier note, I invite the Minister to attend
the all-party parliamentary group Panjabis in Britain
public meeting to be held here at the House of Commons
in Committee Room 10 on Wednesday 9 March from 3 pm
until 5 pm. I know that the Minister is extremely busy,
but I hope that she will find time to come to that event.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough,
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton,
South-West (Rob Marris) for raising this subject tonight.
I am familiar with his work on the all-party group.
We have regularly attended meetings of the group together
since he has been a Member of Parliament. I know that
many of the themes of his contribution were informed
by the work of that group.
I was pleased by my hon. Friend's reference to the
substantial contribution that the Punjabi community,
and specifically the Sikh community, have made to our
wider society. I am looking forward to Sunday when I
am going to a gurdwara in my constituency, and part
of what I shall be doing there is receiving a very generous
cheque from the community for the victims of the tsunami.
My hon. Friend referred to the visa screening unit
at Jalandhar, the existence of which is largely to do
with the work of the all-party group.
My hon. Friend managed in a short time to get through
a large amount of territory, and I hope that I will
give all the issues that he raised a proper airing and
response. I hope that he will forgive me if I fail to
deal with everything fully, but I am slightly daunted
by the range of his contribution.
The first issue that he addressed was pension credits.
Currently, people who journey abroad for more than four
weeks need to reapply for pension credit on their return.
As my hon. Friend rightly said, that has given rise
to concern among people who might be away for longer
than that. No decision has yet been made to change that,
but officials are researching a range of options for
potentially extending the period for which pension credit
can continue to be paid to customers who go abroad within
that 52-week envelope. We need to look carefully at
the matter and see whether we can do something to meet
the demand, but we need to research it properly.
We have a good story to tell in terms of meeting the
pension needs of ethnic minority communities generally.
The Pension Service has worked hard to identify the
barriers that exist in some communities to claiming
entitlements, and has produced more accessible material.
For example, my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions
launched a "Race to Improve" guide at the
Southall gurdwara. That shows the determination to ensure
that our services are accessible at every level to every
community. That is an important theme in the Government
race equality and community cohesion strategy, which
I launched just a few days ago.
The second point that my hon. Friend the Member for
Wolverhampton, South-West raised was ethnic monitoring,
on which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry
Barr (Mr. Mahmood) also commented, and the demand that
British Sikhs should be able to be separately monitored.
I assure the House that Sikhs have the same status as
all other ethnic groups in the statutory code of practice
on the duty to promote race equality under the Race
Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. The code encourages
public authorities to use the same ethnic classification
system as was used in the 2001 census.
The concern is that that does not deal with the specific
need. The reason for taking that approach is to ensure
consistency, allowing comparisons to be made over time
and across different areas, but it is important to note
that the code provides public authorities with the flexibility
to adapt categories to fit local circumstances, provided
that they are the same as, or similar to, those used
in the 2001 census. It is open to public authorities
to choose to use the question on religion to determine
the number of Sikhs in their area. That is an eminently
sensible approach. It is clear that the question on
religion, which is the optional question in the census,
has been widely answered. It has not had the dip in
answers that was predicted by those who opposed its
The Office for National Statistics recognises that
the concept of an ethnic group is complex and delicate,
and that it changes over time. The ONS has met Sikh
groups, and it took into account their needs in developing
a new publication, "Ethnic Group Statistics: A
Guide for the Collection and Classification of Ethnicity
Data". The guidance recommends that, where possible,
national and religious identity questions be asked in
addition to the standard ethnic group question. The
ONS will consult widely with the intention of reviewing
the classification system for the 2011 census, and it
should be able to accommodate some of the views expressed
when adapting the current ethnic categories. I know
that the Sikh community will wish to register its views
during the process, and I certainly encourage members
of that community to contribute to the debate leading
up to 2011.
My hon. Friend asked whether we would consult the Punjabi
community widely. I am glad to answer that question.
Much of what we have been doing in faith communities
and ethnic groups is engaging and consulting, and making
sure that our work reflects the concerns and demands
of different communities in Britain. In 2003 and last
year, a review of the Government's consultation with
faith communities was carried out by a steering group,
which I chaired, including ministerial colleagues and
senior faith community representatives. The group produced
a report, "Working Together", which contained
valuable recommendations to help Departments and faith
communities to work more closely and effectively together.
We will soon be reconvening to measure progress. I will
be inviting the faith communities themselves to audit
what we have achieved, if I can put it that way, to
ensure that a wide range of views, including those of
women in those communities, are fed into government.
A further way of engaging that my hon. Friend highlighted
was public appointments. Different Government Departments
set targets to make public appointments more representative,
and I am pleased that the proportion of ethnic minority
public appointments has continued to increase from 7.4
per cent. in 2003 to 7.7 per cent. in 2004. We need
to ensure that our diversity objectives are achieved,
and some of the mechanisms for driving forward a more
effective race equality strategy that I recently announced
in "Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society"
will help us with that.
One problem with public appointments is that change
takes time because only a limited number of positionsabout
18 per cent. of the totalbecome available each
year. Even if one achieves a representative proportion
of people for current appointments, making change is
a slow process. However, each Department publishes an
action plan with the aim of increasing the number of
appointments held by people in under-represented groups.
It is published annually, and this year includes targets
to be achieved by 2007 and details of recent activities.
Although my Department does not currently break public
appointments down into specific ethnic or gender groups,
we undertake an appropriate and wide circulation of
all our public appointment vacancies and work hard to
ensure that the diversity that is at the heart of Britain's
strength is reflected in our public appointments.
I could tell that the English language requirement
was my hon. Friend's major concern. I am glad that his
constituent's appeal was successful, because it is precisely
such people with a good command of the English language
who can take up responsible leadership roles in the
faith communities. They can enable their communities
to fulfil important parts of their role in civil society,
such as engaging with people beyond a specific faith
and playing a significant role in building a better,
wider society. One reason why we introduced the new
English language requirement for ministers of religion
entering the UK from abroad was because although we
are committed to continuing the special opportunity
for people to get work permits, we also want to ensure
that such a wider role can be fulfilled.
The measure is not an attack on the Punjabi language,
which is, I think, the second most commonly spoken language
in Britain, or on that language being used in worship.
If Sikh congregations wish to use Punjabi in their worship,
that is a matter for them, not for the Government, as
my hon. Friend rightly said. The requirement has been
in force since last August with the purpose of ensuring
that overseas ministers of religion who come to the
UK have the skills needed for ministry in a diverse
and cohesive society. We want to create a situation
in which at least one senior cleric in every gurdwara,
mosque, Hindu temple and so on is sufficiently fluent
in English to be able to interact satisfactorily with
local government, other faith communities, businesses,
voluntary bodies and other parts of the local community.
Fluent English also enables those people to preach in
the language that many in their congregations will speak
in their daily lives. It also allows them to reach younger
members of their congregation who often feel less connected
with faith institutions than others.
My Department will soon begin a second stage of consultation
with faith communities on further measures that we want
to introduce to ensure that ministers of religion who
are admitted from abroad are able to play a full role
in their communities and that they gain an understanding
of British civic life. We accept of course that there
will be workers in gurdwaras who are not involved in
preaching, do not have the leadership duties that I
discussed and might not be affected by the new requirements.
As part of the second stage of consultation, faith communities
will be invitedas they were during the first stageto
express any worries that they have about the impact
that the measures might have on religious workers with
non-pastoral roles who try to enter the country under
the minister of religion category. Kirtani is a classic
example within the Sikh religion.
I hope that the Sikh community will take advantage
of this opportunity. We consulted Sikh groups alongside
other faiths in the first round of consultation. Five
Sikh representative bodies were included in the first
round of consultation, together with major gurdwaras
in Birmingham and Southall. Other organisations were
invited but chose not to participate. I believe that
the second round of consultation might provide an opportunity
to drill further down into the question of whether there
might be some flexibility for people who have religious
roles but do not fulfil all the requirements that I
have been discussing.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Vaisakhi festival and
the question of road closures. The position is clear.
Whoever wants roads closed for a religious or other
festival needs to apply to the relevant highway authoritythe
Department for Transport for trunk roads or the local
authority for local roads. We do not intend to issue
special guidance to the police on that subject, but
I know that ministerial colleagues would be willing
to listen to further representations if present arrangements
are not working well enough. We do not have plans for
further Vaisakhi celebrations at Government level, but,
like my hon. Friend, I think that what we have done
so far has been useful. We are always willing to mark
faith festivals in a suitable way, and I look forward
to any suggestions that might be put to me about this.
My hon. Friend asked what further support we can give
to faith schools. The Government continue to support
those schools in the maintained sector that have changed
their status to one based on a particular faith. That
support is given provided that the change of status
has gone through a school organising committee.
John McDonnell (Hayes
& Harlington, Lab)
I know that time is short, but I want to place on record
on behalf of the whole House my congratulations to Guru
Nanat primary school in Hayes on the fantastic results
that it received this year and on the work that is going
on there. I congratulate the Government on the investment
in that school, which has produced remarkable results
for the whole community.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough,
As an MP who helped, together with my hon. Friend,
to persuade the Government that that was the right route
to take back in 1998, I feel proud of Guru Nanat school's
achievement, too. It is an exemplar of how excellent
a faith school is capable of being. Other Sikh schools
have been supportive. The Government will continue to
consider each proposal on its merits. I have personal
experience from my constituency of the positive way
in which the Department for Education and Skills has
responded to demands for Sikh schools.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West
raised the issue of the kirpan. As he is aware, my Department
and the Department for Transport agreed with Sikh representatives
that Sikh staff in security zones at UK airports could
carry the kirpan as long as the blade did not exceed
7.5 cm. Unfortunately, in January 2003 EU regulation
2320 set out new requirements for airport security.
It bans knives, among other prohibited articles, including
ceremonial ones with blades longer than 6 cm. In June
2004, we argued strongly before the regulatory committee
for retaining the 7.5 cm length, but were outvoted.
The Government are therefore in breach of the regulation,
and we need, in consultation with the Sikh community,
to find a way of meeting it. The Department for Transport
recently met Sikh representatives to discuss the matter,
and I shall be watching developments. I believe that
because the London Eye operates aircraft-type security,
the episode to which my hon. Friend referred is a straight
read-across from that issue.
On human rights in India, the Government condemn the
persecution of individuals or groups because of their
religion or belief and deplore any widespread attack
on Sikhs in India. We welcome the remarks by Dr. Manmohan
Singh in his first press conference as Prime Minister.
When asked about the 1984 events, he said:
"We are all anguished by such violence . . . We
are the most tolerant civilisation"
The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and
the debate having continued for half and hour, Madam
Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question
put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
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