Most trusted Name in the NRI media
Serving over 22 millions NRIs worldwide

Punjabi Community
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 relations—a 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 Punjab—and 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 Wolverhampton originate.

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 impressive facility.

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 bodies?

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 visas.

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 kirpan—he is a devout Sikh. What steps are the Government taking to widen knowledge of the importance of the kirpan and the sensitivities surrounding it?

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, Lab)

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 incorporation.

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 positions—about 18 per cent. of the total—become 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 invited—as they were during the first stage—to 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 authority—the 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, Lab)

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.


Any comments on this article or you have any news: Click here