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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 3 July 2002

[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Jim Murphy.]

9.30 am

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): Perhaps I should start with the Punjabi greeting "Sat Sri Akal". It is a great privilege to have been able to secure this debate in Westminster Hall. I should declare my interest as the vice-chairman of the all-party group on Punjabis in Britain.

This is the third Adjournment debate that the group has initiated and it is almost exactly a year since the last one. The previous two debates were initiated by my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who is an acknowledged expert in the subject. In introducing the debate, I pay tribute to him for setting up the group in the first place, and for his continuing hard work. We hope that an annual debate will be held to report on the state of play of the status of Punjabis and the problems affecting them in Britain. I also thank the researcher for the group, Iqbal Singh.

A month or so ago, we held an event next door in the Jubilee Room to celebrate Vaisakhi. Several hon. Members from both sides of the House attended. It was agreed that because so many people attended and it was such a crush, an alternative venue would have to be found in future years to cater for its popularity. It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss problems and reasons to celebrate. This year, we were privileged to see a memorable folk dance performed by some girls from the Guru Gobind Singh Khalsa college in Essex. We were also addressed by Inderjit Singh, who many people hear giving his thought for the day on the "Today" programme. When I drive in from Uxbridge and listen to his words, I find them inspirational as I set out for another day in this place.

A privilege and advantage of becoming a Member of Parliament is the opportunity to find out more about one's community. In Uxbridge and the London borough of Hillingdon, we have a large and diverse community. I find it instructional and enjoyable to find out about my area and the people who share my community. With particular reference to Punjabis and Sikhism, I have been able to learn out about my fascinating community under the tutelage of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington—I very nearly said my hon. Friend, and I would certainly like to be considered a friend outside the immediate confines of the Chamber.

The Vaisakhi celebrations commemorate the event in 1699 when Guru Gobind Singh declared the Khalsa nation in the Punjab. The Sikhs have always managed to combine the spiritual and the political while living in harmony with the groups that surround them. The Indian sub-continent is as diverse an area as any in the

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world, so that has not always been easy. Sadly, to this day it is a very difficult and complicated situation, which is why it is important for anyone dealing with such matters to tread carefully and ensure that all sensibilities and sensitivities are understood.

It is not to be questioned that for many years Sikhs and Punjabis in general have played a leading role in the economic life of this country. I say rather flippantly that as someone who has been in a family business for a long time, and sports a beard—unusual in the Conservative ranks—I find myself greatly at ease in the Punjabi community. However, there are questions, and I am delighted to see other members of the all-party group present in the Chamber. I am sure that they will raise some of them if they can catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There are some pressing issues that need to be aired.

I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), is here to reply to the debate. This might be his initial debate in Westminster Hall, and I am delighted to be here. This debate is primarily about Sikhs in Britain, and I will not dwell on internal matters in the sub-continent. However, there is one issue. The British Government have arranged for a consular office to be opened in the Punjab, but we are still awaiting clearance from the Indian Government to go ahead with that. That move was widely welcomed by the Punjabi community in this country.

The principle concern of many people is that although Sikhs have been accepted as a religious group, they have not been granted the status of an ethnic grouping. That matter is beginning to cause a certain amount of irritation and anxiety—perhaps that is the fairest way to put it. One problem is that until that is recognised it is impossible to know how many Sikhs are living in the United Kingdom. In response to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said that there were no accurate data available. The Government can give estimates, but without a clearer picture it is difficult to find out how much—if any—discrimination is taking place, or how successful the community is in public life.

Since 11 September, sadly, attacks and hate crimes have been committed, not exclusively against Sikhs, but against Muslims and Hindus too. In fact, they have been committed against anyone who seems to look little different from those who committed those horrendous crimes, which we all condemn. I am not saying that any of those crimes are less or more terrible whether they are committed against Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, but it would be useful to have some idea of the incidents to provide an estimate of the level of them. Various assurances have been given over time, but, unfortunately, it has not so far been possible to make progress.

There are sensitivities and there is a debate in the community, but the time has come to push the matter forward, notwithstanding the need for wide consultation within Sikh communities in Britain and elsewhere. We must not leave it in the long grass for ever.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this important debate to the Palace of

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Westminster. It is long overdue and I welcome it. Perhaps because he did so, I received a letter today from the Commission for Racial Equality dated 2 July, which states that the

Does my hon. Friend welcome that?

Mr. Randall : I certainly do. That is why we are trying to advance the case and to ensure that any muddied waters are cleared. However, as I said, we must be aware of the sensitivities.

The Sikh community, because of its nature, has always been able to assimilate easily and to merge into its community. I know, as do other hon. Members from their constituencies, that it is a positive force in this country and that it is asking only for a level playing field—a request that we often hear in this Chamber. It does not want positive discrimination or to be regarded as a special case. It wants equality and I hope that we can move towards that today.

9.43 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): There are three Sikh salutations. The first is "Sat Sri Akal". The second, which is usually used in the Gurdwara, is "Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa", to which the response is "Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh". The third is a cheer, "Bole So Nihal", which usually follows a speech—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. For interest, hon. Members should not quote in foreign languages unless a translation is given immediately afterwards.

John McDonnell : Certainly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is exactly what I was coming to.

"Bole So Nihal" is a cheer, which normally comes from the congregation, the Sangat, in support of the speech made by the previous speaker. It is a cheer with a sense of solidarity and a renewal of the congregation's commitment to the statements made by the previous speaker. I am sure that many Sikhs throughout the country who listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) will be saying, "Bole So Nihal" and will respond with "Sat Sri Akal".

It is a statement that was needed because each year we have sought a debate on the Sikh community—the Punjabi community—in Britain and each year we have been able to provide a progress report in that debate on the work of the all-party group on the Punjabi community in Britain. The first debate was on 7 March 2000, and we established the all-party group from that debate. That was on the advice of many organisations in the Sikh community that were seeking a clearer voice in Parliament, which they felt could work on their behalf.

I pay tribute to the many hon. Members in previous Parliaments who have spoken up on behalf of the Sikh community, in particular the current Minister for Transport and my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner) who continuously through previous Parliaments raised issues affecting the Sikh community and gained positive responses from Governments of both parties.

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In July 2001, we secured the second Adjournment debate on the Punjabi community and took stock of the progress that we had made. At that point, we felt that, in general, there was still an outstanding issue of recognition. We raised the issue of status during that debate, and I echo the view expressed by the hon. Member for Uxbridge: there is a sense of frustration at the lack of movement on that subject. That is the issue that I should like to address.

Sikhs make up the largest section of the Punjabi community in Britain and we must clearly address the status of Sikhs in law and, more importantly, in the practice of government and public bodies. By status, I mean not just formal status but standing generally. The first issue to be addressed is identification, and what formal status is awarded Sikhs in the legal, governmental and administrative systems of this country. The path to the formal recognition of Sikhs in this country and internationally has been difficult and tortuous. Race legislation in this country and elsewhere has for a long time been fixated on a definition of race, racism and racial discrimination based predominantly on skin colour and descent.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that apart from skin colour and descent, when one actually looks at the categorisations used, they are almost an imperial relic in some cases, simply categorising individuals according to the geographical dominion or country from which they came during the time of the empire?

John McDonnell : I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely. The whole debate about racism and race definitions in this country is based around that colonial legacy.

Race and racism have become biological issues, rather than ones of cultural identity. In addition, there has been some confusion because the identity of many groups was often narrowly defined as based on religion rather than cultural identity. That has meant that legislation in Britain and internationally did not necessarily afford Sikhs the protection necessary to maintain their cultural identity and practices, free from discrimination. Sikhs have often remained invisible in law and therefore slipped between the cracks of legislation intended to protect people against racism and racial discrimination in this country.

In Britain, a House of Lords decision in the Mandla v. Dowell Lee case addressed how the term ethnic was to be interpreted in section 3 of the Race Relations Act 1976. The view of the noble Lords Fraser and Templeman was to advocate a broad construction to include cultural and historical identity. Lord Fraser said,

Lord Fraser and Lord Templeman went on to define an ethnic group as based on a range of references to cultural identity and, therefore, brought the Sikhs into the scope of the 1976 Act.

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The problem so far has been the practical implementation of that interpretation of the 1976 Act. The issue causes frustration in the community and, I believe, in the House as well. I welcome the letter from the CRE that has been received today, which includes an explicit interpretation of the judgment, but we must move forward to practical implementation of the law.

We should congratulate the Sikh groups in this country and in Canada. They raised the question at international level and raised the status of Sikhs in the run-up to the United Nations world conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, which took place in Durban, South Africa last year. The conference was the culmination of two years of preparations, regional meetings, expert seminars, non-governmental organisation representations and conventions, which were held in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Sikh groups in this country participated thoroughly in the preparatory work.

The concentration of the UN initiative on the sources, causes, forms and contemporary manifestations of racism gave the Sikh community the opportunity to challenge the narrowness of the traditional biological definition of racism—the post-colonial definition—and to try to gain an acceptance of their cultural identity. Many Sikh organisations from this country and elsewhere laid bare the forms of discrimination that Sikhs faced, especially in employment practices and partly in education. Article 67 of the final conference declaration sought to encompass Sikhs in the development of international and national anti-racist policies and programmes. It states:

A breakthrough was made at international level to arrive at a definition that would include the Sikh community.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Obviously, it is important that the Sikh community should be treated equally with other racial and religious groups. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the UN decision means that that will happen?

John McDonnell : A process of practical implementation at national and international levels is required. I want to make several recommendations on the sort of programme of practical implementation that the Government could assist in introducing.

Where do the developments in British law and in international discourse leave Sikhs in our community, and what are the next steps that we should take in this country to implement the general thrust of the decisions by the Law Lords and the UN? First, we should recognise that Britain has a real opportunity now to lead in the debate in the European Union on reviewing existing national and EU legislation, policies and practices to consider whether and to what extent they fail to provide adequate protection for the rights of Sikhs and to ensure their full and effective participation in all spheres of life. I would welcome the British

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Government's raising at the EU level how the UN article will be implemented, and I would welcome a joint ministerial initiative with the European Commission to prepare a report in response to the article in the UN declaration and then to consider what changes in international and national legislation may be required.

Secondly, following on from the point of the hon. Member for Uxbridge about the sensitivities of the issue, consultation must be undertaken in a prompt, effective and inclusive way with Sikh organisations in Britain to determine the development of the national action plan resulting from the UN conference. That would enable us not only to raise the profile and understanding of the issue, but to agree a detailed programme of action.

Thirdly, a key element of the action plan is the development of ethnic monitoring. We have learnt this morning from parliamentary questions about the inadequacy of existing monitoring systems. It is important that we monitor the policy programmes of central and local government and other public bodies in their relationships with the Sikh community. That includes employment, appointments to public bodies, the practices and policies of public bodies towards Sikhism and an understanding of Sikhism by public bodies in the interpretation of policies.

Fourthly, later this year the all-party group is planning to launch an annual consultative conference with the Sikh community in Britain. The aim is to bring together the widest range of Sikh community organisations in the history of this country to ask them what issues they want the all-party group, Parliament and the Government to address, and to work with them on a detailed programme. I ask the Government to lend their support to that initiative by providing Ministers to speak to the consultative conference and, maybe more importantly, sending their civil servants to listen to the debate in the conference.

Finally, the all-party group has an excellent track record of success on issues raised on behalf of the Sikh community. They have included, for example, the reintroduction of visa appeals, the establishment of visa facilities in the Punjab—there are some difficulties, but the matter has been agreed in principle and will come about—opposition to appeal charges and the development of the Guru Nanak Sikh school as the first state-funded Sikh school in the country. We have supported the campaign for the right to wear the kirpan—I thank the Minister for Transport for his help in overcoming the problems at airports—raised human rights issues in India, supported the protection of Sikh heritage and supported the work of Susan Strong at the Victoria and Albert museum. We have lobbied Governments on peace in the Punjab, the militarisation of the Punjab, the landmines issue and the nuclear threat. The group has had many successes and we aim to continue that work and to energise the debate on the future of the Sikh community in Britain. There is so much more for us to do, but there have been many Sikh successes to celebrate in politics, law, business, sport and the arts in this country.

I ask Members to go and see "Bend it Like Beckham", which was directed by Gurinder Chadha. It was filmed in my constituency at Yeading football club and celebrates both modernity and tradition in the Sikh community. Our role is to protect Sikhs against

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discrimination and unfair treatment, but it is also positively to celebrate the strength of a society in which cultural identity is protected, respected and celebrated.

9.57 am

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): It is a great privilege and pleasure to follow two speeches with which I agree completely. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on initiating the debate and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). This is one of those rare and happy occasions on which hon. Members can be in almost total harmony, which is good.

I must declare my interest as chairman of the Conservative parliamentary friends of India, a group that seeks to represent all the diverse groups from the sub-continent. In the middle of the jubilee year, it is worth recalling that one of the Queen's greatest treasures is the Koh-i-noor diamond, which is a Sikh artefact. That issue was raised by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington in his speech in July last year, but we do not want to get into an Elgin-like discussion about the diamond's future. He said last year that Punjabi is the second most widely spoken language in the United Kingdom, which indicates the scale of the presence of the Punjabi and Sikh community. I look forward to joining representatives of the Sikh community later today when they present a petition to Downing street about the issue that we are debating today.

I do not regard myself as an expert on Sikhism, which my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington clearly are, and I do not know very much about the law, but I know something about natural justice. Given what the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said about the 1983 judgment, the time has come for natural justice to take priority.

The 1983 judgment, about which I shall say more towards the end of my remarks if I have time, accepted that Sikhs are a definable ethnic group under the Race Relations Act 1976. That was the unanimous judgment of the five judges participating in the hearing. It is important to remember that we do not need a debate on that. British law has already been decided. The challenge nearly 20 years on is to make sure that it is fully implemented. In some ways, that is difficult because the actions of the British Government can be interpreted in different ways. I am in favour of proper recognition of Sikhs to enable such discrimination to be dealt with effectively by British society and its law.

There are separate states in India, but the Government's decisions do not apply across the board. If the Minister were told by his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to be cautious on those grounds, I hope that he would dismiss such fears. We want to give effect to natural justice for British citizens. As my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge said, matters have become more acute since 11 September. Yesterday, a leading member of the Sikh community told me of the many upsetting and disturbing incidents that he has experienced since then.

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We must face up to the fact that the British do not know a great deal about faith and religion these days. We are a secular society. The average British citizen does not know much about his historic Christian faith, never mind being able to distinguish between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. We face a challenge. People who have clearly defined visual characteristics—as practising Sikhs have—are likely to be a target for particular hostility. That is the experience of the Sikh community. In the post-11 September environment, we have to do even more to address its worries.

I welcome early-day motion 1464, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) who is to respond to the debate on behalf of the official Opposition. It wants British law to recognise Sikhs as a separate ethnic group. The best estimate of the number of Sikhs that their community can come up with is 700,000. Sadly, we do not have an accurate figure. The early-day motion urges the Government to give guidance so that public authorities are left in no doubt that Sikhs should be monitored separately to avoid unnecessary discrimination under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. I agree strongly with spirit of the early-day motion, which was why I was happy to add my signature to it.

The problem came to a head during the census last year, when Sikhs were not identified as a separate ethnic category on the form. To be fair to the Office for National Statistics, the pressure for the inclusion of Sikhs grew a little late in the day to enable them to be accommodated. However, the ONS ought to have realised that the 1983 judgment meant that Sikhs should have been defined separately. I hope that the next census form will do that, and that the ONS can make such a commitment early on.

The census form included a write-in campaign and respondents were allowed to identify separate categories. I believe that a significant number of members of the Sikh community took advantage of such an opportunity. I have been told that the Office for National Statistics may have to re-examine the forms with the possible view of listing the Sikh community separately after the event, because of the many write-in identifiers. If that takes place, it would be an interesting development. I hope that the Sikh community will be identified separately at the next census, as a result of which we shall have an accurate idea of the size of the community.

Given that other hon. Members wish to speak, I shall not labour the House of Lords judgment, but it is tremendously important that people understand how clear cut it was. A headmaster refused to admit a Sikh boy to his school unless the boy removed his turban and cut his hair. Not surprisingly, that was unacceptable to the boy and his father. A court action failed, and an appeal failed. Rightly, the Commission for Racial Equality took the case to the House of Lords, and was, in effect, the appellant. The judgment of Lord Fraser of Tullybelton stands most careful reading today. I recommend it to hon. Members. I have the website address for the full judgment if they require it. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington highlighted, Lord Fraser said:

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Lord Fraser then defined separate characteristics, and it is worth putting them on record:

He defined the characteristics of such a community as: a long shared history; a cultural tradition of its own; a common geographical origin or descent from a small number of common ancestors; a common language, not necessarily peculiar to the group; a common literature peculiar to the group; or a common religion different to that of neighbouring groups. Interestingly, he includes

He drew heavily on British history, which is right and proper given the thorough integration of the Sikh community into British life.

Lord Fraser quoted the opinion of a county court judge, who said:

Lord Fraser then concluded, crucially:

That clear and categorical judgment was supported by Lord Edmund-Davies, Lord Roskill, Lord Brandon and Lord Templeman. The latter gave a thoughtful judgment of his own in response to the issues raised during the case. I hope that the Government will now move to ensure that Sikhs get the recognition and status that they deserve, and that any doubts that Sikhs may have are properly addressed. That is not a criticism of the Government, because my party was in power for a long period after that judgment.

I conclude by agreeing with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. I am afraid that I have not yet seen "Bend it Like Beckham"; I was too busy to catch it at the cinema. However, my wife tells me it is an absolutely brilliant film—although she resented going to see it on her own—and I look forward to seeing it on video. The Sikh community has contributed so much to British life and society, and to the economy, law and industry. Wherever we look, there is huge success to celebrate. If Sikhs want legal recognition, we should give it to them.

10.7 am

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. Some of my constituents want to lobby me about the Sikh agenda this afternoon; I am disappointed that I will not be able

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to join them, as I have secured an important meeting with the Prime Minister about the lack of housing in south-east England. I am afraid that, on this occasion, he trumps them. I am therefore glad to put my views on record, and I hope that those colleagues who will be able to speak to my constituents can share those views with them. Many of our constituents will be here this afternoon to press the issue of the ethnic monitoring of the Sikh community and the effective representation of Sikhs in public life in Britain.

I shall address colleagues—I refer to all hon. Members who have spoken, even those who have not yet seen "Bend it Like Beckham", although they should—on three crucial issues, but there are many others that I could raise. Those issues are Sikh identity, the Punjabi language and the tension between India and Pakistan. The latter is having a dangerous impact on the Punjab, and is a real problem for that part of the world. It is incumbent on those of us who could do something to reduce tension between those countries to do our best to do so.

The Punjab is being littered with mines because of the tension between India and Pakistan, and that means that the lives of children and farmers who have nothing to do the conflict and are not engaged with either side are at risk. Although I do not believe that Britain can leave the 50-year conflict to reach a conclusion, we may be able to use our good offices to ensure that our old friends India and Pakistan work together, rather than against each other.

I have many Punjabis in my constituency. The majority are probably Sikh, but a substantial minority are Muslim. Both Sikhs and Muslims are concerned about the future of the Punjab. That is an issue for which we all have a particular responsibility, because of our particular responsibility for peace.

I shall discuss the issue of Sikh identity, because we have reached a good moment to make progress. As many hon. Members know, I have pressed for more effective legislation to deal with religious, as well as racial, discrimination. It is a failure of United Kingdom law that to date it has not dealt with religious discrimination. The consequence has been that various different forms of religious discrimination persist.

The Sikh community is in some ways uniquely privileged, because of the House of Lords judgment, to which many hon. Members referred, which recognises that Sikhs should be regarded as an ethnic group. They can therefore secure protection for religious practices under the Race Relations Act—although, as the debate has highlighted, sometimes the practice has not sufficiently underpinned proper protection from discrimination.

With the changes happening in Europe and the wider global community, now is the time to confront the range of discrimination more intelligently. I welcome the current consultation on new mechanisms for dealing with discrimination. Issues raised in the debate should feed into that. The forms of discrimination that the Sikh community faces include not only discrimination on the basis of race or issues such as we have heard about recently, relating to how Sikhs have been targeted for racial attack following 11 September for wearing turbans, for example. The discrimination also includes specific limitations on religious practices by employers

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who prohibit turbans or the wearing of a kirpan, and other institutions that do not allow faith practices that are essential for the Sikh community to operate properly. We need to recognise that, do the ethnic monitoring that all hon. Members who have spoken so far support, and work in a way that can more effectively challenge those forms of discrimination.

Racists understand the situation. I remember vividly a racial attack on a schoolboy in my constituency that consisted of having his hair cut off. The consequence of that for an adherent of the Sikh faith is much more significant than it would be for anyone else, and the racists who attacked him knew it. To date, we have muttered good-will noises but have not delivered. The time has come for us to do so.

I focus finally on the Punjabi language. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) said that the Punjabi language is the second most spoken language in England. On Friday, just after I had cracked my elbow, which is now in a sling, I was privileged to attend a jubilee celebration in the Milan centre in my constituency. It was a day of music, dancing and poetry led by Sikh residents and other members of the community in Slough. I also had the privilege of making a speech although, because I had just cracked my elbow and had not been able to get to accident and emergency, it did not feel like a privilege at the time.

As I looked around the audience, I said, "I cannot do something that you can all do. I can only speak one language and all of you speak two, three or even four." When I heard all the languages that my constituents could speak, I realised some of the richness of the south Asian cultures that we celebrate today.

The Punjabi language has a wonderful tradition of poetry and communication that I am glad continues to be celebrated. There is an essential action that the Government should take to assist in that celebration—they should allow more community radio stations to broadcast in Punjabi. I want to use the platform offered by this debate to press the case for that language to be broadcast. Temporary licences are often granted to Apna Punjab radio to coincide with Vaisakhi in Slough. That is one example of how broadcasting in Punjabi can strengthen a community and grant access to vital cultural, health and other information to people who do not have fluent access to English. It can bring a community together.

Britain's great strength is its diversity. It is the joy of our country that we have learned to celebrate and include the diversity of other cultures. As hon. Members commented, during the recent sad events following the death of the Queen Mother, we saw the Koh-i-noor gleaming in the Hall next door. Although there are issues about where that diamond should rest, our national culture celebrates the cultures of many countries around the world. The Koh-i-noor is an example of how we do that. We must ensure that that continuing celebration includes reflecting those many cultures in our broadcast media as well as in events such as the jubilee celebration that I was able to attend in Slough.

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10.17 am

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr): I agree with much of what has been said by hon. Members this morning, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) who mentioned the Punjab and Punjabis in relation to the current tension between India and Pakistan.

As we all recognise and understand, Sikhs are predominantly a proud race and have been involved in the military for a long time. Their presence in the armed forces in India—they are also present in the British armed forces—means that they suffer in two ways in any dispute: because they serve in the front line as soldiers and, as my hon. Friend said, because of the way that the geographic area that crosses both countries is divided. It was divided when we drew the lines that separated the majority of the religious sites that are now in Pakistani Punjab away from more than 2.5 million people going back to India. Those are some of the issues that link us with the heritage and people of the Sikh community in this country that we must address.

The current conflict raises issues to do with the Sikh community in Kashmir, and they must also be addressed. President Clinton visited the region a few years ago; at that time more than 30 Sikhs were massacred. When such atrocities take place, independent human rights organisations must be allowed to go there and verify what has happened. It is important for the Sikh community that such things are addressed.

I turn to softer issues. Many hon. Members have looked clinically at matters such as law and the Sikh community, and its legal standing. There are 19 million Sikhs in the world, and more than 700,000 of them live in this country. The Sikh religion has existed for more than 700 years. It has a long heritage in the Indian sub-continent, and a unique tradition and culture. It also has its own language. Such facts must be recognised.

We are debating the recognition of the Sikh community. Unfortunately, I will not support early-day motion 1464; I will amend it slightly. It rightly calls for protection from discrimination, but the provision of services for the Sikh community must also be addressed. Discrimination is an important issue, but the idea behind monitoring by local authorities is that the communities that are being monitored are catered for. Certain things must be provided to the Sikh community, particularly with regard to Sikh men, elderly care homes and the religious needs of elderly people who reside in them, and education for young Sikhs. Therefore, although negative subjects such as discrimination must be addressed, a positive approach should also be adopted so that we can address how better to service the Sikh community. That is the agenda that should be promoted.

I support this debate because I want the Sikh community to be integrated into this society. If young Sikh men and women are to feel a part of society, it is important that they are first proud of their own heritage, culture and religion. Once they feel at ease with their own identity, it will be easier for them to play a role in the society that they live in, and are very much a part of.

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Sikhs play an important role in all walks of life; they work for local authorities, the police and the armed forces.

Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East): I rise to emphasise my hon. Friend's point. I assure him that the Sikh community is already playing an important role in this country. That is certainly the case in my city of Wolverhampton, where Sikhs play an important practical role in ensuring good cultural and race relations: they make a considerable contribution to the inter-faith group, and they work with the local authority and other organisations throughout the city. Therefore, we are already achieving my hon. Friend's objectives.

Mr. Mahmood : I thank my hon. Friend for that timely intervention, and I acknowledge the tremendous amount of work that he has done in conjunction with the Sikh community in his constituency. He might also have wished to point out that Gurbux Singh, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, hails from Wolverhampton. I am sure that both of my hon. Friends from Wolverhampton will be proud of that fact.

The young in the Sikh community must be proud of who they are, what they are and how they exist. They have a visual presence—their religion and wearing of the turban and beard makes them easily identified—that has led to mistaken identification by several people who are illiterate about religion post-11 September. That has caused the Sikh community to be subjected to religious abuse, which is totally the wrong sentiment and demonstrates the ignorance of some people. We must clarify the issues.

If the young people understand their own heritage and culture, they may integrate further into society and play a better part in building up the multiracial and multi-religious country that the United Kingdom has become. I would support that.

It has been said—I go back to matters relating to the CRE—that the Sikh community has already been recognised as a visible community under race relations legislation. We must take forward recognition by national Government, local government and public bodies that deliver services for the Sikh community. Services must be delivered equally. Once it is defined that a community must be addressed through the census, we must find out how many Sikh people live in this country and decide how we can address their issues and fulfil their needs.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a need for language teaching in the Sikh community? It is important to foster that not only for that community, but for the country as a whole. People who speak two languages are often quicker at adapting to an additional language than people who speak only one. If we encouraged language teaching, it would help our society as well as Sikhs within it.

Mr. Mahmood : I welcome my hon. Friend's contribution. I agree that speaking mother-tongue languages is essential for allowing anyone in this country to grasp the context of their history, culture and

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identity, and to play a better role in the society that we have developed. We must take forward the positive aspects of the society, and the Sikh community has done that with regard to the Vaisakhi festivals. We have a fantastic Vaisakhi festival in Birmingham—

Mr. Dennis Turner : And Wolverhampton.

Mr. Mahmood : And Wolverhampton, of course. I am sure that there is such a festival in Slough.

The way in which the Sikh community has projected itself is of credit. I wish all those who worked hard to secure the debate and hon. Members who work together on the issue well. I hope that we can continue to move forward. I tabled the amendment to the early-day motion purely because it is important to recognise such issues as delivery of services to the community. We should look not only at the negatives of discrimination, although I agree that that needs to be addressed, but, more importantly, the delivery of services to the Sikh community as a whole.

10.29 am

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I join other hon. Members in thanking the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) for ensuring that we debate these matters at this time of year. Obviously, he and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) come to the debate with huge constituency experience for which we are very grateful. I also thank the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, who has been persistent and insistent in ensuring that the agenda is pursued more widely. It has indeed been pursued very effectively.

All of us who have spoken acknowledge our gratitude to the Sikhs for their contribution over many years and at all levels of society and in the public and private sectors. They have made it in teaching and business, and, as was said earlier, in the armed forces. They have also contributed with huge distinction to the public service more widely, and to education and culture. I have shared in many Sikh cultural events. I have not yet made my visit to the cinema, but it is on my list, so I shall have to join the queue.

The Sikhs have contributed in another way as well. They have led much of the religious and moral debate recently. Sikhism has made a huge contribution in that respect. Those of us who turn on our radios at 7.50 am often hear Inderjit Singh, but the Sikh community has contributed more generally, both by putting its religious perspective in a multi-faith context and by organising its own events.

Let me also thank the community for all the hospitality it has offered my colleagues and me over the years. I was privileged to attend the great festival event that took place at the Albert hall a couple of years ago, and also the great festival event in Birmingham, so I have seen the community at its proudest and best.

The debate is particularly well timed because of the lobby organised by the Sikh community that will take place later today. Like others, I shall talk to friends, colleagues and constituents during the day. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who prepared for the debate by tabling a series of questions. I shall let him pursue them at greater length, as I expect

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he may wish to; but I hope that the Minister realises that the answers given so far have been inadequate and that following the change of personnel in the Department we shall hear better answers.

A statutory instrument has been tabled. My colleagues and I have prayed against it, and are hoping to debate it shortly. It concerns the implementation of the Commission for Racial Equality code of practice. I prayed against it not because I oppose it—indeed, I promoted it, and organised events in the House to ensure that the consultation worked well—but in order to secure a debate about its effective operation at local level. I hope that we can discuss it with various ethnic groups in the next few days, before Parliament rises for the summer recess.

A number of points have been made by members of other parties, including the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), some of which I do not disagree with. I certainly agree with the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) that until peace and justice exist in the Punjab, there will not be happy Punjabi communities here or anywhere else. It makes me sad that, more than half a century after the partition of the Indian sub-continent, the international community has still not seen fit to use diplomatic and other pressures to resolve the problem. We seem to react only when tension mounts in India and Pakistan. The world gets excited then; but when the tension lessens, it seems to lose interest. I hope that we do much better in the near future, so that there can be a fair resolution.

I hope that the Minister will take seriously the criticism that at present we have no adequate information about the Sikh community here. The questions asked by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, among others, could be answered if the Government set their mind to it. It is not possible to plan services and respond to the needs of a community without knowing the facts and figures—not just how many people there are, but where they are in terms of, for instance, different areas of public services.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and I were involved—he more than I—in ensuring that the Irish were included in the last census as a separate ethnic category. Hon. Members may remember that under the categories of ethnic group, there were only three in the white section, of which Irish is one. In the Asian-British section at the moment one has to be Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or of any other Asian background in a generalised way, and people can write in their own descriptions. I do not think that the census is anything like adequate yet because, if we think about the situation in our cities and local authorities, it does not give us the authoritative breakdown that we need to be able to plan services and respond to communities. There is no other authoritative local government census. For a 10-year period that is the only census we have, and it does not suffice. Although I realise that it is not his Department, I hope that, when the last census figures are produced later this year, the Minister will work with other Departments in ensuring that the next time we plan the census we have a more comprehensive set of options, which would include Sikh as an option in the Asian community section.

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The CRE is being helpful, and encouraging local authorities to conduct ethnic monitoring that goes beyond the census. I hope that all local authorities will sign up to that. I am sure that is the general wish. Of course, they can do that, but in the interim before the next census they may have to make their own calculation of the number of adults, retired people and young people, so that planning and provision can be arranged.

May I add to what the hon. Member for Slough said about the urgent need to get on with the second half of the equality agenda? We have at last updated the Race Relations Act 1976. I was privileged to be part of that process and to be involved in deliberations on the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. That is all good and proper, but we have not yet returned to the separate, but holistic consideration of religious discrimination. Some of us did not want that to be part of the anti-terrorism legislation. I think we were right to remove it from the legislation. Terrorism and discrimination should not be seen as related issues, but religious discrimination does need to return to the agenda. Guarantees against religious discrimination are hugely important.

It is very important that we allow people to learn and speak Punjabi when they want to. There is a big danger. We had a debate some years ago in Committee under the Conservative Government about second languages in schools. We must retain the view that was canvassed then that it is perfectly acceptable for one's second or third school language to be an Asian language rather than a European one. It is much more practically useful for many people—white people as well as those of Asian origin—for their immediate second language to be the one that many in their community use so that they can trade, work and have good community relations. I hope that we can look again at the way in which we increase language teaching and give that an equal priority.

I end with the point that my Sikh friends make to me most often. The importance of recognition is not just to end discrimination, but to ensure that there can be full participation of Sikhs in the community. Whether one keeps the five Ks; whether one wears a turban; whether one wears a kirpan; whether one wears a tunic; whether one wears a bangle; all those things may produce a difference of perception. At worst, they can produce overt racism and antagonism, but unless we allow people who are sometimes second or third generation, or mixed race by background, to have as strong a link with their cultural hinterland as they do with their adopted country, they will feel driven back into a cultural ghetto. We want to share the benefits of the Sikh faith and tradition. To do that, all Sikhs in this country have to participate fully and feel proud and able to do that. That is why the issue is important, and the demands of the community must be heeded. They are not unreasonable; the community makes them persistently, but with good cause.

10.39 am

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) for having raised this matter. It will perhaps come as no surprise to note that, looking around the Chamber, there is a geographical concentration of Members of Parliament from the west of London. The hon. Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Hayes

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and Harlington (John McDonnell) are here, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge. Earlier, I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was also present.

My constituency has a growing Sikh community, which is a reflection of Sikhs' economic success. They are now spread throughout the country and, through that, my interest in the matter has been awakened as I become aware of some of the issues that they face. I hope that today will provide an opportunity for the Minister to reply to some of the concerns that have been raised.

I am a lawyer and I started by looking at the Mandla case. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) so rightly summarised—I shall not repeat his words—the Mandla case said in the clearest and most unequivocal terms not that the Sikhs are a religious group but that they are an ethnic minority. I take that, therefore, as my starting point, because it means that Sikhs should be the full beneficiaries of all the provisions of the 1976 Act. There is a separate issue about the extent to which religious discrimination should be tackled in this country and I endorse what the hon. Member for Slough said on that point. We are going to wish to tackle that subject, but I want for a moment to concentrate on the here and now—the extent to which that protection, which was perhaps not expected or anticipated when the Act was passed in 1976 but which the courts quite clearly spelled out, has been made use of in practice.

From looking at what the CRE and the Government have said—I make this point with no hostility to the Minister, because the subject goes back to long before the Labour Government came into office in 1997, although I think that it has continued since—it seems that although recognition of Sikhs as a distinct ethnic minority group has been granted, the issue has always been slightly brushed under the carpet. That has happened on the basis that people can avail themselves of that recognition if they wish, but the Government and those there to promote good race relations do not seem to be very concerned about looking at the issue in great detail.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) was correct when he said that I was going to turn to my parliamentary questions. They were the next thing at which I looked. The answers that I have obtained during the past fortnight have been very illuminating—or not, as the case may be. First, although I acknowledge that a wide variety of people consider themselves to be Sikhs, some of them fulfilling all the criteria of the group and others not wishing to do so, which is one of the elements of diversity in our society, it is clear that the Sikh community in this country is very distinctive and has an ethnic and religious cohesion. Nevertheless, the Government have very little idea of how many Sikhs are in the United Kingdom. The Sikh community believes that there are about 700,000. If that is correct, it makes them one of the largest ethnic minority groups—not a group so small that it cannot be monitored adequately. Even if the Government are right with their figure of between 350,000 and 500,000 Sikhs, that still suggests a woolliness that will affect awareness of what the problems confronting them might be. That needs to be addressed.

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Even more telling was the response to the question that I asked the Cabinet Office on how many public appointments are held by Sikhs. The answer, from the Minister in that Department, was:

I must say that when I read that, the point that the Sikh community is making immediately struck me. Looking back to my own past, I have Jewish forebears. The Jewish community in this country has never asked for monitoring, for reasons connected with their extraordinarily successful integration into this country's life. However, if my forebears who came to this country from eastern Europe in the 1830s had found a similar regime to help them as exists now, they might have been a little surprised if the then Government had decided to collect information on ethnic diversity on the basis of whether they were Ukrainian, Austro-Hungarian or from the Russian empire. That highlights the extent to which the Sikhs have been rather airbrushed out of existence by the Cabinet Office process. They see themselves as a distinctive community, and they are recognised as such under the race relations legislation. I believe that we could do better.

Many of the Sikhs whom I have met in the past few weeks have said that they sometimes feel that the categorisations derived from the colonial past mean that they do not enjoy the distinctive identity, monitoring and recognition that they merit. After all, they say, there are many hundreds of thousands of Sikhs, not just a few thousand, even if the Government do not have accurate statistical evidence. They say also that they are British Sikhs. One has only to meet members of the Sikh community to see the extent to which that is correct. Therefore, the classifications given by the Government—I am sure for the best historical reasons—no longer match the reality of the Sikhs' position in this country.

Hon. Members have made the point this morning, in their very helpful contributions, that the events of 11 September have meant that the Sikh community has been the target of acts of racial violence. I think that five gurdwaras were attacked, and there were other instances of violence against Sikhs and members of other ethnic minority communities in this country.

Clearly, that heightens the sense of concern. I do not want to be confrontational, because the Government's intentions are benevolent, but can we not move matters along a little? I should be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that the Government will look at the issue again, and get rid of the increasingly untenable definitions with which Departments are working with regard to ethnic minority issues.

I also hope that the CRE will show more flexibility. It also has been somewhat sclerotic and worried that greater concessions would open floodgates elsewhere. I do not understand that argument: in a pluralist society, communities that are large enough and have a separate identity ought to get the recognition and monitoring that they need, precisely because they need services.

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I can tell the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) that I fully understand his criticism of the early-day motion, but I worded it very carefully. I wanted to concentrate on the legal issue that I believe to be untenable in terms of the race relations legislation. I share his desire that service provision should be better targeted.

Mr. Mahmood : I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said, but might it not be possible to table another early-day motion that we can both support?

Mr. Grieve : I am sure that, if the hon. Gentleman were to table another early-day motion, I should be happy to consider it.

I want to hear from the Minister, so I shall take up no more of the short time left. Will the Minister say when the Government will meet representatives of the Sikh community? We hoped that that would happen a week or two ago, but the meeting seems to have been put off until 31 July. Will the Minister assure us that the meeting will take place and that the needs and representations of Sikhs will be addressed properly?

I look forward to a positive response from the Minister.

10.49 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn) : First, I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on initiating the debate and on the thoughtful speech with which he kicked off the discussion this morning. I also wish to associate myself with the expressions of appreciation for the work of the all-party group on the Punjabi community in Britain, and for the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) in establishing the group. He follows in a long tradition of hon. Members who have taken an interest in the position of the Sikh community, including someone whom I knew for many years, Sid Bidwell, the former hon. Member for Southall, who was especially distinguished in that regard.

The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) described this debate as one of those all too rare occasions in Westminster Hall when there is a large degree of consensus. In my own relatively limited experience, that is not such a rare occurrence. I have often said that it is as if we enter a parallel universe when we come through the door of this Chamber.

Fiona Mactaggart : No, it is normal.

Hilary Benn : Indeed. We enter a parallel universe in which reason, knowledge and understanding predominate, rather than struggle to make themselves heard, which is what tends to happen in the main Chamber. As this debate demonstrates, it is reason, knowledge and understanding that underpin the diversity mentioned by so many hon. Members, and are the best protection against the type of ignorance that led to the attacks on members of the Sikh community in the wake of 11 September and will help us to grapple with our attempt to understand the nature of our society.

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The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) made a good point. We are struggling to make the categories that we use to try and understand more about the nature of our society match the reality of its increasing diversity. It goes to the heart of answering the question, "What is our identity?" and it becomes more difficult to answer that question as we become more diverse. We must recognise that we are developing a process.

The Sikhs are a people with a long and proud history. That history led them to fight against the British, to fight alongside us in two world wars, and to continue to serve in armed forces around the world, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) mentioned. I too have seen "Bend it Like Beckham" and it is wonderful, but, since we are in cultural mode, I would like to mention an interesting photographic exhibition currently run at Wellington Arch, on the history of service by the Sikh community in the armed forces.

The estimates of how many Sikhs are in Britain vary from 350,000 to 700,000, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield suggested. Their history has led a large number of Sikhs to make their home in Britain and become an established part of our increasingly diverse society. That history led the historian J.S. Grewal to say:

In every walk of life, Sikhs have contributed immensely to this country's social and economic well-being. It is especially appropriate that today we have an opportunity to celebrate and value that economic, cultural and social contribution to the stability and prosperity of British society as a whole.

Our relations—in the collective sense—with the Sikh community are extremely important, and all of us will continue to strive to improve them. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary may have had the example of British Sikhs in mind in a recent speech when he spoke about

All of us have a great deal to learn from the Sikh faith's teachings of the values of tolerance, equality and concern for others. Those are values that all hon. Members share.

I will now turn to specific points made in the course of the debate by the hon. Member for Uxbridge and others. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington referred to previous debates acknowledging progress that is being made. Many of the questions legitimately asked in this debate about our lack of information about the nature, make-up and number of the Sikh community will shortly be answered when we get the results of the 2001 census because, as hon. Members will be aware, that census was the first to include a question on religion. The religious categories are as follows: "none"—interestingly—at the top;

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Christian; Buddhist; Jewish; Muslim; Sikh; and "others". Therefore, we will have the most complete data that there has ever been on the nature and make-up of the Sikh community.

That is the most significant single step that has been taken to learn more about the nature of that community. It will give us information about the size of the Sikh population—which will be measured by how many people identify themselves as Sikhs by ticking the appropriate box in answer to the religious question—as well as about household structure, type of accommodation, health, educational attainment, and employment. Those are the kinds of information that national Government and local government need to ensure that the services that are provided meet the needs of that community, in all its shape and forms.

As several hon. Members have said, there is also a write-in opportunity under the ethnic group category. I was lobbied by the substantial Kashmiri community in my constituency; it wanted to have separate recognition within the ethnic group classification. There was also a campaign to get a write-in in that section so that the word Sikh could be written under the Asian or Asian-British category. The ONS has said that it will look at all of the write-ins and endeavour to produce information based on what they provide. That will give us more of the sort of detailed information that we all want.

The listing of Sikh as a religion in the census will put the Sikh community in a very different position from all the other groups that were campaigning for separate recognition within the census, because it will provide us with many figures that we do not currently have. I hope that the next time we discuss this matter, I will be able to give the answers that are sought by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield—to whom I am about to give way.

Mr. Grieve : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I want to spare his blushes. Even at the Home Office, the ethnicity data currently use the 2001 categories of ethnic groups. As an effort should be made

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to keep one's one house in order, are steps going to be taken on that, so that Sikhs who are working in the Home Office can be identified properly?

Hilary Benn : That question points to an important issue that must be addressed by this society. The CRE code gives Sikhs the same status as other ethnic and racial groups. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink)—who is no longer present—quoted from a letter from the CRE chairman. That letter confirms the legal recognition of Sikhs as both an ethnic and a religious group. Several hon. Members have referred to the Mandla v. Dowell Lee case. Therefore, Sikhs have the same status as all other ethnic and racial groups within the statutory code of practice, with regard to the duty to promote race equality under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 that came into force by order on 31 May.

The CRE produced the code and the related non-statutory guidance. It shares the view that the fact that case law has established Sikhs as an ethnic group for the purposes of the Race Relations Act 1976 does not of itself justify it receiving different treatment from the many other ethnic and racial groups in the UK. However, the statutory code of practice encourages authorities, in using the same classification system as used in the 2001 census, to recognise, as the code does, that authorities may choose to collect more detailed information to reflect local circumstances. Indeed, I would expect them to do that.

I confirm that Lord Filkin will meet representatives of several Sikh organisations on 31 July to discuss these and other matters, and I hope that that will give an opportunity for people to respond to many of the other points that have been raised in the debate, including those that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington on the UN declaration and the ways in which its principles can be taken forward. I will ensure that Lord Filkin has a chance to read the debate before he takes part in that important meeting.

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