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2 Feb 2005 : Column 964

Punjabi Community

Motion made, and Question put, That this House do now adjourn.—[Gillian Merron.]

7.59 pm

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
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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?

Mr. 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: 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
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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
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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.

8.11 pm

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