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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): 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 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
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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
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Government's consultation with faith communities was carried out by a steering group, which I chaired, including ministerial colleagues and senior faith community representatives. The group produced a report, "Working Together", which contained valuable recommendations to help Departments and faith communities to work more closely and effectively together. We will soon be reconvening to measure progress. I will be inviting the faith communities themselves to audit what we have achieved, if I can put it that way, to ensure that a wide range of views, including those of women in those communities, are fed into government.
A further way of engaging that my hon. Friend highlighted was public appointments. Different Government Departments set targets to make public appointments more representative, and I am pleased that the proportion of ethnic minority public appointments has continued to increase from 7.4 per cent. in 2003 to 7.7 per cent. in 2004. We need to ensure that our diversity objectives are achieved, and some of the mechanisms for driving forward a more effective race equality strategy that I recently announced in "Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society" will help us with that.
One problem with public appointments is that change takes time because only a limited number of positionsabout 18 per cent. of the totalbecome available each year. Even if one achieves a representative proportion of people for current appointments, making change is a slow process. However, each Department publishes an action plan with the aim of increasing the number of appointments held by people in under-represented groups. It is published annually, and this year includes targets to be achieved by 2007 and details of recent activities. Although my Department does not currently break public appointments down into specific ethnic or gender groups, we undertake an appropriate and wide circulation of all our public appointment vacancies and work hard to ensure that the diversity that is at the heart of Britain's strength is reflected in our public appointments.
I could tell that the English language requirement was my hon. Friend's major concern. I am glad that his constituent's appeal was successful, because it is precisely such people with a good command of the English language who can take up responsible leadership roles in the faith communities. They can enable their communities to fulfil important parts of their role in civil society, such as engaging with people beyond a specific faith and playing a significant role in building a better, wider society. One reason why we introduced the new English language requirement for ministers of religion entering the UK from abroad was because although we are committed to continuing the special opportunity for people to get work permits, we also want to ensure that such a wider role can be fulfilled.
The measure is not an attack on the Punjabi language, which is, I think, the second most commonly spoken language in Britain, or on that language being used in worship. If Sikh congregations wish to use Punjabi in their worship, that is a matter for them, not for the Government, as my hon. Friend rightly said. The requirement has been in force since last August with the purpose of ensuring that overseas ministers of religion
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who come to the UK have the skills needed for ministry in a diverse and cohesive society. We want to create a situation in which at least one senior cleric in every gurdwara, mosque, Hindu temple and so on is sufficiently fluent in English to be able to interact satisfactorily with local government, other faith communities, businesses, voluntary bodies and other parts of the local community. Fluent English also enables those people to preach in the language that many in their congregations will speak in their daily lives. It also allows them to reach younger members of their congregation who often feel less connected with faith institutions than others.
My Department will soon begin a second stage of consultation with faith communities on further measures that we want to introduce to ensure that ministers of religion who are admitted from abroad are able to play a full role in their communities and that they gain an understanding of British civic life. We accept of course that there will be workers in gurdwaras who are not involved in preaching, do not have the leadership duties that I discussed and might not be affected by the new requirements. As part of the second stage of consultation, faith communities will be invitedas they were during the first stageto express any worries that they have about the impact that the measures might have on religious workers with non-pastoral roles who try to enter the country under the minister of religion category. Kirtani is a classic example within the Sikh religion.
I hope that the Sikh community will take advantage of this opportunity. We consulted Sikh groups alongside other faiths in the first round of consultation. Five Sikh representative bodies were included in the first round of consultation, together with major gurdwaras in Birmingham and Southall. Other organisations were invited but chose not to participate. I believe that the second round of consultation might provide an opportunity to drill further down into the question of whether there might be some flexibility for people who have religious roles but do not fulfil all the requirements that I have been discussing.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Vaisakhi festival and the question of road closures. The position is clear. Whoever wants roads closed for a religious or other festival needs to apply to the relevant highway authoritythe Department for Transport for trunk roads or the local authority for local roads. We do not intend to issue special guidance to the police on that subject, but I know that ministerial colleagues would be willing to listen to further representations if present arrangements are not working well enough. We do not have plans for further Vaisakhi celebrations at Government level, but, like my hon. Friend, I think that what we have done so far has been useful. We are always willing to mark faith festivals in a suitable way, and I look forward to any suggestions that might be put to me about this.
My hon. Friend asked what further support we can give to faith schools. The Government continue to support those schools in the maintained sector that have changed their status to one based on a particular faith. That support is given provided that the change of status has gone through a school organising committee.
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