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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 5 December 2006

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Punjabi Community

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

9.30 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I speak as the chairman of the all-party group on Panjabis in Britain, which was founded more than a decade ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) and several colleagues. Initially, it focused on human rights issues during that dangerous, unstable and uncertain period in the Punjab’s history. The group was reconstituted after 1997 with a much wider remit.

We describe the group as the Punjab community group, as it is a forum for discussion of the issues that confront the Punjabi community in Britain and concerns about their daily lives, but it also has a remit to examine issues in the Punjab itself that are of concern to the Punjabi community in Britain. In recent years, we have held a series of conferences and community consultations, and undertaken surveys of the Punjabi community in Britain that have set the agenda and the work programme for the all-party group.

Various sub-groups and initiatives have been introduced, including ones on health, human rights, the environment, culture and development. All the work is undertaken by a dedicated group of volunteers, and today I wish to recognise their contribution to the group’s work and to discussions that have taken place in the House over the years. In particular, I would like to recognise the contribution of Mr. Iqbal Singh, the group’s researcher; the co-ordinators of our environmental sub-group, Pardeep Rai and Dr. Pritam Singh, an academic adviser from Oxford university; and the co-ordinator of the health sub-group, Amritpal Sekhon. Harinder Singh Mann is the co-ordinator for the development sub-group, a new initiative that we launched only earlier this year. I would like to place on the record our thanks, on a cross-party basis, for the work that they undertake in supporting the parliamentary group.

There are dozens of other volunteers and numerous supporters of the group’s work. They have all participated in our enthusiastic discussions, debates and campaigns on a range of issues. Our work has been helpfully broadcast to the wider community by Desi radio, Punjab radio, Des Perdes and The Sikh Times. I thank them for their coverage of the group’s work and the support that they have given to our campaigns.

It is worth reminding Members of the origins of the Punjabi community in Britain. As Members will know, Punjab, the land of the five rivers, predates the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, which split the Punjab between two countries. It comprises a population of Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and
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those of no faith. The Punjabi community has included adventurous travellers who migrated to all parts of the world, and the worldwide diaspora is significant in many countries across Europe, America and Canada. Clearly, there is an historical colonial link between Britain and the Punjab, which has resulted in a large settled diaspora in Britain. Large numbers settled here in the 1950s, in particular. We now estimate the Punjabi community at about 700,000, with Punjabi established as the second language certainly in London and possibly within the United Kingdom.

Therefore, Parliament has a responsibility to consider the interests of this group of British citizens, as any others, on a regular basis, and to examine the policies that are needed to protect the interests of this sizeable population of British citizens and to enhance their quality of life.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I know the Punjabi community well, having grown up in Yorkshire and then moved to London. I have lived much of my life around that community. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He knows of the great contribution that the Punjabi community makes to this country in many ways, and its undeniable value in adding to our diversity and economy. He also knows that the community is extremely diverse, not least in terms of religion, as he just mentioned, and that there is little understanding of the Punjabi community among British people generally.

Will the hon. Gentleman set out ways in which the community’s leaders can spread a better understanding of their community across this country and explain how this debate, the Government and the media might help in that endeavour?

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Order. I remind the House that if hon. Members want to make interventions, they should make interventions, and that if they want to make a speech, I shall be delighted to call them later.

John McDonnell: Thank you for your protection, Mr. Amess, but I thought the intervention was apposite. It prefigured some of the issues that I shall raise later. It is the role of the all-party group as well to assist in the promulgation of information about the Punjabi community in Britain and to enhance its reputation.

To enable Parliament to examine issues that are of interest to the Punjabi community and, indeed, the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, members of the all-party group have regularly sought a general Adjournment debate on the Punjabi community in Britain. The last one was convened by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) in March 2005, and I convened the first one four years ago. We seek to use such debates to measure progress on issues that were raised in past debates but, in addition to that, to ensure that there is a general overview and discussion of the issues that are of concern to members of the Punjabi community and that confront them in their everyday lives. We use the debates to analyse issues and to advocate the policies
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that are needed to address concerns. Each debate has proved useful in assessing progress, and the Government have responded extremely effectively to the issues that have been raised in them.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point, it is important to recognise the success of the Punjabi community in Britain and to celebrate its contribution to British society. Many members of the Punjabi community lead in the fields of business and commerce; law, where there are numerous barristers, QCs and judges; and politics and government at every level, from councillors to MPs and right through to a Government Minister. They lead in the arts and culture. Let me give a small plug for the filming of “Bend It Like Beckham” in my constituency. I congratulate the director of that film, Gurinder Chadha, on one of the most successful British films in recent years. The Punjabi community gave the world bhangra, the desi beat and the talents of Nitin Sawhney and Talvin Singh.

In sport, come back Monty Panesar, all is forgiven. I congratulate him on the service that he has rendered to his country so far. May I also give a plug for my local Yeading football club and Nev Saroya, a footballer who is one of the most comfortable defenders I have ever seen on a ball? His talents have not been sufficiently recognised in the higher leagues, but he is an excellent player.

Earlier this year, at about the time of the Punjabi traditional celebration of the spring festival of Vaisakhi, the all-party group launched its first annual awards ceremony to honour those who had contributed to the promotion of Punjabi culture. It proved to be an overwhelming success, and I invite all Members to next year’s celebrations and awards ceremony, to be held at Millbank on Tuesday, 20 March, at 6 pm. The awards ceremony is also an exceptional celebration of the cuisine of the Punjab. Food was supplied by the Punjab restaurant and Mr. Sital Singh Mann. I express my thanks for his assistance in hosting the event, and I also thank the Hounslow and other gurdwaras that assisted us throughout the year and supported our conferences and various campaigns.

The members of the Punjabi community are concerned about the issues that concern us all: health, education, housing, crime, community safety and the environment. However, some concerns are of special interest to that community. Let me identify some that have been raised via the all-party group’s consultations. They have informed our work throughout the past 18 months.

The first is the issue of recognition. Hon. Members will know that we have consistently lobbied on behalf of the Sikh community in Britain to ensure that it has recognition in the census. That issue has not fully been resolved to everybody’s satisfaction. It was dealt with in the last debate on the subject and there was some response from the Government about the measures that would be taken to address those concerns in the 2011 census. I would welcome further discussions on the issue at ministerial level and possibly a meeting between the all-party group and the relevant Ministers and civil servants to see whether or not we can resolve the matter in time for the next census.

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Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that that is a particularly acute issue because the planning for the 2011 census is imminent? It would be welcome if the Government gave an assurance over the next few months that they will accommodate that change.

John McDonnell: I would welcome it if the Minister either responded accordingly today or, failing that, wrote to or met the group as a matter of urgency on that matter.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to look at the way in which the census has been tailored, as this goes beyond the Punjabi or Sikh communities in Britain? It still mirrors a statistical view of immigrant communities that dates back to the 1960s, and no longer reflects the diversity in our society. Understandably, people feel rather upset when they look down the various boxes and find that they fit into a definition of “Other”, which they then have to write in. If the whole thing were redrawn in a slightly more sensible fashion, it would be easier to complete and the Government would get some much more interesting statistical material.

John McDonnell: That is a valid point, and a much wider debate needs to be had as a matter of urgency. However, on the matter of the recognition of Sikhs in the forthcoming census, I would welcome an urgent meeting so that we can address that concern.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): Further to the point about the census and the preparation for the next one, does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister and the Government should take careful note of what is being tested in Scotland, where a separate Sikh category has been included?

John McDonnell: That is a valid point to put to the Government and I would welcome their response. The Scottish example also helps on the matter of Punjabi language speaking. In the next census, we would welcome accurate information about the scale of Punjabi as a language in this country. As I said earlier, we believe that it is the second language and should therefore be catered for.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): May I draw attention to another aspect of that, which is the read-across from the census categories to questionnaires that are put out by other Government bodies and local authorities? For example, in my area, in Sandwell, despite the fact that one in eight members of the population are Sikhs and many other groups are much smaller—in some cases, almost non-existent—Sikhs are not a separate category. We have corrected that now, but I think that such a change would be a clear signal to the administration in local and national government that they should be monitoring properly, particularly in areas with a high concentration from the Punjabi and Sikh communities.

John McDonnell: My hon. Friend has made that point previously in debates and in representations to Ministers. It is critical. The importance of the census
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and other forms of identifying information about local populations is that they enable us to monitor the equality and distribution of services, the appointment of people to positions of employment and decision making within the local area. I would welcome the Government’s response and the all-party group would welcome an urgent meeting to discuss how we should go forward and to address the 2011 census.

One of the most important things for any community is the maintenance of its culture. Within a multicultural society, members of the Punjabi community have sought to integrate in an harmonious way in which they have respected the country in which they now live and in which many of them were born. There is a concern to preserve and develop Punjabi culture over generations. Language is a particular concern, and support for the teaching of Punjabi in our schools and by voluntary organisations is a matter that has been identified in the consultations that have been undertaken by the all-party group.

There are questions about how many schools in Britain have provision for the teaching of Punjabi, which is such a prominent second language in our country. An increasing concern emerged during our consultations that Punjabi language teaching is ignored in many elements of the UK education system. There is a belief in many areas that schools are progressively dropping Punjabi from their curriculums. There is an anxiety that the lack of funding for the voluntary sector organisations and community groups that provide Punjabi language teaching is resulting in inadequate access for those who want to learn the language and those who want their children to learn it.

There is also concern about the potential lowering of standards in the teaching of Punjabi as organisations struggle for funds. The all-party group would like to recommend to the Government that they undertake a short, sharp study of Punjabi language provision in educational establishments, schools, colleges, the voluntary sector and civil society organisations at large to identify how provision is meeting the needs and demands of the community. Based on that information, the Government are urged to produce a Punjabi language strategy that supports teacher training, sets quality standards and provides resources to give sufficient access to Punjabi language training in schools, colleges and community organisations. In that way, many believe that it will enhance the preservation of the culture and encourage a development of Punjabi in the education system that will stand us in good stead for generations to come.

Maintaining the culture is also about the means of communication. Language is critical, but it is also important that there is access to means of mass communication, particularly in modern times, if the culture is to survive. We can report a tremendous success story; the development of the Punjabi broadcast media in recent years has been a tremendous success. Desi radio is one example. Located in Southall, it gained one of the first community radio licences as part of the Government’s policy of widening access to community radio for the population overall. The all-party group assisted Desi in its approaches to the previous radio authority and its successor, Ofcom, to explain the significance of Punjabi language
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community radio in promoting and preserving a culture while serving the whole community. Originally a pilot broadcaster, Desi radio has now received a five-year licence under the Government’s planned expansion of radio licences for local community stations.

I pay tribute to Desi in particular for the role that it has undertaken bringing together communities from east and west Punjab, promoting community cohesion in a multicultural society and for broadcasting information programmes on education, health and social and cultural activities. Desi has created a huge volunteer base that is now supporting other community radio stations. It is involved in excellent training with the assistance of European funds—training in radio broadcasting, of course, but also bringing people into work through developing their confidence and overall skills. The word Desi translates as “people”, or “countrymen and women”. Desi radio has proved itself to be a real people’s radio and is an example to community radio and broadcasting throughout the country.

Freedom of speech is critical to the maintenance of a culture. Punjabis, and particularly Sikhs, pride themselves on their tolerance and adherence to the principles of free speech. They are a freedom-loving people, as has been demonstrated historically. I wish to express my and many others’ deep concern at the attack on the Punjabi radio broadcaster, my constituent, Mr. Jasvir Singh Rayat, who has been known for many years to be a peaceful, gentle and respectable person as a broadcaster on Panjab radio. He is a devout Sikh and a volunteer teacher of the Punjabi language and Sikh religion as well as a broadcaster. Earlier this year he was attacked by a group of Sikh religious extremists and physically assaulted; they broke his leg and left him in fear of his life. The motive appears to have been a reaction to a broadcast or interview that he undertook on Panjab radio. That small group of extremists must not be allowed to use illegal methods, including violence, to intimidate and harass fellow Punjabis or to disrupt academic discussion or community events.

I express my concern at the slow pace at which the police are investigating that attack and bringing the perpetrators to justice. I therefore recommend that the Home Secretary asks for an urgent report on the progress of the investigation. It was a dreadful crime that sent shockwaves throughout the Punjabi community.

I refer to another outstanding injustice that occurred more than 20 years ago; the murder of Mr. Tassem Singh Purewal, who was then the editor of Des Perdes, the most famous Punjabi newspaper in this country. That notorious case remains unresolved, and the killer has never been brought to justice. I understand from press reports that a suspect, Mr. Manjit Singh Rattu, is being held in Canada by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. However, there is continuing consternation within the community and among Mr. Purewal’s family at the lack of progress in the Metropolitan police investigation into that case and their liaison with the Canadian police. I have therefore written to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to check progress on the investigation, in particular whether the police have interviewed the suspect. Again, I urge the Home
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Secretary to call for a report on the case in order to ascertain progress and to give some reassurance to the Punjabi community, and particularly to the late Mr. Purewal’s family.

I turn next to the arts, an essential part of the cultural health of the Punjabi community. I congratulate the wide range of groups and bodies that have worked hard in recent years to preserve and promote the Punjabi arts and the cultural heritage. The Maharajah Duleep Singh centenary trust has pioneered a successful Anglo-Sikh heritage trail. Many Punjabi members of the community have enjoyed it, but it is enjoyed also by the wider community.

As on previous occasions, I congratulate Susan Stronge, a senior curator at the Victoria and Albert museum, on her hard work, through exhibitions, talks and demonstrations, on promoting the cultural heritage of the Sikh kingdoms. Many other community organisations are involved. This year, the all-party group honoured the Vaisakhi Da Mela committee in Glasgow, for its tremendous work in promoting Punjabi community activities in Scotland.

However, concern is expressed in the consultation that particular support and recognition is needed by Punjabi folk art. It seems that although the funding bodies—the Arts Council and others—recognise and fund some elements of what could be called the high arts they underestimate the importance to the Punjabi community of its folk art. Again, we recommend that a meeting of the arts funding bodies be convened by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to discuss the support needed for that form of art.

The all-party group has recently lent its support to a new and exciting artistic venture in the Punjabi community. Earlier this month, the group hosted the launching in the House of Commons earlier this month of the Man Mela theatre group, which is developing a drama project to commemorate the 60th anniversary next year of the partition of the Punjab. I draw attention to the work of the director Dominic Rai and the writer of the play, Mr. Mahzin Tirmazi, who I believe is called Muz. When he came to the House, he gave us an exposition of the play and its development as a drama project; it was one of the most moving occurrences that I have attended in the House.

Partition was a traumatic episode in the history of the Indian subcontinent. It resulted in 1 million dead, and many millions more were made refugees in their own land. The Labour Government of the day did not consider the consequences of partition or take enough steps to prevent them. There should be a recognition of Britain’s role in that, with some expression of remorse about what occurred during that period.

The all-party group is urging support for that drama project to assist in its development in the coming year. The aim, if possible, is to promote it throughout the country, and then to perform it in English at the Edinburgh festival. I would welcome the Government’s giving whatever support they can.

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