Previous Section Index Home Page

5 Dec 2006 : Column 7WH—continued

To maintain and preserve their culture, people must be able to express their religion. There are continuing concerns—they were raised in previous debates—about the failure to create national guidelines or protocols on
5 Dec 2006 : Column 8WH
the ability of Sikhs to express their religion, in particular the wearing of the kirpan at Heathrow airport and when visiting other countries. We expressed concern about what happened in France, where it is illegal to wear turbans and other religious displays. This country has always had a more progressive attitude, but on a number of occasions we still have problems. Sikhs are still unable to gain entry to some buildings, and recently they were unable to gain access to the European Parliament because they were wearing the kirpan.

Mr. Todd: My hon. Friend is making a remarkably wide-ranging and fascinating speech. He touched on a subject that has been raised by my constituents, who visit me freely at the House carrying the kirpan and bearing other articles of their faith. Is it not the case that the approach taken by the House in dealing with people visiting Members of Parliament could be used as a model?

John McDonnell: It is exactly that model that we should build upon and develop in order to create a protocol for the display of religious artefacts such as the kirpan. It is timely to revisit the matter. We secured a number of workable agreements at Heathrow to overcome such problems before, but the problems recur. The Government’s sanctioning the development of a protocol that can be adopted by public and private organisations across the country would help to establish a method of working for the future. That would ease the problems experienced in the past.

Mr. Spellar: Is it not therefore extremely regrettable, as my hon. Friend says, that agreements reached at Heathrow that have satisfied both the safety and security authorities and the community are in danger of being overturned by directives from the European Union—often directives passed by countries with no experience or understanding of the situation?

John McDonnell: The all-party group would like to see the Government take a lead on that matter, in discussion with our European partners. Given that members of the Punjabi community are travelling across Europe and the world, it is timely to have some form of agreement on the basic right of people to express their religion by way of symbols.

Bob Spink: Would the hon. Gentleman put it on record that, as far as I am aware, there has been no incidence in this country of the kirpan being used aggressively, which shows how tolerant and peaceful the Sikhs are?

John McDonnell: We have evidence, through our debates and parliamentary questions, that there has been no incidence of the kirpan causing any risk or being used in assault. I would not expect the Minister to respond in detail today, but it would be extremely helpful if we entered into discussion again on the progress and development of guidelines and protocols; they could be agreed nationally and used as good practice guides to all organisations and perhaps taken up with our European partners. That would resolve the matter once and for all.

5 Dec 2006 : Column 9WH

Patrick Hall: May I tell the House of the experience of my constituent Harjinder Singh Gosal? He travels by air across the world. He does not object to having to check in the kirpan with the rest of his main luggage. However, he and some of his friends recently visited Belgium. At Brussels international airport on return to this country, they found that unlike everywhere else, where the turban is checked by a hand-held scanner, he and his friends were required by officials to remove their turbans—the officials refused to use the hand-held scanner. As my hon. Friend will know, that is highly offensive to Sikhs. Does he not agree that, on behalf of British citizens, the Government should take up the matter most urgently with the Belgian authorities?

John McDonnell: I invite the Government to raise the matter directly; it is offensive and unacceptable behaviour. I would welcome the Government’s intervention on that matter, to ensure that it is not repeated.

Mr. Spellar: My intervention may be for the benefit of the Minister and the Department. When talking about Heathrow, it could be thought that we are talking only about travellers. The crucial issue that we want to get across, particularly in an area with a high proportion of the Sikh community, is the right to work and to continue in employment while observing one’s faith.

John McDonnell: For many of my constituents who are Sikhs working at Heathrow that is a critical issue of employment policy and practice.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): On two issues my hon. Friend has referred to that come under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport would he, like me, welcome steps by the Government to clarify with professional sports bodies the issue of wearing the kirpan in places such as professional football grounds? A problem in my constituency was resolved through negotiation and we now have a very good policy, but I am hearing of difficulties with other sports venues in the country. Does my hon. Friend share my surprise that in professional association football there are few if any professional players who are Punjabi in origin and that that appears to be racist?

John McDonnell: On the first issue regarding the wearing of the kirpan and access to football grounds and other sport stadiums, the development of a national protocol sanctioned by Government would overcome those issues. On the development of Punjabi activity in sports generally, across the board we have seen members of the Punjabi community coming forward and excelling. However, football seems to be a particular area in which there has not been that development. It behoves the Football Association and other bodies to examine that matter and at least arrive at a shared understanding of why that is occurring, together with policies to develop expertise and ensure that clubs adopt practices that do not discriminateor prevent people participating in sport, even unintentionally.

On the wearing of symbols, there was recently a particularly tragic attack on a young man in
5 Dec 2006 : Column 10WH
Edinburgh. A group of thugs tore off his turban and sought to cut his hair. That was a disgraceful attack and we send our sympathy to him, his family and the Punjabi and Sikh community in Scotland. However, it would be helpful if a report could be provided at some stage on the progress of the investigation into that case and if a review could be carried out into whether there is a particular problem in that area with attacks on Sikhs or members of the Punjabi community. At the moment, the information is not available statistically and a review would be useful certainly in the development of policing policy within that area.

I wish to move on to a number of the other issues that the all-party group has considered recently. Education has always been a key issue and the all-party group and hon. Members will recall the lobby that took place to ensure that there was fair treatment of Sikh schools in this country. The first Sikh school, the Guru Nanak school was established in my constituency. I congratulate the school on its success in the development of both the primary and the secondary school and thank the Government for the intensive investment in Guru Nanak schools and in other projects that have been developed in Slough and Southall.

On health, the all-party group conducted a survey of primary care trusts about the issues they had identified in the Punjabi community in their area and what policies and practices they were pursuing to address those issues. From the survey we identified the high incidence of diabetes and coronary problems in the Punjabi community. We also identified a wide range of good practice activities and strategies developed by primary care trusts. However, the survey confirmed that there is a lack of consistency across local health authorities and linked to that is a lack of representation of the Punjabi community on health bodies, primary care trusts and health trusts. We would welcome the Department of Health developing an overview of health provision, which is culturally specific to the Punjabi community. We would also welcome an examination of the process by which we are encouraging members of the Punjabi community to serve on health bodies across the country. Clearly, there is a lack of representation on a wide range of health bodies and the all-party group would like to work with the Government to encourage access to representation for the Punjabi community in those areas.

One of the hardy perennials of the all-party group and of other debates has been the issue of visas. We welcome the Government’s opening up of the Jalandhar visa office, but believe that it should be upgraded to provide a full service. That would overcome the problem of the long distances travelled to Delhi by many Punjabi families for interviews and visa application processing.

On visa applications for single people, there is concern that there may not be as thorough a consideration of the application as there would be if it was for a couple. We are concerned that there may well be a practice developing of automatic rejection of an application from a single person when, for example, they are applying to visit this country to see their families and attend important ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. It would ensure that the system
5 Dec 2006 : Column 11WH
is seen to be completely objective if there was a review monitoring applications from single people for visas from the Punjab.

Through the all-party group we established an environmental sub-group, which has been tremendously successful. It meets bimonthly and brings together experts who have looked at environmental issues in the Punjab. They have examined water depletion, soil degradation, desertification, and the large scale problems that are facing farmers in the Punjab. We now know that there has been a significant increase in suicide among farmers in the Punjab as a result of the poverty they face and the debt many have fallen into. The sub-group has liaised with a number of projects that are working hard on the ground in the Punjab and there have been discussions around the development role that the all-party group can play in assisting projects that are tackling environmental problems.

We have established a development group to look at the economic support that can be provided to the Punjab and issues around environment and farming practices. The group will also look at how we exchange technology between Britain and the Punjab to assist both countries in economic development. For example, there is a need for co-ordination between the public and private assistance provided by the Punjabi diaspora in Britain to the Punjab itself. We are examining the Canadian model whereby people from the Punjabi diaspora are coming together to co-ordinate the support they are providing back in their homeland.

We are also examining what technology transfer issues can be undertaken, particularly regarding links between universities and schools and colleges. The issue that has come up regularly in these discussions has been that of flights to the Punjab. Punjabis travel a great deal in order to return to their homeland and carry out visits on a short and long-term basis. They obviously visit Amritsar and Darbar Sahib. There are concerns about the pricing policy of direct flights to the Punjab and Amritsar and there are large differences between the costs of those flights and flights into Delhi. That may be a result of the frequency of flights or the need for further investment in developing the airport system in the Punjab. That is one of the issues we will examine in the development sub-group and we will also be liaising with the Government directly.

An issue raised regularly in debates is that of human rights. The all-party group was formed, as I have said, more than a decade ago as a human rights group. We still take up individual cases and I would like to raise yet again the case of Professor Devinderpal Singh Bhullar. Many hon. Members will know the background to this case so I will not delay the debate by going through the details except to say that Professor Bhullar is now awaiting a death sentence. He confessed to crimes under torture and we believe that he was deported from Germany illegally. Many consider him to be a prisoner of conscience. We welcome whatever assistance the Government can provide on liaison and representation to the Indian Government to ensure that the death sentence is lifted from Professor Bhullar. We have maintained our
5 Dec 2006 : Column 12WH
position as a group regarding our representations to the Indian Government about their refusal to admit UN rapporteurs on torture into the Punjab. We are liaising with organisations such as Liberation. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), the chair of Liberation, has raised that issue and other members of that group have raised it via the UN itself.

One other issue, which has arisen this year, involves members of the Punjabi community who served this country well in the second world war and became prisoners of war in Europe. That group has never received recognition, despite their arduous sufferings during that period. Many of them were captured in north Africa, taken to Europe and used by the Nazi regime and the Italian regime, almost as slave labour in some instances. Certainly many of them became prisoners of war in the most difficult circumstances. We believe that the Government need to review the situation of the people who served in the armed forces and became prisoners of war, and examine what compensation should be paid and what settlements should be made to compensate them for their sufferings and the service that they rendered to this country.

In addition, we are identifying cases of ex-servicemen, many of whom are of course now elderly, who originally were given some form of pension and award for their disabilities, but whose pension and disability award are now being reviewed and reduced. We would welcome a review by the Ministry of Defence of those concerns and are willing to work with the MOD to identify individual cases in which the problems can be overcome in, we hope, co-operation with the Indian Government.

Those are a range of the issues that we have been dealing with as an all-party group. As, I believe, a successful all-party group, we have been working with the community itself and working to an agenda set by that community. The group has established a forum for discussion in which we share experiences and then develop practical policies, to most of which the Government have responded effectively. We would welcome continuing dialogue with the Government. We want to raise issues about ensuring that there are adequate mechanisms whereby the Government can consult the Punjabi community to ensure that there is adequate representation from across that community and that that representation is genuinely representative of the overall community.

I place on record as well the support that has been given by a wide range of members of the group for the individual initiatives. The fact that that has happened on a cross-party basis is what has made the group so successful at representing the Punjabi community in Britain.

10.12 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I was not necessarily expecting to speak as early as this, but the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) took many pertinent interventions. I congratulate him on securing the debate. Clearly, he is a very articulate advocate for the Punjabi community. The debate has provided an opportunity to learn about a community and a religion with which, I confess, I am
5 Dec 2006 : Column 13WH
not as familiar as I should be. There is not a large Sikh community in Carshalton and Wallington, but I have enjoyed hearing about the work of the all-party group and it has been interesting to hear the group’s concerns on a wide range of issues, such as the teaching of Punjabi, community radio, football, culture and health.

While preparing for the debate, I was able to glean many useful facts and much useful information from previous debates, notably the debate secured by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) in February 2005. During that debate, he made the sensible point—no doubt this still applies now—that the Punjabi community’s concerns reflect those of the wider community in respect of education, health and law and order issues. A number of additional facts came out in that debate that were of interest to me, such as that the state capital was built by Le Corbusier in the 1950s—I was not aware of that—and that, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington has stated today, Punjabi is now the second most commonly spoken language in the United Kingdom.

One fact that I have not been able to confirm and which was raised during the debate secured by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West is that Pakistan is an acronym, with the P standing for Punjab. I understand that Pakistan is translated as “the land of the pure”, but perhaps both those things apply. A fact that I have been able to confirm is that some of the issues that he raised in his debate 18 months ago have not been resolved. Perhaps progress has been made, but they have not been resolved. That has been confirmed by the briefing that hon. Members will have received over the weekend from the Sikh Federation and by the briefing that I received from my own party’s ethnic minority representatives.

During his debate, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West raised six principal points, some of which the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington has referred to and some of which he has not. The first issue was pension credit. The second was the ethnic monitoring of Sikhs, which has been referred to. That is associated with the issue of Sikh appointments to various positions of responsibility in government. The third issue was language proficiency tests. The fourth was the kirpan, which has been referred to, and the fifth was the wearing of turbans. The sixth point related to human rights issues.

It is pertinent to this debate to consider the progress that has been made in those areas and to ask the Minister some specific questions on those points, given that during the debate 18 months ago, the Minister who responded, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), gave a number of undertakings. The first related to pension credit. People from the Punjabi community often return home for a period of longer than four weeks and are required to sign on again for pension credit when they return. During the debate 18 months ago, the Minister said that no decision had yet been taken on that issue,

I have not been able to ascertain what the conclusion of that research was, whether it found in favour of making that change, or whether costings were conducted as to
5 Dec 2006 : Column 14WH
what the financial implication of the change would be. I hope that this Minister can respond on that point.

On ethnic monitoring of Sikhs and the census, the Minister said 18 months ago that the Office for National Statistics

I hope that this Minister will say today to what extent the ONS has taken on board those representations.

On language proficiency tests, reference was made to a “second stage of consultation”. That was due to begin 18 months ago and I assume that it has been completed by now. It would be interesting to know from the Minister what feedback and representations she has received about the changes to the rules in respect of language proficiency, whether that has introduced a constraint and, if so, to what extent that has been the case, and what representations have been received about further extending the scope for requesting language proficiency from people who are perhaps not actively involved in delivering religious sermons. I hope that the Minister will respond on that point.

The kirpan has been referred to in some detail, and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington was perhaps uncharacteristically generous to the Minister in offering her an opportunity to come back to him in writing at a later date. I hope that he is not going to develop a habit of being generous to Ministers. I believe that it would be appropriate for the Minister to respond now on the kirpan, given that she had notice 18 months ago from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West that that was an issue. At that point, there was discussion about consulting the community and finding out what the Government could do about the fact that they were in breach of the European regulation. I understand from the briefing from the Sikh Federation that immediately before the last general election the Government gave an undertaking that they would issue a code of practice on the subject, which has not yet been delivered. I hope that the Minister will clarify what progress has been made on that.

John McDonnell: The key issue to which I should like the Minister to respond—I am trying to be as co-operative as possible to move the matter on promptly—is the need for a timetabled strategy for resolving the matter in civil society, the private sector and government in this country, and for moving it on to the European agenda and, if necessary, further. The issue is a timetabled strategy for monitoring the progress of Government policy and our interventions overall. I make those comments in a spirit of wanting us all to work together to resolve the matter.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his sensible intervention, and I hope that the Minister will respond with the timetable and strategy that he seeks.

Next Section Index Home Page