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Something that was perhaps not covered in great detail in the debate 18 months ago was the representation and appointment of Sikhs. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West touched on it in passing, but it was not the main focus of his
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questioning then. I hope that the Minister will say what has been done with respect to consideration by the Government and the Appointments Commission of the appointment in future of appropriately qualified Sikhs in places such as the House of Lords. I accept that that is not just a Government responsibility; it is a responsibility of all the political parties, and I shall not absolve my own from it. We all have an important role to play.

I hope that the Minister will also set out what regular contact she has with representative organisations.

John McDonnell: On appointments, we have in the past raised the question of appointments in the civil service, which is particularly pertinent at a time when the number of civil servants is being reduced. We have seen the Government targets to cut 104,000 civil service jobs. We have raised the question of adequate monitoring, so that no particular community feels the brunt of any reductions disproportionately.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for another very pertinent intervention and hope that the Minister will confirm that monitoring will be done to ensure that no one community will be affected by the changes more than another. I hope that she will also update us on the 2005 figures for ethnic minority representation in the civil service, so that we can see whether the trend is in the right direction. I hope that the Minister will tell us about her discussions with various representative organisations, such as the Sikh Federation and the Sikh Women’s Federation, about ideas for increasing the representation of Sikhs.

My final point is about human rights. I am the treasurer of the all-party group on human rights. There are significant abuses of Sikhs’ human rights, requiring investigation. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington has referred to the case of Professor Bhullar. There have been disappearances and massacres, as well as the attack in November 1984. There has been a request for the UK Government to call for a UN investigation into a series of human rights abuses over several decades, which the Sikh community feels have not been investigated sufficiently, or at all. Will the Government support the call for such an investigation?

It is clear that the Punjabi community plays a major role in many of our towns and cities, contributing significantly to business and to our cultural and faith diversity. Its aspirations are not unreasonable; its members simply want to be allowed the same opportunities as other communities. It is the duty of our Government and all political parties present today to see that those ambitions are realised.

Rob Marris rose—

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Order. I did pause for a long while when the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) sat down to allow Back Benchers the opportunity to contribute; it is a pity, but once we are on to the Opposition spokesmen it is out of my hands.

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10.24 am

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): I am sorry to prevent an hon. Member with some some expertise in the matter from speaking, but if the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) would like to intervene on anything that I say, he would be welcome to.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your resident chairmanship, Mr. Amess, and to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who made an extremely comprehensive, knowledgeable and forthright speech. I think that we all benefited from his great knowledge of and familiarity with the issues that he talked about. I congratulate him on his work, and the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) on establishing the all-party group on Panjabis in Britain. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who together have formed the all-party group on UK Sikhs. Together those groups have both helped the House to understand some of the important issues that have been talked about today.

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman kindly referred to my work both as the treasurer of the all-party group on Panjabis in Britain and as chairman of the all-party group on UK Sikhs. It is important sometimes to maintain the differentiation of Sikhs and Punjabis, because Sikhs form about 55 per cent. of the population of Punjab. On the matter of the census, does he agree that it would be helpful to have a specific Punjabi language box to tick, as well as a specific Sikh box to tick for ethnic, if not racial, monitoring, so that one could differentiate further and find out how many people of Punjabi origin are in the UK who are not Sikh? There are many in my constituency, for example.

Greg Clark: I am grateful for that intervention, which anticipates the very point of complexity that I was going to make, particularly about the census.

We have all learned a lot from the debate. We know from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington that Punjab means land of the five rivers. I am no linguist but I understand that the Punjabi word “panj” means five, and is related to the ancient Greek “penta”, from which we get the word “pentagon”. It is a small reminder that Punjabi, English and, indeed, Greek are all part of the Indo-European family of languages. In languages common beginnings often diverge in all sorts of directions. I hope that in today’s Britain we are achieving the opposite of that, by building the united but not uniform kingdom of our diverse identities.

Identity, as has been pointed out, is a complex matter. That can be seen in the Punjabi community, which is drawn both from India and Pakistan. The Sikh community is of course predominantly Punjabi, but many Punjabis are Muslim or Hindu. Moreover, many Punjabis arrived in Britain from Africa, adding another layer of identity and complexity. The debate this morning is about the British Punjabi community, and so in addition to all those other overlapping features there is, of course, a strong British identity to the community that we are talking about today.

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It is difficult for the categorisers of ethnic and religious identity to fit people into neat boxes, and their attempts to do so are unlikely to please everyone. However, it is important that all distinct and sizeable communities should be properly recognised in the appropriate way, whenever diversity is monitored by public institutions, and it seems to me that in trying to get it right a good place to start is to go to each community to ask the people who belong to it how they see themselves. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) have both put on record the view of my party that the census authorities should treat the question sympathetically and creatively. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington made the point that that is a matter of some urgency as the next census approaches. I ask the Minister when she replies to consider the urgency as well as the substance of the request.

As a Conservative, I am always aware that the apparatus of the state can take us only so far and, indeed, often gets in the way, so I am concerned about the down-to-earth realities of life as it is lived by the individuals and communities that make up this nation. In that respect, I think it is important to emphasise, as several hon. Members have done during the debate, the positive aspects of the Punjabi community in Britain. There are occasional setbacks and tensions, but the story of the Punjabi community in Britain is one of considerable success. On the one hand, a strong sense of cultural identity, tradition and belief has been retained; on the other, the community has successfully taken its place in the wider British community. That is surely the way things should be: the natural, organic co-existence of different groups, which the state does not need to plan and prod into place, but which emerges as ordinary people live together as Britons alongside one another.

That is not to say that the Government have no responsibilities, but we politicians should always aim to apply the lightest possible touch in such matters. We have seen more heavy-handed approaches in some countries, and I do not want this country to go down the same route. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington referred to some of the difficulties in other European Union countries, which we have successfully avoided. I hope that the Minister’s good offices can be used to influence the practice of some of our European neighbours.

Respect for the law and loyalty to our democratic system of government are one thing, but an increasingly convoluted regulatory system that tells people how different they are allowed to be is an entirely different matter. Such a system could serve only to undermine the purpose of communities and their members’ responsibilities towards each another. A state-driven approach to diversity forces the representatives of each community to turn away from those whom they represent and towards political hierarchies. I therefore hope that we will take a grass-roots view and not seek to impose a top-down version of community on the communities that we are discussing. Wherever we can, we should keep the politics to a minimum, and I think that that view is shared by the political parties.

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Strong institutions, which draw their strengths from the grassroots, not from Whitehall, are the way to keep communities vibrant. Wearing my hat as shadow Minister with responsibility for charities, I believe that public funding streams need to be shaped in such a way as to uphold that principle, not undermine it. As we have heard, the Punjabi community provides many excellent examples of what civil society can achieve, and I hope that civil society, as expressed in all our communities, will increasingly be the means by which we aim to tackle the challenges of the future.

Let me now respond to some of the points that have been raised, particularly by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington.

John McDonnell: Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to the specifics, let me say that he has made a valid point about the role of Punjabi civil society—let us describe it in that way. One thing of which we have tried to make the Government aware—I think that we have been successful—is the role of particular institutions in the Punjabi community. One such institution is the gurdwara, which plays much more than a religious role in the community and has a whole social and cultural role. That was recognised as far back as the Greater London council days, when the first local government grants were given to gurdwaras in London in recognition of their more general role. I emphasise that because many gurdwaras provide the basis of Punjabi language tuition in the Punjabi community, and it is important that Members across the parties urge the Government to recognise the broader role of organisations in Punjabi civil society. In the case of some other communities and religions, such a role would not be recognised.

Greg Clark: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I remember with great pleasure spending time in Gravesend during the election campaign. The gurdwaras there make an important and wide contribution to the community, which goes beyond the strictly religious. That is also true of other religions, and Christian churches play a valuable role in the social fabric of our communities, which is intimately connected with, but goes further than, their narrowly religious role. I always seek to encourage the engagement of faith groups in wider civil society and I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify that.

I echo the hon. Gentleman’s tribute to the Punjabi community’s strong cultural and, increasingly, sporting tradition. Our country would be diminished without the world-class contribution that the British Punjabi community has made to our national cultural life over the years.

We have discussed the census, and I look forward to the Minister’s response on the issue. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned community radio, and there could be no better example of grass roots institutions in which members of the local community come together to provide a service that is of interest not only to them, but to others. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield was telling me what a devotee he is of such wider cultural contributions, and I dare say that such community radio stations will attract his ear, too, if they are available online in Beaconsfield.

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Of course, the community’s contributions go beyond the artistic, and I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West mention the Anglo-Sikh heritage trail. That is one family outing in west London that the Clark household might engage in before too long.

An important point was made about the kirpan, when it was confirmed for the record that there has been no recorded instance of it being used aggressively. The sensible, pragmatic arrangements that we have managed to establish contrast with some of the tales that we hear about practice on the continent. We talk about having influence in Europe, and this is an issue on which we should exercise that influence. We should make our experience available to our European partners to reassure them.

On the perceived under-representation of the Punjabi community, we know that Punjabis in Britain are prominent in the life of our communities and in our culture, and I would like that to be replicated in the organisations that represent our communities. There is a perception that members of the Punjabi community are under-represented, and I would be interested to hear whether that accords with the Minister’s view. What steps are the Government considering to address the problem, if, indeed, it is the problem that it has been suggested it is?

In conclusion, this has been a fascinating debate. We have had contributions—usually in the form of interventions—from both sides of the Chamber, and I think that all of us have deepened our understanding and appreciation of the Punjabi community’s contribution. It has been a great pleasure to participate in the debate.

10.37 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing the debate and on setting what would be a wide-ranging agenda for any Minister to respond to. I share the race and faith portfolio with my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, who leads on the issue. Together, we work on a range of related issues, and I will do my best to answer those questions that I can. However, hon. Members have set me quite a daunting task, and I will forward any other questions to other Ministers or seek responses subsequently. We will see what I manage to cover in the time that we have.

It is encouraging to see an all-party group working in such depth, and the fact that its members have managed to secure debates on a number of occasions in previous years is a tribute to their work. That gives us a welcome opportunity to place on record the valuable contribution that the Punjabi community makes to our society, whether in public service, industry, culture or sport. There is no doubt that our country is the richer for the community’s presence.

We should also recognise the tremendous charitable contribution that the community makes, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington talked
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about the important role played by gurdwaras. Indeed, other places of worship also play an important role in that respect in civic society.

Before I come to the specific points raised by hon. Members and to the Punjabi community, let me talk briefly about what the Government are doing to increase race equality and community cohesion generally. Our strategy paper entitled, “Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society”, which we launched in 2005, was the first cross-Government strategy on increasing race equality and community cohesion, and its aim is to help to strengthen society. It will do that by seeking to create a society in which every individual, whatever their racial or ethnic origin, can fulfil their potential through the enjoyment of equal opportunities, rights and responsibilities. Hon. Members will also be aware that we are seeking to establish the commission for equality and human rights, which will also play a role in this important area.

We recently published our first progress report on the strategy, which showed that enormous progress has been made. We should be proud of the work already done to tackle race inequalities and to increase community cohesion. As hon. Members have mentioned, many issues still need to be addressed. We should not be complacent as there is much to do. Some communities still suffer disadvantages in comparison with the rest of society. This is a long-term strategy in which all of us have a role to play in creating an inclusive society where everyone in Britain has the life chances that they deserve.

In support of our strategy to increase race equality and community cohesion, we have also invested in our communities. We have introduced the faith communities capacity building fund. It has a number of aims, one of which is to help faith communities to promote understanding and dialogue. I am pleased that a number of Sikh and Punjabi organisations have benefited from it. I would particularly like to highlight the work of the United Kingdom Punjab Heritage Association, which seeks to highlight the shared cultural heritage between Britain and Punjab and to build a better understanding of shared histories in local communities. It is receiving £47,000 to build and to sustain its long-term development, which will enable it to develop high-quality, cross-faith projects on Punjabi heritage. That heritage is shared by members from the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu faiths.

I also pay tribute to the two Sikh schools in the maintained sector, both of which are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington. One is a primary school and the other is a secondary school, and they both continue to achieve outstanding results for their students.

A number of hon. Members raised the issue of the census. They will be aware that the 2001 census asked respondents, for the first time, to record their religion. That has provided us with a wealth of information on faith groups that had not previously been available. Sikhs are, of course, recognised as an ethnic group for the purposes of race relations legislation, and public authorities are encouraged to collect statistics in a way that will help them to provide services that are accessible and fair for all.

The Office for National Statistics will shortly be consulting data users on whether to include a question
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on language in the 2011 census, and, if so, on what languages they require information about. I am pleased that my Department has expressed its support for a language question. The proposed draft question would ask specifically about English and Welsh, but there would be space to write in one further language.

The question will cover four dimensions of language ability—understanding, speaking, reading and writing—and will therefore present an opportunity to identify the number and location of Punjabi speakers.

John McDonnell: Could we, through this debate, pass the message to the ONS at the early stage of the consultations that a write-in block would be insufficient? Where there are blank spaces for individuals to write in, there is invariably a lower response rate. Because of the scale of Punjabi speaking in this country, it is expected that specific reference would be made to the Punjabi language. A tick-box approach would facilitate people in registering their adherence to that language.

Meg Munn: I gave an indication of the proposed draft question. Hon. Members will have an opportunity to give feedback to the ONS on those issues and to raise them ahead of the 2011 census.

Rob Marris: I understand that the draft census question makes reference to English, Welsh and British sign language, which I am pleased that our Government recognised as a language indigenous to these isles about four years ago. I would venture to say that there are a great many more users and speakers of Punjabi in the United Kingdom than there are British sign language users. Although it is important to have British sign language specified, I reiterate the point, which I hope the Minister will pass on to the ONS, that specifying the Punjabi language rather than having it as a write-in option would be far more preferable. Such an approach would also be more likely to reveal far more useful information.

Meg Munn: As I say, I am happy to pass on hon. Members’ comments.

The issue of Punjabi language provision and the strategy was mentioned. Clearly, it is also an issue for the Department for Education and Skills and relates to a number of other community languages. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) said that he is not a linguist. I am, and I take the view that learning one language often enables people to be open to learning more languages. We need people in our country who can speak other languages for the benefit of our position in the world. I am sure that hon. Members will be disappointed that I learned Hindi and not Punjabi, although understanding some spoken Punjabi is within my reach.

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