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8 May 2007 : Column 33WH—continued

Hundreds of millions of people in India have that potential, but they do not receive the kind of patronage that Dr. Ambedkar was fortunate enough to have in his youth. They do not get to travel to America to study, or to London to become a barrister at the Inns of Court. They do not receive the same education. That affects UK businesses operating in India as well, because the pool of labour—often educated labour—from which
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they would like to draw is correspondingly smaller than it should be, owing to those blocked opportunities.

I pay tribute to companies such as Cobra Beer, headed by the noble Lord Bilimoria, which has tried to address that problem. In particular I pay tribute to Richard Stockdale, the chief executive officer of Lloyds TSB plc in India, whom I met in Mumbai and again when he came to London, partly in order to push issues concerning Dalits. Such companies should be encouraged by the Government to observe what are rightly—I think—called the Ambedkar principles, which were launched in London, last July, at a meeting of the London School of Economics. I had the pleasure to be at that meeting, along with Baroness Royall who was representing the Government.

I shall not read out all of the Ambedkar principles, but refer briefly to them, if I may. They state that companies should have an employment policy that reflects

that they should develop

we would call that “awareness”—

and that they should ensure that they and their suppliers

I stress the word “comply”. The legislation exists, but too often it is honoured in the breach.

Fourthly, companies adhering to the Ambedkar principles should recruit fairly. Fifthly, they should take

That is very important because globalisation, including in India, brings long supply chains with component manufacturers and so on, and too often the large corporation at the top of the chain is not aware of the employment practices further down.

Sixthly, a company should provide comprehensive training opportunities, particularly for Dalit employees, who all too often, owing to their position in society, have been denied them. Seventhly, a company should designate a senior manager to carry out those policies and—this is the tenth principle—appoint a specific board member for overview. Eighthly, there should be

Most importantly, from the United Kingdom’s perspective, the ninth principle states that the company should publish an annual report on its progress so that UK businesses operate transparently in India and other countries and we know what progress is being made.

That is likely to affect UK businesses, not only now, but particularly in the medium term, if the growing demand in India for reservation in the private sector is met, which is possible. Currently, there is job reservation in the public sector for Dalits. We might call that affirmative action. It is to ensure, as far as regional state Governments and the Union Government in Delhi can, that the work force of public sector organisations are reflective of the population that it serves.

In the last 15 years, however, the proportion of the population covered by public sector reservation has been shrinking owing to privatisations. That has
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corresponded with India’s welcome economic growth, although sadly it is confined mostly to urban areas and has not extended to the 650,000 villages inhabited by 750 million people—one hopes that it will get through. Of course, the private sector is growing without reservation, but the public sector, where that protection exists, is shrinking.

Jeremy Corbyn: I acknowledge the value of the reservation system in the public sector. However, does my hon. Friend acknowledge that one of the problems has been that although the reservation system has led to employment for some Dalits, anti-Dalit attitudes remain among high-level management throughout the public and private sectors? Great difficulties remain for Dalits in breaking into other non-reserved jobs in the public sector. Obviously, if the same thing applied in the private sector, we might have the same problem.

Rob Marris: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Often there are difficulties with anti-discrimination legislation, although I support it entirely—we have it here. The Government, on the basis of the democratically expressed will of the people, can try to set the tone, but in every workplace, household, village and so on, there will be different manifestations as to how deeply that goes. One has to press for a change in attitudes. The legislation sets the tone, but my hon. Friend is right that in too many workplaces there is a ceiling. I do not know whether one would call it a glass ceiling in India, but there is a ceiling, and cold-shouldering and similar things are going on.

If it comes to pass that there is reservation in the private sector, that will affect UK business. I have mentioned some good examples, but to the extent that UK business has not already done so, it should be gearing up for that; otherwise it will come as a tornado for those businesses and they will find it very difficult to adjust.

With regard to the Ambedkar principles, I have the honour to be a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. We visited India in March 2006 as part of our preparation for a report on trade with India. I pay tribute to my fellow Committee members who were on that visit for the patience that they accorded me when I persistently asked business leaders and others whom we met about caste-based discrimination in India. I have to say something about the body language and sometimes the verbal response of those of whom I was asking the questions, none of whom I strongly suspect was a Dalit, although I do not know, partly because I did not know their names sometimes. Their response was too often negative—as though I was asking them an unseemly question such as how often they washed their underwear. People should not ask such questions, whether they are foreigners or people within India—that was the tone of too many responses that I received.

In the Trade and Industry Committee report, published in June 2006, we said in recommendation 30:

May I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that I was very pleased with the Government response to the report? That response, published last October, referred to Baroness Royall going to the launch of the Ambedkar principles in the UK and mentioned certain big corporations in the UK that are supporting the Ambedkar principles, including Lloyds TSB, which I have mentioned, Standard Chartered, HSBC and Barclays. The Government response also stated:

I am pleased with that response. As supplicants such as myself always do, we want more, and I will come to that, but the UK Government are starting to move on the issue, which affects not only hundreds of millions of people in India of course, but people in places such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Japan, parts of Africa, Yemen and so on. I am referring to discrimination based on work and descent. However, we are focusing today on India. I pay tribute to what the Government have done thus far, but we need to recognise, if you will allow me a little latitude, Mrs. Humble, the risk of caste-based discrimination in the UK.

There are thought to be 50,000 Dalits in the UK. We do not have numbers because we do not collect figures. However, the Dalit Solidarity Network-UK, of which I am a trustee, published a report last July called “No Escape—Caste Discrimination in the UK”. I have passed that to my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality and she is looking into it, because as well as trying to encourage India and assist India as much as we can to move on from caste-based discrimination, which to say the least is an affront to humanity and is an historical anachronism, we need to have a look at our own backyard to ensure that we do not import caste-based discrimination into the UK.

When we are unifying legislation through a single equality Act in the UK under the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, based in Manchester, we should consider having caste-based discrimination as one of the threads of discrimination that that unifying legislation, which will be very welcome, should address. Were we to do that, we would set a tone around the world, because I think that we would be the first country outside India to be dealing with the matter, in respect of what is very much a minority population in our own country, and I think that it would improve relations with India.

Many powerful people in India support caste-based discrimination, but growing numbers of powerful people in India oppose it, and that is the case from the top down. The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, to whom we have referred, is, as his name suggests, a Sikh. Guru Nanak founded Sikhism as a religion of equality, and one of the founding tenets that he and the subsequent nine gurus espoused, was to be against caste-based discrimination. Sad to say, that has not worked out fully, although there is much less caste discrimination in Sikhism. Dr. Manmohan Singh
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comes from that background. As an Indian, he will of course be aware of the issue of caste, but as a Sikh he will have a particular angle on that, so although the United Kingdom and Her Majesty’s Government always have to be careful about how they seek to transmit views, and about the views that they transmit, to a sovereign foreign country, which India happily has been for 60 years, we should also be aware that some of the nuances mean that to some extent we may be pushing at an open door, and that will be in the interests of our country, as well as in the interests of hundreds of millions of people in India.

I shall finish by posing some questions, in time-honoured fashion, to the Minister who will reply to the debate. First, what encouragement are the UK Government giving UK business to ensure that UK business, when operating in India, observes the spirit and the letter of the laws of that country on caste-based discrimination? Secondly, how frequently does the UK raise with the Government of India the issue of Dalits?

Thirdly, what steps do the UK Government take to seek to ensure that aid in India, whether it is what one might call routine aid or emergency aid, is not distributed on a caste basis? There were widespread reports after the hurricane in Orissa, the earthquake in Gujarat and the tsunami, for example, that aid from abroad, including from the UK, was not distributed fairly. A major reason for that—I can tell my right hon. Friend that there is very good evidence of this—was not any action of the UK Government, but inaction. Again, when it comes to education, it is often the case that Dalits have less education, not because they have less potential but because they are blocked, as I have termed it. People distributing aid tend to be higher up the social scale and therefore more likely to give in to caste discrimination, perceiving it to be in their own interests and in the interests of their family and friends to preserve the social hierarchy and ensure that aid goes higher up the social scale rather than to Dalits at the bottom of the social scale. What steps are we taking to try to prevent that from happening?

Fourthly, do the UK Government agree with the resolution passed by the European Parliament, in January I think, on the human rights situation of the Dalits in India? Fifthly, will the UK Government assist with English-language education programmes in India, as asked for by Dalit leaders, if the Union Government of India ask for such support? Clearly, it is a delicate issue. As a former colonial power, we cannot swan in and say, “We’re going to teach you all English”—that would be an unacceptable affront. However, can my right hon. Friend assure us that the UK Government would step in to assist with English language training—within our means, of course—if the national Government in Delhi asked us to do so?

I finish by welcoming the cross-party consensus that we are starting to build on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North has been toiling on a long and lonely furrow in seeking support in the House, although the same is not true of support outside the House. Our numbers are expanding, and to my knowledge there are now three MPs—myself, my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire—who are very much seized of the issue. I hope that we can get other right hon. and hon.
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Members to take it up and encourage the Government to do even more to address this ongoing, abhorrent atrocity in India and other countries.

11.51 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I commend the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) for securing the debate and for what he said. By way of a declaration of interest, I should say that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), I am a trustee of the Dalit Solidarity Network, as well as its honorary chair. I hasten to add that no fees are paid for either of those positions; indeed, if anyone wants to make a donation to the network, that would be extremely welcome and well received.

As my hon. Friend said, a small number of hon. Members have regularly taken up this issue, including myself, my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). I take this opportunity to invite the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire to join the Dalit Solidarity Network and attend our meetings in the future. What he has done today has been of enormous help to the network’s cause, and I thank him for that.

I have been involved in the issue for some time, and it is hard to describe to anyone who has never witnessed it the way in which Dalit people are so grossly discriminated against, not only in India—although it is the main place—but in other countries. It is also hard to describe the sheer verve and exuberance of Dalit campaigners in India, who are doing their best to overcome the most appalling discrimination and suffering.

I have had the great fortune to go to India on a number of occasions and I was a guest speaker at the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004. The event was preceded by a Dalit rights march throughout the country, which was designed to be equivalent to the great marches that Gandhi organised in the 1930s. When the marchers finally arrived at the former factory where the World Social Forum was being held, there was a fantastic sense of joy and exuberance among the Dalit people, not only because they had achieved something by having the march, but because, in the confines of the World Social Forum centre, they could be treated like normal, decent human beings like everybody else. That experience is not part of the daily life of Dalit people in India or elsewhere.

As part of the World Social Forum, Rodney Bickerstaffe, the former general secretary of Unison, Rev. David Haslam, who has done fantastic work on the issue, myself and many others addressed a Dalit rights conference. We were joined by the vice-chancellor of the university of Mumbai, who is himself a Dalit. Again, there was a sense not only of injustice, but of joy at the achievements of Dalit solidarity campaigns around the world and at the fact that people in other places recognised exactly what was going on.

It is hard for anyone outside to understand just how huge the issue is. At some point, everyone in this room will have campaigned against apartheid in South Africa. It was an evil and pernicious system if ever there was one, and many of us spent an awful lot of time campaigning against it. Fortunately, it is now behind us in legal terms and, largely, in reality.
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However, for at least 260 million people around the world—mainly in India—the caste discrimination system is alive and kicking. It discriminates from cradle to grave, and the fact that it is so discriminatory means that that journey from cradle to grave is unfortunately very short for most Dalit people. Discrimination exists in education, health, employment, daily life and, of course, the legal system.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West said, the Indian constitution was drafted by Dr. Ambedkar, a Dalit, who later renounced the Hindu religion and adopted Buddhism as his faith. Article 14 provides for “equality before the law” for all citizens. Article 15(1) refers to non-discrimination on the basis of caste and gender. Article 21 deals with the right to life and security of life. Article 46 relates to the protection of Dalits from

The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 does much the same. It is therefore clear in Indian law that caste discrimination is completely illegal, but it happens in every aspect of life there.

Caste discrimination is also illegal under the terms of the universal declaration of human rights of 1948. Article 6 states:

Article 7 states:

The universal declaration was followed by the international covenant on civil and political rights and the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights of 1966, the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination of 1965, the international convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women of 1979 and the declaration on the elimination of violence against women of 1994.

However, those of us who attend the United Nations Human Rights Council—formerly the UN Commission on Human Rights—will find that as soon as one wishes even to raise the subject of discrimination on the basis of work or descent—in effect, discrimination against Dalit people—one is met with the most ferocious objections from Indian delegations. When the subject was raised at the millennium summit in Durban, there was enormous opposition from the Indian Government even to discussing it. It is not anti-India or anti-the Indian Government, but pro-human rights to demand that everyone be treated equally before the law, wherever they are on this planet. That, surely, is what the universal declaration of human rights is all about and what it was designed to achieve.

Rob Marris: Would my hon. Friend, like me, find it difficult to support India becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council until it started fundamentally addressing this huge human rights issue?

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