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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 13 March 2013

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

British Sikh Community

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Nicky Morgan.)

9.30 am

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, I think for the first time.

I pay tribute to the inspiration behind the debate, which was that of the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) who runs the all-party group for British Sikhs, and to the excellent work of that group in Parliament and the way in which it has helped to recognise the contribution of the Sikh community to our country. I also pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) and the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma); they have probably put in more effort for the Sikh community than any other Members, and their work has been over a considerable number of years in their own communities and in the wider country.

I want to concentrate on the success of the British Sikh community; I do not intend to dwell on politics in India and what is happening there. I want to highlight how the successful work of the Sikh community has evolved in this country over the years, which I will illustrate by highlighting a few areas in my own constituency.

The Sikhs make up the largest ethnic minority group in Dartford and they have integrated into the community so that today they form an integral part of the local population. The local gurdwara, Hargobind, is a lively, bustling and welcoming place. I mentioned the temple in my maiden speech, because it sits right next door to our Baptist church on Highfield road in Dartford. Both congregations enjoy extremely cordial relationships with each other; there is absolutely no hint of friction whatever, which is very much a testimony to our good race relations in the area.

Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that because of the racial harmony experienced not only in his constituency but in constituencies such as mine we must commend the Sikh community for how it works together with all other communities? I have many communities in my constituency living in peace and harmony and working together, and I congratulate the Sikh community on its leadership and input.

Gareth Johnson: My hon. Friend makes an important point, but an extra point is that the good relationship does not happen accidentally; it takes a lot of hard work from the indigenous population and the Sikh community. It is absolutely essential for everyone to play their role and not to take for granted the good relationships that exist between the Sikhs and every other part of the community.

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Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important and timely debate. Does he agree that the temples, or gurdwaras as we call them, are not only places to worship? They are places to promote equality and even secularism and to bring health and education to the community, so that every community can get involved and receive the benefit.

Gareth Johnson: That is an important point. In my experience, what has always been obvious from the moment I have walked through the door of a Sikh temple is the welcoming nature and community spirit that exist there. The Sikhs who worship in gurdwaras do not say, “This is just for us Sikhs. It is not for anyone else to become involved. This is a closed shop that no one else can enter into.” What is so obvious is the open-door policy, for everyone to come in and celebrate Sikhism, which is perhaps a lesson to every other religion in the country.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the attention of the House. He mentioned the Baptist church and the Sikh temple working together; the Sikh community and Baptist churches also worked together to put on record their opinion of and opposition to the Marriages (Same Sex Couples) Bill. Does he feel that that is a supreme example of two different religions working together to oppose something that they see as wrong?

Gareth Johnson: Forgive me, but I will not concentrate on the issue of gay marriage today. We have had that debate in the main Chamber. I certainly pay tribute, however, to the existence of common political ground between various religions; it is heartening to see those two religions working together for a common interest.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I will not go down the avenue of gay marriages either. For many years, certainly in Coventry, I have dealt with the Sikh community, as leader of Coventry city council and as an MP. To return to the point made earlier by the hon. Gentleman, one of the things that strikes people when they go to a temple, if they do not know much about the Sikh community, is the way that they share food with the rest of the community—that is open to the community. People should bear it in mind that one of the major contributions of the Sikh community, certainly in Coventry and probably nationally, is that it gets involved with other faiths—in the Council of Churches, for example. More importantly, it makes a major contribution to education, medical science, medical ethics and so forth. The Sikhs punch above their weight, frankly. We should acknowledge that.

Gareth Johnson: That is an excellent point. My local Sikh temple is very much a community hub. I worked with a Sikh by the name of Jatinder Sokhal in a firm of solicitors before being elected to this place; he said that, when he was studying at university and could not even afford to feed himself, he went down to his local Sikh temple, was welcomed and fed. The benevolence, therefore, in many Sikh temples is something that we should remark upon.

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Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He has just made a point that is very true in my home city of Southampton. The students know that if they wish to get not only wonderful food but free food, the gurdwara is the place to go for it. Every year, the Southampton Council of Faiths holds an annual peace walk, which has almost become a frenzy of competitive feeding, as the different religions compete to ensure that those enjoying the peace walk and the different religions coming together get the best food at whichever religious building they attend.

Gareth Johnson: That is absolutely right. A source of pride in the temple is how well its members can provide for the community and how hospitable they can be. That is very much to their credit.

I will now make some progress—

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Gareth Johnson: I will give way and then make some progress.

Jonathan Ashworth: Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, I must bring Leicester into this part of the discussion. We are a proudly diverse city, strong and vibrant today thanks in part to the contribution of our Sikh community. I pay tribute to the Leicestershire Sikh Alliance and to the many gurdwaras in Leicester, some of which host me for regular advice surgeries. Given that the Sikh community has played such a prominent role not only in cities such as Leicester and Wolverhampton but in British history, does he agree that the Sikh contribution to the first and second world wars should be given greater prominence in our national debate as we look towards the commemorations of the first world war?

Gareth Johnson: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I pay tribute to his work in his local Sikh community. Those of the Sikh religion have undoubtedly made a disproportionately large contribution to the British armed forces and to the first and second world wars, in which they served with huge distinction. Today, there are many Sikhs in the British Army. Later in my speech, I will talk about the Guardsman who has been able to serve without a bearskin, which illustrates the selfless manner in which many Sikhs have served this country. It is something we should be grateful for.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a gurdwara in Gravesend, for the wedding of Mr Avtar Sandhu’s daughter. The ceremony was held in the gurdwara Nanak, which is the largest Sikh temple not just in Europe, but outside India. What struck me about the building was not just its beauty, but the way in which it was built. If anyone is looking for an example of the big society in action, the building of that Sikh temple is a classic one. Sikh carpenters and bricklayers who attended the temple to pray spent their spare time building it. It was fantastic that they attended the temple, and then changed into their work clothes and worked extremely hard to finish off an enormous project that has brought together the whole Sikh community in that area.

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. I must add Milton Keynes to the list of communities in this country with a large and vibrant Sikh community. His point

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about the big society is important. In 2007, the Sikh community in Milton Keynes built and opened a large gurdwara, which now provides a wide range of services, such as a weekly over-50s lunch club which binds together members of the community.

Gareth Johnson: My hon. Friend makes an important point and I pay tribute to his work with the Sikh community in Milton Keynes. He gives another example of how Sikh temples are not just places of worship, but a hub where the whole community can congregate and do good work for the benefit of others.

The strong work ethic in the Sikh community is worthy of note. Sikhs have been disproportionately successful in business in this country. They have a deserved reputation for having a strong work ethic. I believe that Sikhs are second only to Jews in how financially productive they are as a religious group. Their belief in hard work and the importance of the family has been the reason for their success in the United Kingdom. A cursory look at The Sunday Times rich list throws up a clear and disproportionately high number of successful Sikhs. Their determination to strive for success is a trait that is very much to their credit.

There are many success stories of Sikh integration into the British way of life, but we must ensure that we do not become complacent. In the House in 2010, I raised the searching of turbans at British airports with the then Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond). That issue is important for the Sikh community. We need to preserve security on aeroplanes, but we should recognise the significant impact on a Sikh of searching a turban, and we must ensure that all other measures, such as scanning, are used before doing so. EU regulations have not been appropriate in the past, and I pay tribute to the Department for Transport’s work on tackling the issue with the seriousness it deserves. It seems that common sense will now prevail.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I pay huge tribute to the enormous contribution the Sikh community has made to life in Dudley over so many years. A hard-working professional constituent who is a respected member of our community was travelling back from Spain with his company. His employers could vouch for him, but he was humiliated at the airport in Spain where the security guards insisted that he remove his turban. There had been no scanning, and there were no facilities for retying his turban—the necessary equipment was in his suitcase and already on the plane. That was absolutely unacceptable treatment. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should do much more with the European Community to put pressure on other countries, especially Spain, so that constituents are not treated like that in future?

Gareth Johnson: That is an extremely important point, and the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions is worrying.

Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West) (Con): It is important to update colleagues. A recent European directive specifies that scanning is compulsory for Sikhs at airports. Many people have tried to take credit for that, but the British Government really can because

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they campaigned on the matter. It illustrates that we can have a proactive rather than a reactive relationship with Europe.

Gareth Johnson: My hon. Friend’s intervention may provide a more accurate response to the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) than I can give. The past humiliation of Sikhs has been at the root of the issue. We all accept that we must ensure adequate security on aeroplanes, but that need not involve humiliation by searching turbans, which form an integral part of their religion.

On general security matters, it is worth noting the extraordinarily low crime rates in the Sikh community. Before I became a Member of Parliament I worked in magistrates courts. When accompanying a group of magistrates around Feltham young offenders institution, they referred to religious worship. It became apparent that there were no facilities for Sikhs to pray, and that worried the magistrates, but the prison officer who was accompanying us said that there were no Sikhs in the institution who wanted to pray. The number at the time was so low that the institution was not required to provide those facilities. That may have changed now, but it illustrates clearly the compliance with the law in the Sikh community, and that should be celebrated.

The hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) referred to the contribution by the Sikh community to the British Army. Many Sikhs have served with distinction in the Army through numerous conflicts and we recently witnessed the first Guardsman wearing a turban instead of a bearskin. That throws up a difficult debate about respect for the turban on one hand, and respect for the traditions of the Guards on the other. The British Army has clearly shown respect for the turban by allowing it to be worn without a bearskin, and I hope that that encourages other Sikhs who are considering joining the Army.

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend and enjoying his examples of the challenges and success of the Sikh community, including their distinction in the armed forces. The Sikh community that I represent in Hiltonbury in Chandler’s Ford is very effective at campaigning on issues closer to home. A number of constituents have contacted me about poor bus services, which is relevant to all our constituents whatever their faith. The bus service from Hiltonbury to Southampton, where they must travel to attend temple, is very poor, but they are successful at many different levels, not just on global issues.

Gareth Johnson: I commend my hon. Friend on managing to connect service in the Army with bus services. That is a phenomenal achievement, as is his contribution to the Sikh community in Winchester, which will be delighted to hear that it may get a better bus service as a result of his representation.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): On the Sikh contribution to the British Army, yesterday was Commonwealth day and I was at the Commonwealth gates with some children from my constituency who were celebrating the Commonwealth armed forces’ contribution to battles in the first and second world wars. Will the hon. Gentleman work with me to ensure that the history curriculum properly reflects the contribution of many Sikh soldiers to the freedom of Britain?

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Gareth Johnson: That is correct, and I believe that a ten-minute rule Bill made the same point yesterday. It is absolutely true that Sikhs and other members of the Commonwealth have served this country not only with distinction, but with great selflessness, which has been the most remarkable aspect of the service that they have diligently given to this country. However, we should be aware that the Sikh community in the UK still faces significant challenges. We have been very positive during the debate, as we should be, about the contribution that the Sikhs have made to British society, but let us not forget the challenges that Sikhs face.

It is important to recognise the challenge of the caste system that still exists, or the prejudice—I should perhaps be more specific about it—that is widespread. It is not unfair to say that it can often go further than simple classism; it is a deep-rooted bias of perhaps the most unpleasant kind. The sad aspect of the issue is that the problem is not born outside the Sikh religion, but very often generated within the Sikh community. I have had Sikhs come to my surgery, for example, who are so frustrated and who feel that they are being held back because of prejudices that have been imposed on them. The problem is perhaps little understood by the wider community, but it needs to be tackled.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this important issue. He has rightly identified the positive contribution that Sikhs have made to our economy and our armed forces. I want to turn his attention to the issue of political service. In our hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal), we have a Sikh Member of this House, and my seat on Croydon council, which I vacated to become an MP, was taken by Jeet Bains, the first Sikh councillor in Croydon. Does he agree that it would be great to see more Sikhs represented on our local councils and here in this House, taking a wider role in public service?

Gareth Johnson: Yes it would, and what is remarkable is the disproportionate way that Sikhs have generally contributed to public life and punched above their weight in many ways. They have had an impact in this place, with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West and the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall. Many members of the Sikh community have made a significant contribution to the British way of life through politics and other means. I pay tribute to Jeet Bains for being that first councillor, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) mentioned, and for the significant contribution that he is able to make.

Mr Virendra Sharma: Last week, the House of Lords agreed to an amendment to add caste to the Equality Act 2010. Will the hon. Gentleman work with us and campaign for the Government to keep that change to the Equality Act, so that we can act against the caste system as we did against race in the Race Relations Act 1976?

Gareth Johnson: I know that the Government are looking at that very carefully to see if anything can be done to prevent such prejudice, which certainly exists in some quarters.

Part of the issue is the ignorance of some aspects of the Sikh religion, which can often be behind the prejudices that we see. The typical response to the kirpan illustrates

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that well. I struggle to find the reasons why we have so many problems with Sikhs wearing a kirpan. The only explanation I can come up with is that it may be to do with the hundreds of years of Englishmen fearing Scotsmen wearing the sgian dubh. The fear of Scotsmen wearing that dagger might be behind what is very often a fearful reaction to Sikhs wearing the kirpan. Perhaps my race needs to move on. We should see the kirpan in its correct context and be less obstructive towards its use.

In conclusion, I do not claim—and have not claimed, throughout this debate—to be any kind of expert on the Sikh religion, but I have seen over the years the enormous, positive impact that Sikhs have had, not only in my constituency, but across the UK. There are still undoubtedly many issues that need to be resolved, yet I want to pay tribute to British Sikhs today for all that they have achieved. Their contribution amounts to so much more than their numbers, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity of introducing a debate that recognises that.

9.55 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): A lot of people want to speak so I will try to be as brief as possible. We are here to celebrate the role of the Sikh community and the contribution that they have made to our community and society. It is also time to give a few thanks as well. We held a conference in 1997, where we brought the Sikh community, the Punjabi community, together to set the agenda for sub-groups of Parliament and the issues that they wanted us to address. I want to run through a few of those and say thanks to a few people.

First, the whole concept of Sikhism is based not only on community, but on family. One issue that we addressed was the inability of families to be united, purely because the visa system was not working properly. I want to thank those Members of Parliament and others—and the Sikh community overall—who campaigned for the opening of the visa office in Jalandhar and the work that was done to free that up. However, the issues on visas remain. We still have constituents coming to us who have not been treated fairly or properly, and who have then been exploited by agents as well.

Caroline Nokes: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his comments. Does he agree that there is not simply a problem with visas? A number of Sikh members of our communities have lived in the UK for many years, but due to the refusal of the Indian high commission to issue passports, they are effectively stranded in the UK and unable to visit their families in India.

John McDonnell: The hon. Lady is absolutely spot on, and that is one of the issues that we need to work together on. I know that members of the all-party group are working on that now. I have to say that the new Government regulations with regard to students do not help, in terms of maintaining that flow and connection with the Punjab itself and the Punjabi community overall.

The second issue, briefly, is education. I am not a supporter of religious schools; I believe that people should be educated together, but I understand that

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while we have religious schools, no group should be discriminated against. That is why I supported the establishment of Guru Nanak school, the first Sikh school in my constituency. The resources that have gone into it from successive Governments and from the community overall have made it, frankly, the best school in the country. The educational results are phenomenally good. In addition, the whole ethos of the school, thanks to the head teacher, Rajinder Sandhu, is that everybody is welcomed into the school. In fact, when my son did not attend, I got a bit of stick, and he did not attend because, if he had, I would have been accused of preferential treatment for trying to get my son into such a school. The school says, “We open our doors to everyone, not just Sikhs”, but in addition, “We send our students out into the wider community and we invite other schools to work with us.” It has secured a partnership right across the community, and I want to commend the school, the head teacher and others, for their hard work.

On behalf of the House, I also send our condolences to the family of Poonam Bhattal. Some Members will know that the young girl lost her life on a school trip to Switzerland. Her funeral was last week, and her death has devastated the school and the wider community. I hope that we find the truth of what happened to her. I know the school cared for her very deeply and that the family has suffered badly. I would like to send our condolences to them.

The third issue is culture. The point that came up was that we need to maintain the Sikh culture and the Punjabi language. How should we do that? One of the ideas was to use modern media, and radio in particular. One of the first community radio stations to be given a licence was Desi radio in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). It has been a tremendous success, as a result of the community coming together and, to be frank, because of some heroes and heroines. Ajit Khera, who has been the chair of Desi radio all the way through, has demonstrated how a community can be welded together and how radio can be used, particularly with regard to the promotion of language and culture.

A number of historical projects have been launched by the UK Punjab Heritage Association. Many hon. Members will have visited the exhibition that it held at the School of Oriental and African Studies and elsewhere with regard to the Golden Temple—the Darbar Sahib. I thought that what that did was to introduce the concept of the Khalsa Panth, the Sikh culture and its history and achievements to a much wider circle of people than just the Sikh community here. I am very pleased that last week the heritage lottery fund announced that it is now funding the same group to do a longer project. Hundreds of thousands of pounds are being invested. The project involves working with schools and is entitled “Empire, Faith and War: The Sikhs and World War One”.

I sometimes get anxious about the militaristic impression of the Sikhs. The Sikhs themselves became warriors at one point, yes. Why? Not because they were imperialists or invaders, but because they wanted to protect the Khalsa; they wanted to protect their own community. They transferred that commitment on, into their commitment to serving Britain as well, and that was

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done in partnership; it never involved acceptance of subjugation. Again, I congratulate the association on the work that it has done.

One of the fundamental issues that has been raised time and time again with us is human rights, and we cannot avoid the issue. We had discussion after discussion about what happened in the atrocities in the 1980s and the injustices that took place, many of which have never been addressed. I do not believe that any discussion on the Sikh community should not involve discussion of the need that there still is to bring to book the people who committed those atrocities during that period, because we have never found the ultimate truth and many of them have never been brought to justice.

In addition, there have been injustices here. We have mentioned the wearing of the kirpan and other religious duties. Injustices still go on. We still get individual constituents who have been turned away at the London Eye, from concerts at Wembley and so on. Madame Tussauds was another example. We tried to ensure that at least some standard guidelines were issued, and to a certain extent, when it comes to public service, we have achieved that. The problem occurs when the individual private contractors are not taking note and not reflecting the culture of diversity in our society. More work needs to be done on that. I echo the point that has been raised. I know that the all-party group recently sent a delegation to Europe. We need to ensure that we are educating our European partners well on how to address that issue.

We had a debate in the House of Commons Chamber a couple of weeks ago with regard to the death penalty. I was impressed by the unanimity across the Chamber. We were saying to the Government of India, as a friend, respecting their sovereignty and independence as a separate democratic nation, that we urge them to abolish the death penalty. We cannot be in a situation in which Balwant Singh Rajoana and Professor Bhullar are still on death row after all these years and at any time could be executed. I repeat to the Indian Government: please lift that threat. I have a final plea with regard to Professor Bhullar in particular. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) and I are meeting his family tomorrow. He is very ill at the moment. I would welcome the Indian Government allowing independent medical support to go in to assess his condition and provide him with additional attention to ensure that his medical needs are properly addressed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on bringing this debate to the House today and I concur with what he said. We are celebrating the achievements of the Sikh community and thanking all those who have worked with us to address the issues and the agenda that they have set with us. There is also a new agenda for the coming period. A new generation are coming up, with new ideas and new initiatives that we need to ensure we can support. I am pleased that the all-party group for the Sikh community is in place. I am pleased with the work that has been done in the past by the all-party group for the Punjabi community. I pledge my support for that continuing work, as I am sure other hon. Members will do in this debate.

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Before I call Paul Uppal, I just say to hon. Members that a number have indicated that they want to speak. If each Member takes five minutes, we will get everyone in. I call Paul Uppal.

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10.4 am

Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West) (Con): Thank you, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to speak under your stewardship. I will try to be brief, but the nature of this debate is unique, so if you will indulge me a little, sir, I will try to skip through some of the points that I want to make.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing the debate. I was going to open the first paragraph of this speech in Punjabi, but I was told by Hansard that that would create a few difficulties. I was inspired in that by Hardeep Singh Kohli, who did a piece for Channel 4 many years ago called “In Search of the Tartan Turban”. He was fretting about how he was going to do a comic gig in a working-class pub in Glasgow. It was going to be a really tough gig, and he was wondering how he was going to do it. He did the first 30 seconds in Punjabi, and hon. Members can imagine the laughter spreading round the pub, but let us be honest: this is not a working-class pub in Glasgow and I am no Hardeep Singh Kohli—that was a slight digression.

If hon. Members do not mind, I would like to paint a backdrop of the spiritual background and the canvas of Sikh philosophy, as I think that many other speakers in the debate will be talking about the contribution of Sikhs in business and other aspects of life and the role that they play in the community. I want to highlight a few of these points, because I believe that it will help hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber to engage with the debate if they get an idea of what Sikhi is and Sikh philosophy. I do not mean that as a rebuke to any Member who is genuine about taking part in the debate today. However, a big part of being Punjabi and a big part of being Sikh is always to be big-hearted and to say it as you see it. That is central to the cultural background.

My own experience, having been a Member for the past few years and reading the e-mails that come into my inbox, is that messages come in saying, “This e-mail represents the message of the Sikh community”, “This is the view of the Sikh community” or “This is what the Sikh community are thinking.” Speaking candidly, I know that sometimes individuals will say, “I will deliver the Sikh vote in my ward”, “I will deliver the Sikh vote for this street” or “I will deliver the Sikh vote in this constituency.” I have to say to all hon. Members that that is absolute tosh. The Sikh community are no different from anyone else.

It is the case, particularly among young Sikhs—I am heartened by what I have learned through my interaction with them—that the issues that Sikhs talk about are the issues that everyone else cares about, such as the education of their children and how they want to advance, but central to them is their passionate belief about what defines them as Sikh. That drives them through their careers, in the community, in business and in many other aspects of life.

The term “Sikh” means someone who dedicates themselves to become a “disciple and seeker” or, to put it another way, to learn to be a student towards spiritual enlightenment. There were 10 Sikh gurus, and the idea of each respective guru was to be an embodiment of scholarly learning, wisdom and discipline. These traits were passed on from guru to guru, starting from the first guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, who lived from 1469 to

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1539 and who taught that this can be done through a variety of measures. The first thing is Kirat Karo—the


writers should not worry; I will provide them with the written version. That means earning one’s livelihood through honest means, while remembering God—a way of adopting personal responsibility, if you like. The second is Vand Chhako—sharing with others. A striking feature of Sikhism is the idea of Seva. That is the idea of always sharing what we have. The final thing is Naam Japo—constant remembrance of the Lord and always being humble and modest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) congratulated me on being a Sikh Member of Parliament. I am the only Sikh sitting in the House at the moment. My personal belief is that this is why we do not see more Sikhs coming forward into politics: to be a Sikh, one must always be humble and contained within oneself and always be modest. I have to tell hon. Members that that does not always fit well with politics. As we know, this business is often about self-promotion, and that goes across a central element of Sikhi, which is always to be modest. When I get home on a Thursday evening and my wife is waiting for me, the first thing to do is to bath the three children, read them their stories and always remember who you are. That is the essence of Sikhism.

Sikhs are taught that there are five sinful temptations that take us away from the ethos of Sikhism: Kam, which is lust; Krodh, which is rage; Lobh, which is greed, Moh, which is attachment; and Ahankar, or ego, which I have just alluded to and which is a bit of a stumbling block for many Sikhs in terms of coming into politics.

The first guru was anxious to establish a new central concept of faith that would be open to all, preaching a concept of equality at a time when India was scarred by caste, gender and feudal inequalities. He took in concepts from both Islam and Hinduism and he famously said:

“Na koi Hindu na koi Musalman”—“There is no Hindu or Muslim.”

He said that we are all human beings in front of God. Very early on, there was that message of equality and talk about that concept, which was very attractive to many Indians at that time.

I want to elaborate on the principle that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford alluded to, and make another link between buses and military history. The battle of Saragarhi has not been mentioned in 115 years, and now it has been mentioned in Westminster twice in 24 hours, so there you go—it is like buses coming all at once. That element of history beautifully encapsulates the Sikh philosophy. It was a battle in which 21 Sikhs fought against 10,000 armed Afghans. The battle of Saragarhi, fought by the young men of the 36th Sikhs in 1897, was the epitome of raw courage, sheer grit and unshakable determination.

Saragarhi was a signalling post between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan on the Samana ridge, in what now is the North West Frontier Province between Pakistan and Afghanistan. On September 12 1897, about 10,000 Afghan tribesmen swarmed towards Saragarhi, while another group cut off all links. For the next six hours,

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the small detachment of 21 men stood firm and repulsed all attacks. The Sikhs fought to the last man. All 21 men were posthumously awarded the Indian order of merit—the highest gallantry award given to Indian ranks in those days and equivalent to the Victoria Cross. When the gallantry of Saragarhi was recounted in the British Parliament, the account drew a standing ovation from the Members of Parliament present and was brought to the notice of Queen Victoria. I highlight that battle, because it illustrates not only Sikh courage, but a second element of Sikhi—in no other community in the world would such a battle occur and nobody talk about it. Only the Sikhs would do something like that. I have gone into such detail because it encapsulates the beautiful concepts and ideology of the Sikh spirit. After his death, Guru Gobind Singh, the final guru, dictated that all Sikh thinking should be embodied in the Guru Granth Sahib. It is often referred to as the Sikh’s holy book, but it is much more than that. It is a blueprint for how we should conduct our lives in a modest, humble and wise manner.

I shall highlight a few elements of what the Government have done. I know, because I was in the room, that Sikhs now celebrate Vaisakhi at No. 10. I recommended it to the Prime Minister at the time and saw how animated he was by the idea. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford and the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) highlighted searches of the Sikh turban at airports, and I commend the British Government for the work they have done on that. It is absolutely fantastic.

The Prime Minster recently became the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Amritsar, and I was lucky enough to accompany him on that visit. There were some poor people there from Uttar Pradesh, and when the Prime Minister went through the Golden Temple—the Harmandir Sahib—I could see that the people who organised the trip were anxious to take him away from them, but he indicated that he wanted to meet them. As was highlighted earlier in the debate, there are four doors in a Sikh temple—one on each side—which mean that it is open to all faiths and communities. The Prime Minister met those incredibly poor people, and I can tell hon. Members how humbling it was for him. That, again, encapsulates the idea of Sikhism.

I do not always agree with the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who mentioned Sikh schools. One is coming to my constituency. It will very much have a Sikh ethos, which will encapsulate all the ideas I have mentioned—it is about responsibility and what we give back to society as a whole.

It is with an element of personal sadness that I acknowledge there are not more Sikhs involved in Parliament, but I hope that talking about the concept of Sikhism will encourage more Sikhs to come forward. My parents are here today, because they came for yesterday’s ten-minute rule Bill debate and the debate today. This will annoy my family incredibly, because my wife is always admonishing me for name-checking whenever I make such speeches, but my oldest daughter encapsulated my feelings on Sikhism quite wonderfully when she said, “Dad we have such a cool faith, why don’t we talk about it much more?” I hope that in some small way, by making this speech this morning, I have helped that process.

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10.13 am

Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I have not brought my sgian dubh, but I will make a few points in the debate.

According to the recent census, the city I represent, Wolverhampton, has 22,000 Sikhs—the second biggest concentration of those who are of the Sikh faith in the country. Most of the Sikh community in Wolverhampton have their family roots around the city of Jalandhar in Punjab, which I have had the honour of visiting. I also had the honour of visiting the Golden Temple some years ago—a truly humbling and profound experience that I will never forget.

The story of Sikhism in Wolverhampton begins in earnest with the generation who came in the 1950s and ’60s to work in places such as Bilston steel and other heavy engineering works. The national story of course goes back much further that that, as we have heard, with brave Sikh service in two world wars. For those early immigrants in Wolverhampton, life was not easy. They were often packed into crowded living conditions, separated from family and friends and doing heavy physical work. They sometimes met with friendship and good experiences, but they also sometimes met with discrimination, perhaps even hostility and certainly a lack of understanding. That has changed a lot over time, and the community today is a very successful and established part of city life.

There are many gurdwaras in my constituency and throughout the city. The annual Vaisakhi celebration is a major part of its cultural life. Thousands of people take part in the nagar kirtan—the parade—which goes through the streets of my constituency, in a very well organised and joyful celebration of the Sikh faith. Our city will probably be for ever associated with Enoch Powell, but the story of the community and our history since he spoke shows that he was wrong: the Sikh community in Wolverhampton is a success and Wolverhampton’s multi-faith, multi-religious community is a success.

We have proved that such successes can be achieved, provided there is commitment all round, and a great many people can take credit for that success. Walking down Dudley road in my constituency, I can see its physical evidence. I can walk past sari shops and Bollywood films for hire. I can eat the finest Punjabi food. I can walk into the new Lakshmi restaurant—a great investment by Major Singh. We can see the impact of the community on the cultural and economic life of the city of Wolverhampton.

Paul Uppal: I cannot resist: it says something about the common sense of the people of Wolverhampton that in 1950 they returned Enoch Powell to the House with a majority of 691, but they returned somebody of Sikh descent in 2010 for exactly the same constituency with a majority of 691. Rest assured, I will not make a speech about race relations in 18 years.

Mr McFadden: I wonder what the majority will be at the next election. The voters will decide.

The community is a success in Wolverhampton and around the country, but we should not pretend that there are no issues in the community or challenges for it. Public health issues, which are not confined to the Sikh community, certainly affect it. People are sometimes reluctant to face up to hidden illnesses, including mental

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illness. There is always the challenge of freedom and greater independence for our younger generation, who ask for more choice and more decision-making power than perhaps their parents and grandparents enjoyed.

We have heard about searches of turbans—the dastar—at airports, about which a great many Members on both sides of the House campaigned, as did Sikh organisations. I acknowledge the good efforts of the Department for Transport in working with the European Union and other Governments to reach a successful conclusion. The result is that the European Commission now says that swab and wand technology used in UK airports can be used throughout the Community. I am a strong believer in good, tough, strong security at our airports. My Sikh constituents agree that it is essential, but if we can achieve it in a way that respects people’s faith, so much the better, particularly because freedom of movement is a founding principle of the EU. The UK Government’s engagement with the issue has produced a far better result than we saw on bank bonuses and other issues. If there is a lesson in that, it is that positive engagement with the EU, rather that withdrawal or turning up so late that we cannot influence the debate, produces results.

The community is a success in the UK, but it sometimes has a strange relationship with India. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, that in large part stems from the events of 1984, when many Sikhs lost their lives. The pain of that experience and the lasting sense of injustice among the Sikh community are very real. There is a lasting desire for greater transparency and honesty in the story of what happened.

If the community’s relationship with India is strained, its relationship with the UK has been a good one. That is a tribute to the Sikh community and its efforts. It is also a tribute to cities such as Wolverhampton and to our country that a community such as the Sikhs and many others over the years can come to the UK, make a new life, put down roots and be part of the country’s success. My own parents came from Donegal in the Republic of Ireland in the 1950s, and the huge Irish community in Scotland has also been successful. It is a tribute to the UK that we have been open to that over the years.

Far too often today, the debate about immigration is couched in terms of limits, dangers and negative stories about what people can bring to our shores. If we take a wider lesson from today’s debate, it should be that what a community such as the Sikhs, who are fantastic, enterprising and educationally aspirational, with values of faith, family and community, has brought to the UK shows that immigration can be a positive part of our national story, and I hope it is in the future.

10.21 am

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): I, too, begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this debate, giving us the opportunity to recognise the achievements of British Sikhs in our communities and across the country. I will be as brief as possible.

I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) and the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) on their words; it is important to give them the opportunity to say what they needed to say.

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I am proud to represent Warwick and Leamington, which has one of the largest Sikh communities in the country. It also has one of the largest and—I even dare to say—most magnificent gurdwaras in the country. There is a danger of starting off a bit of competition, but I assure hon. Members that if they visit, they will have the opportunity to agree with me. I look forward to visiting that gurdwara again this weekend.

Warwick district, which is largely made up of my constituency, has more than 5,000 Sikhs. After Christianity, Sikhism is the largest religious denomination. Living in Warwick and Leamington has made me conscious of the importance of our community in every aspect of our lives. Throughout my time as the Member of Parliament, I have always sought to support people who want to give something back.

I have always been impressed by how important public service is to the identity of Sikhs and how serving others is woven into their way of life. Sikhs are always seeking to do more and finding new ways of contributing, and I am grateful for their work in my community and for the time that they give up and the money that they donate to important local projects.

Every year, we host the Leamington Mela festival, which is always well attended by local residents and is well organised by the local Sikh community. Not only does it provide a chance for residents to sample a wonderful array of food and see excellent live entertainment, but it helps to bring people together and reinforce our community’s sense of identity. Our community also has a Sikh community centre, which provides a range of services and a place for local residents, particularly older people, to come together.

There are similar stories across the country of the contributions that British Sikhs make. They are an example of the positive impact that immigration can have on our country: enhancing our local and national life, providing new perspectives and ensuring that our communities remain vibrant and welcoming places in which to live. With thousands of people from across the world settling in our country every year, we need to show the benefits of making the effort to play a full and active part in our public life.

I am glad that the Prime Minister has made every effort to understand and listen to the concerns of British Sikhs. I am also pleased to have attended Diwali celebrations at No. 10 with Sikhs from my community. However, we can and should do more.

The Government should take the opportunity to work with organisations such as the Sikh Council UK, which seeks to act as a national advocate for British Sikhs. We should recognise the potential of working with democratically elected bodies such as the council, so that Sikhs feels that their voice is being heard. I would welcome the Prime Minister and Communities Secretary to have regular meetings with the council and other Sikh organisations in our country, so that we can explain Government policy and take on board the points made by the British Sikh community.

We should also recognise the important contribution that Sikhs make to our local economy. My community has many Sikh entrepreneurs who have started a range of businesses that have contributed millions of pounds

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to our local economy. The British Asian Business and Professionals Association is a fantastic group and works tremendously hard in Warwick and Leamington.

At a time when we are looking to get our economy moving again and building links with emerging markets, we should recognise the skills of British Sikhs in the business world and ensure that we are giving the right support to the next generation, so that we continue to make the most of the Sikh community’s potential.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that more needs to be done to tackle discrimination against Sikh workers in the workplace? Particularly, the Government could do more to ensure that employers understand the special protections for wearers of the Sikh turban.

Chris White: I agree with the hon. Lady that more work needs to be done on that aspect, and conversations and debates on it will be worth while.

British Sikhs are seeking to contribute not only locally or nationally, but internationally. Like many hon. Members, I have received a number of petitions from constituents about the treatment of minorities in India and the campaign to abolish the death penalty. I hope that the Government will listen to those concerns and ensure that they communicate with British Sikhs about our country’s foreign policy.

There is always a danger in such debates that we parcel up our communities into different sections. I believe that British Sikhs have many of the same concerns as everyone else, and we have mentioned some of them in the debate, starting with buses. I believe that British Sikhs have a strong sense of their identity, both as Sikhs and as British citizens, and it is right that Parliament takes the time to recognise that. We should build on that and ensure that British Sikhs feel that their work is appreciated.

I am proud to represent a diverse community in Warwick and Leamington. I am confident that Sikhs will continue to make their unique contribution to our community for many years to come, and I hope to do what I can to support them.

10.27 am

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): I start by saying—I am not going to speak in Punjabi—sat sri akal to hon. Members present and everyone watching at home and in the Public Gallery.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this debate. He did so after we circulated an e-mail to many members of the all-party group, asking them to apply for such a debate because we felt that one was timely. By the attendance here, I think we were absolutely right.

My involvement with the Sikh community in the United Kingdom started in 1988, when I was elected chair of the race equality committee of Leeds city council. Almost immediately following that—one year into my tenure as a Leeds councillor, which I held for 10 years—I was approached by a leading member of the Leeds Sikh community, Mr Thandi, who was a market trader and a great exponent of the virtues of the Sikh faith. He wanted to educate me about what Sikhism meant for him, his community, the city of Leeds and the

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whole of Great Britain. That he did, and he did it well. He became a close friend and was a member of the Labour party. In 1992, he kindly agreed, with his wife, to be included in my election manifesto for that year. Sadly, I did not win, but to my even greater sadness, he died just two days before the general election.

My memory of Mr Thandi has carried me through all my work on Leeds city council and as Member of Parliament since. I do not represent such a huge Sikh community as hon. Members from Wolverhampton, Birmingham or even London do, but I still have three gurdwaras in my constituency, which are well attended. One of them is in a new building—it was built in 1997, so I suppose it is not so new now—and I was privileged not only to dig the first sod of earth for that temple on Chapeltown road, but to be present at its opening as the newly elected Member of Parliament.

Over the years, I have got to know many members of the Leeds Sikh community, including Dr and Mrs Kalsi. Dr Kalsi has written a very good book about Sikhism and what it means, which I commend to anyone who wants to know more about the faith, although, with a Member such as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) among us, perhaps we do not need to read it. My friend Prem Singh Duggal was president of the Chapeltown road gurdwara and helped me to understand so much about the Sikh faith, and one of the immediate past presidents, Mr Inderjit Singh Gill, always invites me to the Sikh sports events that regularly take place in the city.

I have attended the Vaisakhi celebrations in what is now called Millennium square in the centre of Leeds. It was not always called that—it was just the square outside Leeds civic hall.

Mr McFadden: We are pressed for time, but I want to remind my hon. Friend and the House that I will be happy again to host the House of Commons Vaisakhi celebrations on 22 April, to which all right hon. and hon. Members are most cordially invited.

Fabian Hamilton: I thank my dear right hon. Friend for that intervention. He has organised that event for the second or third year running, and I thank him for taking on that work and making sure that Vaisakhi is celebrated in the House for everyone involved. It is always a joyous and colourful occasion to celebrate not only the contribution of the Sikh community in the city of Leeds and in Great Britain, but to celebrate the start of spring, although it usually rains actually. Extraordinary colour and life is brought to the centre of the city of Leeds and throughout so many of our towns and cities in the United Kingdom to celebrate that festival, and there is always wonderful food as well. One thing that has always impressed me is the equality between men and women, who celebrate together, not separated. They joyously celebrate humanity, as well as their own faith and belief.

Since 1997, I have tried to bring together the Sikh community in Leeds and the Jewish community that I represent. There are probably about equal numbers of them now, as the Jewish community has declined somewhat and the Sikh community has grown. As hon. Members have said, the values of those communities are very similar. When I walked into the newly built Jewish community centre—the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff centre

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—on Stonegate road in north Leeds with members of the Sikh community to discuss how we might set up a Sikh elderly housing association and a welfare board, just as the Jewish community had done so many decades earlier, there was a great deal of celebration, with elderly Jewish people embracing many of our Sikh friends who had come along to discuss that with them.

Paul Uppal: On that theme, I am a trustee of a Sikh temple that donated a significant amount of money to a local Methodist church, which is very much in line with that collaborative approach. As was highlighted earlier, the Sikh community works very well with other religious communities and all-faith organisations wherever there is a Sikh presence.

Fabian Hamilton: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. The values of family, education and hard work bring the Sikh community together with so many others, including the Jewish community in my constituency—and long may that continue.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend mentioned sporting activities earlier. I draw his attention—I am sure it is the same in Leeds—to the excellent work done by Sikh organisations and individuals in athletics and sport, not just with the introduction of kabaddi into British society, but with the Singh Saba football club in my constituency and the 100 year old marathon runner Fauja Singh, who has just retired from running marathons.

Fabian Hamilton: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. We were all absolutely staggered at that gentleman—his constituent—deciding at 100 years of age that the time had finally come to stop doing marathons. I wish we could all do that when we are 100 years old, but I doubt that that will be the case.

In 2006, as a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, I visited Amritsar for the first time with my hon. Friend and the former Member for Hyndburn, Greg Pope. We were a small delegation of the Foreign Affairs Committee on our way to Lahore in Pakistan, and we stopped at Amritsar for a day and a night. It was one of the most enlightening and incredible experiences that I have ever had.

That of course pre-dated the visit of the Prime Minister, whom I congratulate on being the first British Prime Minister to go to the Golden Temple. My hon. Friend and I were there before him—of course, we are not Prime Ministers. We walked there, as he did, in our suits, barefoot with a head covering, and we admired the peace and spirituality of that holy of holiest places for the Sikh faith. That permeated through to us all. We watched hundreds of people together, preparing food for the langar, which is the free meal given every day to anyone who cares to call in and ask for it. We also experienced the serenity, the sense of spirituality and faith that that place emanates and, of course, its absolute beauty.

Time is short, so I will conclude with some brief remarks. In 2010, we re-formed the all-party group on British Sikhs. I was elected to chair that group, following the defeat of my good friend Rob Marris, the predecessor of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West. Through that role, we have achieved a few things. I

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backed, although I was not able to go to Brussels, the lobby of the European Union. The Sikh Federation UK has supported our group so well, and I want to pay tribute to it for its work, together with that of the Sikh Council UK. Those two organisations ensure that British Sikhs are well represented. I want to thank all the hon. Members on the all-party group who are here today and those who are unable to join us.

Finally, I want to dedicate my few words to a very dear and close friend, the late Marsha Singh, who was the Member for Bradford West. Marsha was a good friend, and during his life he encapsulated all the values of Sikhism and of being a British Sikh. He died at a very young age and will be sadly missed, but I am sure that the values he lived for will live on.

Several hon. Members rose

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order. We have just a few minutes to go; three Members wish to catch my eye; and Anas Sarwar is the first.

10.36 am

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): I will be as quick as possible, because of the time pressure. I first congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this important debate.

I put on the record my thanks for all the tremendous support that the Sikh community in Glasgow have given me and my family over a long period. I give them a genuine thank you for that. My constituency is home to one of the largest Sikh communities in Scotland. More than half of the gurdwaras in Scotland are based in Glasgow Central, and the Central Gurdwara is currently being built there. It is the first purpose-built gurdwara in Scotland, and will house 2,000 people every week for Sunday services in the temple. It is a tremendous building, which I encourage all Members to come and visit at any time.

I want to make some quick points about the tremendous contribution that the Sikh community has made to the success of the United Kingdom both in terms of business success—they contribute tremendously to our economy and GDP, and to our public services, particularly to our national health service as doctors, nurses and the like—and in terms of celebrating and vastly broadening our culture in the UK, not only in cuisine, but with cultural events, such as Vaisakhi. I say a massive thank you for that.

More importantly, I thank first and second-generation and now third-generation Sikhs—I too am from a third-generation migrant community—for the tremendous contribution of the first generation in coming here, making the UK their home, and being accepted and recognised as one of their own within the United Kingdom, and the second generation in having built up really successful businesses and faith organisations, while recognising the connection that they still had with the mother country, particularly through charity and in giving in difficult circumstances. The third generation in particular—they see themselves not as Indians or Pakistanis, but genuinely as Scots or Brits—see this country as their own. That is really important, particularly as we come to the debate about the place of Scotland within the United Kingdom, in which I am sure the Sikh community will play a crucial role.

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I want to raise a couple of concerns that have been mentioned to me. One is about equality in relation to the turban and the kirpan. Recently, a high street operator refused to employ someone because they wore the kirpan, and in court, someone was expelled from a jury for wearing one. Such things were protected by the equality legislation introduced by the last Government, and we must ensure that education takes place, so that such situations do not occur again.

One of the largest letter-writing campaigns that I have ever experienced as a Member of Parliament has been about the death penalty in India. We must work alongside this Government and the Indian Government to ensure that we are fighting for justice and fairness right around the world.

I will not say much else—I was given only three minutes but I realise that I have gone on to four—other than that we must recognise the tremendous contribution of the Sikh community and ensure that our Parliaments and council chambers reflect society. All political parties must work together to ensure that we have representation of Sikhs in council chambers, the Scottish Parliament and at Westminster.

10.40 am

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): Briefly, I am proud that we have an incredibly strong Sikh community in Wolverhampton; we have the second largest concentration of Sikhs in the country. I pay tribute to the Sikh community for the contribution it makes socially, culturally and economically, and to my predecessor, Ken Purchase who, alongside other Members of Parliament and councillors, has worked so hard over the past three or four decades with the Sikh community and other communities to foster mutual understanding, tolerance and community relations. That success is particularly impressive given that we unfortunately inherited that infamous speech of Enoch Powell, which, thankfully, now seems like a distant memory. None the less, it is important to reflect on the progress that we have made since that time, given that there was such awful discrimination in the 1960s and 1970s and later. We have come a very long way, and the debate is an opportunity to celebrate both the progress that we have made in fostering those community relations as well as the fantastic contribution of the Sikh community.

I would love to have given a bit more of a taster of the fantastic Vaisakhi celebrations that take place in West park every year; the procession from the Well lane gurdwara in my constituency to Willenhall and all the other community events. The community embraces people and is very open, as the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who secured this debate, said. The gurdwaras that we visit are so welcoming and open, and I want to put on record my thanks to the community.

10.42 am

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Owen. Let me congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this important debate. It is unusual and actually very nice to participate in a debate that unites the House. We should celebrate, and congratulate ourselves on, that fact.

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Fiona Mactaggart: On that point about the unity of the House, it is worth while also mentioning that in the debate on the abolition of the death penalty in India, there was a similar unity in the main Chamber.

Chris Williamson: I concur with my hon. Friend. I was present for part of that debate. Regrettably, I had a commitment at the beginning and at the end of it, so I was not able to contribute, but none the less, I, too, was struck by the unity of purpose.

John McDonnell: It was a sin of omission by me, but that unity was brought about by the mobilisation of the community by the Kesri Lehar campaign. We should pay tribute to all those involved. More than 100,000 petitioners brought that campaign to the House.

Chris Williamson: I concur with my hon. Friend on that point. I received a proportion of that petition at the gurdwara in Derby a couple of weeks ago.

There is not time to touch on everybody’s contribution today, but all have been first class. I will, if I may, focus on just one or two. Let me start with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) who talked about Sikhism’s core values. It is important to stress those values and I thank him for outlining them. I wanted to touch on them myself. It is worth reiterating the fact that within Sikhism, there is a recognition of the equality of women and of all people and a commitment to hard work, to sharing with others and to standing up for people and protecting them.

That notion of sharing is something from which I have benefited on many occasions when I have been privileged to visit the local gurdwaras in Derby. As one of the three vegans in the House of Commons, it is nice to go to an event where all of the food on offer is vegetarian, so it is always a wonderful experience.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about the death penalty that still pertains in India. He mentioned the cases of a couple of individuals and pointed out that we will be meeting the family of Professor Bhullar, who is languishing on death row, to discuss his case.

Mr Virendra Sharma: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I am sorry that I will not get the chance to contribute in more detail. Does he agree that when we listen to all the contributions here, and read the history and philosophy of Sikhism, we understand that when a true Sikh leaves their country of origin to go to other countries, they carry with them their social values, the teachings of the guru and the traditions of the past? That is why when they go to other countries, their contribution to the society is based on the teachings of the guru.

Chris Williamson: My hon. Friend makes a really important point. All communities could learn a significant lesson from the way in which the Sikh community conducts itself.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) also made an important contribution. He talked about how the Sikh community illustrates the benefits of immigration. He made the point that very often the immigration debate is a negative

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one, and that we should celebrate and recognise the benefits of immigration, which can be seen in the contribution of the Sikh community.

There is very little time left, but I want to say one or two other things. It is important to stress the fact that the British Sikh story goes back more than 200 years, and that there is a long, honourable and close relationship between the Sikh community and Great Britain, which is clearly illustrated in the Sikh contribution to our armed forces. Let me relate a personal story here. My dad served in the Enniskillens during world war two and was in north Africa and at Monte Cassino. Serving alongside him in the campaign to defeat fascism were Sikh soldiers, who served with great valour and distinction in the terrible battle that saw the loss of so many young lives.

In view of the shortness of time, Mr Owen, it is important to say one or two final words about the contribution of the Sikh community to the economy, and about the benefits of immigration to the UK. The Sikhs have made a huge economic contribution to the nation, creating many jobs and wealth for Great Britain. I also want to mention here cohesion and integration, which is a topic that I am currently working on. The Sikh community is a model of cohesion and integration and we could learn many lessons on the way in which it has conducted itself in the UK.

In conclusion, I have a few questions for the Minister. If he cannot deal with them today in his contribution, perhaps he could write to me afterwards. Before this debate, I received a briefing note from the Sikh community relating to a number of issues, one of which was about celebrating the Sikh contribution to the UK in the school curriculum. Will the Minister confirm whether that is something that is being considered? As we move towards the 100th anniversary of the beginning of world war one, another request related to the contribution of the Sikh community to that war. It would be appropriate to ensure that the contribution that Sikhs made in that war was recognised and perhaps the Minister could confirm, one way or another, whether that will be the case.

The Sikh Council UK has also asked that the Government formally consult with it on Government policy relating to a range of issues. I wonder whether the Minister might be able to comment on that request.

Hon. Members have touched on issues that persist to this day about employment, whereby Sikhs are still discriminated against and find problems in the workplace in relation to the turban. As a former construction worker myself, I know that that is something that has been addressed on construction sites, but there are still a number of ongoing cases. I think that one relates to a lorry driver who is in danger of losing his job, and there have been a number of other incidents as well. I wonder whether the Minister could say a little about dealing with those employment rights issues for the Sikh community.

Another issue that I have been told there is concern about in the Sikh community is in relation to the funding for Sikh organisations. The feeling is that it is increasingly difficult for voluntary organisations in the Sikh community to obtain funding for their activities from the national lottery, other trust funds and so on. Could the Minister say anything about that issue?

My final question relates to the issue of security at airports. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West for clarifying the latest

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situation in terms of the EU regulations on this issue. Could the Minister give us any information about whether the Government will continue to monitor this situation? It is good news that the regulations have been updated, but it is important that we continue to monitor the situation to ensure that those more enlightened regulations are actually being implemented on the ground.

10.51 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Don Foster): Mr Owen, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this debate, and I join him in congratulating the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and all other members of the all-party group on British Sikhs. And to respond immediately to the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), I am more than happy to have a meeting with the Sikh Council UK.

May I also just say that, with time so short, I will not have the opportunity to reflect on the contributions of so many Members who have spoken today? However, it has been absolutely clear that the speakers in the debate, from all parties, have gone out of their way to celebrate the enormous contribution that members of the British Sikh community make to this country. I am delighted to be able to join them by making a similar expression of praise, thanks and congratulations to the Sikh community for its contribution.

It is not very hard to see the enormous value that individual Sikhs bring to our community. There are successful Sikhs all around us, including, obviously, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal). There is also Lord Singh of Wimbledon, the first practising turbaned Sikh in Parliament, and there are Sikhs high up in the legal profession, including Judge Mota Singh and Rabinder Singh, QC, who has been made a member of the Supreme Court. And there are noted Sikh sportsmen: obviously Monty Panesar; and the 101-year-old marathon runner Fauja Singh.

We know that, according to the 2011 census, there are about 423,000 Sikhs in Britain, which is just under 1% of the population. However, as so many Members have already said, Sikhs are punching well above their weight: in both national and local government; in the professions; and in industry and commerce.

Mr Virendra Sharma: The Minister has just mentioned many professions, but there is also the medical profession. Two of my constituents, Professor Jaspal Singh Kooner and Dr Amarjit Singh Sethi, are leading cardiologists at Ealing hospital and they have contributed enormously to the medical profession.

Mr Foster: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I am sure that there are other professions that I have also missed out in which there have been major contributions from members of the British Sikh community.

As other Members have mentioned, Sikhs are also renowned for their military skills, with a proud record of service in the British Army in two world wars. I want

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to make it absolutely clear that we certainly hope that we will see that contribution reflected in the commemoration of the anniversary of world war one which will be happening shortly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West called Sikhism a “cool” religion. As he explained, there are good reasons within Sikhism why individuals are called to serve their local communities and British society in general, because the faith requires believers to put others before self and to stand up for the vulnerable. If someone goes to a gurdwara anywhere in the world, they can get a free meal. Sikhism recognises the existence of injustices, and it reminds Sikhs of their individual and corporate responsibilities to work for a fairer society. That is why Sikhs are often in the forefront of serving their communities. There is a community centre in Handsworth that is run by Sikhs, which is a particularly good example of that service.

As we have heard from a number of other hon. Members from all parties, Sikhs continue to be prominent in the field of education. The five Sikh schools that we have—one each in Hayes and Southall in London, one in Slough and two in Birmingham—are doing a fantastic job. Three of the five are rated by Ofsted as being outstanding.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) referred to the Guru Nanak Sikh academy in Hayes, which is doing some fantastic work, including providing a number of free courses for members of the community. In addition, the chairman of that academy has founded a number of institutions in India to help the poor and underprivileged there.

Sikhs are also very much at the heart of inter-faith activity in this country, because Sikhism teaches the equality of all human beings, including the total equality of women, and Sikh gurus require their followers to show respect for different faiths and different ways of life. That is why we can note with great pleasure and pride the contribution of Sikhs to bodies such as the Inter Faith Network for the UK and in initiatives such as the inter-faith week and the Near Neighbours programme. Sikhs were also very active in 2012’s Year of Service activities, with a range of project around the theme of “bringing sweetness”. We also look forward to Sikhs participating enthusiastically in Together in Service, a new three-year project that is designed to encourage, celebrate and link up faith-based volunteering, which will begin later this year.

As we have heard, this Government believe—as previous Governments did—that not only should everyone be free to follow their faith freely so long as they do not interfere with the freedom of others, but that religious faith and the fact that it motivates believers to carry out good work are things to be actively celebrated.

We have already heard how, with cross-party support, Vaisakhi is marked in Parliament and at No. 10 with receptions. We have also heard about the huge attendances at Nagar Kirtans, with the processional singing of hymns through the community.

Freedom of worship is core to the British way of life. Public displays of religious belief, such as the wearing of faith symbols and clothing or the maintenance of dietary codes, are all vital aspects of religious freedom and we are keen to do all we can to support that freedom. The previous Government did excellent work

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in this field, but we recognise that there have been problems. As we have heard, some European countries have all too often required Sikhs to remove their turbans during airport security screening, which Sikhs find offensive. Until last month, the European regulations required the hand-searching of turbans if a wearer caused the metal detector to go off. I am delighted that, as a result of work done in this country, we have now been able to make the change to enable the alternative system of passing electronic swabs over the surface of headwear to be used. As requested, we are now working very closely with our European colleagues to persuade them to adopt the same system.

We are also looking at a number of the other issues that have been raised today. For example, I was interested to hear the concern raised about a member of the Sikh community not being allowed to serve on a jury because he was wearing the kirpan. If the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar), who raised that particular case, can provide me with details about it, I would like to take it up.

The issue of hard hats was also raised and I assure hon. Members that my Department is now working with all the other agencies involved with that particular issue to see if we can make progress and enable Sikh turban-wearers not to have to wear hard hats in certain places of work.

I am delighted to be able to sum up this debate, which has shown how much cross-party support there is for the huge contribution that is made by the Sikh community in this country. British Sikhs are among some of our greatest business men and professionals, and they are a peaceful, high-achieving community from whom we all have much to learn. This has been an excellent debate. I am delighted to have participated in it briefly, and I wish everybody a happy Vaisakhi.

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First World War Centenary

11 am

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. As this debate is, in part, about remembrance, I wonder whether I might ask the House briefly to join me in remembering the life and public service of Councillor Peter Wood, who was until recently leader of Ashford borough council. Sadly, Peter died earlier this month and his funeral is being held in Ashford today. As well as being leader of the council, he was ward member for the Saxon Shore ward in my constituency.

This is the second time that I have raised such a debate in the House. I held an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber about two and a half years ago. This subject is of great importance to the country and of great significance to my constituency. I should declare an interest: I am chairman of the Step Short first world war charity in Folkestone, which I will mention later.

Many families in this country are touched by the first world war in one way or another, through the service of a relative or ancestor. Fortunately, my family did not lose a family member during that war, but many families were touched in that way. My great grandfather, George Lovell, volunteered when he was 16 and was held back from active service until he was 18, when he was a driver in the Royal Army Service Corps.

Like many hon. Members and millions of people in the country, I took the opportunity at school to take part in tours of first world war battlefields, visiting the great Tyne Cot cemetery at Passchendaele and the extraordinary trenches that remain at Beaumont Hamel, where the Newfoundlanders took such severe losses on the first day of the battle of the Somme.

I attended an interesting event in Parliament on Monday, at which the Prime Minister was joined by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, at a meeting where they mentioned that they intend to visit together a first world war battlefield cemetery for British and Irish soldiers who fought and died side by side.

The first world war is of great significance to many people, in respect of memorial and trauma, and of memory of that time. I was touched by a quotation from one of my predecessors as Member of Parliament for the Folkestone and Hythe area, Sir Philip Sassoon, who was MP during the first world war and also the political secretary to Douglas Haig. Sir Philip wrote to a friend during the war, saying,

“would one ever have believed before the war that one could have stood for one single instant the load of pain and anxiety which is now one’s daily breath? I find that although I can study the casualty list without ever seeing a name I know—for all my friends have been killed—yet nevertheless one feels as much for others as for oneself—just a blur of grief: and one wakes every morning feeling one can hardly bear to live through the day.”

It is in many ways almost impossible for us now to understand what it must have been like to live through the first world war and to have seen such terrible losses—people’s friends and family, and those they had grown up with and known all their life—and to understand the terrific social change that took place as a result of that conflict.

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Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of the innovation by Greenhithe Royal British Legion branch in my constituency, which came up with the idea of scattering poppy seeds across the region and is selling the seeds? This idea has been endorsed by the Prime Minister. We hope to see, during the commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, fields of red poppies in the local area, which will be a poignant reminder of all the sacrifice.

Damian Collins: That excellent project demonstrates the great wealth of interest that there is throughout the country in communities doing their own, different things to mark the centenary of the first world war.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the worst thing we could do in commemorating the first world war is to repeat what Wilfred Owen called,

“The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori”?

We should remember this as an immense human tragedy, the main consequence of which was the second world war.

Damian Collins: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The significance of the centenary should not be the celebration of a military victory, for no military victory is final and lasting—certainly not the first world war—but of the sacrifice of millions who fought in the conflict and those who worked on the home front as well, many of whom died. That should challenge us to work and strive not to create the war that will end all wars, but to reach a point where war is no longer necessary. The first world war did not achieve that.

The hon. Gentleman is right: this is not a celebration of victory, but a commemoration of the sacrifice of millions of people. That sacrifice has been written about and debated many times. People have written about the lost generation that was killed during the first world war and about the brilliant lives that were ended. Many Members of Parliament fought and died. The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, lost his son, Raymond Asquith.

There is the great sacrifice of the pals regiments, many of which were created by people who worked and lived together and joined up, fighting and dying together. The high death toll in certain communities, famously, in pals regiments such as the Accrington pals, which lost so many during the battle of the Somme, meant that during the second world war we no longer recruited in that way, so that communities did not suffer such terrible losses.

There were incredible losses on the home front as the first world war became more mechanised. On 25 May 1917, an air raid in Folkestone was focused on Tontine street, near the harbour. German planes that had hoped but failed to reach London dropped their bombs before re-crossing the channel. In that single air raid, 71 people were killed, 27 of whom were children. We live in a time of war when modern technology makes the most devastating loss possible at the touch of a button, but such a loss of life on one day at home, away from the battlefield, was a truly shocking occurrence for people who lived through it.

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When considering the first world war centenary, we should also remember that this was a global war. The conflict was not isolated in the western front, massive though the losses were in the trenches of France and Belgium. British and Commonwealth armed forces also served at Gallipoli and in Palestine, and we should remember the great role of troops drawn from the empire, particularly the British Indian Army, which sent many hundreds of thousands of men to fight for the British empire, across the world and particularly on the western front. Their stories, which are in many ways protected and preserved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission around the world, are an important part of the centenary.

I see something every year in my constituency that brings home the sacrifices of the first world war for future generations, today. At the military cemetery at Shorncliffe, on Canada day, school children from local primary schools sit by and place flowers on the graves of the many Canadian soldiers buried there, marking a commitment made by the town at the end of the first world war to the families of those troops to tend their graves. It is touching to see young people only 10 or 11 years old sitting by the grave of someone who was perhaps only 18 when they were killed. That is a great way of bringing home to young people today the sacrifices that people made.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The hon. Gentleman rightly talks about the commemorative role that many organisations play. Will he join me in commending the McCraes Battalion Trust in Edinburgh, which built Edinburgh’s only war memorial on the Somme, at Contalmaison? The trust now takes groups of children out there, to ensure that the sacrifice that people in Edinburgh made during the great war is never forgotten.

Damian Collins: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The project that he mentions sounds excellent, and it touches on an important aspect of the first world war centenary—namely, the work that can be done to preserve memorials. The Government are making funds available, through the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage, to support the restoration of war memorials. In Dover, adjacent to my constituency, there was an excellent project called the Dover war memorial project, in which volunteers, students and children conducted research into the lives of people named on the war memorial. That gave them a real sense of connection and helped them to see that the names carved in the stone belonged to real, living people.

The project led to the rediscovery of Walter Tull, who was born in Folkestone and is commemorated on the Dover memorial. He had the distinction of being the first black officer to be commissioned in the British Army. He was commissioned in the field during the first world war, having previously been the first black outfield player to play professional football in Britain. His story had been forgotten, and it was rediscovered through the project. Such projects are an important way to mark the centenary.

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The Heritage Lottery Fund is making funds available for community projects across the country to support remembrance and the education of new generations about the sacrifices of the war. The Prime Minister said in his speech last year at the Imperial War museum that funds were being made available to support schools to send tour parties to the battlefields, so that children could see for themselves the sights of the war. Giving people the opportunity to walk in the soldiers’ footsteps and to gain some understanding of their lives and the sacrifices that they made is an important part of the commemoration process. It is incredible not only that the battlefield tours continue to this day—the battlefields of the western front receive about 500,000 visitors a year from around the world, a great number of whom come from this country—but that they are growing in popularity. Visits to the Menin gate to hear the last post being played and visits to the Somme memorial at Thiepval are growing in number, which shows the huge appetite for them.

I want to talk briefly about the Step Short project in my constituency. Folkestone was a focal point in the war effort, and 10 million servicemen passed through the town during the first world war. It was the major port of embarkation to, and debarkation from, the trenches of the western front. It was home to tens of thousands of refugees from Belgium and tens of thousands more servicemen from Canada, who were based at Shorncliffe barracks just outside the town. Most families in the country will have an ancestor who was in Folkestone at some point during the war.

Some of those people are recorded in the visitors’ books that were kept by two sisters who operated a temporary canteen on the harbour arm, from which they gave free cups of tea and bits of cake to men who boarded the boats. Lloyd George, Churchill, Haig and private soldiers in the Army signed the books, which provide a great living memory of those men’s stories and give us a date, time and place, so that we know where they were at that point during the war. For some men, signing those books may have been their last act on English soil, to which they would never return because they would make the supreme sacrifice in the trenches.

After the first world war, Slope road in Folkestone, which ran from the Leas on the cliff tops in the town down to the harbour, was renamed the road of Remembrance, because it was the road down which so many men marched. As they marched down the steep road with heavy packs on their backs, the command of “step short” was given, which told them to break their steps. Marching downhill on the cobbles, wearing boots and carrying heavy packs must have been quite an exercise even on a dry day, but the soldiers managed it. Folkestone was the last stage in the journey that they made to the trenches.

In the inter-war period, a memorial arch was constructed over the road around the time of the coronation of George VI. On it was written simply, “In our rejoicing, we still remember them.” That sentiment is an important part of the remembrance process, and it reminds us that future generations have an obligation to remember the sacrifices that people made.

Many people had forgotten the story of Folkestone during the first world war, and the community have got together to tell it once more. For the centenary of the

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outbreak of the war in August 2014, they want to invite the country to Folkestone to be part of that story again. For the past two or three years, we have organised a memorial march along the route that the soldiers took down the road of Remembrance into the harbour. We hold that march on the first Sunday of August each year, close to the anniversary of the outbreak of the war, to remember the story of the men’s departure. People go to the battlefields of France and Flanders to walk in the soldiers’ footsteps, and they can also do that by taking part in the march in Folkestone.

The Prime Minister wrote an article on Remembrance Sunday for The Sunday Telegraph, in which he set out some of the Government’s plans to mark the centenary. Those plans include the great investment in the Imperial War museum, where new first world war galleries will be opening. He also noted that there would be “big outdoor commemorations” to mark the outbreak of the war. In particular, he mentioned the large outdoor event that we are planning in Folkestone, which, he noted, is

“the port where so many left for France.”

We look forward to welcoming people to Folkestone on 4 August 2014. Folkestone is fundraising to place a new memorial arch at the top of the Leas, at the start of the road of Remembrance. People can walk under the arch and remember the soldiers’ journey. That is an important part of the first world war remembrance process. We are also raising money for a visitor centre to tell that story. It is important for future generations to be able to understand that ordinary people—people like them from all over the country, and people from around the world who came to this country to fight on our behalf—made incredible sacrifices during the first world war. It is a story that future generations must tell, and we must give them all the chance to participate in it.

I mentioned earlier the expression “the lost generation”, which is often used to refer to the sacrifice people made during the first world war. I believe that Gertrude Stein originally coined the expression; certainly, Ernest Hemingway credited her with having done so. He used it at the beginning of his book “The Sun Also Rises”, which was published in the early 1920s. In it, he quoted from Ecclesiastes, which in some ways touches on the point made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn):

“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever… The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose.”

That reminds us that, in our remembrance, we must also look forward; that each generation has an obligation to defend the freedoms that were fought for in the first world war and to seek peace in the world; and that each is challenged to do that in its own way.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister more about the Government’s plans for the centenary. During the first world war centenary, as we look back and remember, we should also look forward, learning from that terrible period in our history, to how we can work to secure a more peaceful world for future generations.

11.17 am

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): I welcome you the Chair, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member

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for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate. He is not quite my constituency neighbour, but he is pretty close to it, and of course he is a fellow Kent MP. As he spoke, I was reflecting that many of us are familiar with Folkestone. I suspect that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who speaks for the Opposition, may have done some training at Shorncliffe camp, as I have. Many of us did our Northern Ireland training there. I did not know about the link with the Canadians, but it is good to hear that that is still celebrated in the way my hon. Friend outlined. I apologise for not being the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who would normally respond to such a debate. He is away at the moment, but I hope that, with my Kent and military connections, my responding to the debate will not be too much of a hurdle. I would like to associate myself with the remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe made, most appropriately, about Peter Wood.

Rather than running through a prepared speech, I will pick up some of my hon. Friend’s comments and detail how the Government might support the efforts he is making. Part of the Government’s approach is to set out a general strategy around remembrance, youth and education, and then, in a sense, to encourage a thousand flowers to bloom. The schemes that have been mentioned in Edinburgh and Folkestone are perfect examples of what we hope will happen.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his chairmanship of the Step Short campaign, which sounds like a fantastic example of what I am talking about. Those of us who have worn Army boots—especially those with studs on the bottom, which soldiers would have worn in those days—will know just how difficult it would have been to march down a hill, especially with a heavy pack and particularly if it was raining, as it often does in Kent at certain times of year. It is fantastic to see that that is being commemorated. I had not really considered that Folkestone was the major port of embarkation, but that was very much the case. I encourage my hon. Friend to keep the Department for Culture, Media and Sport closely informed about the project and to see what we can do to help him and the town as it undertakes those commemorations.

I was struck by my hon. Friend’s remarks about school visits. I think that for many of us who have visited the first world war battlefields, however much we might know about the military, or conflict, their sheer size and scale is what is striking. That strikes me every time I go there. In my regiment three squadrons were wiped out within half an hour, at a place called Zandvoorde ridge. Many regiments will have had similar experiences, and the striking scale of what happened makes it important that later generations should be reminded. My hon. Friend referred to the £5.3 million scheme that will enable a teacher and two pupils from every secondary school to visit a first world war battlefield.

The story of the air raid in Folkestone is a quite well known Kent story, and, as my hon. Friend said, a shocking one. I guess that it may have been the first large-scale air raid of any sort in this country.

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Damian Collins: It is believed to be the first major civilian air raid, but I should point out that today is the anniversary of a Zeppelin raid in Hartlepool in 1918, which killed eight people.

Hugh Robertson: I stand corrected.

We touched on Shorncliffe camp. I did not know that Walter Tull was born in Folkestone. I think we all know his extraordinary story. Rather encouragingly, when we were in opposition, I visited a community scheme at Tottenham Hotspur as part of black history month—he played initially at Spurs. The area is clearly quite a testing one educationally, and all the children were working on a project about that extraordinary man who, as my hon. Friend said, was born in Folkestone and, having played professional football for Spurs and other clubs, became the first black officer on the western front. I think that he was put up for a military cross towards the end of the war. He is an extraordinary figure, and not the only sporting figure from my hon. Friend’s part of the world. Colin Blythe, the cricketer, who is commemorated at the county ground, was another.

Ian Murray: As the Minister has mentioned sporting icons, I wonder whether he has read the wonderful book about McCrae’s battalion. It was born from the Heart of Midlothian football club team, which signed up en masse in 1914, leading tens of thousands of supporters to sign up. Because of that the team lost the championship by a point.

Hugh Robertson: The lovely thing about these debates is the fact that we always learn something new, and that is a wonderful piece of sporting trivia. The hon. Gentleman has reminded me of something important, which I thought might be what he was going to say in his intervention: next year provides us with a unique opportunity north of the border, because of the Commonwealth games. The Department is considering how to make use of the presence of many Commonwealth leaders and athletes in this country to mark the Commonwealth contribution. My hon. Friend has mentioned that, and I freely admit to having been a little slow in picking it up early on when it was being discussed in the Department. We should not be for a moment too parochial about the anniversary. This country must recognise the enormous Commonwealth contribution. I was struck, when I went to Australia just before the Olympics to launch the GREAT campaign—for a weekend, actually; oh joy—by what a seminal moment Gallipoli is for Australians. It was the first time that they came together as a nation to fight for Australia, and Gallipoli is extraordinarily important to them, as places such as Palestine are for other countries.

We have talked a little about the Government’s approach. It is concentrated around remembrance, youth and education. There is £53 million of funding available, including £5.3 million for schools. The Heritage Lottery Fund has open grants of £10 million. The centrepiece of what is happening is of course work being done by the Imperial War museum, and I encourage all hon. Members to become acquainted with that. As I have said, the idea is to set up an umbrella under which other projects can bloom.

Ian Murray: Has the Minister had representations from the Scottish Government about their plans? I understand that many hon. Members have made

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representations to them, as have many of my constituents, about holding commemorative events, but they seem reluctant to do so. The Commonwealth games would seem to be an opportunity, and, if the Minister has not received any representations, will he contact his counterparts in the Scottish Government to encourage them to do what is right for 2014?

Hugh Robertson: Personally, I have not had that conversation, but that is perhaps not surprising, as I am not in day-to-day charge of those matters. However, I have, if not quite daily, then weekly, contact with the Scottish Government, about the Commonwealth games. The matter is a devolved one, so it is down to them, but I think that I would say, on the basis of my decade of military service—and I am sure that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central would agree—that Scotland is the home of some of the proudest and finest regiments in the British Army. They have made an enormous contribution in every conflict that this country has undertaken, in pretty much every combat zone where it has ever fought. I think for most who have memories of the British Army, the earliest ones are of being shouted at by someone with a Scottish voice. I would expect the Scottish Government to treat the occasion in the fashion that it warrants. I will be talking to them about the Commonwealth games, and the hon. Gentleman will have our full support in encouraging them to take the anniversary seriously.

Damian Collins: There is a great deal of good work being done by the regimental museums, as part of the centenary commemoration. My right hon. Friend and I have both mentioned the Imperial War museum, which is a central heritage museum, but I also want to mention the regimental museums and the National Army museum. I am particularly grateful that they have decided to bring some of their first world war collections to Folkestone for an exhibition in summer 2014.

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Hugh Robertson: Unsurprisingly, I agree with my hon. Friend. He is right to mention the National Army museum. Of course other single service museums and the National Maritime museum have plans, including the use of a boat. I should also be amazed if the Buffs, as they were at the time, did not have a particular Kent-based exhibition, and I would encourage such plans.

Paul Flynn: One of the documents produced by the Government in anticipation of the commemoration quotes a poem by a young man who rejoices at being alive at such an important historical moment. The poet died within a fortnight of writing it. Can we have an assurance that the commemoration will be marked less with Rupert Brooke and more with Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen?

Hugh Robertson: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point to an extent. The right balance is necessary, and everyone will understand that. I am not in a position now to decide what script, and which poet’s words, will be used, and I would not want to presume to do so. Those are properly decisions for the Imperial War museum, and others, who will make judgments, and whom I trust to get the balance right.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, and the other hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, and commend him on the work that is being done in Folkestone. I assure him that the Department and I—on a county basis as a near constituency neighbour—will do all we can to support that work. He has made a strong case for Folkestone to have a unique part in the commemoration, as a major port of embarkation, and I wish him the best of luck with his plans.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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Probation Service

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Mr George Mudie (Leeds East) (Lab): I am delighted to have secured this debate, but I am more delighted to have the opportunity to introduce it under your distinguished chairmanship, Mr Crausby. You have already informally warned me to behave, and I promise that I will.

This is an important debate that will be of vital interest to Members, whatever their constituency. I intend to direct my remarks to the consultation paper, “Transforming Rehabilitation,” which the Government see as a revolution in the way we manage offenders, with particular emphasis on the problem of reoffending.

Before I go into detail, it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the probation service’s extremely professional, dedicated and hard-working staff. Those words exactly describe the staff in West Yorkshire. I find the Leeds staff to be first class, and they do a first-class job. I am sure Members echo my comments for the staff in their areas. It is difficult to reconcile the proposal to transfer some 70% of the probation service’s work load to other providers with the quality of its present endeavours. In 2011, the probation service met or exceeded all the Ministry of Justice targets. In October 2011, the service won the British Quality Foundation gold medal for excellence, which is given to an organisation in recognition of its

“continued commitment to sustained excellence over a number of years.”

The award came with a commendation:

“The Probation Service comprises 35 independent probation trusts annually supervising a caseload of some 247,000 offenders. The successful pursuit of continuous improvement has confirmed that they are on the right path to achieving and sustaining excellence and essentially to being the best providers of these essential services.”

The award was noted by the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), who said:

“This prestigious award recognises the professionalism of probation staff and the excellence of their work. This very public recognition of not just what they do but, perhaps more importantly, how well they do it, will be a source of pride for probation staff.”

Members might be even more impressed when they learn that all that excellent work was carried out against a background of falling staff numbers. In 2011-12, there was a fall of just under 7%. A total of 1,313 full- time equivalent staff were cut from the service, and there was a 10%, or £80 million, cut in resources over a slightly longer period from, I think, 2009.

I will address the Government’s proposals against that background of a dedicated, professional service. The proposals include privatising some 70% of probation service work; introducing, for the first time in the field of criminal justice, a payment-by-results scheme for private companies that receive the new contracts; and abolishing the 35 probation trusts and replacing them, initially, with 16 geographic units. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head. It is rumoured that the figure is now down as low as six or eight.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I shook my head because, as he will know from his close reading of the consultation document, the 16 contract package areas are a starting point, and not necessarily a finishing point. We will listen carefully to what people say to us during the consultation.

Mr Mudie: I will touch on that later in my speech, but I am interested in the Minister’s comments.

It is interesting that the private sector will be commissioned, not locally by the individual probation trusts, but from Whitehall. The Government justify decimating this 105-year-old, well regarded service—which has received all the commendations I have read out—at considerable risk to public safety, on the specific grounds of reducing reoffending rates.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate.

Humberside probation trust has a gold award, too. The current level of trust and information exchange between prisons, probation staff, police and others involved in the management of risk has taken a long time to establish, and they fear that that might be compromised if medium-risk and low-risk offenders are managed outside the public sector. Does my hon. Friend agree that such fragmentation of risk management is a real difficulty for the future?

Mr Mudie: My hon. Friend has taken a page out of my speech, to the great relief of everyone present. Levels of trust and information exchange are key, and they have grown bit by bit as the relationships, and the benefits of those relationships, have grown. That is now to be swept aside, with private sector firms being forced on the trusts.

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): I commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I hear what he has to say, but does he not recognise that reoffending rates are far too high and that, as a result, we need to consider the structural reasons why that is happening? We must consider how to bring about change and innovation in the way the probation service functions.

Mr Mudie: The hon. Lady anticipates page 2, which I am just about to start.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the previous intervention, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is the premise on which the Government are making their judgments? On 9 January 2013, The Guardian reported that the Secretary of State for Justice had said that

“a radical overhaul is needed to tackle the high reoffending rates with 58% of short-sentenced prisoners reoffending within a year and half a million crimes committed each year by released prisoners.”

The actual reoffending rate of those subject to state supervision—they are not short-term prisoners but those sentenced to more than 12 months—has dropped by 1.55 percentage points to below 10%. Does that not underline the wrongness of the Government’s approach?

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Mr Mudie: My hon. Friend has taken the second part of page 2 by making an important point that I was just about to address.

It is no secret, and it is accepted, that reoffending rates are high. The figures for the period between April 2010 and March 2011 show that more than one in four criminals reoffended within a year, which is a reoffending rate of 26.8%, marginally up from 26.3% in the previous year. Over the 10 years in which records have been kept, the reoffending rate has gone down.

It is sad but interesting that the Secretary of State used a higher figure when making his statement to the House. He said that, in 2010, “nearly half” of those leaving prison reoffended. He was correct—the reoffending rate for those leaving prison is around 47%— but that suggests the overall reoffending rate is double what it actually is. It would have been more straightforward had he used the 26.8% figure to justify the programme.

It is interesting that the Ministry of Justice’s annual figures break down those figures. Some 26,000 of the 56,000 people who left prison reoffended, but 18,000 of those 26,000 were not covered by the probation service because they were serving sentences of less than 12 months, which is the point my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) made. If the aim is to eliminate or reduce reoffending, why must the Secretary of State use a figure attractive to him rather than giving a true reflection of the situation?

Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): I commend my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I apologise to him, to Members and to you, Mr Crausby, for not being able to stay all the way through. Does my hon. Friend think that that is why the Treasury is so worried about the proposal? Would it not have been more logical to have tested and piloted the proposal for offenders serving less than 12 months with the probation service, given its growing expertise in working with the social enterprise and voluntary sector, in defined areas that coincide with police areas, so that people could work together? Instead we have prime contracts, detached from the community and the problem, with Serco and G4S taking over virtually all public services.

Mr Mudie: My right hon. Friend raises a number of points that I hope I will have time to touch on. They are all valid, not because they are in my speech but because they are important points about the attack on the probation service.

Any real scrutiny of the Ministry of Justice figures demonstrates that the reasons for our disappointing reoffending rates are complicated and numerous, but it is wrong and unfair to place them at the door of the probation service. As I have said, a major proportion of reoffending is outside the statutory remit of the probation service. I pay tribute to the proposal in the White Paper to bring it within the probation service’s responsibilities for the first time. It is one thing that I straightforwardly applaud.

Although I wish for improvement, due to those facts, and because of the quality and professionalism of the probation service, I am not convinced that there is a pressing need for the upheaval suggested in the consultation document, or for the pace and scale of change. I want to make it absolutely clear that reoffending figures should

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unarguably be improved, and that the proposals to address short-sentence prisoners are long overdue and welcome. I have no dogmatic opposition to the use of the private and voluntary sector in rehabilitation. My concerns are overwhelmingly about public safety, protecting the existing good work of the probation service, questioning the suggested and untested payment-by-results methods that will be introduced to the private sector, ensuring that management and structure changes are sensibly modified to suit the proposals and, importantly in this age of austerity, ensuring that the costs are acceptable. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, the costs are starting to worry the Treasury.

Against that backdrop, it is critical that these large-scale reforms of our rehabilitation and probation policy are well thought through, investigated from all angles and brought together on a basis that puts evidence first. What is before us is none of those things. It is hasty, ill thought through, dogmatic, cobbled together and risky. I have indicated my concerns, and I will expand on them.

First, the Secretary of State describes the approach as revolutionary, but there is a clear need to demonstrate that the policy changes are evidence-based. The former Secretary of State, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), started a number of pilot schemes in that area of work, which were abandoned within days after the present Secretary of State took office. When questioned by the Select Committee on Justice, the present Secretary of State admitted that he was unable to provide MPs with any evidence to support his change in policy. He excused his peremptory ending of the pilot schemes by stating that it

“will take us much of the rest of this decade to see through to a conclusion, evaluating the data and coming up with an analysis. We are talking about the core principle of trusting the professionals and making them take a bit of the risk themselves”.

We are less worried about the professionals than about the public taking the risk of the proposals.

When pressed by the shadow Secretary of State to produce evidence to justify, for example, the controversial payment-by-results proposal, the Secretary of State derided what he termed the Opposition’s obsession with pilots, saying revealingly:

“Sometimes those in government just have to believe in something and do it”.—[Official Report, 9 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 318.]

That warms the heart, but it worries us to death.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is especially concerning that the Justice Secretary has decided to proceed without gathering the evidence, given that perhaps the best example of a similar programme under this Government—the Work programme—seems to be performing spectacularly badly?

Mr Mudie: I agree with my hon. Friend; this is a bad example of a politician and a Department feeling right in proceeding on such a sensitive matter involving so much public risk. If the Minister feels that I am being unfair, the Select Committee and I would welcome it if he produced the evidence to justify the risks inherent in the policy changes.

The more the proposals are scrutinised, the more apparent it becomes that giving the majority of work to the private sector is the major objective. To my mind, it

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is also a major cause of the opposition to the proposals and of some of the difficulties in the consultation paper. I said earlier that I saw nothing amiss in involving the private and voluntary sector—it is, of course, already involved, and such arrangements have grown and are appreciated—but the scale and spread proposed are entirely different. The proposal to hand over 70% of the work load of existing probation officers so quickly to firms untrained in and unused to the work raises obvious questions.

The division of the work distribution—low and medium-risk to the private sector, high-risk to the probation service—looks clear on paper but ignores what professionals in the service say happens in real life. Medium-risk individuals can move dangerously quickly to being high risk. If the signs are not spotted immediately, high risk may escalate into dangerous behaviour with harm to individual and general public safety. That is a reality that experienced probation officers live with every working hour, and it is a tribute to their skill and dedication that it does not happen on a wider scale.

It would be wiser to introduce the private sector, if it must be introduced on this scale, to deal initially with the low-risk group alone. Even if that were seen as weakening the proposals’ profitability for the private sector, it would have the opportunity to take on the new work load of prisoners serving less than 12-month sentences. That would create a clear division and stop the overlap, which will certainly cause a problem. It could also help with the vagueness of the relationships and objectives of the differing cultures.

The private sector has the responsibility to ensure that court or licence agreements are adhered to. Obvious situations arise when individuals are in breach, and they are processed by the probation officer, but in areas of work where trust and relationships are all-important, the probation officer will have to accept the judgment of private sector personnel and haul the offender back to court. On the one hand, we have a public servant—a professional—who has no monetary motivation and whose only objectives are public safety and working with integrity with the person on probation. On the other hand, under the proposals, we will end up with large private companies tied to a scheme of payment that will pay largely on results.

Is it impossible that, to protect or maximise payment, the person on probation who could be a difficulty and a danger to that payment might necessarily be passed back to the probation officer? The probation officer would then have to pick up the relationship and process the matter through court.

If the Minister does not accept that argument, he should at least consider the divisions of the responsibilities proposed. A more distinct role for the private sector is needed, but one that allows distinct accountability, which is paramount in this sector. Every day, there is the possibility of something going wrong, and any ambiguity in responsibility is unwelcome.

Another reason to suggest that privatisation is uppermost in the Secretary of State’s mind is the winding up of the 35 trusts. Why are they being wound up? They have just been praised as excellent; they have been doing the job for 10 years; they have built themselves into the area and built up their relationships; but now they are being

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converted into 16 or perhaps six geographical areas, with all the dangers to the relationships that lie with that. Can the Minister spell out the reasons for cutting the trusts and the agreed criteria for the number of replacements?

Meg Hillier: My hon. Friend touched on the benefits of having longevity in a service, so that the contacts are built up over time. Longevity should never be unchallenged by those of us who are public scrutineers, but it builds up valuable expertise, as his own service has shown. One of my concerns is that the reducing offending and supervision hubs—in the emerging jargon, ROSHs—could be open to competition every three or five years. Surely, different organisations will therefore run the hubs every few years and the connections locally will be broken when they have to start again. Is that a good thing for local public safety?

Mr Mudie: It is a very harmful thing. My hon. Friend makes a valuable point and allows me to take further chunks out of my speech. I will not go further into the relationships, but I worry about how the contracts will be procured and the effect on the existing small companies and voluntary organisations that work with the probation service. I warn them that small companies and voluntary organisations often cry out for privatisation or for procurement or break-up of public services, in the belief that they will get the work, but they are dreaming. The Minister has provided some arrangements and money to assist small companies to bid, but the reality is that the big international and national companies will get the contracts, while small companies will be pressed to the margin.

Nic Dakin: I underline that point. I have observed probation working locally in the Scunthorpe area, and it is doing so effectively with voluntary initiatives such as MPower—small activities, voluntary organisations and private companies that are locally based. That local anchorage is crucial in dealing with the work and in keeping our communities safe. I share my hon. Friend’s concern, which he is right to express.

Mr Mudie: My hon. Friend makes another page of my speech unnecessary, which is a blessing.

One of the main things that we want the Minister to consider is the question of commissioning from Whitehall. The urge to privatise and to bring in the big companies is distorting the remaining parts of the service and causing real questions to be asked, one of which is about procurement. Why are the contracts being specified from Whitehall? We would welcome an answer. Why are the existing public trusts not able to set up the contracts? Whitehall setting up contracts for probation trusts’ computers fills them with some worry, given its record on computers.

A real problem is the business of payment by results, which is allied to the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett). Payment by results has not been a feature of the culture or practice of the Ministry of Justice, and the general feeling was in favour of pilots if it were to be done; the Secretary of State, however, cancelled the pilots. The Minister would do everyone a favour if he indicated why that was so,

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apart from the mystical belief that the Secretary of State knows best. The introduction of payment by results in so sensitive an area is extremely worrying. The pilot schemes wisely set up by the previous Secretary of State to test that out have now been scrapped, and it would be good to know on what basis other than that mystical belief.

I am sorry, Mr Crausby, that I have overrun my time, although I have taken a few interventions. My last point, however, is on costs, which I make not so much to the Minister but to the Treasury. It has been confirmed that the Treasury is looking at costs. I understand that, and as a member of the Treasury Committee, I hope that that is a good look. When the Ministry of Justice budget is under severe threat, however, the Secretary of State is suggesting the pulling in of the 30,000 people who leave prison after small sentences; he is also suggesting doing that rapidly. That 25% increase in work load will involve a fair cost, especially as he is talking about individual mentors and so on. Can the Minister tell us whether that policy has been agreed with the Chancellor? Is the money available? It will be surprising if it is; it will also be surprising, because the Treasury has publicly voiced worries about whether the rest of the business has been tested and costed. Untested payment by results could cause not only operational but financial problems, yet the Secretary of State has committed himself.

I welcome the fact that people on 12-month sentences will be included and looked at for the first time. That will have a good effect on lowering the reoffending rate, but I find little to enthuse about in the rest of the proposals, other than recognising that they are another dash for privatisation and an attack on public services and public service finances.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): I intend to call the first of the two Front Benchers at 15.40. I think that five Members have indicated that they wish to speak, so if they could keep their contributions reasonably short, I hope to get everyone in.

2.58 pm

Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): I shall be brief, Mr Crausby. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) for securing the debate, which is important because our probation service faces an imminent threat from a Government intent on cutting budgets at any cost to the service.

I will set out three core reasons why I am so concerned about the reforms: the cancellation of pilot schemes; the effects of payment by results; and the removal of probation trusts. To start, I concede that I am somewhat perplexed by the Government proposals. Our probation service is staffed by a dedicated army of workers, who do an important job keeping our community safe. It is vital and unglamorous work, away from the spotlight of public and media attention. Indeed, as has been mentioned, in 2011 the probation service deservedly won the British Quality Foundation’s gold medal for excellence in recognition of its outstanding and continued commitment to sustained excellence over several years. That is not to be taken lightly. The probation service is a proven success story and I simply do not understand why the Justice Secretary is intent on its dismemberment.

The previous Government recognised the importance of a secure and properly funded probation service. Funding rose by 70% in real terms, the number of

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offenders supervised by the probation service rose by 53%, and there was a rise in staffing of more than 7,000. During the Labour Government’s time in office, we proved our commitment to the probation service and its important work. The present Government are proposing to undo the hard-earned gains made under the Labour Government. Cuts to staffing and office closures will be the only way to achieve the deep cuts, and that will mean fewer probation orders made and the risk of an increased prison population.

I welcome the spread of best practice and the introduction of innovative ideas, such as bringing in outside expertise, but experience shows that a headlong rush to privatisation risks breaking up the system unnecessarily. Whatever the Justice Secretary might believe for reasons of expediency, a pilot is not some half-baked measure, nor a dirty word. It is how proper, well thought out, empirically driven policy is developed. Without it, we have what the Justice Secretary calls “believing”, and what everyone else calls “a step into the unknown”. Impervious to criticism from the Treasury, the National Audit Office and the probation service, he is taking a risk with a system that deals with vulnerable and sometimes dangerous offenders, and in doing so is taking a risk with safety.

Similarly, payment by results carries risks that the Government seem to be ignoring. It is primarily dependent on accurate data, which are not always easy to produce. Furthermore, the data, when available and correct, are often crude. If the Government believe that offenders least likely to reoffend and those most likely to reoffend are equals, private companies will simply focus on those who pose the lowest risk to people, and ignore the most prolific offenders, to turn a profit.

The system of payment by results is likely to lead to fewer, larger corporations in the hunt for those contracts. Many smaller organisations, such as charities and local groups—the very people with the experience and networks to work with offenders most effectively—will be unable to risk non-payment and will have to withdraw. That would be a disaster, yet it is already being played out under the guise of the Government’s Work programme, which for many people has been a contradiction in terms. One reason for the Work programme’s failure is that smaller organisations have been squeezed out by larger firms, citing lack of viability.

Finally, I am worried about removal of probation trusts. Northumbria probation trust is my regional trust and covers my constituency. It was given the highest performance rating for 2011-12 by the National Offender Management Service, and was declared to be exceptional. The success of my local trust should be celebrated and copied; instead, it is being dismantled. The irony, which is lost on few, is that a Government who proselytise localism are replacing local trusts with Whitehall centralisation. These reforms represent yet another false economy from this Government, and I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to think again.