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Motor-Cycle Crash-Helmets (Religious Exemption)

Volume 885: debated on Tuesday 28 January 1975

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4.3 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to exempt turban-wearing followers of the Sikh religion from the requirement to wear a crash-helmet when riding a motor-cycle.
Put in another way, I seek to persuade the House to support a Bill to enable turbanned Sikhs to ride motor cycles. It is especially important to those Sikhs who wish to motor cycle to work when public transport is not available or to ride a motor cycle as part of their employment.

News of my move to bring a Bill before the House has evoked much ill-informed talk and newspaper correspondence. There must be no doubt that the long coiled hair and the turban go together as one of the five Ks; as they are called, of the articles of the religion dating back over 500 years. Definitions have been clearly made by the gurus from time to time.

There are obviously occasions when the turban is unwound and removed, but that does not mean that any other head covering may be put on in its place. It is this religious fact which I did not at first understand and which others may not have understood.

Some Sikhs have cut their hair and have thus turned away from the full faith and would not qualify for exemption under the Bill. It is because of the devout Sikh's firm attachment to the long hair coiled and the turban that it is not now possible for him to ride a motor cycle. Because of the present law, he has, so to speak, lost a freedom.

It was the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) who as Minister of Transport brought in the present law. There was a debate, but the religious exemption argument was not made at that time. Some hon. Members opposed the law on the ground of individual freedom as a number are opposing the compulsory wearing of car seat belts. That debate is still before the House. I will not dwell upon it, except to say that in that case there will be exceptions on pure grounds of expediency and not on any grounds of principle. It is possible for those who support crash-helmets and seat belts in general also to support my Bill.

I must admit that I was slow off the mark in the previous Parliament when the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) led a motion on this question. I became convinced when I realised that to uphold the Sikh's religious belief meant in reality not being able to ride a motor cycle.

As most hon. Members know, there is a long historic tradition of toleration in this matter. In battle time the Sikh has never been called upon to discard his turban in favour of the war hat or tin helmet worn by other soldiers under battle fire. It has been known for bullets to lodge in the hair of Sikhs. No one would care if at that time a Sikh was not wearing a tin hat. So far as I know, right up to the present time the long hair and turban are freely accepted in the three branches of the British Armed Services. I cannot imagine that the true Sikh is ever told that his services are no longer required in any shape or form.

As citizens of the Commonwealth, many Sikhs from the middle-1950s onwards have come to the United Kingdom. They are hard working and are winning their way in British society. In the past, because of native prejudice and misunderstanding, they have had to struggle for the right to wear the turban, particularly at work. We have overcome objections to the right to wear long hair and the turban, notably in transport in the Midlands and in London. Some factory cases have been fought and overcome. Uniformed caps and helmets are not enforced against the Sikh's religious belief.

In the Post Office and in the police forces the turbanned Sikh is tolerated. Seldom was the turban question raised by employers and workpeople until the motorcycle crash-helmet question arose.

The turban is tolerated on building sites, where all workers except Sikhs are to be seen wearing protective headgear. Hon. Members will recently have witnessed this when our new car park was being built. I have a turbanned constituent who is a steel erector. The fact is that if compulsion to wear any type of headgear came into being on building sites many would leave the building industry and do something else.

Last year, with other Members and Sikhs from various parts of the country, I saw the present Minister for Transport. We found his attitude as mulish as that of his predecessor—argumentative with no imagination. He seemed to think that the Sikh's exemption would lead to other clamours for exemption. I do not think that the House will believe it probable. No other group is distinguished by long hair and the turban and can be identified by their names.

Sikh representatives are eager to enter into discussions on style, colour and helping to secure enforcement if the law is changed. Long hair and several yards of cloth in the turban is a form of head protection and could in certain circumstances prove to be an even better protection than some ill-fitting crash-helmet.

The present Minister for Transport challenged me to show how the requirement to wear a crash-helmet might impair the Sikh's equal employment opportunity. Although my right hon. Friend said that he might reconsider this position, in fact he has not done so. I cited to him the case of the turbanned policeman. We are trying to recruit more Sikhs into the police forces. A turbanned Sikh would not under the new regulation be able to grab a motor cycle to chase a criminal. A devout Sikh cannot apply for a job as a Post Office messenger boy. My right hon. Friend replies to those two cases I have cited—"Let the Sikhs throw away the turban."

This is why I have presented the Bill. I am sure that the House would not wish to take the attitude—"Let the Sikhs throw away the turban". I recall to the House the civilised words of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. In 1966 he defined integration thus:
"Not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance."
As far as I know, no other country gives less than the fullest tolerance to the turbanned Sikh, which means the occasional man on the motor bike.

The Bill is supported by the British Council of Churches. Our country is world-renowned for its hard-won principles of religious and political freedom. The Bill has wide support from both sides of the House and groups. It would upset no one. It would be a small step for us to take based on a great principle of religious freedom. Without it, we are not civilised and are lesser people.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Sydney Bidwell, Miss Janet Fookes, Mrs. Winifred Ewing, Mr. Frank Hatton, Mr. Daffyd Thomas, Mr. Bruce George, Mr. Cyril Smith, Mr. Neville Sandelson, Mr. David Steel, Mr. Churchill, Sir George Sinclair and Mr. Andrew Faulds.

Motor-Cycle Crash-Helmets (Religious Exemption)

Mr. Sydney Bidwell accordingly presented a Bill to exempt turban-wearing followers of the Sikh religion from the requirement to wear a crash-helmet when riding a motor-cycle: and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21st February and to be printed. [Bill 69.]