Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Jonathan Shaw.]
I speak as the chairman of the all-party group on Panjabis in Britain, which was founded more than a decade ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) and several colleagues. Initially, it focused on human rights issues during that dangerous, unstable and uncertain period in the Punjab’s history. The group was reconstituted after 1997 with a much wider remit.
We describe the group as the Punjab community group, as it is a forum for discussion of the issues that confront the Punjabi community in Britain and concerns about their daily lives, but it also has a remit to examine issues in the Punjab itself that are of concern to the Punjabi community in Britain. In recent years, we have held a series of conferences and community consultations, and undertaken surveys of the Punjabi community in Britain that have set the agenda and the work programme for the all-party group.
Various sub-groups and initiatives have been introduced, including ones on health, human rights, the environment, culture and development. All the work is undertaken by a dedicated group of volunteers, and today I wish to recognise their contribution to the group’s work and to discussions that have taken place in the House over the years. In particular, I would like to recognise the contribution of Mr. Iqbal Singh, the group’s researcher; the co-ordinators of our environmental sub-group, Pardeep Rai and Dr. Pritam Singh, an academic adviser from Oxford university; and the co-ordinator of the health sub-group, Amritpal Sekhon. Harinder Singh Mann is the co-ordinator for the development sub-group, a new initiative that we launched only earlier this year. I would like to place on the record our thanks, on a cross-party basis, for the work that they undertake in supporting the parliamentary group.
There are dozens of other volunteers and numerous supporters of the group’s work. They have all participated in our enthusiastic discussions, debates and campaigns on a range of issues. Our work has been helpfully broadcast to the wider community by Desi radio, Punjab radio, Des Perdes and The Sikh Times. I thank them for their coverage of the group’s work and the support that they have given to our campaigns.
It is worth reminding Members of the origins of the Punjabi community in Britain. As Members will know, Punjab, the land of the five rivers, predates the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, which split the Punjab between two countries. It comprises a population of Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and those of no faith. The Punjabi community has included adventurous travellers who migrated to all parts of the world, and the worldwide diaspora is significant in many countries across Europe, America and Canada. Clearly, there is an historical colonial link between Britain and the Punjab, which has resulted in a large settled diaspora in Britain. Large numbers settled here in the 1950s, in particular. We now estimate the Punjabi community at about 700,000, with Punjabi established as the second language certainly in London and possibly within the United Kingdom.
Therefore, Parliament has a responsibility to consider the interests of this group of British citizens, as any others, on a regular basis, and to examine the policies that are needed to protect the interests of this sizeable population of British citizens and to enhance their quality of life.
I know the Punjabi community well, having grown up in Yorkshire and then moved to London. I have lived much of my life around that community. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He knows of the great contribution that the Punjabi community makes to this country in many ways, and its undeniable value in adding to our diversity and economy. He also knows that the community is extremely diverse, not least in terms of religion, as he just mentioned, and that there is little understanding of the Punjabi community among British people generally.
Will the hon. Gentleman set out ways in which the community’s leaders can spread a better understanding of their community across this country and explain how this debate, the Government and the media might help in that endeavour?
Thank you for your protection, Mr. Amess, but I thought the intervention was apposite. It prefigured some of the issues that I shall raise later. It is the role of the all-party group as well to assist in the promulgation of information about the Punjabi community in Britain and to enhance its reputation.
To enable Parliament to examine issues that are of interest to the Punjabi community and, indeed, the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, members of the all-party group have regularly sought a general Adjournment debate on the Punjabi community in Britain. The last one was convened by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) in March 2005, and I convened the first one four years ago. We seek to use such debates to measure progress on issues that were raised in past debates but, in addition to that, to ensure that there is a general overview and discussion of the issues that are of concern to members of the Punjabi community and that confront them in their everyday lives. We use the debates to analyse issues and to advocate the policies that are needed to address concerns. Each debate has proved useful in assessing progress, and the Government have responded extremely effectively to the issues that have been raised in them.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point, it is important to recognise the success of the Punjabi community in Britain and to celebrate its contribution to British society. Many members of the Punjabi community lead in the fields of business and commerce; law, where there are numerous barristers, QCs and judges; and politics and government at every level, from councillors to MPs and right through to a Government Minister. They lead in the arts and culture. Let me give a small plug for the filming of “Bend It Like Beckham” in my constituency. I congratulate the director of that film, Gurinder Chadha, on one of the most successful British films in recent years. The Punjabi community gave the world bhangra, the desi beat and the talents of Nitin Sawhney and Talvin Singh.
In sport, come back Monty Panesar, all is forgiven. I congratulate him on the service that he has rendered to his country so far. May I also give a plug for my local Yeading football club and Nev Saroya, a footballer who is one of the most comfortable defenders I have ever seen on a ball? His talents have not been sufficiently recognised in the higher leagues, but he is an excellent player.
Earlier this year, at about the time of the Punjabi traditional celebration of the spring festival of Vaisakhi, the all-party group launched its first annual awards ceremony to honour those who had contributed to the promotion of Punjabi culture. It proved to be an overwhelming success, and I invite all Members to next year’s celebrations and awards ceremony, to be held at Millbank on Tuesday, 20 March, at 6 pm. The awards ceremony is also an exceptional celebration of the cuisine of the Punjab. Food was supplied by the Punjab restaurant and Mr. Sital Singh Mann. I express my thanks for his assistance in hosting the event, and I also thank the Hounslow and other gurdwaras that assisted us throughout the year and supported our conferences and various campaigns.
The members of the Punjabi community are concerned about the issues that concern us all: health, education, housing, crime, community safety and the environment. However, some concerns are of special interest to that community. Let me identify some that have been raised via the all-party group’s consultations. They have informed our work throughout the past 18 months.
The first is the issue of recognition. Hon. Members will know that we have consistently lobbied on behalf of the Sikh community in Britain to ensure that it has recognition in the census. That issue has not fully been resolved to everybody’s satisfaction. It was dealt with in the last debate on the subject and there was some response from the Government about the measures that would be taken to address those concerns in the 2011 census. I would welcome further discussions on the issue at ministerial level and possibly a meeting between the all-party group and the relevant Ministers and civil servants to see whether or not we can resolve the matter in time for the next census.
Does my hon. Friend accept that that is a particularly acute issue because the planning for the 2011 census is imminent? It would be welcome if the Government gave an assurance over the next few months that they will accommodate that change.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to look at the way in which the census has been tailored, as this goes beyond the Punjabi or Sikh communities in Britain? It still mirrors a statistical view of immigrant communities that dates back to the 1960s, and no longer reflects the diversity in our society. Understandably, people feel rather upset when they look down the various boxes and find that they fit into a definition of “Other”, which they then have to write in. If the whole thing were redrawn in a slightly more sensible fashion, it would be easier to complete and the Government would get some much more interesting statistical material.
Further to the point about the census and the preparation for the next one, does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister and the Government should take careful note of what is being tested in Scotland, where a separate Sikh category has been included?
That is a valid point to put to the Government and I would welcome their response. The Scottish example also helps on the matter of Punjabi language speaking. In the next census, we would welcome accurate information about the scale of Punjabi as a language in this country. As I said earlier, we believe that it is the second language and should therefore be catered for.
May I draw attention to another aspect of that, which is the read-across from the census categories to questionnaires that are put out by other Government bodies and local authorities? For example, in my area, in Sandwell, despite the fact that one in eight members of the population are Sikhs and many other groups are much smaller—in some cases, almost non-existent—Sikhs are not a separate category. We have corrected that now, but I think that such a change would be a clear signal to the administration in local and national government that they should be monitoring properly, particularly in areas with a high concentration from the Punjabi and Sikh communities.
My hon. Friend has made that point previously in debates and in representations to Ministers. It is critical. The importance of the census and other forms of identifying information about local populations is that they enable us to monitor the equality and distribution of services, the appointment of people to positions of employment and decision making within the local area. I would welcome the Government’s response and the all-party group would welcome an urgent meeting to discuss how we should go forward and to address the 2011 census.
One of the most important things for any community is the maintenance of its culture. Within a multicultural society, members of the Punjabi community have sought to integrate in an harmonious way in which they have respected the country in which they now live and in which many of them were born. There is a concern to preserve and develop Punjabi culture over generations. Language is a particular concern, and support for the teaching of Punjabi in our schools and by voluntary organisations is a matter that has been identified in the consultations that have been undertaken by the all-party group.
There are questions about how many schools in Britain have provision for the teaching of Punjabi, which is such a prominent second language in our country. An increasing concern emerged during our consultations that Punjabi language teaching is ignored in many elements of the UK education system. There is a belief in many areas that schools are progressively dropping Punjabi from their curriculums. There is an anxiety that the lack of funding for the voluntary sector organisations and community groups that provide Punjabi language teaching is resulting in inadequate access for those who want to learn the language and those who want their children to learn it.
There is also concern about the potential lowering of standards in the teaching of Punjabi as organisations struggle for funds. The all-party group would like to recommend to the Government that they undertake a short, sharp study of Punjabi language provision in educational establishments, schools, colleges, the voluntary sector and civil society organisations at large to identify how provision is meeting the needs and demands of the community. Based on that information, the Government are urged to produce a Punjabi language strategy that supports teacher training, sets quality standards and provides resources to give sufficient access to Punjabi language training in schools, colleges and community organisations. In that way, many believe that it will enhance the preservation of the culture and encourage a development of Punjabi in the education system that will stand us in good stead for generations to come.
Maintaining the culture is also about the means of communication. Language is critical, but it is also important that there is access to means of mass communication, particularly in modern times, if the culture is to survive. We can report a tremendous success story; the development of the Punjabi broadcast media in recent years has been a tremendous success. Desi radio is one example. Located in Southall, it gained one of the first community radio licences as part of the Government’s policy of widening access to community radio for the population overall. The all-party group assisted Desi in its approaches to the previous radio authority and its successor, Ofcom, to explain the significance of Punjabi language community radio in promoting and preserving a culture while serving the whole community. Originally a pilot broadcaster, Desi radio has now received a five-year licence under the Government’s planned expansion of radio licences for local community stations.
I pay tribute to Desi in particular for the role that it has undertaken bringing together communities from east and west Punjab, promoting community cohesion in a multicultural society and for broadcasting information programmes on education, health and social and cultural activities. Desi has created a huge volunteer base that is now supporting other community radio stations. It is involved in excellent training with the assistance of European funds—training in radio broadcasting, of course, but also bringing people into work through developing their confidence and overall skills. The word Desi translates as “people”, or “countrymen and women”. Desi radio has proved itself to be a real people’s radio and is an example to community radio and broadcasting throughout the country.
Freedom of speech is critical to the maintenance of a culture. Punjabis, and particularly Sikhs, pride themselves on their tolerance and adherence to the principles of free speech. They are a freedom-loving people, as has been demonstrated historically. I wish to express my and many others’ deep concern at the attack on the Punjabi radio broadcaster, my constituent, Mr. Jasvir Singh Rayat, who has been known for many years to be a peaceful, gentle and respectable person as a broadcaster on Panjab radio. He is a devout Sikh and a volunteer teacher of the Punjabi language and Sikh religion as well as a broadcaster. Earlier this year he was attacked by a group of Sikh religious extremists and physically assaulted; they broke his leg and left him in fear of his life. The motive appears to have been a reaction to a broadcast or interview that he undertook on Panjab radio. That small group of extremists must not be allowed to use illegal methods, including violence, to intimidate and harass fellow Punjabis or to disrupt academic discussion or community events.
I express my concern at the slow pace at which the police are investigating that attack and bringing the perpetrators to justice. I therefore recommend that the Home Secretary asks for an urgent report on the progress of the investigation. It was a dreadful crime that sent shockwaves throughout the Punjabi community.
I refer to another outstanding injustice that occurred more than 20 years ago; the murder of Mr. Tassem Singh Purewal, who was then the editor of Des Perdes, the most famous Punjabi newspaper in this country. That notorious case remains unresolved, and the killer has never been brought to justice. I understand from press reports that a suspect, Mr. Manjit Singh Rattu, is being held in Canada by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. However, there is continuing consternation within the community and among Mr. Purewal’s family at the lack of progress in the Metropolitan police investigation into that case and their liaison with the Canadian police. I have therefore written to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to check progress on the investigation, in particular whether the police have interviewed the suspect. Again, I urge the Home Secretary to call for a report on the case in order to ascertain progress and to give some reassurance to the Punjabi community, and particularly to the late Mr. Purewal’s family.
I turn next to the arts, an essential part of the cultural health of the Punjabi community. I congratulate the wide range of groups and bodies that have worked hard in recent years to preserve and promote the Punjabi arts and the cultural heritage. The Maharajah Duleep Singh centenary trust has pioneered a successful Anglo-Sikh heritage trail. Many Punjabi members of the community have enjoyed it, but it is enjoyed also by the wider community.
As on previous occasions, I congratulate Susan Stronge, a senior curator at the Victoria and Albert museum, on her hard work, through exhibitions, talks and demonstrations, on promoting the cultural heritage of the Sikh kingdoms. Many other community organisations are involved. This year, the all-party group honoured the Vaisakhi Da Mela committee in Glasgow, for its tremendous work in promoting Punjabi community activities in Scotland.
However, concern is expressed in the consultation that particular support and recognition is needed by Punjabi folk art. It seems that although the funding bodies—the Arts Council and others—recognise and fund some elements of what could be called the high arts they underestimate the importance to the Punjabi community of its folk art. Again, we recommend that a meeting of the arts funding bodies be convened by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to discuss the support needed for that form of art.
The all-party group has recently lent its support to a new and exciting artistic venture in the Punjabi community. Earlier this month, the group hosted the launching in the House of Commons earlier this month of the Man Mela theatre group, which is developing a drama project to commemorate the 60th anniversary next year of the partition of the Punjab. I draw attention to the work of the director Dominic Rai and the writer of the play, Mr. Mahzin Tirmazi, who I believe is called Muz. When he came to the House, he gave us an exposition of the play and its development as a drama project; it was one of the most moving occurrences that I have attended in the House.
Partition was a traumatic episode in the history of the Indian subcontinent. It resulted in 1 million dead, and many millions more were made refugees in their own land. The Labour Government of the day did not consider the consequences of partition or take enough steps to prevent them. There should be a recognition of Britain’s role in that, with some expression of remorse about what occurred during that period.
The all-party group is urging support for that drama project to assist in its development in the coming year. The aim, if possible, is to promote it throughout the country, and then to perform it in English at the Edinburgh festival. I would welcome the Government’s giving whatever support they can.
To maintain and preserve their culture, people must be able to express their religion. There are continuing concerns—they were raised in previous debates—about the failure to create national guidelines or protocols on the ability of Sikhs to express their religion, in particular the wearing of the kirpan at Heathrow airport and when visiting other countries. We expressed concern about what happened in France, where it is illegal to wear turbans and other religious displays. This country has always had a more progressive attitude, but on a number of occasions we still have problems. Sikhs are still unable to gain entry to some buildings, and recently they were unable to gain access to the European Parliament because they were wearing the kirpan.
My hon. Friend is making a remarkably wide-ranging and fascinating speech. He touched on a subject that has been raised by my constituents, who visit me freely at the House carrying the kirpan and bearing other articles of their faith. Is it not the case that the approach taken by the House in dealing with people visiting Members of Parliament could be used as a model?
It is exactly that model that we should build upon and develop in order to create a protocol for the display of religious artefacts such as the kirpan. It is timely to revisit the matter. We secured a number of workable agreements at Heathrow to overcome such problems before, but the problems recur. The Government’s sanctioning the development of a protocol that can be adopted by public and private organisations across the country would help to establish a method of working for the future. That would ease the problems experienced in the past.
Is it not therefore extremely regrettable, as my hon. Friend says, that agreements reached at Heathrow that have satisfied both the safety and security authorities and the community are in danger of being overturned by directives from the European Union—often directives passed by countries with no experience or understanding of the situation?
The all-party group would like to see the Government take a lead on that matter, in discussion with our European partners. Given that members of the Punjabi community are travelling across Europe and the world, it is timely to have some form of agreement on the basic right of people to express their religion by way of symbols.
We have evidence, through our debates and parliamentary questions, that there has been no incidence of the kirpan causing any risk or being used in assault. I would not expect the Minister to respond in detail today, but it would be extremely helpful if we entered into discussion again on the progress and development of guidelines and protocols; they could be agreed nationally and used as good practice guides to all organisations and perhaps taken up with our European partners. That would resolve the matter once and for all.
May I tell the House of the experience of my constituent Harjinder Singh Gosal? He travels by air across the world. He does not object to having to check in the kirpan with the rest of his main luggage. However, he and some of his friends recently visited Belgium. At Brussels international airport on return to this country, they found that unlike everywhere else, where the turban is checked by a hand-held scanner, he and his friends were required by officials to remove their turbans—the officials refused to use the hand-held scanner. As my hon. Friend will know, that is highly offensive to Sikhs. Does he not agree that, on behalf of British citizens, the Government should take up the matter most urgently with the Belgian authorities?
My intervention may be for the benefit of the Minister and the Department. When talking about Heathrow, it could be thought that we are talking only about travellers. The crucial issue that we want to get across, particularly in an area with a high proportion of the Sikh community, is the right to work and to continue in employment while observing one’s faith.
On two issues my hon. Friend has referred to that come under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport would he, like me, welcome steps by the Government to clarify with professional sports bodies the issue of wearing the kirpan in places such as professional football grounds? A problem in my constituency was resolved through negotiation and we now have a very good policy, but I am hearing of difficulties with other sports venues in the country. Does my hon. Friend share my surprise that in professional association football there are few if any professional players who are Punjabi in origin and that that appears to be racist?
On the first issue regarding the wearing of the kirpan and access to football grounds and other sport stadiums, the development of a national protocol sanctioned by Government would overcome those issues. On the development of Punjabi activity in sports generally, across the board we have seen members of the Punjabi community coming forward and excelling. However, football seems to be a particular area in which there has not been that development. It behoves the Football Association and other bodies to examine that matter and at least arrive at a shared understanding of why that is occurring, together with policies to develop expertise and ensure that clubs adopt practices that do not discriminateor prevent people participating in sport, even unintentionally.
On the wearing of symbols, there was recently a particularly tragic attack on a young man in Edinburgh. A group of thugs tore off his turban and sought to cut his hair. That was a disgraceful attack and we send our sympathy to him, his family and the Punjabi and Sikh community in Scotland. However, it would be helpful if a report could be provided at some stage on the progress of the investigation into that case and if a review could be carried out into whether there is a particular problem in that area with attacks on Sikhs or members of the Punjabi community. At the moment, the information is not available statistically and a review would be useful certainly in the development of policing policy within that area.
I wish to move on to a number of the other issues that the all-party group has considered recently. Education has always been a key issue and the all-party group and hon. Members will recall the lobby that took place to ensure that there was fair treatment of Sikh schools in this country. The first Sikh school, the Guru Nanak school was established in my constituency. I congratulate the school on its success in the development of both the primary and the secondary school and thank the Government for the intensive investment in Guru Nanak schools and in other projects that have been developed in Slough and Southall.
On health, the all-party group conducted a survey of primary care trusts about the issues they had identified in the Punjabi community in their area and what policies and practices they were pursuing to address those issues. From the survey we identified the high incidence of diabetes and coronary problems in the Punjabi community. We also identified a wide range of good practice activities and strategies developed by primary care trusts. However, the survey confirmed that there is a lack of consistency across local health authorities and linked to that is a lack of representation of the Punjabi community on health bodies, primary care trusts and health trusts. We would welcome the Department of Health developing an overview of health provision, which is culturally specific to the Punjabi community. We would also welcome an examination of the process by which we are encouraging members of the Punjabi community to serve on health bodies across the country. Clearly, there is a lack of representation on a wide range of health bodies and the all-party group would like to work with the Government to encourage access to representation for the Punjabi community in those areas.
One of the hardy perennials of the all-party group and of other debates has been the issue of visas. We welcome the Government’s opening up of the Jalandhar visa office, but believe that it should be upgraded to provide a full service. That would overcome the problem of the long distances travelled to Delhi by many Punjabi families for interviews and visa application processing.
On visa applications for single people, there is concern that there may not be as thorough a consideration of the application as there would be if it was for a couple. We are concerned that there may well be a practice developing of automatic rejection of an application from a single person when, for example, they are applying to visit this country to see their families and attend important ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. It would ensure that the system is seen to be completely objective if there was a review monitoring applications from single people for visas from the Punjab.
Through the all-party group we established an environmental sub-group, which has been tremendously successful. It meets bimonthly and brings together experts who have looked at environmental issues in the Punjab. They have examined water depletion, soil degradation, desertification, and the large scale problems that are facing farmers in the Punjab. We now know that there has been a significant increase in suicide among farmers in the Punjab as a result of the poverty they face and the debt many have fallen into. The sub-group has liaised with a number of projects that are working hard on the ground in the Punjab and there have been discussions around the development role that the all-party group can play in assisting projects that are tackling environmental problems.
We have established a development group to look at the economic support that can be provided to the Punjab and issues around environment and farming practices. The group will also look at how we exchange technology between Britain and the Punjab to assist both countries in economic development. For example, there is a need for co-ordination between the public and private assistance provided by the Punjabi diaspora in Britain to the Punjab itself. We are examining the Canadian model whereby people from the Punjabi diaspora are coming together to co-ordinate the support they are providing back in their homeland.
We are also examining what technology transfer issues can be undertaken, particularly regarding links between universities and schools and colleges. The issue that has come up regularly in these discussions has been that of flights to the Punjab. Punjabis travel a great deal in order to return to their homeland and carry out visits on a short and long-term basis. They obviously visit Amritsar and Darbar Sahib. There are concerns about the pricing policy of direct flights to the Punjab and Amritsar and there are large differences between the costs of those flights and flights into Delhi. That may be a result of the frequency of flights or the need for further investment in developing the airport system in the Punjab. That is one of the issues we will examine in the development sub-group and we will also be liaising with the Government directly.
An issue raised regularly in debates is that of human rights. The all-party group was formed, as I have said, more than a decade ago as a human rights group. We still take up individual cases and I would like to raise yet again the case of Professor Devinderpal Singh Bhullar. Many hon. Members will know the background to this case so I will not delay the debate by going through the details except to say that Professor Bhullar is now awaiting a death sentence. He confessed to crimes under torture and we believe that he was deported from Germany illegally. Many consider him to be a prisoner of conscience. We welcome whatever assistance the Government can provide on liaison and representation to the Indian Government to ensure that the death sentence is lifted from Professor Bhullar. We have maintained our position as a group regarding our representations to the Indian Government about their refusal to admit UN rapporteurs on torture into the Punjab. We are liaising with organisations such as Liberation. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), the chair of Liberation, has raised that issue and other members of that group have raised it via the UN itself.
One other issue, which has arisen this year, involves members of the Punjabi community who served this country well in the second world war and became prisoners of war in Europe. That group has never received recognition, despite their arduous sufferings during that period. Many of them were captured in north Africa, taken to Europe and used by the Nazi regime and the Italian regime, almost as slave labour in some instances. Certainly many of them became prisoners of war in the most difficult circumstances. We believe that the Government need to review the situation of the people who served in the armed forces and became prisoners of war, and examine what compensation should be paid and what settlements should be made to compensate them for their sufferings and the service that they rendered to this country.
In addition, we are identifying cases of ex-servicemen, many of whom are of course now elderly, who originally were given some form of pension and award for their disabilities, but whose pension and disability award are now being reviewed and reduced. We would welcome a review by the Ministry of Defence of those concerns and are willing to work with the MOD to identify individual cases in which the problems can be overcome in, we hope, co-operation with the Indian Government.
Those are a range of the issues that we have been dealing with as an all-party group. As, I believe, a successful all-party group, we have been working with the community itself and working to an agenda set by that community. The group has established a forum for discussion in which we share experiences and then develop practical policies, to most of which the Government have responded effectively. We would welcome continuing dialogue with the Government. We want to raise issues about ensuring that there are adequate mechanisms whereby the Government can consult the Punjabi community to ensure that there is adequate representation from across that community and that that representation is genuinely representative of the overall community.
I place on record as well the support that has been given by a wide range of members of the group for the individual initiatives. The fact that that has happened on a cross-party basis is what has made the group so successful at representing the Punjabi community in Britain.
I was not necessarily expecting to speak as early as this, but the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) took many pertinent interventions. I congratulate him on securing the debate. Clearly, he is a very articulate advocate for the Punjabi community. The debate has provided an opportunity to learn about a community and a religion with which, I confess, I am not as familiar as I should be. There is not a large Sikh community in Carshalton and Wallington, but I have enjoyed hearing about the work of the all-party group and it has been interesting to hear the group’s concerns on a wide range of issues, such as the teaching of Punjabi, community radio, football, culture and health.
While preparing for the debate, I was able to glean many useful facts and much useful information from previous debates, notably the debate secured by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) in February 2005. During that debate, he made the sensible point—no doubt this still applies now—that the Punjabi community’s concerns reflect those of the wider community in respect of education, health and law and order issues. A number of additional facts came out in that debate that were of interest to me, such as that the state capital was built by Le Corbusier in the 1950s—I was not aware of that—and that, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington has stated today, Punjabi is now the second most commonly spoken language in the United Kingdom.
One fact that I have not been able to confirm and which was raised during the debate secured by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West is that Pakistan is an acronym, with the P standing for Punjab. I understand that Pakistan is translated as “the land of the pure”, but perhaps both those things apply. A fact that I have been able to confirm is that some of the issues that he raised in his debate 18 months ago have not been resolved. Perhaps progress has been made, but they have not been resolved. That has been confirmed by the briefing that hon. Members will have received over the weekend from the Sikh Federation and by the briefing that I received from my own party’s ethnic minority representatives.
During his debate, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West raised six principal points, some of which the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington has referred to and some of which he has not. The first issue was pension credit. The second was the ethnic monitoring of Sikhs, which has been referred to. That is associated with the issue of Sikh appointments to various positions of responsibility in government. The third issue was language proficiency tests. The fourth was the kirpan, which has been referred to, and the fifth was the wearing of turbans. The sixth point related to human rights issues.
It is pertinent to this debate to consider the progress that has been made in those areas and to ask the Minister some specific questions on those points, given that during the debate 18 months ago, the Minister who responded, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), gave a number of undertakings. The first related to pension credit. People from the Punjabi community often return home for a period of longer than four weeks and are required to sign on again for pension credit when they return. During the debate 18 months ago, the Minister said that no decision had yet been taken on that issue,
“but officials are researching a range of options for potentially extending the period for which pension credit can continue”.—[Official Report, 2 February 2005; Vol. 430, c. 967.]
I have not been able to ascertain what the conclusion of that research was, whether it found in favour of making that change, or whether costings were conducted as to what the financial implication of the change would be. I hope that this Minister can respond on that point.
On ethnic monitoring of Sikhs and the census, the Minister said 18 months ago that the Office for National Statistics
“will consult widely with the intention of reviewing the classification system…and it should be able to accommodate some of the views expressed when adapting the current ethnic categories.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2005; Vol. 430, c. 968.]
I hope that this Minister will say today to what extent the ONS has taken on board those representations.
On language proficiency tests, reference was made to a “second stage of consultation”. That was due to begin 18 months ago and I assume that it has been completed by now. It would be interesting to know from the Minister what feedback and representations she has received about the changes to the rules in respect of language proficiency, whether that has introduced a constraint and, if so, to what extent that has been the case, and what representations have been received about further extending the scope for requesting language proficiency from people who are perhaps not actively involved in delivering religious sermons. I hope that the Minister will respond on that point.
The kirpan has been referred to in some detail, and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington was perhaps uncharacteristically generous to the Minister in offering her an opportunity to come back to him in writing at a later date. I hope that he is not going to develop a habit of being generous to Ministers. I believe that it would be appropriate for the Minister to respond now on the kirpan, given that she had notice 18 months ago from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West that that was an issue. At that point, there was discussion about consulting the community and finding out what the Government could do about the fact that they were in breach of the European regulation. I understand from the briefing from the Sikh Federation that immediately before the last general election the Government gave an undertaking that they would issue a code of practice on the subject, which has not yet been delivered. I hope that the Minister will clarify what progress has been made on that.
The key issue to which I should like the Minister to respond—I am trying to be as co-operative as possible to move the matter on promptly—is the need for a timetabled strategy for resolving the matter in civil society, the private sector and government in this country, and for moving it on to the European agenda and, if necessary, further. The issue is a timetabled strategy for monitoring the progress of Government policy and our interventions overall. I make those comments in a spirit of wanting us all to work together to resolve the matter.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his sensible intervention, and I hope that the Minister will respond with the timetable and strategy that he seeks.
Something that was perhaps not covered in great detail in the debate 18 months ago was the representation and appointment of Sikhs. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West touched on it in passing, but it was not the main focus of his questioning then. I hope that the Minister will say what has been done with respect to consideration by the Government and the Appointments Commission of the appointment in future of appropriately qualified Sikhs in places such as the House of Lords. I accept that that is not just a Government responsibility; it is a responsibility of all the political parties, and I shall not absolve my own from it. We all have an important role to play.
I hope that the Minister will also set out what regular contact she has with representative organisations.
On appointments, we have in the past raised the question of appointments in the civil service, which is particularly pertinent at a time when the number of civil servants is being reduced. We have seen the Government targets to cut 104,000 civil service jobs. We have raised the question of adequate monitoring, so that no particular community feels the brunt of any reductions disproportionately.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for another very pertinent intervention and hope that the Minister will confirm that monitoring will be done to ensure that no one community will be affected by the changes more than another. I hope that she will also update us on the 2005 figures for ethnic minority representation in the civil service, so that we can see whether the trend is in the right direction. I hope that the Minister will tell us about her discussions with various representative organisations, such as the Sikh Federation and the Sikh Women’s Federation, about ideas for increasing the representation of Sikhs.
My final point is about human rights. I am the treasurer of the all-party group on human rights. There are significant abuses of Sikhs’ human rights, requiring investigation. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington has referred to the case of Professor Bhullar. There have been disappearances and massacres, as well as the attack in November 1984. There has been a request for the UK Government to call for a UN investigation into a series of human rights abuses over several decades, which the Sikh community feels have not been investigated sufficiently, or at all. Will the Government support the call for such an investigation?
It is clear that the Punjabi community plays a major role in many of our towns and cities, contributing significantly to business and to our cultural and faith diversity. Its aspirations are not unreasonable; its members simply want to be allowed the same opportunities as other communities. It is the duty of our Government and all political parties present today to see that those ambitions are realised.
Order. I did pause for a long while when the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) sat down to allow Back Benchers the opportunity to contribute; it is a pity, but once we are on to the Opposition spokesmen it is out of my hands.
I am sorry to prevent an hon. Member with some some expertise in the matter from speaking, but if the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) would like to intervene on anything that I say, he would be welcome to.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your resident chairmanship, Mr. Amess, and to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who made an extremely comprehensive, knowledgeable and forthright speech. I think that we all benefited from his great knowledge of and familiarity with the issues that he talked about. I congratulate him on his work, and the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) on establishing the all-party group on Panjabis in Britain. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who together have formed the all-party group on UK Sikhs. Together those groups have both helped the House to understand some of the important issues that have been talked about today.
The hon. Gentleman kindly referred to my work both as the treasurer of the all-party group on Panjabis in Britain and as chairman of the all-party group on UK Sikhs. It is important sometimes to maintain the differentiation of Sikhs and Punjabis, because Sikhs form about 55 per cent. of the population of Punjab. On the matter of the census, does he agree that it would be helpful to have a specific Punjabi language box to tick, as well as a specific Sikh box to tick for ethnic, if not racial, monitoring, so that one could differentiate further and find out how many people of Punjabi origin are in the UK who are not Sikh? There are many in my constituency, for example.
I am grateful for that intervention, which anticipates the very point of complexity that I was going to make, particularly about the census.
We have all learned a lot from the debate. We know from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington that Punjab means land of the five rivers. I am no linguist but I understand that the Punjabi word “panj” means five, and is related to the ancient Greek “penta”, from which we get the word “pentagon”. It is a small reminder that Punjabi, English and, indeed, Greek are all part of the Indo-European family of languages. In languages common beginnings often diverge in all sorts of directions. I hope that in today’s Britain we are achieving the opposite of that, by building the united but not uniform kingdom of our diverse identities.
Identity, as has been pointed out, is a complex matter. That can be seen in the Punjabi community, which is drawn both from India and Pakistan. The Sikh community is of course predominantly Punjabi, but many Punjabis are Muslim or Hindu. Moreover, many Punjabis arrived in Britain from Africa, adding another layer of identity and complexity. The debate this morning is about the British Punjabi community, and so in addition to all those other overlapping features there is, of course, a strong British identity to the community that we are talking about today.
It is difficult for the categorisers of ethnic and religious identity to fit people into neat boxes, and their attempts to do so are unlikely to please everyone. However, it is important that all distinct and sizeable communities should be properly recognised in the appropriate way, whenever diversity is monitored by public institutions, and it seems to me that in trying to get it right a good place to start is to go to each community to ask the people who belong to it how they see themselves. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) have both put on record the view of my party that the census authorities should treat the question sympathetically and creatively. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington made the point that that is a matter of some urgency as the next census approaches. I ask the Minister when she replies to consider the urgency as well as the substance of the request.
As a Conservative, I am always aware that the apparatus of the state can take us only so far and, indeed, often gets in the way, so I am concerned about the down-to-earth realities of life as it is lived by the individuals and communities that make up this nation. In that respect, I think it is important to emphasise, as several hon. Members have done during the debate, the positive aspects of the Punjabi community in Britain. There are occasional setbacks and tensions, but the story of the Punjabi community in Britain is one of considerable success. On the one hand, a strong sense of cultural identity, tradition and belief has been retained; on the other, the community has successfully taken its place in the wider British community. That is surely the way things should be: the natural, organic co-existence of different groups, which the state does not need to plan and prod into place, but which emerges as ordinary people live together as Britons alongside one another.
That is not to say that the Government have no responsibilities, but we politicians should always aim to apply the lightest possible touch in such matters. We have seen more heavy-handed approaches in some countries, and I do not want this country to go down the same route. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington referred to some of the difficulties in other European Union countries, which we have successfully avoided. I hope that the Minister’s good offices can be used to influence the practice of some of our European neighbours.
Respect for the law and loyalty to our democratic system of government are one thing, but an increasingly convoluted regulatory system that tells people how different they are allowed to be is an entirely different matter. Such a system could serve only to undermine the purpose of communities and their members’ responsibilities towards each another. A state-driven approach to diversity forces the representatives of each community to turn away from those whom they represent and towards political hierarchies. I therefore hope that we will take a grass-roots view and not seek to impose a top-down version of community on the communities that we are discussing. Wherever we can, we should keep the politics to a minimum, and I think that that view is shared by the political parties.
Strong institutions, which draw their strengths from the grassroots, not from Whitehall, are the way to keep communities vibrant. Wearing my hat as shadow Minister with responsibility for charities, I believe that public funding streams need to be shaped in such a way as to uphold that principle, not undermine it. As we have heard, the Punjabi community provides many excellent examples of what civil society can achieve, and I hope that civil society, as expressed in all our communities, will increasingly be the means by which we aim to tackle the challenges of the future.
Let me now respond to some of the points that have been raised, particularly by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to the specifics, let me say that he has made a valid point about the role of Punjabi civil society—let us describe it in that way. One thing of which we have tried to make the Government aware—I think that we have been successful—is the role of particular institutions in the Punjabi community. One such institution is the gurdwara, which plays much more than a religious role in the community and has a whole social and cultural role. That was recognised as far back as the Greater London council days, when the first local government grants were given to gurdwaras in London in recognition of their more general role. I emphasise that because many gurdwaras provide the basis of Punjabi language tuition in the Punjabi community, and it is important that Members across the parties urge the Government to recognise the broader role of organisations in Punjabi civil society. In the case of some other communities and religions, such a role would not be recognised.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I remember with great pleasure spending time in Gravesend during the election campaign. The gurdwaras there make an important and wide contribution to the community, which goes beyond the strictly religious. That is also true of other religions, and Christian churches play a valuable role in the social fabric of our communities, which is intimately connected with, but goes further than, their narrowly religious role. I always seek to encourage the engagement of faith groups in wider civil society and I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify that.
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s tribute to the Punjabi community’s strong cultural and, increasingly, sporting tradition. Our country would be diminished without the world-class contribution that the British Punjabi community has made to our national cultural life over the years.
We have discussed the census, and I look forward to the Minister’s response on the issue. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned community radio, and there could be no better example of grass roots institutions in which members of the local community come together to provide a service that is of interest not only to them, but to others. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield was telling me what a devotee he is of such wider cultural contributions, and I dare say that such community radio stations will attract his ear, too, if they are available online in Beaconsfield.
Of course, the community’s contributions go beyond the artistic, and I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West mention the Anglo-Sikh heritage trail. That is one family outing in west London that the Clark household might engage in before too long.
An important point was made about the kirpan, when it was confirmed for the record that there has been no recorded instance of it being used aggressively. The sensible, pragmatic arrangements that we have managed to establish contrast with some of the tales that we hear about practice on the continent. We talk about having influence in Europe, and this is an issue on which we should exercise that influence. We should make our experience available to our European partners to reassure them.
On the perceived under-representation of the Punjabi community, we know that Punjabis in Britain are prominent in the life of our communities and in our culture, and I would like that to be replicated in the organisations that represent our communities. There is a perception that members of the Punjabi community are under-represented, and I would be interested to hear whether that accords with the Minister’s view. What steps are the Government considering to address the problem, if, indeed, it is the problem that it has been suggested it is?
In conclusion, this has been a fascinating debate. We have had contributions—usually in the form of interventions—from both sides of the Chamber, and I think that all of us have deepened our understanding and appreciation of the Punjabi community’s contribution. It has been a great pleasure to participate in the debate.
I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing the debate and on setting what would be a wide-ranging agenda for any Minister to respond to. I share the race and faith portfolio with my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, who leads on the issue. Together, we work on a range of related issues, and I will do my best to answer those questions that I can. However, hon. Members have set me quite a daunting task, and I will forward any other questions to other Ministers or seek responses subsequently. We will see what I manage to cover in the time that we have.
It is encouraging to see an all-party group working in such depth, and the fact that its members have managed to secure debates on a number of occasions in previous years is a tribute to their work. That gives us a welcome opportunity to place on record the valuable contribution that the Punjabi community makes to our society, whether in public service, industry, culture or sport. There is no doubt that our country is the richer for the community’s presence.
We should also recognise the tremendous charitable contribution that the community makes, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington talked about the important role played by gurdwaras. Indeed, other places of worship also play an important role in that respect in civic society.
Before I come to the specific points raised by hon. Members and to the Punjabi community, let me talk briefly about what the Government are doing to increase race equality and community cohesion generally. Our strategy paper entitled, “Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society”, which we launched in 2005, was the first cross-Government strategy on increasing race equality and community cohesion, and its aim is to help to strengthen society. It will do that by seeking to create a society in which every individual, whatever their racial or ethnic origin, can fulfil their potential through the enjoyment of equal opportunities, rights and responsibilities. Hon. Members will also be aware that we are seeking to establish the commission for equality and human rights, which will also play a role in this important area.
We recently published our first progress report on the strategy, which showed that enormous progress has been made. We should be proud of the work already done to tackle race inequalities and to increase community cohesion. As hon. Members have mentioned, many issues still need to be addressed. We should not be complacent as there is much to do. Some communities still suffer disadvantages in comparison with the rest of society. This is a long-term strategy in which all of us have a role to play in creating an inclusive society where everyone in Britain has the life chances that they deserve.
In support of our strategy to increase race equality and community cohesion, we have also invested in our communities. We have introduced the faith communities capacity building fund. It has a number of aims, one of which is to help faith communities to promote understanding and dialogue. I am pleased that a number of Sikh and Punjabi organisations have benefited from it. I would particularly like to highlight the work of the United Kingdom Punjab Heritage Association, which seeks to highlight the shared cultural heritage between Britain and Punjab and to build a better understanding of shared histories in local communities. It is receiving £47,000 to build and to sustain its long-term development, which will enable it to develop high-quality, cross-faith projects on Punjabi heritage. That heritage is shared by members from the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu faiths.
I also pay tribute to the two Sikh schools in the maintained sector, both of which are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington. One is a primary school and the other is a secondary school, and they both continue to achieve outstanding results for their students.
A number of hon. Members raised the issue of the census. They will be aware that the 2001 census asked respondents, for the first time, to record their religion. That has provided us with a wealth of information on faith groups that had not previously been available. Sikhs are, of course, recognised as an ethnic group for the purposes of race relations legislation, and public authorities are encouraged to collect statistics in a way that will help them to provide services that are accessible and fair for all.
The Office for National Statistics will shortly be consulting data users on whether to include a question on language in the 2011 census, and, if so, on what languages they require information about. I am pleased that my Department has expressed its support for a language question. The proposed draft question would ask specifically about English and Welsh, but there would be space to write in one further language.
The question will cover four dimensions of language ability—understanding, speaking, reading and writing—and will therefore present an opportunity to identify the number and location of Punjabi speakers.
Could we, through this debate, pass the message to the ONS at the early stage of the consultations that a write-in block would be insufficient? Where there are blank spaces for individuals to write in, there is invariably a lower response rate. Because of the scale of Punjabi speaking in this country, it is expected that specific reference would be made to the Punjabi language. A tick-box approach would facilitate people in registering their adherence to that language.
I understand that the draft census question makes reference to English, Welsh and British sign language, which I am pleased that our Government recognised as a language indigenous to these isles about four years ago. I would venture to say that there are a great many more users and speakers of Punjabi in the United Kingdom than there are British sign language users. Although it is important to have British sign language specified, I reiterate the point, which I hope the Minister will pass on to the ONS, that specifying the Punjabi language rather than having it as a write-in option would be far more preferable. Such an approach would also be more likely to reveal far more useful information.
As I say, I am happy to pass on hon. Members’ comments.
The issue of Punjabi language provision and the strategy was mentioned. Clearly, it is also an issue for the Department for Education and Skills and relates to a number of other community languages. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) said that he is not a linguist. I am, and I take the view that learning one language often enables people to be open to learning more languages. We need people in our country who can speak other languages for the benefit of our position in the world. I am sure that hon. Members will be disappointed that I learned Hindi and not Punjabi, although understanding some spoken Punjabi is within my reach.
In one of our community conference consultations, the point was made that under the Inner London education authority a group of Punjabi speakers came together to establish an association and in that way became advocates for the language. That group also set standards about how the language was taught in both schools and community organisations. In many ways, it is the community sector that requires the support. It would be helpful if we could pass on to the relevant Department the suggestion that such an initiative might be reinvigorated through cultural funds.
As I said, I am happy to pass the issue on to the DFES, which I am sure will give it appropriate consideration.
My hon. Friend also raised the important issue of the role of the media in promoting community cohesion, and I agree with the point that was made. There are clear benefits to be had from representation in the media and in the important areas of arts and culture, to which he referred. Inviting the relevant Minister from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to a meeting of the all-party group might be an appropriate way to take those issues forward.
My hon. Friend also raised the important issue of cases where Sikhs have been attacked. One victim was a constituent of his. Like all other hon. Members, I deplore such crimes. The Government have introduced racially and religiously aggravated offences, which are designed to send a clear message that racist and faith-related crime will not be tolerated. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 introduced nine new racially aggravated offences, which in England and Wales carry higher maximum penalties where there is evidence of a racist motive or racial hostility in connection with the offence. Clearly, my hon. Friend wishes to ask the Home Secretary to examine those issues, and I shall pass the substance of the debate on to the relevant Minister.
Hon. Members raised issues about religious dress. This Government believe that each of the UK’s faith and ethnic communities should be free to express its particular beliefs. Freedom of religious observance for all citizens is a fundamental principle of a free society. In a democratic and diverse society, people of faith must have the right and choice in respect of whether to wear religious dress or not. Such a decision should be made according to their own conscience and beliefs, and should not be subject to interference from Government.
Hon. Members asked how these issues are dealt with in certain circumstances. Adopting some form of protocol on the wearing of religious symbols is an interesting idea that we could discuss. I am interested to hear about situations where people feel that the matter is causing a problem. I listened to the points made by hon. Members about problems in other European Union countries, and I shall make the relevant ministerial colleagues aware of the issue so that they can raise it in appropriate situations.
I thank my hon. Friend for alluding to the issue that I raised, which was specifically the attitude of security staff at Brussels international airport. Brussels is home to the European Union Commission and Parliament, never mind that there may be other reasons why Punjabis, particularly Sikhs, might want to go there. Will she raise that issue with her colleagues?
The Minister referred to a code of practice or general procedure being an interesting idea. The idea was raised around 18 months ago, immediately prior to the general election, and a promise was made that a code of practice would be delivered. What has happened since then?
My understanding is that further work is being done and that the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, led by Darra Singh, will be asked to examine the issue, which goes wider than just the Sikh community.
Hon. Members will be aware, or at least not surprised to learn, that India has the UK's largest visa operation. Applications are expected to rise to more than 400,000 in this financial year. Our four visa issuing offices continue to offer an excellent standard of service with around 96 per cent. of straightforward applications being processed within 24 hours. That meets public service agreement targets. I can offer the assurance that the refusal rate is falling. It was 26.5 per cent. in 2005-06 and is 18.9 per cent. so far this year.
It would be remiss of us as hon. Members who deal with visa cases almost daily not to record the improvement and congratulate the staff involved in the various consulates and embassies. Those of us who deal with visa cases at our surgeries have often found them extremely distressing because people have missed funerals, weddings and other important occasions. Many of those cases have now been resolved, and I thank the staff for what they have done and the Government for their involvement.
I want to reiterate the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington made about the opening of the British High Commission’s sub-office at Jalandhar. That is extremely welcome, not least because of the convenience of not having to travel to the High Commission’s office in Delhi. It is important to enhance the Jalandhar office because it will help to reduce the number of instances of Punjabis receiving bogus advice, which they pay for, about what they need to do to secure entry clearance. That bogus advice often costs them a visa, not just once but for many years thereafter.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue and will communicate it to the relevant Minister.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington raised the important issue of torture and the specific case of Professor Bhullar, which are matters of concern. We are aware of that case and, as hon. Members are aware, the UK opposes capital punishment in all circumstances. Only last month, we formally raised with India its use of the death penalty and expressed our concern about that.
India is a friend of this country. Have the UK Government recently raised with the Government of India the fact that Amnesty International has been excluded from Punjab for 30 years, as has the UN rapporteur on human rights? It seems extraordinary that the Republic of India allows that to continue in the state of Punjab. What representations have the UK Government made to the Indian Government about that?
I am afraid that I do not have the specific details. My hon. Friend will be aware that that matter does not come within my portfolio. However, I shall make inquiries.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington raised the issue of compensation for prisoners of war and other issues with which the Ministry of Defence is concerned. No doubt he and the all-party group will seek to raise those directly.
May I put on record the work that Colonel Chanan Singh Dhillon has done in both India and this country? He highlighted the overall issue and has taken up individual cases. It would be invaluable if he could meet Ministry of Defence officials on his next visit to this country to discuss those cases.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to put that on the record.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on local government, gave us an opportunity to review last year’s debate and raised a number of issues. On appointments, clearly the most important issue is to ensure that people apply and that they are aware of them. The Government encourage organisations to ensure that that happens. When we were seeking commissioners for the commission for equality and human Rights recently, we were most concerned, particularly given the nature of that new body, to ensure that as many people as possible with relevant experience from all communities had the opportunity to apply. A great deal of effort was made to ensure that that was taken forward. There is a recognised code of practice for the Commissioner for Public Appointments to ensure that the processes take place properly.
It is important to say that the Government have mechanisms for meeting representatives of all faith communities through the Faith Communities Consultative Council, which meets regularly and is usually attended by either my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government or me. That body includes a representative from the British Sikh Consultative Forum and from the Network of Sikh Organisations. That is the mechanism that we use to raise issues with faith organisations and to take them forward.
We have had an extraordinarily wide-ranging debate and I have done my best, in the time available, to respond to as many as possible of the points that hon. Members raised with the information that is immediately available to me. This has been an important debate and an important way of having an in-depth discussion about one section of our community. The all-party group should congratulate itself on again having had what I hope it believes was a fruitful discussion. I look forward to continuing to work with all hon. Members who have concerns about these important issues.