Skip to main content

Punjabi Community in Britain

Volume 505: debated on Wednesday 3 February 2010

I speak as chair of the all-party group on the Punjabi community in Britain. Hon. Members will know that the group was established 15 or 16 years ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) and others. At that point it focused on human rights. In 1997 we expanded the scope of the group to include a range of issues affecting the Punjabi community in Britain. The group is now acknowledged as the voice of the Punjabi community in Parliament.

We have had regular debates and interventions in terms of meetings with Ministers, and we have held seminars and working groups on the environment, health, human rights, nationality and visa issues. As a result of our work we have influenced the Government’s agenda over the past 12 years. We would not have been able to do that work if it was not for the voluntary support from our researcher and co-ordinator, Iqbal Singh, and other colleagues.

From time to time we have had Adjournment debates—this one is relatively brief—to sum up where we are on various issues. We have taken a slightly different approach to preparing for this debate, in that we have gone to our constituents via the Punjabi media, including Desi Radio, Des Pardes and Punjab Radio, and invited them to submit issues that we should raise in this debate.

I appreciate that the list is wide-ranging. We will try to cover as much as we can in the time available. I also appreciate that it puts the Minister in a difficult position in respect of responding to all the issues we raise. We would welcome at least the recognition that the issues have been taken note of, with responses made subsequently if there is no time today.

The first issue is about recognition. Statistics from the Office for National Statistics estimate that there are approaching nearly a million people of Punjabi origin in this country. Punjabi is this country’s second language. The largest proportion of that population is Sikh, yet concern remains that Sikhs are not recognised in the census as an ethnic category. The 2011 census is coming up and is now in preparation, but there is still resistance from the ONS to the inclusion of a Sikh question. Jasvir Singh Rayat, a constituent of mine and a well-known Punjabi radio presenter, contacted me yesterday asking me to mention that. We have had representations on that matter from a number of groups and organisations this week.

On Monday a report was released examining the process used by the ONS to select the ethnic groups for the 2011 questionnaire, and arguing for a change to it to include a separate tick-box for Sikhs. That reflects legal decisions that have been made over years in our courts. The ONS has still to finalise the questionnaire for the census, so will the Minister see whether she can facilitate a meeting with the ONS to resolve the issue? Time is tight, because it is hoped that the questionnaire will be determined at least by the end of February.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a problem with categories in that the census mentions ethnic groups when it means racial groups? Following the Mandla decision of the early 1980s, Sikhs are not only a religious group in the United Kingdom but are legally recognised by the courts as a racial group. If the ONS got its wording right and understood the difference between “racial” and “ethnic”, it might make it easier for us to win that change to the census.

We have had the argument before. A straightforward face-to-face meeting with the ONS should resolve the matter. We simply want to reflect the legal decisions that have been taken to date.

Secondly, maintaining Punjabi culture and language has been one of the long-standing concerns of the community and our all-party group. Over the past decade, with the support of the Government, but driven largely by the voluntary efforts of the Punjabi community itself, Punjabi culture has not just blossomed, it has permeated our whole society—from dance, bhangra, music, traditional and modern, to film, drama, theatre and television, the most recent programme in that regard being “The Family”, which was almost an addictive watching experience. That has happened as a result of, and thanks to, the major contribution by the Punjabi media.

Desi Radio, for example, is a community radio station funded partly by Government initiatives when it was set up and awarded a radio licence. It has demonstrated by its success how radio can be used to maintain and promote culture. Punjab Radio and others have made their contribution as well. There is a continuing need to support access to radio licences and wavelengths for community radio, and to consider the support that needs to be given to sustain them in the long term.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue. Being a Punjabi myself, coming from that region, I should say, as my hon. Friend has, that we have contributed to this country, not only in respect of culture but in other areas, including the political, social and educational fields. Importantly, my hon. Friend will agree that we have exempted the Sikh community in this country from wearing helmets. That means that Sikhs have been legally recognised as a group and a community in the past. It is important that, as my hon. Friend has already said, the Minister takes this matter on board so that we can clear up this point for the future.

Exactly. There is a series of legal precedents, not just on the wearing of helmets, but in respect of the recognition of the status of Sikhs in law and the recognition of other practices, including wearing of the kirpan, which warrants the ONS taking a similarly flexible approach.

My hon. Friend mentioned education. The role of schools in maintaining culture and language is critical. Again, we will all want to pay tribute to the work that has been done by the Government in promoting Sikh schools. The work of Guru Nanak school has been so successful in demonstrating not just how educational standards can be improved, but how that can be done in a way that integrates with the wider community and does not involve a separatist approach.

On culture, may I raise one issue that we have not mentioned before and make a plea in that regard? Culture is more than just music and dance. It is sport as well. We ask the Government to consider how they can assist in promoting specific Punjabi sports. I plead for recognition of what some call kodi and others call kabaadi, which is a sport best described as a combination of rugby played without a ball, all-in wrestling and possibly chess. Kabaadi or kodi is an exciting Punjabi sport, but it needs support from the Government to assist in regularising the institutions that promote and manage it in the UK. Recognition is needed, as is funding support to train people and develop the sport in this country. May I suggest that the Minister goes back to her colleagues and requests that Sport England, or whatever appropriate body, convenes a meeting of all the interested parties to discuss how we can move forward to put kabaadi on a secure footing for the long-term future?

Thirdly, my constituents have asked me to raise the issue of how they can maintain contact with the Punjab and its heritage. British Punjabis naturally want to maintain their contacts with the Punjab and their cultural and religious heritage and, of course, their families and relatives by being able to visit there. A number of continuing concerns have been raised with us in recent years. For example, many British Punjabis wish to visit and perform their religious duties, including visiting Amritsar, the Golden Temple, the Darbar Sahib, but there are worries about the continuing threat to flights into Amritsar international airport from high landing charges in comparison with those at Delhi. May I suggest that the Government urge the Indian Government to do all they can to secure the future of Amritsar airport and maintain its accessibility?

Another issue that we have raised in Parliament this year, which has also been raised in the community, is access to Kartarpur Sahib, the former abode of Baba Guru Nanak Ji, which is a holy site for the Sikhs. Partition more than 60 years ago resulted in Kartarpur Sahib being located in Pakistan, only 3 km from the Indian border but separate from India. We have been lobbying for some time now for Pakistan and India to agree to open up the border at that point to allow free access to this holy place. There has been some dialogue, but not full agreement. Will the Government offer their good offices to assist in negotiating a resolution to the problem, and to facilitate access? That would be very gratefully received by the Punjabi community in Britain.

On visas more generally, issues continue to be raised as constituents seek to ensure that family members from the Punjab visit them for weddings, birthdays and, regrettably, funerals. We welcome the Government’s accession to our long-standing request to open a visa office in Jalandhar, and that has been incredibly helpful, but it needs to be upgraded to a full office to undertake the full range of duties: applications, interviews, decisions and, yes, appeals. Again, it would avoid the arduous burden on British Punjabis and their families of the costly journey to Delhi. Will the Minister review that, and report on it as a matter of urgency, because we have been arguing for that for some time?

It is important when talking about visas to realise that many people come from the Punjab to this country, but visa filing services have no officials from the visa section. Will the Minister take on board the community’s request for an embassy official to be based in Jalandhar to facilitate visa applications from there?

That is a heartfelt issue throughout the community, and my hon. Friend has accurately reflected what we hear from families at our surgeries time and again.

Student visas have been controversial recently, and we are all aware that there have been scams at both ends of the system, with some people who are not students applying for visas. The Government have taken drastic action, but we are worried that those who genuinely want to come here to study may be penalised. The visa application policy for students should be sensitive.

There is also an issue with bogus colleges here taking students on and extracting large fees, but not offering proper educational opportunities. I have come across that problem in my constituency, and have investigated them. A problem with Preston college in Clayton road in Hayes was raised with me this week. It has been taking fees, but not providing the promised standard of education. I would welcome discussion with the relevant Department on how to resolve the issue of student visas sensitively.

The all-party group has been a human rights group for a long time, and we have not dropped that work, which is still a concern of the group and the community. An issue that was raised during the previous debate is the death penalty that still hangs over the head of Professor Davinder Singh Bhullar. There were confessions, but they were produced as a result of torture. The case is not secure, and the death penalty should be removed in India; it should certainly not hang over that man’s head.

The same problem exists in Pakistan with Sarabjit Singh. Amnesty International took up his case, and some of us have been on delegations to the Pakistan High Commission. Will the Government raise those two cases, and the death penalty generally, with the High Commissions of India and Pakistan?

There is a human rights issue in this country with caste discrimination. At the weekend, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) and I were at the Sri Ravi Guru Dass Ji temple in Southall, which has led the campaign to ensure that we outlaw caste discrimination in this country. We have an opportunity to do so in the Equality Bill, and we have tabled an amendment to outlaw caste discrimination. Ministers have said that they are not convinced that there is sufficient evidence of caste discrimination in the UK, so we have provided that evidence. We have also provided them with a fall-back position. If they are still not convinced, they could take a reserve power so that if further evidence becomes available later, they could introduce delegated legislation outlawing caste discrimination, instead of having to wait for primary legislation.

I want to raise some ongoing issues from the previous debate a few years ago on which we seek follow-up. The first concerns prisoners of war on the western front during the second world war who came from the Punjab, served in the British Army, and were taken prisoner in north Africa. Many died, but many were taken by the Nazis to Europe as slave labour and suffered immensely. I have met Ministry of Defence officials, and the Minister has now taken a personal interest in the matter and has agreed to consider proposals to acknowledge that service and suffering. We are putting proposals together and will submit them this week. All the former prisoners are asking for is an acknowledgement. The issue is not about compensation at the moment. They want an acknowledgement of the service that they gave and the suffering that they went through. I commend Colonel Chanan Singh Dhillon on the persistence with which he has pursued this campaign.

We also raised the tragic circumstances of the murder of Tarsem Singh Purewal, editor of Des Pardes, more than 20 years ago. At that time, we sought information from the Home Office and the Metropolitan police about the continuing investigation of the case. Still no one has been brought to justice for perpetrating that murder. I would welcome an update from the Home Office and the Metropolitan police on what has happened to the investigation. It is time to find the truth. That might not relieve the family’s suffering for the loss of their loved one, but at least it might bring some closure.

Another issue, which has also been raised again this week by some of the gurdwaras is the wearing of the kirpan. That religious practice is pursued by all baptised Sikhs, and rightly so. Yet despite years of negotiation with the Home Office to obtain clear guidelines, there are still problems with security staff. They have arisen at Heathrow, Wembley and other public places, and I am worried that with the Olympics coming up there could be a problem if we do not take action now. We would welcome the Government reiterating the guidelines. We could then be proactive in promoting them with public bodies and agencies, and private sector security companies so that they are aware of the guidelines and the importance of Sikhs’ religious practice of wearing the kirpan, and so that there is no conflict or confrontation as we move towards the Olympics.

In the time remaining, I want to raise two points. One is tragic. A few months ago, The Observer reported what has happened in the town of Bathinda in the Punjab and villages in the surrounding area. It reported children suffering from cerebral palsy and a range of other deformities resulting from environmental pollution. The photographs and report were incredibly distressing. An international response is needed to investigate the causes, because the scale of the problem in those villages has led to a belief among the Punjabis that the problem stretches right across the Punjab and results from environmental pollution, possibly caused by coal generators in the area, but other issues such as uranium and subsoil pollution are also a possibility. Will the Government consider how they can co-operate with and assist the Indian Government to research and investigate the matter, and help the families of those who have suffered?

A personal and abiding concern is the injustice of Britain retaining the Koh-i-noor diamond. It was owned by the last maharajah of the Punjab, Maharajah Dalip Singh, and was stolen from him when he was a child by the East India Company and given to Queen Victoria when Dalip Singh was removed from his throne. It is part of the Crown jewels in the Tower of London. It would be an act of generous justice to return it to the people of the Punjab, simply because it is theirs, not ours.

Each year, the all-party group holds Vasaikhi celebrations and a Punjabi cultural awards ceremony, and I congratulate all those who have received awards over the past few years on their work in the Punjabi community. They are the heroes and heroines of our community and have worked hard voluntarily. On 24 March, we will hold our Vasaikhi celebrations and award celebrations in the Jubilee Room, and I invite the Minister and all hon. Members to come along. It will be a celebration of the Punjabi community’s contribution to this country, which has been immense over generations.

It is an honour to have you in the Chair this afternoon, Ms Walley, and it is also an honour to take part in what, thanks to the dedication of the all-party group on the Punjabi community in Britain, and its chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), has become a regular debate on the Punjabi community in Britain.

Today’s debate, and the detailed community-based research that has gone into its preparation, has been wide-ranging and informative. It is also very timely. Only two weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Denham) launched the Government’s paper “Tackling race inequality: a statement on race”. That paper recognised that although Britain has changed a lot over the past 10 years, there are still problems such as the wearing of the kirpan that we need to tackle. Some of those issues have been mentioned in today’s debate, and I congratulate the all-party group, and its many friends, on the work it does to address such issues in our country.

The legislative and community framework in which the all-party group is working has, as I said earlier, changed a great deal and will continue to do so thanks to the Equality Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament. As the then Minister responsible for equality, I played a large part in drafting the Bill, so I am extremely familiar with the arguments about caste-based discrimination and prejudice, and I have spoken to hon. Members about that at length.

I know that some Members would like to have seen that issue dealt with in the Equality Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington explained the Government’s position extremely well. The Government have not found sufficient evidence for the existence of caste-based discrimination in the United Kingdom that is compelling enough to require a major change to the law, particularly as the areas where it is said to occur—and where I believe it does occur—may already be covered by other legislation. However, there has been progress, and the Government are commissioning independent research on caste prejudice and discrimination in the UK. We made a commitment in the other place to give a progress report on it when the Equality Bill reaches Report, and I hope that provides hon. Members with some assurance that we are taking the matter seriously.

The story of Britain’s Punjabi community is one of great success. The community has been successfully integrated in British life while managing to remain both culturally confident and distinct. As part of the wider Indian group, Punjabis have managed to achieve educational and employment levels that are above—in some cases very much above—those of the rest of the community. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, I pay tribute to the Guru Nanak school in Southall for making such a contribution.

That school is in Hayes. However, there is a school in Southall in my constituency that I am sure will prove as efficient as the one in Hayes.

I thank my hon. Friend for correcting me. I meant to thank the Guru Nanak school in Hayes for its contribution not only to the Punjabi community, but to the whole of the United Kingdom.

In a previous ministerial life, I was involved in the 2011 census as the Minister responsible for equality. I know that there is a long-standing lobby for the Sikh group, along with other groups, to be given a dedicated tick-box in the ethnic category question of the census. As Members know, the Office for National Statistics consulted widely on the content of the census in 2006 and 2007. At the end of that process, it decided for financial and continuity purposes that the number of dedicated options had to be limited. Although it introduced two new categories, neither of those was Sikh.

However, the ONS has said that when a person filling in a census form does not feel that their ethnicity is appropriately described by a tick-box answer, they can write it in the space provided on the form. The questionnaire also gives people the space to record their religion in the same way. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington requested, I will make further representations to the ONS on the subject on behalf of the all-party group, but I fear that we are probably too late to make much difference.

I wonder if I could prevail on the Minister to facilitate a meeting between concerned Members of Parliament and the ONS to explore the issue further before it comes to the House for a final decision.

I give my hon. Friend an undertaking that I will try to do that. Sometimes it is not as easy as one would imagine to effect such meetings, particularly when time is tight.

This seems to be a journey through my ministerial life: after being Minister responsible for equality, I became a Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. While at the DCMS, I was impressed by the amount of work being done with radio stations, BBC television and the Asian network radio service to promote Asian and Punjabi culture. I was particularly interested in the work done by Arts Council England, which includes a number of south-east Asian arts organisations in its portfolio of regularly funded organisations. I am glad to say that guidance for the application process for those grants, which can be quite complicated, is also available in Punjabi.

The Minister mentioned the BBC. There is still concern among the Punjabi community about the lack of representation of Punjabi interest on the BBC, and about Punjabi representation on the various boards and advisory bodies of the BBC, particularly in television.

I will note that point and mention it to my colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The promotion of sports, including the recognition of kabaadi—I hope I am pronouncing it correctly—is something that we are extremely keen on for various reasons, such as health, culture and general well-being. I understand that kabaadi requires agility, good muscular co-ordination, presence of mind, excellent lung capacity, and an ability to anticipate the moves of one’s opponents—attributes that many Members of the House could do with. I am happy to promote it both to Members of the House and to other members of the community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned several other matters, which I will run through in the two minutes that remain for the debate. On access to the Punjab, sadly, the high cost of flying to locations in the Punjab due to airport tariffs is a matter for the Indian Government. We are pleased that the visa office has now been established, and I will write to my hon. Friend with further details, and follow up the remarks made by him and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) about student visas.

Human rights is a difficult subject that is obviously raised in bilateral and multilateral talks between the British and Indian Governments. That will continue to be the case. On the subject of former prisoners of war, I look forward to receiving the letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington and will help to take it further.

On the possible death sentence for Professor Bhullar, as hon. Members know, the Government oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. We have made the Indian Government very aware of our position. Similarly, on environmental pollution in the Punjab, I know that many organisations are working on that difficult problem—it might be wise to mention it to the Department for International Development in particular. I am afraid that the Koh-i-noor diamond is a matter way above my pay grade, and I suggest that my hon. Friend looks at other ways of raising that subject.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(11)).