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Sikh Turbans (Airport Searches)

Volume 527: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2011

Before we begin the next debate, I would like to say that the sheer volume of hon. Members in the Chamber means that all interventions should be as brief as humanly possible to give the Minister the chance to respond fully.

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Scott. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who helped me in securing the debate. Protocol dictates that I refer to him as an hon. Friend, but I genuinely feel that I and the Sikh community as a whole have established a deep friendship with him. He is a valuable asset to the debate and to the House.

The world seems to be in a challenging season at the moment. There are natural disasters and Government instability all over the globe. Security checks have become a way of life, and will be for the foreseeable future. We, as citizens of this challenged world, are tasked with finding the balance between security and freedom. Problems have arisen in the past few months regarding the hand searches of Sikh turbans in airports based on new EU regulations. Under EU regulations, airport security is allowed to insist on a hand search of the turban if the passenger in question either sets off the metal detector or is chosen at random for a search.

As a Sikh, although I do not wear the traditional turban, my father is turbaned and I understand the Sikh community’s great distress at the thought of having turbans either publicly hand searched or, in some cases, physically removed. That is seen as deeply disrespectful in the Sikh culture and is perceived in almost all the community as a humiliating breach of personal privacy. The Department for Transport has taken the lead in trying to rectify the situation by establishing a trial that would have airports offering swabs of turbans for explosive residue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the implementation of that practice is taking too long and that the Department for Transport should press all UK airports to implement it at the earliest possible opportunity? Airports should also ensure that proper training and equipment are put in place for staff.

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend and echo the sentiments he has expressed. I am taken aback by the number of hon. Members who want to intervene and speak in the debate, so I will be very brief in my comments.

The trial was well received by the Sikh community, but it is still not the norm in airports. The trial is optional in airports but, even in participating airports, some staff are loth to allow Sikh passengers the option. I am proud that the Government have advocated on the issue and have put in place alternatives without sacrificing the safety of their citizens.

Is the hon. Gentleman concerned—as I am given the consultation I have had with the substantial Sikh community in Wolverhampton—about the inconsistency of the application of the principles and guidelines that have been issued by the Government to the airports? That is a matter of great concern. Even in those airports that have opted in to the trial, not all staff are carrying out the procedures as they should.

I will cover some of those issues in parts of my speech that I intend to reach. However, I understand the sentiments that the hon. Lady is expressing.

In particular, some of the concerns have focused around Italy and Poland, where there have been problems. Perhaps I can illustrate the strength of feeling on the issue by quoting the Indian External Affairs Minister, Mr S.M. Krishna, who said:

“Wherever there is an insult to Sikhs, we take it as a national insult.”

That related to an issue involving the removal of the turban of Amritinder Singh, who is the coach of Sikh golfer Jeev Milkha Singh, at an Italian airport. He was made to physically remove his turban and place it with other security items in a tray.

The hon. Gentleman is illustrating the core of the problem. The UK has a substantial Sikh population, whereas hardly any of the other European Union countries do. There is a real lack of understanding of the culture of the Sikh community and, indeed, of the Sikh faith in some European countries. In the UK, our shared history and our substantial Sikh population mean that we do understand. Is it therefore not utterly incumbent on Ministers and officials to fight on the issue strongly at European level to make sure that those concerns are heard, understood and acted upon?

I completely understand the sentiment expressed by the right hon. Gentleman. Towards the end of my speech, I will echo such points. The UK can take a lead on the matter and provide a way forward for a lot of our European partners on the issue. I will come to that during the denouement of my speech.

There is still discussion among Sikhs on the issue and many hon. Members are being contacted by Sikhs in their constituency, which is why I have secured this Westminster Hall debate. I hope that we can get clarification on the things that remain ambiguous, as well as enter into a frank discussion between ourselves and the Minister on what needs to happen in future.

I have had such discussions with my Gurdwara in Hounslow. There is a major concern that the fact this is a trial means that many airports are not taking part in it, including Luton and London City. In total, we are talking about 18 million passengers. A lot of Sikhs are going through airports that are not part of the trial.

I completely understand the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. She has also campaigned on Sikh issues and is actively engaged with them. I echo that comment in saying that the current trial is not a long-term solution and there are still screening problems at airports in the UK and all over the world. It is my hope that the swab test will be the standard test all over Europe in the near future and that it will be offered first, rather than attempting to force people into a hand search.

There is always hope for tomorrow. New technology is being developed from X-ray machines and will be more sophisticated than swab tests. That could make the problem a thing of the past. However, until that happens, we must work together to increase awareness both in the Sikh community regarding their right to ask for a swab test and in airports to ensure that all passengers are treated with respect regardless of their choice of religious dress.

My hon. Friend talks about new technology. Is this issue the reason that new technology should be explored more quickly? I am thinking particularly of a company in my constituency called Laser Optical Engineering, which could produce a system of lasers that would scan passengers, both Sikhs and non-Sikhs, for explosive substances. The technology already exists and it is incumbent on the Government to adopt such technologies to help to solve these issues.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Technology will be the way to solve the problem and the need for it is paramount. I wholeheartedly agree with her perspective.

I shall be very brief because I can see that many hon. Members want to speak. I shall sum up with this last paragraph, which is personal to me and is something I saw with my own eyes. In the aftermath of 9/11, two individuals were killed in the US after reprisal attacks because they were turbaned. The people who attacked them assumed that they were terrorists because they were turbaned. Such a view breeds on misconception and ignorance, and I want to highlight in today’s debate the need to tackle such opinions head on. I want to champion the fact that we have a long-established Sikh population in the UK, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), and that we have a respective history.

I represent a constituency with the largest Sikh population, where a large number of people work at Heathrow airport, and they also work at other airports around the country. When we are talking about new technology, security is the prime issue. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, after the five K’s, the turban is the most respected symbol of identity among the Sikh community and that the majority of Sikh people have proven to have integrity and respect for the security of the world in general? Does he also agree that airport staff and other European nations need to be told to be more respectful towards that fact when we are trying find solutions? The Government should be negotiating with European Governments to ensure that that happens.

Perhaps I can answer that by specifically referring to this philosophical point. In a sense it is obvious for me, as a British Sikh, to speak about this issue. One has to be very careful, because one can be stereotyped. It is important, however, to come to all such issues from a philosophical point. We very rarely, in legislation or in other things we do, understand anybody else’s pain. I assure hon. Members that I understand the pain of Sikhs on this specific issue, because it is something that I have seen and experienced in my own family.

I will sum up quickly, because I feel that there is a groundswell of hon. Members who wish to speak. We, in Britain, have a rich and deep historical perspective and understanding of the Sikh contribution to British history.

I want to congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know that he feels very strongly about the issue. Does he agree that it is key to ensure that we have a balance between the security concerns of the travelling public and treating people with respect? It seems to me, and to the Sikh community in Dartford, that we can achieve that balance through the use of modern technology, which has been mentioned, rather than simply having Sikhs manhandled in airports around the country.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is the balance that we are talking about. Nobody taking part in this debate, nobody to whom I have spoken in a Gurdwara and nobody I have met in my constituency wants security watered down in any way. That is the furthest thing from any right-minded person’s mind, but there has to be a balancing act. That balance is the point, not just in what we do in Britain, but in what is done across Europe. I have mentioned the fact that we have a deep history here. I wanted to raise that point because it would be remiss of me, as a British Sikh, not to remind our European partners of the unique contribution of the Sikhs—not just to British history, but globally—through what they do and their values.

I want to congratulate my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal), on securing the debate. I agree with him that this is an issue of deep concern to our Sikh constituents and it has been raised with me many times. A petition was presented to me with several hundred signatures from the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in my constituency, and I know that that view is reflected elsewhere.

There is one issue at the core of this, which is that we all agree that there is a need for adequate security at airports for all passengers, but it is surely better to implement it in a way that respects cultural traditions and does not offend people of a particular faith. To that end, the Department organised meetings with Sikh representatives in the run-up to implementing the decision. Those representatives thought that agreement had been reached at the beginning of February about how to implement the directive using swab and wand technology and using searches only as a very last resort. The core of the problem has been an inconsistency in the application of that, a lack of communication on how that is to be done, difficulties for Sikh staff working at airports as well as Sikh passengers passing through airports, and an ongoing dissatisfaction and deep distress and concern in the community about how this is unfolding.

Will the Minister, in her summing up, say whether she understands the distress in the community? Why was the implementation in February not preceded by proper information for both passengers and staff on how to implement the new procedures? Why has there been such inconsistency between one airport and another—surely the security requirements are the same throughout all airports?

Order. I am sorry, this is actually an intervention. There has not been an application to speak, so there cannot be an intervention on an intervention.

I stand corrected, Mr Scott. I will briefly come to a conclusion. Does the Minister agree that the exchange of correspondence between Ministers and Sikh representatives has not resolved the issue since February? Is the time now right for a meeting at ministerial level between Ministers and Sikh representatives? I am sure that I and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West and other hon. Members with many Sikh constituents would be happy to facilitate and attend such a meeting if that were helpful. It would be important if the Minister were to do that.

I echo the point that, because of the long history and tradition of the Sikh community in the UK, other countries in Europe will look at how we implement the directive. So far, that has not been done in a way that the community has consented to. I suggest that the Minister has that meeting and that the UK implements the directive in a way that enhances security at airports, that the community can go along with, and that means that other countries in Europe will look at our lead in implementing the directive. If that is not the case, we will have ongoing concern and distress in the community, and other countries in Europe perhaps going even further in causing distress to Sikh passengers passing through their airports.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) on securing the debate on this very important issue.

I should first respond straight away to the request for a ministerial meeting. I am very happy to agree to meet representatives of the Sikh community to discuss the issue. I will also respond to the questions about the Government’s approach. I emphasise that the Government are fully aware of the major importance of this issue for so many hon. Members who have turned up today and for the Sikh community. I appreciate and understand, as do my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government, the pivotal role of the turban in Sikh culture and religious observance, and the distress and concern caused by the possibility of a public hand search of a turban.

All of us in this Chamber, when we see a turban, understand the spiritual nature that it signifies. Does the Minister agree that the values of Sikhism—tolerance, self-discipline and respect for others—would, when applied to this policy, sort it out straight away? What we actually need is for our European partners to be told in no uncertain terms that we stick by the Sikh community in Britain and we want them to be shown respect.

Absolutely. As I shall go on to outline in my speech, the key to resolving the issue in a way that the Sikh community are happy with is to secure a change in EU rules. The Secretary of State is focused on that, as am I, and I will outline what we are doing on that in my remarks. We are anxious to resolve the issue in a way that is consistent with Sikh beliefs and values.

We are considering those in the Sikh community, and we appreciate and understand their circumstances. May I suggest that the Minister should also look at the issue of Christians having to go through a body search whenever they go through airports? I make that comment because some of my constituents have come to see me about this issue. Some have had metal parts put into their bodies through medical procedures, and have to be subjected to a strip search every time they go through an airport. We are looking at the issue in relation to Sikhs; will the Minister look at it in relation to Christians as well?

We always keep security arrangements under constant review, but I think that all of us here would agree that this issue has special resonance and concern for the Sikh community. Protecting air passengers from the threat of terrorism is crucial. Although several high-profile attempts to blow up commercial airliners have been foiled since 9/11, aviation remains, I am afraid, an iconic and enduring target for terrorists. The recent cargo bomb plot demonstrated once again that those wishing to launch attacks on aviation are well informed about the processes in place—any potential vulnerabilities could be exploited by terrorists.

As the threat evolves and as the terrorist groups devise more sophisticated plans to attack aviation, so our response must evolve. Working closely with airports, we regularly reassess our security regime to ensure that passengers and cargo are effectively screened, and that we comply with our international obligations. However, at the same time, we are very aware of the impact of screening measures on all communities and on the travelling public generally. We are always open to ideas on how to reduce inconvenience for passengers and to improve screening.

I note the Minister’s point. I challenge my constituency neighbour’s claim to represent more Sikhs than any other Member in the south—they have all moved to Slough now, and I represent them.

The issue is not only about getting European agreement but about consistency in UK airports. Previously, Heathrow had agreed to abide by the wand and swab arrangement, yet I hear from constituents working or travelling through there that it is not consistently applied. Would the Minister, in advance of any meeting with the community, meet with airport operators to ensure consistency within the individual airports?

The DFT is of course in touch with airports. There were some teething problems associated with the trial of alternative screening methods, but we are anxious to ensure that they are resolved.

In April last year, new European rules on the screening of headgear came into force, requiring headgear to be searched by hand whenever a passenger or member of staff triggers a walk-through metal-detector alarm or is selected at random for a search when entering a secure restricted area. The new rules immediately triggered serious concern in the Sikh community.

The coalition Government were not in office when the rules were adopted in Europe, but we acted swiftly in response to the opposition expressed by Sikhs about how the new rules were operating. Meetings with the Sikh community were held, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked UK airports to delay implementation of the new EU rules while we discussed with the community how to address its concerns. The Department also raised the issue with the European Commission, and further meetings with representatives of the Sikh community were held.

Following those meetings, we conducted laboratory tests using explosive trace detection equipment to identify, if possible, an alternative to a hand search that would give equivalent protection. I am grateful to all the members of the Sikh community who took part in those tests. Initial results indicated that the most effective alternative process involved the use of ETD coupled with a hand-held metal detector. Although the lab work produced some encouraging results, scientists recommended that a larger on-airport trial would be required before any final conclusions could be drawn. We then acted quickly and got permission from the European Commission to proceed with a larger trial, to establish formally whether a combination of ETD equipment and hand-held metal detectors could provide an effective screening method for religious headgear as an alternative to the EU rules which had caused such concern.

The Commission agreed to our request and the trial started on 14 February. It will last for 18 months and represents a crucial step forward towards the solution that everyone present in the Chamber wishes to achieve. Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted are all taking part, along with 19 other airports around the country. The trial is now in progress or due to commence shortly at most major UK airports. Seventeen of the top 20 airports are taking part, including Birmingham, which serves the region including the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West.

Once the trial had been approved by the European Commission, I am afraid that we could no longer postpone the implementation of the April 2010 rules, which I know caused disappointment—I fully recognise that—but our obligations under the EU treaty meant that we had no choice. Airports had either to comply with the EU regulation or to volunteer for the trial of the revised procedures for screening headgear. We were left with no other course of action.

I congratulate the Government on making progress on the issue, while trying to find a solution that works for everyone. Can the Minister clarify what ongoing discussions are happening between the Europe Minister and the European Commission to find a resolution as soon as possible?

A number of discussions have taken place with the European Commission. I shall report to it after this debate, to emphasise the serious concern expressed in Parliament about the issue and the importance that hon. Members place on achieving a resolution as quickly as possible.

The issue is important not only in the Sikh community; all other faith communities, as far as I am aware, are supportive of the view of the Sikh community, because they understand the respect-for-faith issues. The matter is now the dominant political issue in the Sikh community.

Before the Minister finishes her speech, I hope she can assure us that the Government’s position is that the outcome should be: no hand interference with the turban and no forced removal of it. If she can give that position statement on the Government’s behalf, we will know that we are aiming at the right place and, hopefully, that the negotiations will be a success.

Certainly our aim is to reach a solution that avoids public hand search and removal of the turban. That is what we want to reach, but we must be certain that effective alternative screening methods are available.

My officials have been working with the airport industry to encourage the widest possible participation in the alternative screening method trials, but such trials are voluntary. We cannot compel all airports to take part, but we are seeing real progress as the trial proceeds. We are getting a valuable, real-world opportunity to see how the technology works in practice. Only by such testing can we demonstrate and be certain that the method works. Only then, with such evidence, can we hope to secure a change to the European rules so that one day, we hope, all airports will offer the alternative screening method using a combination of ETD and hand-held metal detectors. My officials will pass the trial data to the European Commission, as part of our efforts to secure a resolution.

We are continuing to work hard with airports to ensure that the introduction of the trial methods proceeds smoothly and that any teething problems are resolved. Airports are committed to working with the community to resolve those difficulties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West highlighted concerns about search procedures in other EU member states. We have no power to tell other member states how to run their security procedures—that is a matter for them—but I appreciate the concern and unhappiness expressed in other member states about the searching of religious headgear.

Is the Minister willing to write to the partner states expressing the concerns of Members and of the communities represented at the debate, so that the member states can start listening as well? As previous speakers have said, there is a lack of understanding in the European countries about Sikh and other faiths.

That is a good idea. I am happy to write to the equivalent Ministers in other member states, pointing out the concerns expressed.

The strength and vibrancy of our Sikh community in the UK gives us a special interest in the issue, an insight we can usefully share with our European partners, so we will be doing our best to lead the debate not only with the Commission but with other member states. We are working hard for a solution. I appreciate that there is real frustration. Achieving the change we need will take time. Unfortunately, amending European law is never a speedy process. However, I would like to assure the Sikh community, all my hon. Friends and other Members present at the debate today that the Government take the issue very seriously.

Further meetings with the Sikh community are planned for May. We will continue to work hard on the issue and to engage closely with community leaders to maintain the highest levels of passenger security, but to do so in a culturally sensitive way which we hope will address the concerns of the Sikh community.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.