Monday 29 October 2018
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
Public Holidays on Religious Occasions
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 220501 and 221860 relating to holding public holidays on religious occasions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am pleased to open the debate about this interesting subject on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I thank the House for agreeing to the later start time to accommodate Members attending the Chamber for the Chancellor’s Budget statement, which I was able to hear myself.
I thank the Committee staff in the digital outreach team for their assistance with the consultation work that was conducted in advance of the debate. I am also grateful to the National Council of Hindu Temples UK, the Hindu Council UK, the National Secular Society and over 1,000 individual petitioners, most of whom are Muslim, who responded to the process. They provided me with valuable insights into the subject of public holidays and time off for religious occasions, as well as points and quotes that I will reference further.
Petition 220501 calls for public holidays on Muslim religious occasions and has more than 46,000 signatures. It states:
“This will give an opportunity for Muslim families to get together and share happiness with other religious communities. It is very important for Muslims to celebrate Eid.”
It adds that despite being the second largest UK religion,
“Muslims don’t get a lawful Public Holiday on their two special religious occasions in a year”.
Petition 221860 calls for public holidays on Hindu special occasions and has more than 11,000 signatures. It states:
“It is very important for Hindus to celebrate Diwali…Diwali—Festival of Lights is a major holiday that is also celebrated by Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs.”
It notes that Hinduism is the third largest religion in England but that Hindus do not get a “lawful Public Holiday” on religious occasions. The petition also asks for a public holiday on Dussehra.
Today is Budget day and the more numerate among us may have spotted that today’s petitions have fewer than 100,000 signatures, the threshold normally required for the Petitions Committee to schedule a debate. There are a number of factors for that, not least the absence of any petition over that threshold. When combined, these were among the next largest petitions, representing issues that primarily affect minority groups who may find it difficult to attract 100,000 signatures. The subject has not had a parliamentary debate since 2014 and is without doubt of interest to a significant number of people in the wider public.
It is fair to say that the petitions are essentially about the same issue: establishing public holidays for religious occasions. The Muslim and Hindu faiths are the second and third largest religions in the UK, the first being the Christian faith, which has public holidays during its major religious festivals at Easter and Christmas, as Members will be aware. It is equally fair to point out that the Government response to each petition is the same, stating:
“The Government has no plans to create a public holiday to commemorate religious festivals such as Eid”
and “such as Diwali.” The responses add that the costs are “considerable” and cite the example of the 2012 diamond jubilee holiday, which cost about £1.2 billion. The responses add:
“The Government regularly receives requests for additional bank and public holidays to celebrate a variety of occasions including religious festivals. However the current pattern is well established and accepted.”
I am sure that that will have disappointed the petitioners, but some comfort can be taken from the Government’s comment that:
“The Government is committed to bringing people together in strong, united communities. We encourage and support people to have shared aspirations, values and experiences.”
The responses note that festivals such as Eid, Diwali and Dussehra “contribute towards this objective”.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the debate. I spoke to him about the subject beforehand; I also discussed it with the Minister in the Tea Room earlier today. As a Christian, I value having public holidays to clearly mark the importance of religious holidays, but I understand that the Government are not disposed towards making that happen. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the strongest terms, employers should work with their employees to accommodate their wishes to take time off to celebrate Eid? Working with employers is probably the best way forward.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments; there is a lot of merit in what he suggests. I looked at various resources online in preparation for the debate, and ACAS gives very good advice to employers. I will address that point later in my speech, but we certainly need to highlight to the wider employing public the requirements to facilitate all religious faiths within the workforce.
I am sure that we all agree with the Government’s comments about trying to encourage greater engagement with communities. However, 87% of respondents to our consultation said that they felt that not allowing time off for religious occasions was discriminatory, while 84% felt that they could not ask for time off work or education for a religious occasion, so there are clearly underlying issues that need to be addressed.
I will start the debate with a range of questions. When are the festivals on which petitioners are requesting public holidays, and why are they important? Why do we have the public holidays that we have? How do we compare with other countries? How do we best achieve social cohesion across our multicultural societies? Last but not least, how do we satisfy the legitimate concerns of the petitioners? I will briefly take each question in turn.
First, when are the festivals on which petitioners are requesting public holidays, and why are they important? All four are moveable feasts; they are based on lunar calendars and are therefore not on fixed dates.
Eid al-Fitr is a Muslim festival that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. It is celebrated on the first day of Shawwal, the 10th month of the Islamic calendar, but in the Gregorian calendar it shifts yearly, falling about 11 days earlier each year. This year, it was on Friday 15 June, while next year it will be on Tuesday 4 June.
Eid al-Adha, the other Muslim festival, is celebrated following the annual pilgrimage—the Hajj—and falls on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic year. This year, it was on Tuesday 21 August; in 2019, it will be on Monday 12 August. The exact timing of each festival, however, is dependent on the sighting of the crescent moon following the new moon.
Diwali is the five-day festival of lights celebrated by Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Jains for a variety of reasons. It usually falls between mid-October and mid-November; it will be on Wednesday 7 November this year and on Sunday 27 October next year. The date is determined by the Hindu lunar calendar.
Dussehra is the Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of good over evil. It occurs on the 10th day of the month of Ashvin in the Hindu calendar; it was on Thursday 18 October this year and will be on Monday 7 October next year. It falls 20 days before Diwali. My thoughts and prayers go out to those who were affected by the Amritsar train accident, which killed 61 and injured many others during this year’s festivities. Sadly, the reporting of this tragedy on TV and in the news was how I learned the details of Dussehra.
The celebration of these festivals is very important to worshippers of the faiths concerned. They represent the most important occasions in their religious calendars. At a time when religious persecution is growing around the world, it is important that we do everything we can to protect people’s freedom to practise their religion or belief.
We can be very proud of the diversity of our nations within the UK. We have a modern multi-faith and multicultural society in which people of all faiths and none can follow their belief systems. However, we can never take that diversity and tolerance for granted, particularly as we have seen increased antisemitism and significant Islamophobia. Just yesterday, The Sunday Times reported on a poll in which 47% of respondents believed that Britain was becoming less tolerant of Muslims.
The Petitions Committee’s public engagement also suggests that things are not as good as they could be. Some 88% of those we engaged with felt that their community had few opportunities to get together to celebrate religious occasions. A large number of general comments that we received focused on fairness, inclusion and the need for religious diversity to be recognised through public holidays, while others spoke about wellbeing and benefits to society and the economy.
The Government’s response to the petitions focuses on the likely costs of holding an additional public holiday. Those costs could be very significant indeed, but they do not reflect the full economic impact because they would be partially offset by increased activity across the leisure, tourism and retail sectors as a result of domestic consumers enjoying time off. Enhancing our global reputation by recognising these festivals also has an unknown potential to attract international tourism.
Many people felt it unfair that although they were forced to take time off at Christmas and Easter, they struggled to get time off to celebrate their own religious festivals. Some 72% of respondents who identified themselves as directly affected said they had been refused time off work or education for a religious occasion. Similarly, 72% felt that their employer was not sympathetic to the request and did not understand its importance. Some of the respondents described the process of asking for time off for a religious occasion as “risky” or
“risking job prospects and growth”.
Many people said they were made to feel guilty for asking for time off to celebrate religious occasions.
The Hindu Council UK points out that without guaranteed time off for religious occasions people are
“penalised financially and spiritually by taking off time and thus losing income and forced to work (or study) at a time when there is a major religious celebration of their faith.”
The National Council of Hindu Temples UK advises:
“What should be a carefree positive celebration becomes tainted and stress laden and the final outcome is diminished”.
Two comments from the consultation, emphasising the issue of inclusion, are illustrative. One contributor said:
“Our government needs to guarantee its citizens the right to celebrate their particular religious festivals in order to make all its religious groups inclusive in modern British society.”
“I feel as a British citizen and a tax payer, I should have the right to have my religious day off without having to make me feel that I am not part of this country.”
We clearly have an issue: those are strong arguments that something needs to change.
Why do we have the public holidays that we have? That is an important point to reflect on, before we consider adding new ones or changing existing ones. The original bank holidays were established under the Bank Holidays Act 1871 as days when banks could close and all trade could cease. Across the UK there are now a variety of bank and public holidays. There are eight such days in England and Wales, nine in Scotland and 10 in Northern Ireland. The differences are that in Scotland we have 2 January as a holiday and not Easter Monday, and the first rather than the last Monday in August. We have St Andrew’s day in Scotland, and in Northern Ireland there are St Patrick’s day and the battle of the Boyne commemoration.
Most of those days are determined by statute under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971; some, such as new year’s day in England or the first Monday in May in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, are determined by royal proclamation under the 1971 Act; and some, such as Good Friday and Christmas day in England and Northern Ireland, are common law public holidays. The battle of the Boyne anniversary, proclaimed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has been a public holiday since 1926. The most recent addition, in 2007, was the St Andrew’s day holiday in Scotland. It is an official bank holiday, but it operates as a voluntary public holiday. Just to add to the complexity, bank holidays in Scotland are not necessarily public holidays, and public holidays can be set by local authorities.
Clearly, parts of the UK differ a bit as to the number of days, the specific days and how they have come about. It is also fair to point out that things have changed over time. Taking Scotland as an example, as I know it reasonably well, Christmas became a public holiday only in 1958, and Boxing day was added only in the early 1970s. Most of the current holidays are not on religious occasions, Easter and Christmas being the exceptions.
In comparing our holidays with those in other countries, I have not looked at the situation worldwide. However, compared with other European Union members we are at the bottom of the public holidays table. Countries with similar numbers of holidays to ours are Ireland with eight, Spain and Luxembourg with nine, and Hungary and Holland with 10. Every other EU nation has more, and Belgium and Latvia have as many as 17.
Of course, public holidays are only a part of the equation. Perhaps a better indicator is a person’s annual holiday entitlement, particularly as the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 does not automatically entitle workers to time off on bank holidays. Instead, the right to time off comes from their contract of employment, which will cover holidays, public holidays and holiday pay. Full-time workers in the UK generally have the right to 28 days’ paid leave per year, with public holidays included in that, which means that most people have about 20 days’ leave that they can take at other times.
Some employers may well require staff to work on bank holidays, which means that designating additional national holidays still might not deliver the effect sought by the petitioners. Concern has also been raised by the National Secular Society, which commented:
“A likely result of increasing the number of public holidays by including Muslim, Hindu, or other religious festivals would therefore be a decrease in the number of discretionary holidays workers can take.
Compelling those who do not celebrate minority faith festivals to take time off work risks causing unnecessary resentment and would harm efforts to promote a concept of common citizenship.”
That concern was echoed by those who chose to comment on the House of Commons Facebook post about today’s petitions. On that forum, the majority of commentators did not think that new religious public holidays should be introduced. Some, such as Giselle, argued that no religious occasions should be public holidays, and Tom said:
“Religion is a private matter for individuals, not the business of the state or whole society.”
Others suggested that dates such as St George’s day should be holidays. There is clearly a demand for various national days across our nations.
How are we best to achieve social cohesion across our multicultural societies? Clearly we have a conundrum. How do we succeed in bringing people together, and supporting religious festivals as a way of achieving that, without causing any resentment and inadvertently hampering that objective? Although today’s petitions relate primarily to Muslims and Hindus, it is worth remembering that there are many other religions in the UK with smaller faith communities, and that their festivals are equally important to their individual worshippers.
The situation was summed up well by the National Secular Society:
“The UK’s religious landscape is in a state of continuous change. Our population is more irreligious, yet more religiously diverse, than ever before. A multi-faith approach to holidays can therefore never serve the individual needs of the many different people who make up the UK, or adequately keep abreast with the changes in the UK’s demographics. A more practical and equitable approach is to give workers greater flexibility, where their work allows, to take holidays on the specific days that matter to them.”
That is a pragmatic suggestion, which is perhaps let down only by the apparent lack of awareness in society as a whole, and among employers in particular, of the significance of religious occasions—something I mentioned earlier in my remarks.
That lack of awareness featured repeatedly in the comments by petitioners, who made the point powerfully. Many people said that employers wanted holidays to be booked well in advance, which was particularly difficult for Eid, because it is lunar and not on a specific calendar date. They said that employers often did not understand it. One person said:
“It’s very difficult to bring it up as many don’t recognise religious occasions and how paramount they are for the ones celebrating.”
“I’m made to feel like they’ve done me a favour by giving me the day off. Sometimes they say they cannot give me the day off because I took the day off for the last Eid. They don’t think Eid is important.”
“The problem was mainly with my employer not understanding the importance of the occasion.”
“There is a lot of scepticism on non-Christian holidays at my work place—be it Eid or Diwali.”
One commentator said:
“Religious Holidays is sometimes spoken about like it’s a dirty subject and employers and schools do not understand the significance of it.”
That last point about schools is important, especially if communities wish to celebrate together and if religious families want their children to participate fully in their festivals. It can be difficult for pupils and students to get time off for religious festivals, and this year Eid al-Fitr fell within the GCSE exam timetable in England. In Scotland, Scottish Qualifications Authority examinations occur earlier, so that problem is heading in my Muslim constituents’ direction in a few years’ time. I ask Members from a Christian background to imagine for a moment what their thoughts would be if they or their constituents were required to sit exams on Christmas day, because that is the closest comparison. Clearly it puts students from faith backgrounds at a disadvantage.
That brings me to my last point about how to satisfy the legitimate concerns of the petitioners. Obviously, they would be delighted if the Government were to have a change of heart, and the Minister were to look at establishing public holidays for the largest minority religions. However, I suspect that that will not happen; indeed, I have in my remarks explored a variety of reasons why it might not be the best option. We do, however, have a problem that needs to be addressed, and I will make a few suggestions.
The hon. Gentleman referred to education. Does he feel, as I do, that raising awareness of other religious sects’ holidays through school education might be a way of gently pushing into people’s minds the importance of other celebration days for religious groups, whoever they may be? People might then say, “Do you know something? That is the way it should be.”
The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion is a good one, because if we educate people young enough, they learn the lessons for life and we do not have to keep re-educating people. There is some merit in that suggestion.
Most of the petitioners who responded to the survey, 52%, said that they would prefer a legal right guaranteeing time off work or education to celebrate religious occasions not currently recognised as public holidays, such as Eid and Diwali. A small number of people, 5%, wanted the ability to swap public holidays such as Easter for other religious occasions. I ask the Minister whether those suggestions could be considered as a possible way forward.
It is clear that at the very least we need greater understanding among employers about the significance of religious festivals for employees who are people of faith—I am referring to all faiths here. No one should feel discriminated against for practising their religion. We must all do more to improve awareness; I would like to hear the Minister advise how the Government can ensure that public bodies in particular take that on board. We also need action to ensure that all employers sympathetically consider requests for time off to celebrate festivals or attend ceremonies, whenever it is reasonable and practical for the employee to be away from work. That is something I believe many workplaces could manage, with some foresight and advance planning.
Surely it must also be possible to consider the likely dates of key festivals well in advance and avoid educational bodies’ setting exams on those potential dates. In the absence of formal holidays on those festival dates, there is a need to ensure that support is in place for pupils and students who miss routine coursework during any non-attendance. Believers should not be forced to choose between education and their faith. Again, I look forward to hearing the Minister address those points in the summing-up.
In conclusion, I hope that my summary of the issues raised in the petitions has done justice to the petitioners’ concerns, and helped to raise public awareness of the wider issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to follow the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day). I congratulate him and the Petitions Committee on tabling this timely and important debate. I led the debate in this place in 2014 on behalf of the Backbench Business Committee, which was responsible for petitions before we wisely set up the Petitions Committee. I am pleased to see that there is a 400% increase in Back-Bench interest in the debate today; clearly, we are gaining ground. We have a new Minister and a new Opposition spokesman, whom we can possibly convince of the wisdom of seeking to increase the number of public holidays on a religious basis in this country.
It is often said that the costs of public holidays are damaging to the economy, but as the hon. Gentleman said in his introduction, we have the fewest public holidays among our neighbours. We have fewer public holidays than the United States of America, which is often seen as the great bastion of free enterprise and of driving forward and therefore as discouraging people from taking holidays.
There is a clear issue here. The Chancellor today stressed the importance of improving Britain’s productivity. Providing people with a holiday increases their productivity, because people rest, recharge their batteries and come back to work far better off, rather than being forced to work long hours. I think it is the Leader of the Opposition who has been speaking about having a four-day week across the UK. I would not go as far as that, but it is important that, as we drive forward as a country, we should look at having potentially more public holidays, where people can take time off with their families and have the opportunity of some leisure time to gain the benefits of an advanced economy.
The hon. Gentleman has set out the position on public holidays now. If we look at them throughout the year, we have, broadly speaking, the Easter holidays, which are around March and April—by the way, they are not fixed; they change from year to year as well. We have public holidays on the first and last Monday in May, to go with some decent weather—[Laughter.] Well, hopefully we will have some decent weather, but I know that is tempting fate most years. Then there is the last Monday in August, which also shifts around each year. Then we have Christmas and Boxing day in December and, finally, the new year’s break.
The reality is that, when those fall at weekends, the public holidays shift accordingly, to fall within the working week. It is not the case that we have public holidays specified on particular dates. One of the objections that has been suggested is that, because religious festivals may fall on days other than working days and are not necessarily completely predictable—although I would argue that they are—we could not have a public holiday during the week to celebrate the religious holidays when they fall at weekends.
One important issue is that, while Eid advances each year with the end of Ramadan, generally speaking it falls at the end of June or thereabouts. That is quite helpful to break up the year during the summer. Equally, Diwali is between October and November, as has been said, and breaks up the period between the August bank holiday and Christmas. I would go further, because the hon. Gentleman mentioned many of the great religions of the world, but not Judaism. I think we should have a holiday based around Judaism as well. That could fall on either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, both of which tend to occur in September.
In our much more diverse country, as it is now, we have great adherence to religious faith, particularly among the great religions, but it is concentrated in particular areas. We are coming up to Diwali; indeed, the big holiday will not be Diwali itself, but the day after, which is the Hindu new year. That is when people of the Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist faiths will all go to their temples to pray for health, wealth and happiness in the new year, and will meet their families in the afternoon—a day when the people of those religions will, frankly, not be working anyway. Why not recognise that fact and give everyone the opportunity to have a day off and recharge on that basis?
Equally, at Eid, when we come to the end of Ramadan and people are exhausted from the days of fasting, there is a day of prayer. Why should that not also be a public holiday, particularly given the range of Muslims now in this country? We should recognise that fact and lead on to it.
I have mentioned Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, and I think a consultation with the Jewish community would be well received. It is a requirement among people of the Jewish faith to fast, go to the synagogue and pray, breaking their fast at the end—funnily enough, there are many similarities between the Muslim and Jewish faiths on that particular issue. During those times, it is fundamental that someone who is Jewish observes both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even if they do not follow all the rest of the religious holidays.
I suggest that the three dates I have put forward—both in 2014, when I led the debate here, and now—fit what we seek to do, which is to increase the number of public holidays in the United Kingdom, spread them across the year and build them around religious faith, so that those who are of religious faith can celebrate their faith and not be forced to work or, indeed, to compete for opportunities to take time off. That is one of the fundamental things that are vital in terms of fairness and opportunity for everyone. There is certainly a case for extra public holidays based on faith, and I strongly support it.
I notice that the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), my constituency neighbour, is here. The London Borough of Harrow has the greatest adherence to religious faith of any place in the country. People celebrate their religion and follow it strongly, and I invite colleagues to come and visit during a faith day, because they will see people celebrating their faith and taking time off work to be with their families, as they should. It is right that we should enshrine that in legislation, giving people the opportunity to celebrate the faith of their choice.
I know that there are objections to proposals such as this, be it from secularists or even the Government, based on the cost of providing such holidays. However, I suggest that the cost to industry of disruption from people of religious faith taking time off work is far greater than if those days were given as public holidays, with everybody then knowing when those days will be. Some people would object, saying that we cannot predict when Eid or Diwali will fall, but actually we can, because as was rightly said, they are decided by the phase of the moon. In times gone by, astronomers studied that very carefully. We can now, with a certain conviction, predict when the holidays will fall and set the public holidays far in advance.
In order to fulfil that, we may have to change the day of the week on which a public holiday falls, but that should not be a distraction in any case. Why should we limit ourselves to having public holidays only on Mondays? We do not do that for Christmas. When Christmas falls on a Saturday or Sunday, we will have Boxing day and then a public holiday, or possibly two, after. We unnaturally limit ourselves by only holding bank holidays on Mondays.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting forward a powerful argument and request for special days for different religious sects. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) referred, as did I in my intervention, to the greater capacity of employers to work with employees, but the hon. Gentleman has not referred to that yet. Does he feel that there is a halfway house towards that, with employers playing their part for employees who need those extra days off? Does he feel that that is the way forward?
There are clearly two issues. There are private employers and there are public sector bodies. We would clearly require people, as we do currently, to work in hospitals, the fire brigade and the police—I could continue naming other public services—on bank holidays or public holidays. However, I see no reason at all why appropriate arrangements should not be made to enable people of different faiths to work on different public holidays, flexing the workforce according to the requirements of a particular company or service. What is wrong with that?
I strongly support the principle of providing more public holidays—we have far too few in this country—and I strongly believe that we should base them around the major religions, to demonstrate that we celebrate all religions. We should consult with those communities, and particularly their leaderships, on when such public holidays should be held, whether they should be on the particular day of the week that the religious holiday falls on, and how they should be implemented, together with how firms and public services should operate. This idea would certainly meet with great enthusiasm among the general public and would give great certainty to employers, who would know what the position would be with their employees. We could predict these things in advance, so they could be planned in the calendar, rather than having people who celebrate particular faiths taking days off.
When I was a councillor in the London Borough of Brent, every religious holiday was programmed out of our calendars so that no meetings could take place on those days. Many days were declared as unacceptable for holding committee meetings or full council meetings or such like. If a London borough can do that, so can this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to take part in the debate. I strongly echo the support we have heard for public holidays on Diwali, Dussehra, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. I find myself agreeing with the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman)—a most unusual position for me—that the two most important days of the Jewish calendar are also very worthy of reference in a debate such as this.
I commend the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) and the Petitions Committee for initiating the debate, which is surely about the ambition of the Muslim and Hindu communities to recognise their most holy of days with public holidays and about their demanding that they are better valued, as communities and individuals, by the country in which they live. I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that it beggars belief that exams are allowed to take place on such important occasions. Just as with Brent Council, Harrow Council makes a point of not holding significant council meetings on days when important holidays are taking place within the communities that they serve.
I must confess that I have always supported increasing the number of public holidays and have always been sceptical of the claim that doing so would cost an arm and a leg. It is difficult to believe that the bank holiday granted for the diamond jubilee cost employers around £1.2 billion. I suspect that that is about as robust a statistic as one from the Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum. I welcome that the Labour party is committed to making the national days of the home nations public holidays, but I ask Front-Bench Members, as I ask the Government, to go further.
The hon. Member for Harrow East alluded to the idea of a four-day week, which is no longer seen as a completely mad, hare-brained idea. There are progressive employers that have already introduced four-day weeks for their employees, or that are generous in giving employees time off to attend to matters of personal importance or to celebrate religious occasions. It really should not be beyond the wit of the greatest country on earth to find a way to grant public holidays for these hugely important days.
It is worth spelling it out that Islam and Hinduism are the second and third largest religions in the country. Islam represented almost 5% of the UK population as far back as 2011; I suspect that figure is higher now. Hinduism represents more than 1.5% of the English population, and I am pleased to say that many Hindus live in my constituency.
Let me start with Diwali and Dussehra, which are both major Hindu festivals. I intend to spend much of Diwali visiting some of the great temples that serve my constituency, be it the International Siddhashram Shakti centre, Stanmore temple—that is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Harrow East, but we think of it as in Harrow West—or, in Brent, Neasden temple, which is one of the great Hindu temples worldwide and which many of my constituents attend regularly, particularly during Diwali.
Diwali symbolises the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. During the celebration, temples, homes, shops and office buildings owned by the community are brightly illuminated. One of the great joys of Diwali is seeing such celebration and such light.
Other faiths celebrate their respective festivals alongside Diwali. The Jains—it has been an honour today to attend the Jitopreneurs event taking place in the House of Lords—observe their own Diwali, alongside the Hindu Diwali. There is a Jain temple in Kenton Road; that, too, is not quite in Harrow West, although we see it as in Harrow West. There is a temple in Hayes, which many of the Jains in my constituency attend. The most important Jain temple in the UK is at Potters Bar, and many of my constituents will go there to celebrate Diwali.
It is worth spelling it out that the festival of Diwali is already an official holiday in a number of countries around the world, many of which have hugely close links to the UK. If it can be achieved that Diwali is marked in other countries, why cannot it be marked in the UK?
Dussehra, too, is a major Hindu festival and it is celebrated at the end of Navratri every year. It is observed in different ways from Diwali and is to remember the goddess Durga’s victory over the buffalo demon Mahishasura to restore and protect dharma. It is equally, if not more, important.
The two Muslim events that the petitioners understandably think should be marked as public holidays are Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Adha is arguably the most holy of days, coming as it does at the end of the annual Hajj to Mecca—arguably one of the most remarkable acts of pilgrimage of any faith worldwide. It honours the willingness of Ibrahim—Abraham—to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God’s command, so even those of us of a Christian faith can recognise the significance of that moment without, surely, too much thought or effort. Eid al-Fitr is also a hugely important religious holiday for many of my constituents. It celebrates the conclusion of the 29 or 30 days of dawn-to-sunset fasting during the month of Ramadan.
On those occasions, the Salaam centre in north Harrow in my constituency, Harrow central mosque and, indeed, Stanmore mosque in the constituency of the hon. Member for Harrow East, which many of my constituents attend, are hugely busy places as people from my constituency attend to mark days that are of huge spiritual significance to them.
I recognise that there has traditionally been a reluctance with regard to the change that is sought, so it is worth my pointing out, as others have, that England and Wales have the lowest number of public holidays. Germany, whose economy some would say is doing slightly better than ours at the moment, has almost 50% more public holidays than the UK and productivity that is significantly higher. If Germany can make its economy work well with a larger number of public holidays, why on earth should not England and Wales—and, indeed, Scotland and Northern Ireland—do so as well?
Given that I suspect that the Front Benchers will not immediately cave today and say that they will support this change, I shall briefly mention an initiative from the United States, where the most progressive employers have introduced paid personal days for staff members to enable them to observe religious occasions or to use them for other personal reasons. They are not written into law as such, but they are a concept widely recognised by employers. Perhaps with tax incentives to assist, even the most recalcitrant of employers’ organisations might be willing to recognise that that could be a route, initially, to help employers to adjust to their employees being able to take time off to, perfectly reasonably, celebrate those two hugely important sets of public holidays in the Hindu community and the Islamic calendar.
In a spirit of optimism but also of hard-nosed realism, I recognise that those of us on the Back Benches still have some way to go to push Ministers and Opposition Front Benchers to accept the case for further paid public holidays to recognise important religious occasions, but I hope that this debate will contribute to that process and reassure those of Hindu or of Islamic faith that there are Members of Parliament who are determined to make the case for the special and holy days of their religion to be recognised in the way they should be.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on his extremely informative introduction to the debate on behalf of the about 60,000 people who have signed the two petitions that we are considering. He and other hon. Members made powerful cases for the changes that we are discussing. He articulated well, as other Members did, the broader point that we have far fewer public holidays than our counterparts in the European Union, and those of us who live in England and Wales have, sadly, even fewer than those who live in other parts of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that the Government get many requests—perhaps the Minister will tell us exactly how many she gets—for holidays, for all manner of occasions; that probably happens very regularly. His observation that the dates of all the festivals that we are talking about change from year to year was important in terms of the challenges that that presents as regards additional planning. It is a practical reason why, if the Government were minded to accede to the request, it would probably take considerable consultation and discussion to facilitate it.
I was disturbed to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments about how many people in surveys feel that we are becoming a less tolerant society. All hon. Members present will have been disturbed to hear that. I think that it is a much wider issue than the question of public holidays that we are considering today.
The hon. Gentleman was right to point out that some employers require people to work on bank holidays and to take time off on another occasion. In that regard, as other hon. Members have mentioned, we should pay tribute to those people in the public sector who keep the country going on such occasions—for example, those who work in the NHS, the police, the emergency services and the utilities, those who work as care workers, and those who work in many other organisations that provide a service that cannot simply shut down for public holidays. We should recognise that that is an important part of this discussion.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned, as did other hon. Members, that there is a lack of awareness among employers about the meaning and importance of some religious holidays. I hope the Minister will comment on how we can spread information and best practice, so that people do not feel inhibited from requesting particular days off.
The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) made a strong case—as he did in his contribution to the House in 2014, which I read in preparation for this debate—in terms of productivity. I found it quite interesting, and I will return to later. He also discussed, as did a number of other Members, the fact that public holidays are not fixed in the way that we might assume they are. Easter, for example, moves from year to year, although it does fall on the weekends, which makes it slightly easier to plan for in advance, as there is an established pattern.
There is merit in the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that employers could have some flexibility to cater for different religious holidays. That is something that the Government could encourage public sector employers to look at, without the need for any legislative changes.
It was a pleasure, as always, to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas). He clearly stated his support for more public holidays. He was sceptical about the arguments about financial costs, which I will return to later. I agree that it should not be beyond the wit of most employers to grant holidays for staff to be able to observe religious festivals—after all, a full-time employee in this country is entitled to 28 days a year, which is over two days a month. That should be enough latitude for most employers to be able to deal with any requests.
I thank my hon. Friend for enlightening me on the background to some of these religious occasions and their significance. He spoke about personal days in the United States—an interesting example that I am not aware of, but I will look into it. However, we already have 28 days allocated to employees, which I think ought to be more than sufficient to cope with the kind of issues we are discussing.
This is the first debate I have responded to as the interim shadow Minister, and I welcome the opportunity it gives me to reflect on the huge contribution made to this country by people of the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh faiths, and also the many other religions that contribute to the diversity and economic wellbeing of our country. However, we cannot accept the contribution of these extremely important communities without recognising, as we do in this House, the festivals of Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Diwali and Dussehra. We also recognise that they are an important and integral part of each of those communities’ faiths.
I have had the pleasure—as I am sure many hon. Members have—of joining Muslim friends at an Eid al-Fitr, which is also known as the feast of fast breaking. It is not only a spiritual time, but one of community and celebration. It brings people together in my own community in very important ways for cohesion and tolerance. Anyone who has had the pleasure of being involved in or invited to a Diwali celebration knows that it is a fantastic occasion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West said, it symbolises the victory over evil and the victory of light over darkness, which has parallels with many other religions.
While Muslims and Hindus represent the largest religious groupings in this country after Christians, there are many other faiths, some of which we have mentioned today—for example, Buddhism and Judaism. Those communities’ faiths are just as important to them as those of any other religious group are to its members, and it is important for those faiths to have the same opportunities to participate in ceremonies of significance for them. I appreciate that their numbers as a proportion of the population as a whole are smaller, but that does not make their faith any less important.
That raises the question of whether there should be any threshold for official recognition of public holidays for religious festivals. When one considers that one in four people does not subscribe to any faith at all—they are by far the biggest group in this country after Christians—arguments on the basis of numbers begin to look slightly less robust.
Therefore, a better approach is to ensure that all employers, including those who run business models that do not consider the people who work for them to be employees, recognise the importance of faith and religious festivals, and are as flexible as they can be, to accommodate the beliefs of their employees. Happy workers, respected workers and valued workers are, I hope, productive workers, so there is a clear benefit to the employers and the wider economy in recognising and respecting the importance of these festivals when decisions are made about annual leave.
It is not just about time off for religious holidays. There are also periods of fasting during daylight hours, or required prayers at certain times of day, which are just as important as annual festivals. That opens up a series of very complex issues, for which it is not practical to legislate in each and every instance. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, the onus is on employers to do what they can to facilitate people observing their particular religions. It is useful to remind ourselves that discrimination against individuals on the grounds of religion or belief is unlawful. The official ACAS advice sums up the situation well:
“Many religions have specific days or periods throughout the year that involve additional religious observances for followers. The nature, duration and requirements vary depending upon the holy day or religious festival, and can also vary depending on the personal religious beliefs of an individual. It is useful for both employees and employers to give thought to any impact this may have in the workplace, as simple and well-planned arrangements can help manage everyone's expectations.”
It is about being considerate, communicating and, on occasion, compromising. Our workplaces should be places of tolerance. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said that people have reported that they felt that it was risky to ask their employers for time off—a very sad state of affairs.
The main thrust of the e-petition is the case for public holidays for specific religious festivals and, although I am not persuaded—for reasons that I have given—that additional public holidays should be attached to particular religious occasions, I am convinced that, overall, there is a case for a greater number of public holidays than we currently enjoy. As we have heard, at present we have the lowest number of bank holidays in the EU, where the overall average is 12, while further afield, Japan has 16 days and India has 18. Even within the UK, England and Wales do slightly worse that Scotland and Northern Ireland.
As I am sure hon. Members know, Labour’s manifesto made clear that St George’s day, which is England’s national day as well as Shakespeare’s birthday, would be made a public holiday, along with St David’s day, St Andrew’s day and St Patrick’s day. We believe that those holidays will give workers a chance to spend time with their families and friends in their communities, as well as the opportunity to celebrate the national cultures of our proud nations.
As other hon. Members have mentioned, the counter-argument is that bank holidays cost the economy, but I think it is extremely difficult to pinpoint the exact economic impact. For example, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport estimated that the impact of the diamond jubilee on GDP would be somewhere between a gain of £1.1 billion and a loss of £3.6 billion. For just one day in the calendar to produce such a wide range in estimated economic impact shows how difficult it is to put a precise figure on this.
People are not economically inactive on such days. Certain sectors, such as hospitality, retail, leisure and tourism will undoubtedly benefit, and in addition, the Bank of England believes that economic activity is more likely to be delayed than lost. The logical conclusion of accepting the economic loss argument would be that we should have no public holidays at all, but that would ignore the wider benefits of a rested and balanced workforce and the inconvenient fact that we have a lower number of public holidays and lower productivity than most of our major competitors, as most hon. Members have mentioned.
Measured by output per hour, productivity in the UK is 13% below the G7 average, and since 2010 productivity growth in the UK has more or less stalled. As the excellent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Commission on Social Justice made clear, the roots of our productivity crisis lie far deeper than the number of hours a person works in a particular week. As hon. Members have said, if predictions of significant job losses due to automation and artificial intelligence are correct, should we not begin to consider whether that shift in working patterns is an opportunity to enable everyone to have more leisure time?
When the Minister responds, I am sure she will not agree about the merits of increasing the number of bank holidays. Does she have any up-to-date information as to why? What recent and detailed assessment have the Government made of the number of bank holidays in Britain? What assessment has been made about whether holidays are spaced in the most effective way? What is the Government’s latest assessment of the benefits and costs to the UK of any additional bank holidays?
Bank holidays, like all our statutory annual leave, are beneficial only if workers are able to enjoy them. They are normally included as part of a full-time employee’s 28 days annual leave, as guaranteed by the Working Time Regulations 1998, but concern has rightly been raised in some quarters that our impending exit from the European Union could result in a weakening of workers’ rights, particularly given the number of prominent Conservative Members who argued during the referendum campaign that the laws emanating from Europe on annual leave should be scrapped. Even the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), said in 2011:
“Britain should secure a total opt-out from the Working Time Directive and scrap the UK Regulations, ensuring that this costly, anti-jobs legislation cannot cause further damage to the economy.”
When the Minister responds, I am sure that she will be keen to put on the record an absolute commitment that the Working Time Regulations 1998, as currently adhered to in this country, will not be scrapped, watered down or altered in any way when we leave the EU; that the full-time entitlement to 28 days paid leave as a minimum will continue; that entitlement to daily and weekly rest breaks will continue; and that holiday entitlement will continue to accrue during maternity, paternity and adoption leave and while a worker is off sick.
Holiday entitlement does not cover the whole UK workforce. People who are self-employed are in a different situation. In principle, they can take leave when they want—
Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman some latitude, but we are talking about a petition and not general working time directives or other things. He should confine his remarks to the need for the petition to be discussed.
Thank you, Mrs Main.
I was merely explaining that some workers in the gig economy, who are perhaps falsely labelled as self-employed, may not be able to take advantage of holiday entitlements. Has the Minister made an assessment of the number of people denied the right to annual holidays as a result of being incorrectly labelled as self-employed?
In theory, flexibility should mean that there is no issue, but we have heard too many tales of one-sided flexibility. It is important that people of every religion have the right to exercise their religious observance, regardless of their employment status. What steps have been taken to ensure that those employed on zero-hours contracts or in agency work are not subsequently penalised for taking time off to observe religious festivals? With so much work in the gig economy dictated by algorithms on a phone, what steps can the Government take to ensure that no particular religion is disadvantaged by the way those apps operate? That is important, because those apps work only as well as the information that is submitted to them. I am not sure that it is clear that software programmers would think about religious observance when they are working on those apps.
The real problem is enforcement. Rights are only as strong as an individual’s ability to exercise them. To raise concerns about holiday entitlement requires cases to be taken up with an employment tribunal, which until recently attracted a fee imposed by the Government. Even without the fee structure, where cases are complex, like those in the gig economy, representation is often required. Even then, employers can choose not to comply with tribunal decisions. Tomorrow, Uber will go to the Appeal Court to fight a two-year-old ruling that its drivers should be entitled to holiday pay. In those two years, Uber has not paid a penny to the drivers. It is estimated that they are owed about £18,000 each in lost entitlement.
As the Minister knows, where the minimum wage has not been paid, the Department investigates—
Order. I am struggling to see how that is relevant. The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting remarks, but if he could confine them to the need to have holidays for religious observance, as the petition outlines, I would be grateful. I would like to hear the Minister’s response to that part of the debate.
I would suggest that it is important to look at all forms of workplace structure—
Order. And, I would suggest, so long as it is in line with the debate that is on the table.
I am coming to a conclusion anyway.
Will the Minister look at occasions where holiday entitlement is not observed? Could the Department adopt a naming and shaming policy, as it has for minimum wage cases?
In conclusion, the debate has reminded us of the need to recognise the importance of respecting and facilitating the opportunity for people of all faiths to observe their religious festivals, but also to think more broadly about the importance of being able to access the right to paid leave.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Main. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) as Opposition spokesperson for the first time. It is good to be here.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) not only for introducing the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee, but for his thoughtful and informative speech. I thank the other hon. Members who have taken part, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). It was great to hear how he led the charge for a similar debate in 2014. He is a big champion of the diverse community in Harrow East. I am also grateful to the people who signed the e-petitions that have brought us here today.
I am proud that we are one of the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith societies. We should all be proud of that diversity, which is at the heart of our economic success. It has made us the strong, vibrant nation we are today.
The Government welcome the celebration of Diwali, Eid and other religious festivals. This year, the festival of Diwali will take place on 7 November and I send my best wishes to everyone who will be celebrating in Britain and around the world. Downing Street will host its Diwali celebration on 15 November.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, who is rightly extolling the virtues of Diwali. We will be celebrating Diwali in Parliament on Wednesday. I have the honour of hosting the event on the Terrace. She and all hon. Members are welcome to join us between 4 o’clock and 6 o’clock. Equally, as she is keen to understand the importance of these days, I invite her to join me on Hindu new year’s day, when I shall be visiting no fewer than 11 temples and celebrating with the people who are celebrating that key day.
I thank my hon. Friend for the invite. Last year or the year before, I attended a similar event, so I look forward to attending this year. I also thank him very much for his invitation to visit 11 different temples; I am not too sure whether I can agree to that at this point, but—
One is enough.
One is enough, but I thank my hon. Friend for his invitation. As he highlighted earlier, many parliamentarians throughout the country will celebrate that day with their constituents, as he will, and they will ensure that they are present at a lot of these events.
As Members will know, the current pattern of bank holidays is well established. There are eight permanent bank and public holidays in England and Wales. Scotland has nine and Northern Ireland has 10. The Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 allows for dates to be changed or other holidays to be declared. This allows for holidays to be declared to celebrate special occasions or one-off events.
The Government regularly receive requests for additional bank and public holidays to celebrate a wide variety of occasions. Recent requests have included public holidays to commemorate our armed forces, to mark particular royal events and to celebrate certain sporting successes. We carefully consider every request that we receive.
Although the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk has made a powerful case today, the Government do not believe that it is necessary for such extra bank holidays to be declared, for reasons that I will now outline. First, the costs to the economy of introducing new public holidays are considerable. The most recent assessment of an additional holiday for the diamond jubilee, which has been spoken about today, showed a total cost to employers of around £1.2 billion. Depending on the nature of the holiday that is being proposed, costs may be partially offset by increased revenues for businesses in the leisure and tourism sectors, and by a boost in retail spending. However, it is not expected that public holidays for Eid or Diwali would result in an increase in tourism.
Although bank holidays have become widely observed, workers do not have a legal right to take time off for specific bank holidays or to receive extra pay for them; that depends on the terms of their employment agreement and contract. In the UK, full-time workers receive a minimum annual leave entitlement of 28 days. That is a combination of eight days to represent bank holidays and the EU minimum annual leave of 20 days. The extra eight days of leave do not need to be taken on bank holidays themselves, giving workers flexibility. Many employers offer extra leave entitlement on top of the statutory minimum.
It is at the heart of the Government’s quality of work agenda to encourage employers to respond flexibly and sympathetically to any requests for leave, including for religious holidays. The relationship between the worker and the manager is a key aspect of good quality work. Part of a sound relationship is mutual respect and a willingness to accommodate a worker’s religious or cultural commitments.
I will now touch on a few points that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk made. Discrimination in the workplace is not tolerated and is completely unacceptable, so I was very sad to hear about some of the issues that he raised and about some of the feelings that individuals have expressed, which he referred to in his speech.
The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about swapping religious festivals, but, as I outlined earlier, people do not necessarily have to take bank holidays off, so there is flexibility with the annual leave entitlement for people to make use of that time on their own particular religious holidays.
However, the heart of the argument is around making sure that we do all we can, as a Government, to ensure that employers are sympathetic to the needs of their workers. As everyone who has spoken here today has outlined, the key to the success of companies and businesses is the happiness of their employees. As a Government, we will continue to encourage business to respect people’s views and meet their needs.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the issue of education, which is an important part of this debate. I can only speak about my own experience from when I was at school. Even then, in the ’70s—well, in the ’80s, I should say—[Interruption.] Yes, I was at school in the ’80s. Actually, I benefited at my comprehensive school from a really good religious education, which did not just focus on Christianity; it covered all the other major religions that are present in this country, too. So I found that, both at school and after I left school, I was in an environment that was very multicultural, even in the ’80s, and I believe that I left school with a good understanding of many of the religions that we have spoken about today. Nevertheless, that is something that we must keep abreast of, and I am sure that the Department for Education will welcome the questions that have been put to it today.
I will just mention a couple of points that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East made. He is a strong champion for his constituency and it was great to hear him also talking about Jewish holidays and his constituency. He mentioned the need for employers to understand and to be sympathetic to the needs of particular individuals, and we will continue to monitor that.
I thank the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), who is another strong champion for his constituency, for his contribution. However, even though he was very determined that he wants to increase the number of public holidays, I am yet to be convinced about the type of extension that suggested. Nevertheless, it was great that he was able to make his point.
Finally, I will touch on the contribution by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. As I have outlined, we receive a lot of requests for different holidays. We have had requests for St George’s day and an “EU independence” day, and very recently there was a request regarding Harry and Meghan’s wedding. I am sure that the requests for new bank holidays will continue as time goes on, and I am also sure that all the constituents out there would always relish the thought of another day off work. The hon. Gentleman also talked about employers’ awareness of religion, and that is key to what I will come on to later.
I noticed that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that bank holidays could be directly relatable to the productivity of employees, and I think that is a theory that might be tested. However, he also mentioned that with our move to new technology, such as artificial intelligence and robots, there will definitely be job losses. The Government are committed to ensuring that we can provide an economy, a workplace and the skills and jobs that will keep people employed. I am not yet convinced that we need to establish more bank holidays on the back of that change, but he probably has a counterargument.
I will make two quick points to address some of the hon. Gentleman’s other comments. First, I understand that he has asked some questions around the assessment of the cost of bank holidays. Since I became the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I have not done that assessment, but it would be an interesting area to consider. However, I would always argue that the costs that have been established could be, in reality, potentially higher, so it would be interesting to see who was right and who was wrong on that point.
Regarding our leaving Europe, we have been clear on workers’ rights. As we leave Europe, this Government have been clear that we will not make any concessions in relation to the workers’ rights that we already have, and that we want to ensure that our workers’ rights are protected and built upon. I think that the Prime Minister has been very clear on that.
On the hon. Gentleman’s comment about self-employment, and self-employed people not necessarily being able to benefit from bank holidays, the whole essence of being self-employed is around the flexibility of work; self-employed people are not subjected to the same restraints as full-time employees with regard to their holiday entitlement. So, although he makes a point around self-employment, self-employed individuals actually have a lot more flexibility than others do, particularly to enjoy the religious festivals that they may want to observe.
The point about self-employment is that many people are genuinely self-employed, but a group of people, particularly in the gig economy, do not have the same flexibilities. It is the situation of those people that I wanted the Minister to address.
Flexibility is key for self-employment, but with regard to the group of people he mentions who are working on such contracts, there is a ban on exclusivity and those individuals are still given the opportunity to request the holiday that they are entitled to as flexible workers with accrued holidays.
In our industrial strategy, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy took responsibility for reporting on and improving the quality of work across the UK. That was a key recommendation of the Taylor review of modern employment practices. In his review, Matthew Taylor set out an overarching ambition that all work in the UK economy should be fair and decent, with realistic scope for development and fulfilment, and that is an ambition of this Government. Although being in employment is vital to people’s health and wellbeing, the quality of the work is also a major factor in helping them to remain healthy and fulfilled.
We know that working flexibly helps people to balance their work and personal lives. Certain approaches to flexible working can allow people to build up additional leave entitlements, to use however they choose. Such flexibility is vital in creating an inclusive economy. Employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service already have the right to request flexible working. That accounts for more than 90% of employees, which sends a clear signal that flexible working is a normal practice for anyone in the workplace and not limited to those with caring responsibilities. The Government would like to take that further. We announced earlier this month that we will consider a new duty on employers to advertise all jobs as flexible, turning the tables on flexible working from something an employee might consider requesting into something an employer will consider offering.
Britain is a great place to live. However, we cannot ignore the fact that in too many parts of our country, communities feel divided. The Government are fully committed to the principles of freedom of religion and belief. I am proud that this country has in place some of the strongest protections in the world to allow people to practise their faith or belief. More than that, we understand that faith communities make a valuable contribution to our society by creating strong social networks, supporting vulnerable people, undertaking charitable work and providing education. We continue to support interfaith work as a means of breaking down barriers between communities and building greater trust and understanding.
Since 2011, the Government have funded the Church Urban Fund’s near neighbours programme, which brings people from diverse faiths and backgrounds together to increase trust and understanding. More than 1,600 local community integration projects have been funded, across 40 local authority areas, and more than a million people have benefited. We also fund the work of the Inter Faith Network for the UK, to facilitate dialogue between faith communities and run the annual interfaith week.
Our industrial strategy commits us to doing more to address the under-representation of people from minority ethnic backgrounds in the labour market. That is good for society and good for business. The McGregor-Smith review estimated that equal employment and progression across ethnicities could be worth £24 billion to the UK economy per year. I encourage employers to look at the review. It provides concrete actions that can be taken to identify and tackle any workplace barriers. As an example, it sets out how staff networks can be a forum for the discussion of how a business can take account of holidays or festivals in an equitable way.
On 11 October, Business in the Community published a one-year-on report on progress against the review’s recommendations. Although there were areas of progress, and significant effort from the Government and employers, I was disappointed to see that that was not always reflected in employees’ lived experiences. One in four employees from a minority ethnic background had witnessed or experienced racial harassment or bullying from managers in the previous two years—an appalling statistic. Only 35% of people felt comfortable talking about their religion in their organisation, and only 38% felt comfortable talking about race. We must ensure that workplaces are comfortable places for the discussion of difference, so that everyone can contribute their perspectives and experiences.
The Prime Minister launched the race in the workplace charter on 11 October, through which organisations sign up to five practical calls for action to ensure that they are tackling barriers faced by people from ethnic minorities in the workplace. The charter builds on a number of the recommendations of the McGregor-Smith review, and I encourage employers to sign up to it.
All this afternoon’s contributions have been informative and respectful. It has been a great debate and I thank all the constituency MPs who have spoken. I know that there will be disappointment that the Government have been unable to support the e-petitions for public holidays for Eid and Diwali, but I have welcomed the opportunity to set out our commitment to a fair and flexible workplace for all. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk for introducing the debate today.
We have had a very interesting debate, and Members have made some very good points. I am very grateful to the hon. Members for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) for their contributions. They added some good points, such as the situation with Brent Council’s diary and the idea of paid personal days.
There can be no doubt that the percentage of our society’s population that is of other faiths is increasing, so perhaps, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) suggested, there needs to be threshold for such holidays at a future point. There is certainly much work that we need to do between now and then. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made some very good points about education and the need to work with employers, and that is definitely a way forward. I am encouraged by some of the Minister’s comments regarding the new duty on employers and the work being done to tackle workplace barriers, and we need to ensure that that information is relayed to all employers out there.
We pride ourselves on being a tolerant and inclusive society, but we cannot be complacent and must all take on a leadership role. Clearly, as the petitions indicate, many people do not feel as included or valued as we want them to, so we must do extra work to remove barriers. One of the points I made, which I hope the Minister will pass on to the Education Ministers, is the issue of exam timetables; I will certainly write to Scottish counterparts about that as well.
There is a lot more we can do to ensure that communities can celebrate together, not just within their own faith but across faiths, and I look forward to taking part in a number of such celebrations over the coming years, as I have in the past. Now that I know the date for the hon. Member for Harrow East’s event, I will be coming along to stick my head in and show some support.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 220501 and 221860 relating to holding public holidays on religious occasions.