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Detailed report on March 13 Debate in UK Parliament concerning Sikh issues

March 14, 2013 | By

London, United Kingdom (March 14, 2013): A one and a half hour debate titled ‘The British Sikh Community’ took place in the UK Parliament yesterday organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Sikhs.

The APPG for British Sikhs has a much broader appeal than similar groups in Parliament and was set up by the Sikh Federation (UK) in 2005 to focus on Sikh issues in the UK, Europe and elsewhere and is now also supported by the Sikh Council UK.

The debate was led by Gareth Johnson Conservative MP for Dartford. At the start of the debate he paid tribute to Fabian Hamilton the Labour MP for Leeds North East and the Chair of the APPG for British Sikhs: ‘I pay tribute to the inspiration behind the debate, which was that of the honourable Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) who runs the all-party group for British Sikhs, and to the excellent work of that group in Parliament and the way in which it has helped to recognise the contribution of the Sikh community to our country.’

The debate that took place yesterday was described by many politicians as excellent and very successful in terms of the turnout. The Sikh Federation (UK) learnt of the debate last Thursday, but managed through its network and working with the Sikh Council UK to ensure over 50 MPs took part with around half that number having the opportunity to speak during the debate.

Contribution of the Sikhs

As expected many MPs used this as an opportunity to highlight the importance and significant contribution of the British Sikh community in all walks of life – business, industry, commerce, in the professions, education, medical science, medical ethics etc. Below is just a selection of the comments made during the debate by politicians about the contribution of Sikhs:

‘Sikhs . . . are fantastic, enterprising and educationally aspirational, with values of faith, family and community.’ – Pat McFadden (Lab) – Wolverhampton South East

 Sikhs have a deserved reputation for having a strong work ethic. Their belief in hard work and the importance of the family has been the reason for their success in the United Kingdom. – Gareth Johnson (Con) – Dartford

‘The Sikhs punch above their weight, frankly. We should acknowledge that.’ – Jim Cunningham (Lab) – Coventry South

‘I have always been impressed by how important public service is to the identity of Sikhs and how serving others is woven into their way of life. Sikhs are always seeking to do more and finding new ways of contributing.’ – Chris White (Con) – Warwick and Leamington

‘I want to make some quick points about the tremendous contribution that the Sikh community has made to the success of the United Kingdom both in terms of business success, to our public services. . national health service as doctors, nurses and the like—and in terms of celebrating and vastly broadening our culture in the UK.’ – Anas Sarwar (Lab) – Glasgow Central

‘It is worth reiterating the fact that within Sikhism, there is a recognition of the equality of women and of all people and a commitment to hard work, to sharing with others and to standing up for people and protecting them. All communities could learn a significant lesson from the way in which the Sikh community conducts itself.’

‘The Sikhs have made a huge economic contribution to the nation, creating many jobs and wealth for Great Britain. I also want to mention here cohesion and integration, which is a topic that I am currently working on. The Sikh community is a model of cohesion and integration and we could learn many lessons on the way in which it has conducted itself in the UK.’ – Chris Williamson (Lab) – Derby North

‘It has been absolutely clear that the speakers in the debate, from all parties, have gone out of their way to celebrate the enormous contribution that members of the British Sikh community make to this country. I am delighted to be able to join them by making a similar expression of praise, thanks and congratulations to the Sikh community for its contribution.’

‘I am delighted to be able to sum up this debate, which has shown how much cross-party support there is for the huge contribution that is made by the Sikh community in this country. British Sikhs are among some of our greatest business men and professionals, and they are a peaceful, high-achieving community from whom we all have much to learn. This has been an excellent debate.’ – Don Foster, Minister for Communities and Local Government

The briefings produced by the Sikh Federation (UK) and Sikh Council UK also made reference to the Battle of Saraghari in 1897 and Sikh sacrifices in the two World Wars when 83,005 turban wearing Sikh soldiers were killed and 109,045 were wounded.

The objective was to try and get the new revamped teaching of British history in schools to celebrate Sikh contributions and that these should also be recognised as part of the WWI Centenary activities. Both issues were raised by MPs. Jonathan Ashworth Labour MP for Leicester South said ‘Sikh contributions to the first and second world wars should be given greater prominence in our national debate as we look towards the commemorations of the first world war’. Fiona Mactaggart Labour MP for Slough said the UK Government should: ‘Ensure that the history curriculum properly reflects the contribution of many Sikh soldiers to the freedom of Britain.’

Don Foster, the Minister for Communities and Local Government in his response said: ‘I want to make it absolutely clear that we certainly hope that we will see that contribution reflected in the commemoration of the anniversary of world war one which will be happening shortly.’ However, he did not comment on the history curriculum.

Given the discussion around Sikh contributions several MPs commented on Sikh representation in politics: Gavin Barwell Conservative MP for Croydon Central said: ‘It would be great to see more Sikhs represented on our local councils and here in this House, taking a wider role in public service.’

Anwar Sarwar the Labour MP from Glasgow Central added: ‘We must recognise the tremendous contribution of the Sikh community and ensure that our Parliaments and council chambers reflect society. All political parties must work together to ensure that we have representation of Sikhs in council chambers, the Scottish Parliament and at Westminster.’

Issues raised by MPs during the debate:

Apart from the contribution of Sikhs MPs were briefed by the Sikh Federation (UK) and Sikh Council UK on three specific areas where the Sikh community has specific concerns: UK Government interface with the British Sikh community, Sikh identity issues and human rights concerns.

UK Government interface with the British Sikh community:

MPs were urged to put pressure on the UK Government to engage with organisations that represent the grassroots of a community rather than two or three so-called community leaders that civil servants have known for many years if not decades and who have no real grassroots support or community engagement.

MPs were made aware at the national level you have grassroots organisations like the Sikh Council UK (recently established in December 2010) and the Sikh Federation (UK) – established in September 2003, which is a pressure group that specialises in political lobbying, has existed for almost a decade and is well known to politicians of all political parties through events they have participated in and who have been regularly quoted in the mainstream media on various Sikh identity and human rights issues.

Below is just a selection of the comments made by politicians about UK Government interface with the British Sikh community during the debate:

‘The Sikh Federation UK has supported our group (APPG for British Sikhs) so well, and I want to pay tribute to it for its work, together with that of the Sikh Council UK. Those two organisations ensure that British Sikhs are well represented.’ – Fabian Hamilton (Lab) – Leeds North East

‘The Government should take the opportunity to work with organisations such as the Sikh Council UK, which seeks to act as a national advocate for British Sikhs. We should recognise the potential of working with democratically elected bodies such as the council, so that Sikhs feels that their voice is being heard. I would welcome the Prime Minister and Communities Secretary to have regular meetings with the council and other Sikh organisations in our country, so that we can explain Government policy and take on board the points made by the British Sikh community.’ – Chris White (Con) – Warwick and Leamington

‘The Sikh Council UK has also asked that the Government formally consult with it on Government policy relating to a range of issues. I wonder whether the Minister might be able to comment on that request.’ – Chris Williamson, Shadow Minster for Communities and Local Government

Don Foster, the Minister for Communities and Local Government in his opening remarks at the end of the debate said: ‘I am more than happy to have a meeting with the Sikh Council UK.’ This in itself was one of the objectives the Sikh Federation (UK) and Sikh Council UK were hoping to achieve from the debate.

Sikh identity issues:

This was the second area the Sikh Federation (UK) and Sikh Council UK wanted aired in the debate. As expected many MPs commented on the visible Sikh identity from a historical context and others such as Chris White the Conservative MP for Warwick and Leamington added: ‘I believe that British Sikhs have a strong sense of their identity, both as Sikhs and as British citizens, and it is right that Parliament takes the time to recognise that. We should build on that and ensure that British Sikhs feel that their work is appreciated.’

Respect for the Sikh turban at airports across Europe:

Many MPs talked about the success of the UK Government working with grassroots Sikh organisations like the Sikh Federation (UK) in securing a solution for the respect for the Sikh turban at airports not only in the UK, but across Europe.

Pat McFadden the Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East who was specifically briefed by the Sikh Federation (UK) to mention this in the debate stated:

‘We have heard about searches of turbans—the Dastaar—at airports, about which a great many Members on both sides of the House campaigned, as did Sikh organisations. I acknowledge the good efforts of the Department for Transport in working with the European Union and other Governments to reach a successful conclusion.’

Chris Williamson the Labour MP for Derby North and Shadow Minster for Communities and Local Government however commenting on the latest situation in terms of the new EU Regulation challenged the Minister to do more at the European level: ‘Could the Minister give us any information about whether the Government will continue to monitor this situation? It is good news that the regulations have been updated, but it is important that we continue to monitor the situation to ensure that those more enlightened regulations are actually being implemented on the ground.’

Don Foster, the Minister for Communities and Local Government in his response said: ‘we are now working very closely with our European colleagues to persuade them to adopt the same system.’

Challenges against the wearing of the Dastaar at work:

During the debate many MPs however recognised that Sikhs in the UK continue to experience difficulties as regards the Sikh identity, especially the Dastaar and Kirpan in work and in public life. Several MPs mentioned concerns with discrimination at work against Sikhs with turbans. For example Lilian Greenwood Labour MP for Nottingham South said: ‘more needs to be done to tackle discrimination against Sikh workers in the workplace. Particularly, the Government could do more to ensure that employers understand the special protections for wearers of the Sikh turban.’

Chris Williamson Labour MP for Derby North concluding on the Labour benches said: ‘Hon. Members have touched on issues that persist to this day about employment, whereby Sikhs are still discriminated against and find problems in the workplace in relation to the turban. As a former construction worker myself, I know that that is something that has been addressed on construction sites, but there are still a number of ongoing cases. I think that one relates to a lorry driver who is in danger of losing his job, and there have been a number of other incidents as well. I wonder whether the Minister could say a little about dealing with those employment rights issues for the Sikh community.’

Don Foster, the Minister for Communities and Local Government in his response said: ‘The issue of hard hats was also raised and I assure hon. Members that my Department is now working with all the other agencies involved with that particular issue to see if we can make progress and enable Sikh turban-wearers not to have to wear hard hats in certain places of work.’

Challenges against the wearing the Kirpan at work and in public life:

With respect to the Kirpan John McDonnell the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington mentioned Amritdhari Sikhs ‘who have been turned away at the London Eye, from concerts at Wembley and so on. Madame Tussauds was another example. We tried to ensure that at least some standard guidelines were issued, and to a certain extent, when it comes to public service, we have achieved that. The problem occurs when the individual private contractors are not taking note. More work needs to be done on that.’

What did however come as a surprise to many present in the debate was the examples quoted by Anas Sarwar the Labour MP for Glasgow Central who said: ‘I want to raise a couple of concerns that have been mentioned to me. One is about equality in relation to the turban and the Kirpan. Recently, a high street operator refused to employ someone because they wore the Kirpan, and in court, someone was expelled from a jury for wearing one. Such things were protected by the equality legislation introduced by the last Government, and we must ensure that education takes place, so that such situations do not occur again.’

Don Foster, the Minister for Communities and Local Government in his response said: ‘Freedom of worship is core to the British way of life. Public displays of religious belief, such as the wearing of faith symbols and clothing or the maintenance of dietary codes, are all vital aspects of religious freedom and we are keen to do all we can to support that freedom. The previous Government did excellent work in this field, but we recognise that there have been problems.’

‘We are also looking at a number of the other issues that have been raised today. For example, I was interested to hear the concern raised about a member of the Sikh community not being allowed to serve on a jury because he was wearing the Kirpan. If the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar), who raised that particular case, can provide me with details about it, I would like to take it up.’

Human rights concerns:

Although this debate was much broader than many debates in the UK Parliament, was for only one and a half hours and despite the debate less than two weeks earlier about the abolition of the death penalty in India the Sikh Federation (UK) and Sikh Council UK briefed MPs to again raise human rights issues. Most MPs on the Conservative side avoided raising the issue of human rights. However, John McDonnell the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington summed up why it was important to again raise human rights issues by stating:

‘One of the fundamental issues that has been raised time and time again with us is human rights, and we cannot avoid the issue. We had discussion after discussion about what happened in the atrocities in the 1980s and the injustices that took place, many of which have never been addressed. I do not believe that any discussion on the Sikh community should not involve discussion of the need that there still is to bring to book the people who committed those atrocities during that period, because we have never found the ultimate truth and many of them have never been brought to justice.’

Pat McFadden the Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East continued:

‘The community is a success in the UK, but it sometimes has a strange relationship with India. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, that in large part stems from the events of 1984, when many Sikhs lost their lives. The pain of that experience and the lasting sense of injustice among the Sikh community are very real. There is a lasting desire for greater transparency and honesty in the story of what happened. If the community’s relationship with India is strained, its relationship with the UK has been a good one. That is a tribute to the Sikh community and its efforts.’

Five MPs specifically mentioned the death penalty in India during the debate yesterday to keep up pressure on the UK Government. The cases of Balwant Singh Rajoana and Professor Davinderpal Singh Bhullar were specifically mentioned again with a particular mention for Professor Bhullar by Chris Williamson and John McDonnell. Chris White the Conservative MP for Warwick and Leamington said he hoped ‘that the Government will listen to those concerns and ensure that they communicate with British Sikhs about our country’s foreign policy.’ Anwar Sarwar the Labour MP from Glasgow Central added: ‘One of the largest letter-writing campaigns that I have ever experienced as a Member of Parliament has been about the death penalty in India.’ Fiona Mactaggart joined John McDonnell to remind the House about the unanimity across the Chamber in urging India to abolish the death penalty.

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