HC Deb 16 February 1993 vol 219 cc123-4
10. Mr. Madden

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what representations she has received calling for action to ensure that Sikhs living in the United Kingdom and throughout the EC are exempted for religious reasons from requirements to wear protective headgear in appropriate workplaces.

Mr. McLoughlin

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has received a number of representations on the matter. I have met various hon. Members to discuss the matter, including my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) and for Slough (Mr. Watts) and the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz).

Mr. Madden

Why are the Minister and his Secretary of State so reluctant to stand up for the religious beliefs of Sikhs in the United Kingdom and throughout the EC? Why has the Minister's Department failed to consult the Home Office on the race relations aspects of the matter? When will he seek some convenient legal advice from the Attorney-General in order to find a way in which to exempt Sikhs from the daft requirement to remove their turbans in order to wear protective head gear?

Mr. McLoughlin

While the directive was being negotiated, the United Kingdom issued a unilateral minute stating that the provisions of article 6 of the directive are not intended to result in requirements which are incompatible with the beliefs and practices of religious groups in member states. That was our position, but it was rejected by the other member states.

Mr. John Marshall

Does my hon. Friend believe that more or fewer Sikhs would be at work if we were to introduce a national minimum wage and sign the social chapter? Do those who advocate that course of action not want the unemployment of more Sikhs?

Mr. McLoughlin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend who is, of course, right. Such practices, which the Opposition would have imposed on the United Kingdom, would severely restrict employment opportunities generally throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. Khabra

I endorse the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden). I have raised the question with the Leader of the House in early-day motion 1251 in my name and those of hon. Friends. I come from the same community. I know that the directive will be an attack on the Sikh religion. This Government can ignore the EC directive. They have done so in the past whenever it suited them. I am sure that this Government—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. There are occasions when the House has to be a little tolerant. This happens to be one of them. I am sure that the hon. Member will now put a direct question, having made his comment.

Mr. Khabra

I ask the Minister to ignore the EC directive, since the Government can disregard and ignore the views of the House on a matter important to the nations concerned, such as the Maastricht treaty. They could ignore this directive and grant a concession to the Sikhs as they granted a concession to the Sikhs in the construction industry.

Mr. McLoughlin

I do understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making on this. At the meetings I have held with leaders of the Sikh community, with hon. Friends and a Labour hon. Member, these points have been put to me. We tried to secure a derogation from the directive and that failed in 1989. There is no reason to suppose that a new approach would be more successful, especially as the directive has now come into force. I recognise the point that the hon. Member makes and I know that my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council replied to his question after the statement on business.

Mr. Watts

None the less, can further approaches be made to the Commission to seek a derogation from the offensive provisions of this directive?

Mr. McLoughlin

I am grateful for the question, but we did try to get a derogation at the time of the negotiations in 1989. That failed, but I am willing to consider very strong representations that have been made to me by my hon. Friends and by Labour hon. Members, but I cannot say that that will be successful, at the end of the day.