§ 2.58 a.m.
§ Lord AVEBURY
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It w as a great honour for me when 1056 I was invited to pilot this Bill through your Lordships' House by my honourable friend Mr. Sydney Bidwell, who scored a tremendous triumph in getting the Bill through all its stages in another place with the support of all Parties, to whom we now express gratitude, particularly to those honourable Members in all Parties who acted as sponsors of the Bill in another place and who saw it safely through to its present stage.
The Bill has the very simple purpose of exempting Sikhs from the requirement of wearing crash helmets when riding motorcycles. In considering the Bill there are three questions which we should evaluate: first, is the wearing of the turban an essential article of the Sikh faith? Secondly, if so, what special arrangements have been made in the United Kingdom and in other countries for Sikhs to wear the turban in circumstances where others must wear some other type of headgear? Thirdly, in the light of the answers to the first two questions, should the arguments for religious freedom outweigh those of public policy which led to the compulsory introduction of crash-helmets in the 1972 Road Traffic Act?
There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the wearing of the turban is an essential part of the Sikh religion. The ten gurus, the founders of the religion and the architects of it, all wore the turban themselves. In the Holy Book Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the first guru, instructs his followers:Keep the God-given form intact with a turban on your headI might have quoted many similar injunctions by the other gurus, particularly the tenth, also from the Rehat Namas, the codes of conduct of the religion.
My Lords, I have also consulted the authorities in the Sikh Godwaras in Bradford and Southall, and I have had the benefit of advice from one of the foremost and distinguished Sikh scholars in the world, Dr. Trilochan Singh. The opinion of those authorities is unanimous. To quote from a book of Dr. Singh, shortly to be published, and which he has given me permission to refer to:The turban of the Sikhs is not merely a headdress. It is inseparably connected with the Sikh baptism and the Sikh code of conduct.That is as authoritative a statement and interpretation of the scriptures as you will get because in the Sikh religion there is no 1057 hierarchy of clerics who can add to or embellish the doctrine as time goes by. This is because the tenth guru nominated the Holy Book as his successor. Where all are agreed on the meaning of the Holy Book there can be no room for dispute. Dr. Singh has merely stated the basic truth with which all Sikhs must agree.
My Lords, I turn to the second question, and I shall leave out the regulations which are made in the Armed Forces which I understand my noble friend Lord Grey will be referring to later on. In recent years there have been some disputes concerning the freedom of Sikhs to wear the turban in a number of occupations, in particular in some of the major transport services in our cities, where it was a requirement in the conditions of service that a uniform had to be worn which included originally some other form of headgear than a turban. To the best of my knowledge, these disputes have now all been resolved, and everywhere they have been resolved in favour of the liberty of the Sikhs to wear the turban. Even on building sites where other employees are required to wear the standard hard hat for reasons of safety, large building firms like Costain have made an exception for the Sikhs.
If one turns to the case of the motorcyclists elsewhere in the Commonwealth, in States that have otherwise made crash-helmets compulsory, as in the United Kingdom, there has been an exemption for Sikhs. That is certainly true in the countries from which I have been able to obtain information—in Singapore, Malaysia, Western Australia and in Saskatchewan. In Saskatchewan, the requirement that Sikhs should wear a crash-helmet was ruled unconstitutional in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it would interfere with the practice of religion.
Finally I turn to the third question. Undoubtedly the introduction of crash-helmets under the 1972 Act reduced the number of deaths and serious injuries on the roads. I do not think that individuals have an absolute right to fail to take any such action that injury might be caused to themselves, provided that no other person is harmed. But we consider that people should be compelled to do things for their own safety irrespective of whether any other persons are involved. Per 1058 sonally, I should like to see more restrictions imposed on the use of motor-cycles by young people, but that is another question.
My Lords, I think it would be generally agreed that the measures that we take to protect individuals from harm are matters of expediency, whereas the freedom of Sikhs to wear the turban, as I have shown, is a fundamental question of religious principle. If it is said that the Sikhs can avoid any conflict with the existing law by using other means of transport, that is tantamount to saying that we will deny them the freedom to engage in certain occupations where the use of a motor-cycle might be incidental to the employment, such as the police, the Post Office and certain units of the Armed Forces.
Nor can it be maintained that we have not already on the Statute Book many examples of exemption on the grounds of religion, the latest of which is the Employment Protection Act 1975, which grants exemption from belonging to a union to certain people who object on religious grounds. Noble Lords will be aware that a case has recently been tested in the courts, when members of the Christadelphians were dismissed by British Rail for refusing to join the National Union of Railwaymen. They appealed against dismissal and have been upheld by the Industrial Court. There are many other examples of exemption from the general law on religious grounds, and so no precedent is being created by this Bill.
From one point of view we might say this is a small Bill; it is short, and as regards its effect it may not seem to be of tremendous importance. But it is of tremendous importance, of fundamental importance to the Sikh community, and it is essential, if we are to comply with the spirit as well as with the letter of the Human Rights Convention. It will be hailed as a great step forward in the Sikh community in our own country, and across the world I believe it will enhance the great reputation this country has earned for conferring freedom on all the citizens of our country. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill he now read 2a.—(Lord A rebury.)
§ 3.7 a.m.
§ Lord MOWBRAY and STOURTON
My Lords, I do not propose to detain your 1059 Lordships very long. Noble Lords will agree that the issues involved are both clear cut and straightforward, and that the noble Lord who opened the debate is to be complimented on the eloquent, lucid and concise manner in which he summarised them. In my opinion, lie has brought to your Lordships' attention a question which is of the greatest importance to a most deserving section of Her Majesty's subjects, the Sikh community in this country. I wish to lend my support to the noble Lord's proposal to grant to the Sikhs exemption from the law on crash-helmets.
The question of Sikhs and crash-helmets has aroused some interest and public discussion over the last few months, not only in the Sikh community, where, as we know, feelings run very high, but also in the country at large. Some commentators have on occasions questioned the exact theological status of the turban and whether it is absolutely binding on a Sikh to wear one. However, I would suggest that this is not a fruitful line of discussion. The study of other religious systems is not one that can he mastered in a short time, and this is perhaps particularly true of the great oriental religions. However, as in all cases involving religious convictions of others, we must respect even when we do not necessarily understand. Also we ought to be guided in matters concerning other faiths by the members of those faiths themselves. When in the case of the Sikhs you find a whole religious community united in its strength of feeling on a given issue, it would seem to be most foolish to question their judgment. I would submit that so far as concerns the Sikh religion we should accept what the Sikhs themselves say.
To turn to another aspect of this subject, it was perhaps inevitable that some commentators would see the proposal to exempt Sikhs from the legislation on crash-helmets as having implications for race relations, to use the current terminology. Fears have been expressed on occasion that to exempt the Sikhs might arouse feelings of resentment among the rest of the population, and this would naturally impair racial harmony. If this is so, if there are persons who feel such resentment, then I would argue that this is because they are inadequately informed; 1060 in particular they must have forgotten that during the two World Wars Sikh troops in the forces of the British Empire were not forced to wear steel helmets.
Even with Friday sittings, and late nights, and early mornings, we should be here from now until Christmas if we were to give adequate discussion to the Analo/Sikh military tradition. It could be argued that this subject is rather more congenial, rather more constructive, rather more in accord with the nation's best interests and finest traditions than many of the matters which we will be considering over the next weeks, but let that pass. To recount just one incident in their glorious history, on 4th July 1915 a Sikh Regiment went into battle at Gallipoli with 10 officers and 700 men. At the end of the day two officers and 70 men survived. During the Second World War 112,000 volunteered, and that does not include the substantial numbers who were already serving in the Indian Army before 1939. These men in many cases crossed two continents in order to fight and, if need be, to die in a war with whose causes and aims they were by no means intimately involved. Why did they do so? I would submit that they found that the British Empire provided them with scope and inspiration, and a fuller outlet for their energies than many recent accounts of Imperial history would have us believe.
The Sikhs fought side by side with Britain in our wars because the Empire inspired their idealism and harnessed all the noblest instincts of a warrior race in a common cause. As long as Britain is a nation we will commemorate the heroism of our war dead, whose sacrifice secured our national survival. As long as we do this we will acknowledge an undying debt to the Sikh people, to whom we are bound by the most sacred of ties, in that some of our best young men died on the same battlefields in the same fight. These are ties and debts that we must remember when we consider race relations. Indeed, I feel that we should not use the term at all with reference to our relations with the Sikhs. To do so would display insensitivity and indeed irreverence. It would be an insult to the fallen to acknowledge no further bond to their descendants than that of race relations.
However, and this is the essential connection between Anglo/Sikh military 1061 history and the matter we are considering today, none of this would have been possible if we had attempted to force Sikh troops to wear tin hats. If we had done this, we would immediately have deprived ourselves of the Sikhs' services. This is recognised in the Indian Army today by the exemption of Sikh troops from the regulation on protective headgear. As General Sir Reginald Arthur Savory (who incidentally wanted very badly to be here tonight and only the late hour prevented him) who took part as a subaltern at the Gallipoli engagement which I mentioned, and who was later colonel-in-chief of the Sikh Regiment, has said, "In our hour of need we did not press the matter of headgear on the Sikhs". It would be downright ignoble, I would suggest, to press it now.
If there are those in the country who do not understand why we are enacting this measure, then we must explain the facts to them. I have confidence in the British people's respect for their traditions. I believe that they will readily understand as long as they are given a full explanation and I would urge noble Lords to support this measure.
§ 3.15 a.m.
My Lords, as the hour is very late for a debate, I beg the patience and indulgence of the House in making this, my maiden speech. I promise to be as brief as possible and I shall try to be non-controversial. I recently saw a heading in an Indian newspaper which read:We die with turbans. Let us live, work and die with turbans.Part of the heading had been substituted with the words:Let us live, work and ride with turbans.That is the crux of the matter. We have in this country laws which are laid down for the protection of the community at large, mostly based on the assumption that we are all the same. There are, as we know, exceptions to some rules. The law advocating the wearing of crash-helmets while driving a motor-cycle may very well be an exception in the case of the Sikh community.
The Sikhs, as a young nation, are renowned for their fighting ability and their allegiance to this country. When 1062 World War II was declared, a military order was issued stating that every soldier in the Indian Army should wear a steel helmet. The Sikhs refused to fight if they were compelled to comply with that, and the order was later withdrawn in their favour. There are a number of letters from commanding officers highly commending the Sikhs in battle, and I will illustrate this with some extracts to show that the many yards of cloth wound around the head of the Sikh gives effective protection. A Colonel Hughes who commanded a Punjab regiment writes:The Sikhs all wore the head-dress and there were no more head injuries in the battalion than in any other battalions wearing steel helmets.There is a story of the noble Viscount, Lord Monckton of Brenchley, concerning a Sikh who bicycled diligently from Singapore to Great Britain to join the 10th Hussars. When he arrived at Tidworth the question arose as to whether the Sikh would be able to wear his turban. The noble Viscount, who was then a Brigadier, referred the question to His Royal Highness the late Duke of Gloucester, who was commander in chief, who said that without question the Sikh could, provided lie displayed the regimental badge on his turban, which he duly did. Sir Reginald Savory also gives instances of having known Sikhs picking bullets out of their turbans during and after battle. In The Sikhs, written by General Sir Charles Gough, he says that… under no circumstances, not even to save his life in fever, will a Sikh allow his hair to be cut.These are but a few extracts, of which there are many. To the Sikhs, the turban is a symbol of dignity and self-respect. A Sikh's way of life is wound up, if noble Lords will excuse the expression, with the wearing of the turban and the use of other symbols. We in our Christian religion have ways and rituals which are in themselves very peculiar to other creeds.
My Lords, the laws laid down by the guru state that the Sikhs must not smoke, cut or trim their hair and these rules are followed strictly by the faithful. In occupations where the wearing of protective helmets or uniform caps is compulsory, the Sikhs have campaigned vigorously for their religious beliefs to 1063 be accepted, and this they have achieved in many instances. As a minority religious sect, one must show tolerance and understanding to their religious beliefs. As has been shown, if not proved, by the various extracts I have used, the turban in itself, with the long hair, offers some protection, even if it is not, as in my view, as effective as a regulation crash-helmet. Only time will tell if the Sikhs will be a hazard to themselves or other road users.
§ 3.19 a.m.
§ Lord MONSON
My Lords, it is my pleasurable duty to be the first to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Grey, on an excellent maiden speech. It had all the qualities we look for, in particular brevity, and I must say how much I admired the calm demeanour of the noble Earl, bearing in mind that he had to wait until 3.15 a.m. to make it.
I am afraid that I shall have to strike a slightly discordant note, but there is another side to the case which I think should be put, because it is shared by many people in this country. In making this point, I must take seconds rather than minutes as I go back to the basic helmet controversy in the first place. As anybody who has ever ridden a motor-cycle will know, if one travels at 35 m.p.h. or over one needs protective clothing, goggles and a helmet anyway if one is not to be extremely cold and uncomfortable, and therefore there was never any problem as far as the mass of motor-cyclists, when travelling on the open road, were concerned. At under 35 m.p.h. these things are not necessary and there is an understandable resentment among motorcyclists at being made to wear helmets in these circumstances, particularly when one bears in mind that in built-up areas racing cycles can travel almost as fast as motor-cycles and mopeds, and have a far poorer effective visibility. For that reason, there is an instinctive irritation when it appears that one section of the community is privileged at the expense of the rest.
A well known motor-cycling publication has sent a questionnaire to its readers asking them their views on the "Sikh helmet controversy", to coin a phrase. The returns are not yet complete, but the indications are that a large majority feels 1064 that Sikhs ought to conform with the law, whatever that happens to be. They would prefer there to be no compulsion but, so long as compulsion exists, they would prefer the Sikhs to fall into line with the rest of the community.
Perhaps partly because I have not ridden a motor-cycle for more years than I care to remember, I do not share that view. I am a believer in individual freedom, and it delights me that even a small section of our community is able to ride without restriction. I also hold this view because I believe that it will open the door to greater freedom in future for other motor-cyclists. I welcome the Bill as such, but I have qualifications about the manner of its introduction and about some of its provisions. It is probably a pure coincidence, but I am afraid that there is considerable suspicion—and I can assure your Lordships that it is by no means confined to myself—that the Bill was introduced as a result of agitation in Southall. A Bill of this nature had been talked about for many years and had been resisted by Governments of both complexions for a long time. Suddenly, all doors are opened to it. As I say, it is probably pure coincidence, but many people are saying that this has come about as a result of agitation. That is an unfortunate impression to give.
The next point I want to take up is that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said that the wearing of the turban was a religious principle. My information from Sikhs is that it is a religious custom, and is not one of the basic tenets of the religion equivalent to our Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. It is not, for instance, obligatory in the sense that wearing a dagger, the kirpan, is and, if Sikhs are allowed an exemption as regards crash-helmets, logically speaking they must be allowed to carry daggers because that is far more of an essential religious requirement. One Sikh lady to whom I spoke informed me that between 8 and 10 per cent. of Sikhs regard the wearing of the turban as an essential religious requirement. Others only do so in varying degrees.
I am anxious to be fair to the Sikh point of view in this and, in doing so, I am very pleased to quote from the Sikh Courier, an excellent publication, of winter 1974. It is good to read that responsible Sikhs 1065 themselves do not wish this legislation to be confined to themselves alone. The editorial includes the words,Throughout our history, we have always been champions of the right of the individual to make his own decisions on matters that affect him alone; even if Sikhs never wore turbans, it would still be our duty to speak out against this bad law"—(for the compulsory wearing of crash-helmets). The editorial goes on to suggest that the cold, scientific world of the actuary has a solution to this dilemma; that is to say, all those who object to wearing a crash-helmet, whether they be Sikhs or otherwise, should pay a small additional insurance premium to indemnify the State against any likely injury caused by their not wearing helmets. I think that there is a great deal to be said for this suggestion.
I welcome the Bill, but I am rather suspicious of the timing —not so much the timing of the introduction by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, but its total acceptance by the Government, who have held out for so long. Finally, there could well be some worthwhile improvements in Committee.
§ 3.25 a.m.
My Lords, before the noble Lord speaks on behalf of the Government, I should like to detain the House for not more than two minutes, only because I should like to go on record as supporting the Bill very warmly for two reasons. First, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, I can see no reason against the arguments put up by my noble friend Lord Avebury. Secondly, I can see a great many reasons for the Bill. If I am not out of order I should say that on looking at the gallery I count 25 reasons—but that may be out of order.
I also rise in order to take the opportunity to congratulate my noble friend Lord Grey on a maiden speech which in my experience was, I think, unique in three ways. First, it was the only maiden speech I have ever heard made before 11 o'clock in the morning. Secondly, it was the only maiden speech in which the speaker was allowed two initials, being described on the play bill, as it were, as "E. E. Grey". Thirdly, although it was not perhaps the shortest speech ever made, 1066 it was the shortest maiden speech I have ever heard, but that did not prevent it, to my mind, from being one of the best.
§ 3.27 a.m.
§ Lord KINNAIRD
My Lords, I should like to say a few words. I think that today there is far too much regimentation. It may be advisable to wear seat belts, it may be advisable to wear crash-helmets, but if we want to take the risk not to wear seat belts or crash-helmets, can it not be left to the individual to take his own risks? We are badgered here, we are badgered there. We are told what to do and what not to do. I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. If people wish to follow their own religious convictions, why can we not allow them to do so?
§ 3.28 a.m.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
My Lords, on behalf of the Government I should like to add our congratulations to the noble Earl on his maiden speech. He has much to commend him, including brevity. It is the first time I have heard a maiden speech made in three minutes, and its content left nothing to be desired. We hope that we shall hear more of him in the future at fairly regular intervals.
I want to intervene only briefly for the Government. While the Bill was being considered in another place we made it clear that our attitude to it was neutral, and that is the position at the present moment. When the power to make regulations requiring motor-cyclists to wear crash-helmets was introduced in the Road Traffic Act 1972, Section 32 gave the Government power to make exceptions, but in fact no exceptions have ever been made, and I have to say, quite frankly, that it was not the intention of the Government to make any exceptions.
On the road safety grounds, the Government feel that the arguments are quite clear. Motor-cyclists wearing crash-helmets gain a measure of very real protection in the event of an accident, and their chances of death and serious injury, in the view of the Government—and statistics show this—are reduced.
This is essentially a matter of saving life and limb. Since wearing crash-helmets was made compulsory, hundreds 1067 of people who would otherwise have suffered, many of them very severely, have been spared. The Government have looked closely at proposals that exemptions should be made in special circumstances, but they remain unconvinced by the evidence of the need for any such exemptions.
Noble Lords have listened to the persuasive arguments for Sikhs wearing turbans to be exempt, and I think most of us would say that we applaud without reservation the persistence of the Bill's sponsors in piloting it this far, and pay tribute to the way the Sikhs themselves have made their case over the past three years. All of us recognise the great contribution they have made to this country, as the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, pointed out, both in war and in peace, and I would not want to say anything to detract from that. Indeed, it would not be right that I should do so. They follow their religion devoutly and sincerely—and many of us perhaps wish many other people would do likewise—and the turban is an important symbol of their faith.
As well as its religious significance, I am sure that in most cases a turban is a perfectly adequate head-dress, but the Government feel that for riding a motorcycle it is not adequate. The turban cannot in any way provide the protection to the head that a proper crash-helmet can, which is manufactured and tested to stringent standards. The road safety argument is clearly for the wearing of crash-helmets by all motor-cyclists. The supporters of the Bill declare that in this case it is outweighed by the claims of religious tolerance, and, if I may say so, the Government understand this.
It has been suggested that it may be possible for Sikhs to wear a helmet over their long hair. I have no doubt that this is physically possible, and that on occasions, such as when playing sports, Sikhs secure their hair other than with a full turban. But the Government understand that the Sikh religion forbids the wearing of anything over or under the turban, so there seems no scope for a solution by trying to devise a turban-shaped crash-helmet. The Bill does not attempt to define a Sikh or a turban, and I am sure that this is right. Any definition would be very difficult to frame with accuracy, 1068 and would create more anomalies than it would solve. The burden would be on the accused to prove that he was entitled to the exemption, and I have no doubt that any attempt by non-Sikhs to evade the regulations by pretending to be a Sikh or wearing a bogus turban would be easily detected by the courts.
In summary, then, my Lords, the Government's position is this. The Government do not seek, as I have already said, to use their power under the Road Traffic Act to exempt Sikhs from the general requirement that motor-cyclists must wear crash-helmets. Nor are the Government convinced by any evidence that such an exemption should be made. But we accept—and I want to emphasise this—that this case raises important questions of religious freedom and toleration. It is for Parliament to decide where the balance lies. If it concludes that religious toleration outweighs road safety, the Government will naturally, because it will be Parliament's decision, accept that decision. If, on the other hand, the Bill should fail, then, as I said earlier, the Government do not propose to make a regulation to give the Sikhs exemption. But having said that, I want to assure noble Lords that the Government are quite neutral in this matter but felt they were under an obligation, which I think they have discharged in putting before your Lordships their views, I was going to say both for and against. I hope your Lordships will feel that I have discharged that responsibility.
§ 3.34 a.m.
§ Lord AVEBURY
My Lords, I wish to detain the House for only one or two moments at this extremely late hour. First, I should like warmly to congratulate my noble friend Lord Grey on his maiden speech, which has already won the admiration of all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, and on perhaps setting a record in the lateness of the hour at which my noble friend delivered his remarks, as well as for the sympathy and understanding which he has shown for the case of the Sikhs in the remarks he addressed to the House. I certainly echo the hopes expressed by other noble Lords that we shall in future hear many times from my noble friend.
May I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, for the kind 1069 remarks he made in support of the Bill based on a very considerable knowledge, clearly, of the military record of the Sikhs and from close consultation with one of the most distinguished generals who commanded the Sikhs during World War II. My noble friend, too, referred to the outstanding military record of the Sikhs and the heroism that they displayed in the support of freedom during the Second World War and the importance that we should not in civil life place stricter restrictions on them than we did at the time that we needed their services in the defence of the Free World.
I will only say this in conclusion. The noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, said that there was a conflict here—and we recognise this—between the strict requirements of road safety, which would lead us to say that all motor-cyclists should wear a crash-helmet, and the countervailing principle of religious freedom which has been pressed on all sides in this debate. The noble Lord said that the Government were neutral and that it was up to Parliament to decide where the balance lies. I agree with the noble Lord, with great respect. I would draw his attention to the fact that not only have all Parties in another place given support to this Bill—and I could have mentioned, for instance, that the right honourable lady the Leader of the Opposition was among those who had intended to support the honourable gentleman, Mr. Sydney Bidwell, in his Bill—but in this House clearly the support has come from all sides. Although there was some qualified doubt expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, he said that he came to the conclusion on balance that he would support the Bill.
My Lords, I very much hope that, bearing in mind what has been said in another place, and the support the Bill has received on all sides during the course of this morning's proceedings here, the Bill may now have an easy and smooth passage through your Lordships' House.
On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.