HC Deb 07 March 2000 vol 345 cc141-8WH 11.30 am
Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

Two years ago, I introduced an Adjournment debate on the Irish community in Britain, partly because of my Irish background and partly because of the large number of my constituents who were of Irish origin. Surprisingly, that was the first debate on that subject in Parliament. The second-largest ethnic minority in my constituency are members of the Asian community who derive their origin from the Punjab. This is the first time that a British Parliament has specifically addressed the Punjabi community in Britain. Not only do I represent a constituency with more than 15,000 community members whose origins lie in the Punjab, but I am the founding chair of the all-party group on the Punjabi community. Some of its members may want to make brief contributions to the debate.

Language can be important, especially when dealing with Britain's colonial past, so let me first clarify an issue of pronunciation. Many of my Punjabi friends and colleagues advise me that the terms "Punjab" and "Punjabi" are colonial mispronunciations of the more exact pronunciations "Panjab" and "Panjabi". To remedy that historical error—apart from trying to learn Punjabi at a local school—I shall pronounce Punjab as "Panjab".

The Punjab means the land of the five rivers. It has a history that flows from the ancient civilisation of the Indus valley in approximately 2000 BC, through a series of empires and Mogul dynasties, to the founding of Sikhism in the 15th century. It is important to note that Sikhism is neither sectarian nor communal. Although it gave the Punjab a unique culture, its gift was secular tolerance in government and public life. The Punjab came under British rule in the 19th century and, on independence in 1947, the region was split between India and Pakistan, leaving a much smaller state of Punjab.

The relationship between Britain and the people of the Punjab in the colonial era formed the basis on which Punjabis migrated to this country in the latter half of the last century. The pattern of migration followed the pattern of settlement by my Irish community. In my area of west London, the first Punjabis often came to Britain to work in hard, low-paid jobs that found it hard to attract labour. They sometimes found work in medicine, where there were shortages of trained and skilled professionals. Before long, families were sent for and the process of permanent settlement was under way. Punjabi migration came not only from the Punjab, but from the Punjabi diaspora, which extended across the British empire, especially east Africa.

After nearly 50 years, we can celebrate a thriving Punjabi community in Britain. The industrious and talented first generation is giving way to self-confident and increasingly successful second and third generations. It is time to take stock of how the community is faring within our society and what issues the Government should be addressing in relation to it. But it has been difficult to find precise information on the Punjabi community in Britian. As with the Irish, there has been no specific question the British census to identify Punjabi speakers or Sikhs. The Government, in particular the Minister, should be congratulated on producing the breakthrough that allows the Irish and Gaelic languages, and Sikhism as a religion, to be included in the 2001 census. However, regret has been expressed that the progressive approach has not been applied to Punjabi speakers in the form of a question on the Punjabi language. I urge reconsideration of this issue even at this late stage. The fact that members of the Punjabi-speaking community will not be counted in an identifiable form in the next census increases their fear that they do not count in the eyes of policy makers. That issue should be addressed.

It was estimated from the figures in the 1991 census that the British population included 840,000 people from India, of whom it was suggested 51 per cent. were Sikh, and 477,000 people from Pakistan, of whom 48,000 had Punjabi as their main language. In fact, Punjabi is the most common language among British Asians and has become the second language in Britain, used by an estimated 1.3 million people—including me, in a very stilted form at this stage. That is reflected in the fact that the number of entrants for GSCE and A-level examinations in Punjabi outstrips those for all other Asian languages. If central and local government bodies are to plan the provision and development of policies and services in an effective and culturally sensitive way, information is required on this subtantial section of our community, and that information can come only from the census.

Based on what we already know about the Punjabi community in Britain, we are able to celebrate an incredibly successful community. Without wishing to fall into using stereotypes of Punjabis, I believe that there are numerous examples where the dedication, talent and industriousness of members of the Punjabi community have put them at the forefront of life in the public, private and community sectors. In virtually every walk of life, members of the Punjabi community are prominent. In celebrating this success, we must also address the outstanding concerns of the Punjabi community and create an agenda of policy proposals to tackle them.

First, we need to look at the way in which we fail in many instances to support family life in the Punjabi community. In the eyes of many in that community, the visa system is still discriminatory; too often, families are split at key moments of celebration—births and weddings—and at times of sadness—sickness and funerals. Too many hon. Members have experienced the problems and the vagaries of the visa system. I applaud the Government for restoring the appeal mechanism; however, there are many miles to go to improve that system.

Many people feel that the proposal to introduce bonds is a retrograde step. First, they feel that it is discriminatory because it applies only to the Indian subcontinent. Secondly, there are concerns that it discriminates on grounds of wealth because the bond is set to high that people from low-income families will not be able to pay it. In our view, many organisations would want to fund the bond—for example, Gurdwaras in their charitable role.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford West)

Does my hon. Friend accept in part that the demand for the bond system originated in those ethnic minority communities who saw a guarantee system as an effective way of gaining the admittance of a relative who had previously been refused entry?

Mr. McDonnell

I agree. The demand for the bond system arose largely from the Asian community itself; therefore it is important that we ensure that this reform is carried out correctly and that, when we introduce the bond system, it is done in such a way that it does not discriminate and is of practical assistance. It must not be a fob to avoid reform of the system overall and the eradication of what is often seen as racism.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does my hon. Friend also accept that many in constituencies such as mine and his are very poor and that the bond system will discriminate against the poorest and prevent them having family reunions because they will be unable to put up the appropriate bond or find anyone to do so?

Mr. McDonnell

That is why many have expressed concern. It has been proposed that the bond be on a sliding scale, related to the wealth of the individual or family, and that organisations such as Gurdwaras should be allowed to support individual families on a charitable basis. In addition, there are many concerns about the process of applying for a visa within the Punjab, especially about the long journeys that must be undertaken to Delhi and elsewhere. For that reason, we welcome the Government's initiative in establishing a temporary consulate in Chandigah, which will be a breakthrough for the Punjabi community here and in India.

Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised this issue. A couple of weeks ago, I visited India as part of a delegation. Some of the delegation had business in Delhi and undertook the 16-hour train journey from the Punjab. My hon. Friend may be aware that the extra travelling time for those of my constituents who have to travel from the west of Punjab is an obstacle for those who may wish to apply quickly for a visa—for instance, to attend a relative's funeral.

Mr. McDonnell

My hon. Friend demonstrates the need for a more creative approach. We need to balance security and accurate decision making with the needs of the local community—particularly of those who are not not able to afford or endure a long journey, and especially people such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend who are in a state of distress.

The other problem, which has been raised in my community and in Southall, is of visas for Gurdwara priests travelling from India. The Gurdwaras and temples have a limited number of priests. Many of them were trained in the United Kingdom, but priests sometimes travel from India. Unfortunately, restrictions are placed on the number of priests allowed to practise in our Gurdwaras, even for limited periods, and that is a problem. The number of priests in Gurdwaras in my constituency is disproportionately lower than the number of priests in Catholic churches.

Mr. Singh

Have ministers of religion in my hon. Friend's constituency been asked for work permits, as they have been in my constituency, where it has caused tremendous problems?

Mr. McDonnell

That problem was drawn to our attention only the weekend before last. At least 15,000 practitioners attend the Ravi Guru Dass Gurdwara each week, but there are only two priests; yet our local Catholic church has five priests for a similar-sized congregation. The demand for work visas needs to be reviewed.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

My hon. Friend is generous in allowing interventions from those hon. Members whose constituencies include a significant Punjabi community. My constituency has an additional problem; because the Gurdwara is used as the central focus for the community, the facilities are now inadequate. Would my hon. Friend take this opportunity to join me in congratulating my local Sikh community on the work that it has done to raise the money to build a new Gurdwara—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody)

Order. This is an Adjournment debate. Time is limited and interjections should be very brief.

Mr. McDonnell

You can see, Madam Deputy Speaker, how much interest the Chamber has in this subject.

We should congratulate the Sikh community on the role of the Gurdwaras, in respect of not only their religious practices but their social support of the community, which goes beyond religious practice. That social support was first recognised, dare I say it, by the Greater London council; the first grant to a Sikh Gurdwara in London was presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) in his former capacity. Funding is needed for community organisations in the Punjabi community in recognition of the social and institutional role of the Gurdwaras.

I move on to the question of long-standing asylum claims. The Government are now wrestling with the problem, and I welcome their proposal to give greater resources to the immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office to tackle those long-standing cases. However, many of those claims relate to the troubles in Punjab in the 1980s and early 1990s, and a large number of asylum seekers have now settled here. They should be quickly informed that they will be allowed to stay because of their continued fear of repatriation. Their position should now be regularised.

We want many other matters of policy to be addressed by the Government. For example, for the first time, the British Government have provided financial support for the Guru Nanak college, a voluntary-aided Sikh school in my constituency. I congratulate the head teacher and my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards on their work during the past two years to ensure that the college is properly funded; it is now flourishing. We will now receive demands for support from across the country; for example for language tuition in state schools, and for additional cultural and educational support through section 11 and other measures in those schools, to help with the growing community of first, second and third-generation Punjabis.

We are concerned that discrimination in employment continues.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

I thank my hon. Friend. Is he aware that a significant section of the Punjab falls within Pakistan? Has he, like other hon. Members, been lobbied on the decision of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to declassify Basmati rice, which significantly affects trade in that part of the Punjab and Pakistan?

Mr. McDonnell

The community has raised the issue of the need to maintain links between this country and the Punjab, and Britain's role in assisting the economic development of what members of the community consider their original homeland. Issues such as that mentioned by my hon. Friend undermine that relationship and much of the aid assistance that we provide. We need to come back to that in a later debate.

There is a requirement for closer ethnic monitoring in employment. The census will give us that information and all public bodies must use it to ensure that discrimination does not occur in employment matters. I welcome the appointment of Gurbux Singh as chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality. He is a talented and dedicated professional, as I know from my experience in local government. I encourage him, through the Minister, to undertake a CRE study of the Punjabi community in Britain, similar to the CRE study of the Irish community in Britain which revealed levels of discrimination and, more important, set out proposals for tackling that discrimination in, for example, employment.

On employment, it is important to mention the military, which is now denied to many Sikhs as a career because of the helmet issue. Sikhs have a proud military history, and throughout their employment by the British Army were allowed to wear the turban. That has now become an issue of conflict that has also been raised in regard to European regulations on safety helmets in construction.

Mr. Singh

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Sikh community on the 300th anniversary of the Khalsa?

Mr. McDonnell

I will come to that. I shall not take any more interventions.

On health policy, the census should give us the information for targeted health campaigns. Several local authorities are undertaking campaigns on morbidity in the Asian community. The Government could give that more central funding and give it a fresh stimulus. The Punjabi community is demanding the elimination of the PHAB—physically handicapped and able-bodied—test, which prevents many doctors who were trained on the Indian sub-continent from working in Britain.

On culture and sport, I indeed congratulate the massive success of the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Khalsa in the Khalsa Panth last year. I congratulate all those who came together to celebrate Baisakhi last year, through music, modern dance and the traditional assemblies of different organisations in the Royal Albert hall. I also congratulate the Victoria and Albert museum and Susan Strong on their contribution through the wonderful exhibition that they organised, which was supported by translations from one of my constituents, Mr. Rayat.

The Government should look at how we fund Punjabi community culture in this country. I draw particular attention to the applications made by various radio station groups— Appna Sangeet Radio, Punjabi FM and Saffron FM—which we could support, not only to disseminate information through the Punjabi community but to support its culture.

The Punjabi community is still attacked by the scourge of racism. I welcome the Government's measure to tackle that and the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill, which recognises institutional racism. Anyone who heard PC Kash Singh this morning on the BBC knows how far we have to go. We must first support the Black Police Association. We also need to support organisations such as the Southall monitoring group. We need to make it clear that racial harassment and abuse, attacks on neighbours and school bullying will not be accepted in the society that we want to create.

That brings me on to the issue of human rights in the Punjab itself. The all-party group has received evidence of the extent of the abuses in the 1980s and 1990s and about those who disappeared, the torturing that took place and the attacks on innocent Punjabis by police and other agents.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am sure that he is aware that this is a timed debate and that those in the Chamber will want to hear the Minister's reply.

Mr. McDonnell

I shall conclude my remarks in 30 seconds. The Government now have a role to liaise with the Indian Government to ensure, for example, the admittance of the UN human rights rapporteur to the Punjab to exert pressure, so that compensation and assistance are given to those families who have suffered. We have a vibrant and resourceful Punjabi community in this country of which we are proud. The Government support it and, for that reason, I welcome the opportunity to introduce the debate this morning

11.50 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I, too, welcome the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) on securing it and on being elected as founding chairman of the all-party Punjabi group. I note his use of the word "Punjabi" and I shall certainly ensure that it is used in documents. I congratulate the Punjabi community, in particular the Sikh community from the Punjab, on the 300th anniversary of the Khalsa. I have attended several celebrations of the anniversary, including some in my constituency. They were important to the whole community and were enjoyed not only by the Sikh community, but by many others who attended them.

There are many Punjabis in Britain, some of whom are Hindus, some of whom, are Muslim, although the majority are from the Sikh community. Each community makes an enormous contribution to our country. As a Minister, may I, on behalf of the Government, publicly thank the Punjabi community for their contribution to Britain? We are a multicultural society and we are stronger because of that. Our culture is more diverse and more enjoyable. Our trade links are more varied; our ability to take a wider cultural perspective is enhanced greatly by the economic and social potential which comes from the Punjabi community. That is why cultural diversity is not just about having the right moral perspective on issues relating to multiculturalism; it is also good business for Britain. It is about getting right the sort of society that we can become.

Last year, I spoke at the Sikh Forum dinner, at which many business people were represented. They energise our business, reinforce our economy and create jobs for our people. One only has to look at last year's publication by Eastern Eye of "Britain Richest 200 Asians". It makes impressive reading and it is heartening to see so many young people and so many women on that list of successful people. It includes manufacturers, importers, exporters, retailers, wholesalers, industrialists, financiers, media moguls and leaders in the pharmaceutical industry and in information technology. People from the Punjabi community make an enormous contribution to our universities. Also on the list of 200 richest Asians is my noble friend Lord Paul, who came originally from the Punjab.

We have to address many problems in a multicultural society. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, when considering the issues that present themselves to Britain as a multicultural society, it is right to highlight the success of communities such as the Punjabi community and its people, who are examples to everyone of how our nation's diversity is prospering and flourishing as we enter the millennium. Too often, ethnic minorities are portrayed as victims of discrimination and poverty. It is important that we deal with their concerns. The Asian culture is not a culture of victims; it is go-getting, vibrant and dynamic, and contributes a staggering £5 billion a year to the British economy. Many of our Asians claim their heritage from the Punjab. Some are from families that came here via east Africa in the 1970s, although most of them were born here but still cherish their Punjabi heritage. Long may they do so.

Many people work in factories and businesses set up by Punjabis in places such as Leicester and Coventry. Punjabis have helped to create jobs in my and other areas, and have often done so where there had been few jobs previously. They have created prosperity out of unemployment, and we thank them for that.

I should like to respond to the call for consulate facilities in the Punjab made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington. The Government are aware of suggestions that there should be more visa offices in the sub-continent to facilitate easier and faster processing of visas. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), recently visited the subcontinent, and has commissioned feasibility studies to establish how best we can extend services there. Studies are being carried out in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and we shall consider opening offices in Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Sylhet and Lahore. We are reviewing information already received from those posts, and my hon. Friend suggested that he wanted to consider the reports in due course. I hope that we shall have some news about how we intend to proceed during the year.

We think that appeals should be reinstated, so I welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington about them. There has been some confusion about bonds, so I shall clarify the subject. Bonds were introduced at the request of many people from the Asian community. People have come to my surgeries to ask whether they can put a sum down as a bond because a visa has been refused. The bonds will be raised only when the entry clearance officer is otherwise "minded to refuse" a visa. Families will not be denied the possibility of being reunited, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) suggested. More families will be reunited than were before. Bonds will be used only when people are not given visas. Some people have deliberately given a lot of information that makes clarification of that issue necessary.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I am glad that the Minister has clarified the issue, as there is confusion in the community about it. Does the scheme apply only to south Asia?

Mr. O'Brien

The aim is to pilot the scheme for one year. The Asian community has requested that we pilot it in south Asia. That is why we have considered and are still considering how best we can do so in the light of the community's recent comments. We wanted to help, and some people have misinterpreted what we presented and sought to portray it as something other than it was.

Ministers of religion are needed and we want to ensure that all members of the Punjabi community can practise their religion. The concession about ministers of religion has been abused, so we must ensure that it is properly applied. Perhaps proper training of priests in the United Kingdom would be a solution. After all, Sikhism is now a British religion, as many people born in Britain are Sikhs. We must ensure that British Sikhs can practise their religion as they choose. The Home Office gives ethnic minority grants, so perhaps we can help. I should have liked to discuss some of the wide-ranging changes that we want to make to the national curriculum, and radio licences—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Time is up.