It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and I thank the Minister for allowing me to ruin her afternoon. I am sure she had other things that she would have preferred to be doing.
Why are we having this debate? I went to the Brandon street gurdwara in Gravesend a few months ago, and I was amazed by the strength of feeling over a petition on caste discrimination. Since then, I have been around the country with my hon. Friend Priti Patel, who is the Prime Minister’s diaspora champion, and I visited Leicester, Southall and the constituency of my hon. Friend Richard Fuller. I did not realise that quite so many people in the UK suffer because of “traditional”—if that is the right word—caste systems originating in south Asia.
According to a survey on one of these castes, published by the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, 58% of Dalits—that is to say the untouchables, the Chamars, or whatever else people want to call them—believe they face discrimination because of their caste. Much more interestingly, 80% believe that the police would not understand caste discrimination if it was reported to them. Some Dalits are being ignored for promotion. They are victims of humiliation or harassment and sometimes they face being fired.
So is there a form of hidden apartheid within our shores? After some brave and necessary moves by our Home Secretary to outlaw such things as forced marriage, can we really continue to excuse ourselves for not putting people who practice this casteism on the wrong side of the law?
There has been a timeline to this. In November 2009, the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance published its report, “Hidden Apartheid—Voice of the Community”, highlighting lower-caste experiences of caste discrimination. Between April 2009 and April 2010, during parliamentary debates on the Equality Bill, Dalit organisations sought to persuade parliamentarians to include caste as a new protected characteristic.
“to provide for caste to be an aspect of race”.
In December 2010—I am halfway through these dates now, by the way—an independent research report asked for by the last Government was published by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. It suggested that caste discrimination and harassment were falling outside the Act. The coalition Government are still considering that report.
In August 2011, Amardeep and Vijay Begraj, a married couple—he had been working in a solicitor’s firm as a manager, and she had been working as a solicitor—came before the courts. The argument was that he, and I think she, as well, had been fired because their union, being from different castes, had not been approved of. The Home Secretary then publicly considered whether to add the caste system to the equality law.
Many of my constituents attend the gurdwara in Gravesend to which my hon. Friend referred, but more still are members of the Ravidassia community in Strood.
The Government will tell us in a moment, which is part of the reason why I have called this debate.
The Government then asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to review and make recommendations. In April 2013, the Minister was asked to sign the ministerial order and on
Let me just give a brief outline of caste in the UK. According to the 2011 census, about 4.5 million in this country are of south Asian origin. Of those, about 20% are from the untouchables, the Chamars, the Dalit community—I think it is about 860,000 people.
What is the Hindu caste system? Who are these 1 million Dalits in the UK and where do they fit in? Imagine a pyramid and at the very top, there are the gods, and then there are four castes. The top caste, the elite, are the Brahmins; these are the people who traditionally were the priests. Then there are the Kshatriyas; they are just below the Brahmins and were traditionally the warriors and the kings. Below them, there are the Vaishyas, who were the merchants and the farmers. Below them, at the bottom, there are the Shudras, who were the servants. Below even them, by this narrative, right at the very bottom—sometimes not even included in pretty pyramids like the one I have here in my notes—are the Dalits. They are known to some as the handlers of filth, or the untouchables.
This really is happening in the UK. After lunch, we were looking on Twitter. People can have a look themselves. They should look for “Brahmin for life”, “Jat for life” and “Brahmin boys look out for each other”. There are even dating websites. There is nothing wrong with that, but what about www.brahminmatrimony.com or this from www.asiansinglesolution.com? X is an
“Attractive, down to earth, caring, Hindu Brahmin girl with strong values and morals”.
As previously mentioned, 80% of the Dalits in the survey said that they did not believe that the police would understand if caste-based discrimination was reported to them.
I am very pleased that my hon. Friend called for this debate. Does he share my concern at what I would characterise as the nonchalant, “Who cares?” ignorance of discrimination being pursued by the current Government’s policy in this regard? Somehow they believe that the discrimination that he has just spoken about will magically end at the workplace—that somehow because there is discrimination protection outside, we do not need to have any protections inside the workplace. Does he not think that that is nonchalant?
I will come on to that, and I know that the work that the Minister is doing also applies to it.
There has been recent court action. There was the successful case of Tirkey v. Chandok, in which the claim for caste discrimination was allowed. However, these are just what I think are called first instance decisions and are not binding. According to Swan Turton Solicitors, there was a conflicting ruling in an earlier case, Naveed v. Aslam, in which the tribunal rejected any claims for caste discrimination. It was stated that the reason was that the Government still had not exercised their power to amend section 9(5)(a) of the 2010 Act.
The simple fact is that at present, if a person in the UK is harassed because of their caste in places of employment or education or where they receive public services such as health and social care, there is no legislation in place to protect them. Let us not overstate this, but in the past few weeks I have repeatedly come upon people who have said, for example, that they feel like they are looked down on by members of what would be traditional castes. People have told me of their disapproval of inter-caste marriage. I have heard anecdotes about some people not having had the choice of marrying the person whom they would like to marry. I have even heard about people who have not felt welcome at certain places of worship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know that he is very well respected in the south Asian community in his constituency, which neighbours mine. Will he comment on what I have found? I do not know whether my experience is similar to his own. I am talking about just how shocking the caste system and discrimination within it can be. We see classism existing in every community, but this goes way beyond that to create a great deal of friction between different groups of people. Most concerns come from within those communities themselves.
That is a great point. What my hon. Friend is talking about is the fact that in our areas we have a lot of Sikhs, and of course among the central tenets of the Sikh faith are tolerance, equality and so on. I know that the Sikhs, certainly on our shared patch, are working on it, but this occurs far more widely across the south Asian communities in our country.
What is the reason for saying that we need some sort of legislation? It is as I have suggested. In the area of employment, there is the example of a manager of a bus company in, I think, Southampton who had to deal with a demand from someone that his shifts be changed so that he would not have to work with someone of a lower caste. Twenty per cent. of Dalits felt that they had been informally excluded from social events, informal networks and so on.
In the area of health, the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance reported a few cases. One related to an elderly woman who was being looked after. Her carer, who was from a “higher” caste, found an icon indicating that the person she was looking after was from a lower caste, and the son of the bedbound woman found that his mother had not been washed for a number of days. We have had examples of physiotherapists refusing to treat people of lower caste. In the area of marriage, we have heard of the Begraj case. We have heard of people feeling unable to marry outside their caste.
What could legislation do? It could send the message that castes have never existed in Britain and really should not. It would protect people in workplaces, schools, hospitals and so on.
The Government’s commitment on these issues has been welcomed by victims of caste discrimination and forms just one part of the wider reforms being put forward. The Home Secretary has outlawed forced marriages, which are, as she rightly put it,
“a tragedy for each and every victim”.
Female genital mutilation is also illegal in this country. I am not sure, therefore, that we can necessarily use the argument that we might upset certain people in the south Asian community.
I forewarned the Minister of these three questions. First, the Government have published a timetable for caste discrimination legislation. Why does it run up to and beyond the 2015 general election? Secondly, will the Government involve the relevant groups and communities in their preparation of the public consultation document? It would be very good to see the involvement of some of those groups in that consultation. Finally, in plain English, when will the consultation document be published; does the Minister expect any further delays?
The Minister will start her winding-up speech at the latest at two minutes past 5. She will have 10 minutes in which to wind up the debate.
I will be very brief so that the Minister will have plenty of time to reply. First, I pay enormous tribute to Mr Holloway for securing this debate, for the way in which he has spoken on this subject today and for his willingness to grant me a few minutes of his time. I am very grateful for that.
I am one of the trustees of the Dalit Solidarity Network and a member of the all-party group for Dalits, the chair of which is Bishop Harries, a Member of the House of Lords. Together with the director of the Dalit Solidarity Network, Meena Varma, I have been to the
United Nations in Geneva to raise issues of Dalit discrimination in India and many other places, but also, clearly, in this country.
I will briefly put on the record the enormity of the situation. Around the world, 260 million people are Dalits —scheduled castes. They suffer grievous discrimination, terrible poverty, appalling levels of crime committed against them and, in most of India and Nepal and other places, appalling standards of living. Every week, 13 Dalit people in India are murdered. Five Dalit homes are repossessed every week. Three women are raped every day. Eleven Dalits are beaten every day. A crime is committed against Dalit people every 11 minutes in India.
The Ambedkar constitution is an excellent document. Dr Ambedkar was himself a Dalit. It absolutely outlaws discrimination and has some provision for protected employment for people of the scheduled castes. It is a very effective document, but raising these matters with the Indian Government or the Indian high commission is extremely difficult; they are quite resistant to having good discussions about it.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, discrimination also exists in this country. There are roughly 1 million Dalit people in Britain. As a result of both the case that he brought up, which was one that we raised in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council, and the debates that took place in advance of the Equality Act 2010, we are in a situation in which we are relying on the Government now to introduce regulation to put it on the face of the law in this country that it would be illegal to discriminate on the basis of caste.
In getting to this position, the Government of the day in 2010, the then Labour Government, with my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman as the Minister leading on the Bill, accepted an amendment put forward by my hon. Friend John McDonnell that required the Government to undertake research on caste discrimination in this country. That research demonstrated clearly that there is serious discrimination, and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said, in terms, that the British Government had an obligation to introduce the legislation. The Minister, I am sure, will tell us that consultations are taking place. I agree with consultations; everything should be consulted on, but there should be a limit to the time in which that is done. I am very disappointed that, at the moment, the introduction of the regulation will take us past the end of this Parliament and into the next Parliament. I would like to see something done in this Parliament and I hope that the Minister will give us good news on that.
My final point is that it is never popular to stand up for people who have been grievously discriminated against. I am really pleased with the way in which a number of Members have raised the matter today. Discrimination is wrong in any circumstances and against anybody, and people should be treated with dignity and respect. Our purpose today is to get into British law that clear declaration; at the same time, that will give us the moral authority to talk to others about it. I hope that the Minister will agree to introduce regulations quickly. Above all, I hope she will agree to attend a meeting with the members of the all-party group, which I am sure others could also attend, so that we can have a longer discussion about the matter. The time has come to act and not delay.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Dr McCrea. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Holloway for securing the debate, and I thank other hon. Members who made important contributions.
The Government have always said that there is no place for unlawful discrimination or prejudice in society. That applies to caste-related issues as much as it does to race, religion or belief. My hon. Friend and Jeremy Corbyn drew attention to instances of caste hostility and prejudice in our society, and I would like to make it clear how much the Government sympathise with people in such situations. The experience of such antagonism and exclusion from one’s own community must be incredibly distressing. My hon. Friend and others have urged the Government to press on with introducing legislation to make caste discrimination unlawful, and that is exactly what we are trying to do.
Many hon. Members will recall caste being debated during deliberations on the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill last year. It was the will of Parliament that a duty be imposed to make caste an aspect of race for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, and we are well aware of that duty. However, we are also aware that during parliamentary debate on this matter, speakers from all the main parties acknowledged that caste was a particularly sensitive and complex area. Some have suggested that caste legislation should be easy to introduce, but that is simply not the case. There are a number of complexities, and there is no general consensus on caste in the UK, even among communities that are most affected by it. Some have campaigned long and hard for the introduction of specific caste-related legislation, but others—who are equally well informed—do not believe that caste discrimination exists and consider that legislation is, therefore, unnecessary. That does not negate the duty on the Government and the votes in Parliament last year, but it means that we need to prepare a consultation document which, as far as possible, commands the confidence of the relevant groups.
In July 2013, we set out our timetable leading up to the introduction of caste legislation. The process was thorough and detailed, and it was designed to ensure that future legislation was fit and proper. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has been helpful in taking the initiative forward. To start the process, the EHRC commissioned some independent research into identifying a possible definition of caste. The research was also to consider which of the current exceptions for race would apply equally to caste, and to identify whether any new caste-specific exceptions should be included in legislation. The research was intended to inform the contents of the Government consultation that was due to be issued in spring 2014. However, although the EHRC duly published its initial research reports in February 2014, two issues arose earlier this year that have had significant implications for the public consultation.
The first was the unanimous agreement that whatever we did, we did not want to entrench people’s identification with a specific caste within society. That is why a review clause was included in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 to allow for future consideration of any caste provisions to make sure that they remain appropriate and necessary. That clause cannot be exercised until at least five years after the Act comes into force, which it did in May 2013. The EHRC had originally intended to commission a second research phase that would establish much-needed baseline data that could be used as a starting point for consideration of whether caste legislation was doing its job and stopping unlawful discrimination. Unfortunately, on further consideration the EHRC felt that that research would not be possible and that it might be intrusive and ruin good relations in communities. We have discussed those problems with the EHRC and we are now deciding how best to establish baseline data. We are conducting a feasibility study on the matter.
I am sorry, but I have no time and I have got a lot to talk about, so I will push on.
The second issue concerned a recent employment tribunal case, Tirkey v. Chandok, in which the tribunal found that caste already had legislative protection because it is inherently an aspect of the ethnic origins provision of race in the Equality Act. I want to make it clear that the finding of a single employment tribunal does not set any legally binding precedents for other tribunals. However, the decision reopens concerns that have been debated in Parliament about the extent to which the Government must recognise links between domestic equality law and our international obligations, the relationships between those obligations and future provisions covering caste discrimination, and how such provisions might be framed.
We believe that we need to address those two developments—the Tirkey case and the lack of baseline data—as thoroughly as possible for the purpose of the public consultation. We need to assess the feasibility of any further research into caste discrimination, given the limited success that previous researchers have had in producing clear, generally accepted evidence. We also need to assess the consequences if higher courts were to take the view that caste discrimination is already unlawful under the Equality Act, which might call into question the use of further, specific provision. That is why we have announced that the consultation will have to be put back until the autumn.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham has asked me to deal with three questions, which I will go into in a little detail although not in the order that he mentioned them. He asked whether the Government would involve the relevant groups and communities in the preparation of the public consultation document. Many groups have recently had the opportunity to take part in the research commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was published in the “Caste in Britain” reports. The Government have studied those carefully. I also look forward to the groups responding to the consultation and commenting on our proposals.
No, I will not; I have got very little time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham asked me to confirm when I expected the consultation document to be published, and whether I expected any further delays. We anticipate that the consultation will happen later in the autumn. I am as anxious as he is to get on with it, and I do not expect any further delays.
The final question my hon. Friend asked was about why the timetable goes beyond the general election in May 2015. We set the timetable purely and simply because we felt that that was a sensible amount of time in which to do the job properly. It is a complicated and sensitive matter and we have to be careful. At the end of the day, we want to get it right. The process includes two full public consultations followed by debates on an affirmative order; it will take some time to do that exercise correctly.
I accept that the delay will disappoint certain Members, and others, but our duty to the public is to ensure that any legislation that the Government introduce meets the mandate given to us by Parliament. In this case, we need to ensure that legislation would provide thorough and proper protection for all those who need it and that the ongoing need for and merits of that legislation can be thoroughly and properly evaluated. To do that properly may take a while, but it is essential to get the detail of such important matters right. I hope that hon. Members present, and others, will have the patience to wait until we are able to consult fully later on this year.
I am very grateful. If I may, I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister a direct question. She has talked through many reasons for delay; if the issue was discrimination based on gender or race, would she personally be as comfortable about the arguments for delay that she has presented today for those suffering discrimination based on caste?
All I can say is that I believe that any form of discrimination is absolutely unacceptable and I will seek to deal with it as quickly and effectively as possible. That relates to caste, colour, race or any form of discrimination, because it is abhorrent and I know how much hurt and damage it can cause.
Question put and agreed to.