[Hugh Bayley in the Chair] — Backbench Business — Eid and Diwali (Public Holidays)

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 21st July 2014.

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Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 4:30 pm, 21st July 2014

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the e-petition relating to making Eid and Diwali public holidays.

Mr Bayley, it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. Jai Shree Krishna, Salaam Alaikum, Namaste and Shalom!

This e-petition was not my idea and I cannot claim ownership of it. However, I will explain why I have agreed to be the Member who sponsors it and makes sure that it is debated in the Houses of Parliament. I am the MP for Harrow East, an area of enormous diversity of culture and religion—in fact, I would claim that it is the most diverse constituency anywhere in the country, containing people of all religions and from every country on the planet.

I celebrate all the religious festivals in a number of ways. I join my Hindu friends at all their various festivals, including Diwali—or, to use the term more appropriate for my constituency, Deepavali. I join my Muslim friends at Eid, my Jewish friends for Rash Hashanah and Hanukkah, and my Christian friends for Christmas, Easter and other celebrations. I join my Sikh friends for Vaisakhi and my Chinese friends for Chinese new year. I also celebrate many other occasions throughout the year with all kinds of groups within my constituency alone.

I myself am a committed Christian, but it is probably fair to say that I am a Chrinjew—a Christian with Jewish roots and a deeply embedded friendship with the Hindu religion. I believe that Harrow East is a beacon of everything that is positive about the enormous cultural diversity of London and the rest of this country. Being the MP for the area has given me a broad insight into the question of holiday observances. When this petition was forwarded to the Backbench Business Committee, I felt it was my duty to ensure that it received full and due attention in the House.

Given all the pressures on the parliamentary timetable in the run-up to the recess that is just about to start, it was important to bring this matter forward now, within the required timeline of three months. That is why the Backbench Business Committee has taken the unusual step of scheduling this debate in Westminster Hall on a Monday afternoon, when it is not normally open. If we had not scheduled the debate for today, the petition would have fallen and no debate would have taken place. If that had happened, we would have lost a great opportunity to debate this matter in Parliament and there would have been enormous dissatisfaction for the people who care about it passionately.

Consideration should be given to whether we, as a culturally diverse nation, should start public holidays for non-Christian religions. Such consideration raises all kinds of issues, which I will briefly touch on today. First, I will address some of the main objections to the idea straight away. The Government response to the e-petition was:

“Whilst we appreciate a new national holiday may benefit some communities and sectors, the cost to the economy remains considerable and any changes to the current arrangements would not take place without a full consultation.”

I do not disagree with having a consultation or with the need to ensure that there are benefits to a public holiday. Such concerns are valid. According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, each public holiday costs £2.3 billion per day due to losses in retail, commercial, service and other industries. If that estimate is correct, we are looking at an overall economic cost of just less than £5 billion if the Muslim faith and the Hindu faith were to be given one specified public holiday each.

Further, the centre believes that annual output would be raised by £19 billion if all public and bank holidays were scrapped. Accountants RSM Tenon had an even higher estimate, reckoning that £30 billion would be recouped if we cancelled all public holidays. However, that is not likely to happen; I cannot believe that any Government would ever dare to cancel Christmas.

We cannot make a case for or against further public holidays just on the basis of money; if we did, we would not have any at all. Saying that is not to diminish the response of the Department for Business, Innovations and Skills to this petition, but to make the case that there are bigger considerations than just the cost.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. He may be about to mention this, but will he clarify something? Is he saying that we need two extra public holidays or that he wants to reallocate existing bank holidays so that they come at the right time to recognise these festivals?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will come to the issue of the number of public holidays and how they should be apportioned in a few minutes. If he allows me to develop my points a little further, all will become clearer.

Another contentious issue is the fact that both Eid and Diwali have unpredictable timings. They fall on different days every year, but so does Easter; Easter is not a fixed time in the calendar, but we schedule that without too much difficulty. It is also useful to consider that Eid and Diwali fall at times of the year that are currently devoid of public holidays. Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, comes around the end of July, while Diwali comes towards the end of October or the start of November, depending on the phasing of the moon. Public holidays at those times would work well in giving workers an even spread of celebratory days off.

This e-petition attracted the signatures of 122,991 people, which I believe makes it the largest e-petition that has come to central Government since e-petitions began. That demonstrates that this issue is an important concern for a significant number of people in this country. Furthermore, it is probably worth mentioning that a responding e-petition, which called for the status quo to be maintained, has not even received 40 signatures yet. So the groundswell of opinion certainly appears to be in favour of this particular move.

Islam and Hinduism are the second and third largest religions in the UK respectively, after Christianity. Combined, they account for 6.8% of the population, with the trend of their growth increasing. The Muslim population is predicted to increase by 8.2% by 2030, due to a higher than average birth rate among Muslims and increased immigration from Muslim countries. In Manchester, one in 10 school days were missed due to religious occasions for Muslims, which raises concerns about educational attainment in that particular community. With young Muslim men currently twice as likely to be unemployed as other young men, according to the Office for National Statistics, this has to be of paramount concern; it is an issue not only in that community, but in the whole community.

In 2013, the average unemployment rate for young people in all minority ethnic groups, who are typically from these faith communities, jumped from 33% to 37%, according to the Department for Work and Pensions. Young people of faith should not be put in the position of having to choose between their religious festivals and their education; that is not good for them and it is not good for the country or the economy as a whole.

With regard to all Muslims and Hindus who are working and contributing to our economy, is there not an argument to be made about the validation that would come with a sense of recognition? Would it not be a statement that we, as a nation, embrace these religions and the people who hold them dear and are ready to recognise their place in our society? Creating these public holidays would be an important step towards promoting the understanding and tolerance of different faiths, not only at home but abroad. We want other nations to look to the UK for a good example of positive integration, and for highly skilled prospective immigrants to consider coming to our country with the sense that their faith is a respected part of their identity.

That is particularly important for the Muslim community, who have been the target of all kinds of hate campaigns and abuse because of the sins of a very small minority of extremists. To give a snapshot of the problem, I should say that ChildLine reported that 1,400 people—an increase of 69% of students—claim that they have suffered racial and Islamophobic bullying.

Education is important, as is societal acceptance, and public holidays are not just for the few; they are a national event that everybody can take part in, regardless of whether they subscribe to a particular faith or to none. The argument has to be made that educating a wider section of the population in the traditions and holidays of different religions in such a widespread way would be valuable in helping normalise the integration of those faiths into our cultural identity. It would be valuable in promoting cohesion and peace among the religions in our country, as it would not place preference for one over another.

I realise that this argument prompts a question: why only create public holidays for Hindu and Muslim festivals? Why not also add days for other religious groupings as well? At the last count, in the 2011 census, there were 2.6 million Muslims, 800,000 Hindus, 420,000 Sikhs and 260,000 Jews in this country. Although this petition focused on the former two groups, I do not see why it should not be expanded to include other popular major religions. Just because Judaism already has some festivals that coincide with the Christian holidays—for example, Passover and Hanukkah—does not mean the Jewish religion should not have its own public holiday for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. If we stay away from the cost issue for the moment and look at the ulterior social benefits involved, why not? Why not give each of these main faiths an honoured place in our calendar?

To acknowledge the intervention by Toby Perkins, I should say that it is a sad fact that the UK has fewer public holidays than everywhere else in the world, apart from Mexico and China. We have eight public holidays, including the two at Christmas and Easter, over four-day periods, which are tied to the Christian faith.

Looking at the national picture, the economic recovery that the Conservative-led coalition Government have secured, against all the odds, means that the UK is now set to overtake France to become the fifth largest economy in the world by 2022, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research. I would say that whether that occurs is contingent on gaining a Conservative majority next year, but of course we are on the up and I trust that our coalition partners will continue to join us.

Looking at the economic league tables and comparing the number of public holidays that nations have, we should be able to come to some conclusions about how much public holidays affect our economic performance. The United States has 10 public holidays; Japan, the third largest economy in the world, has 15 national public holidays, with another one recently approved, giving it double the number that we get; Germany, in fourth place, gets nine; and France has 11. I will refrain from making the old joke that half of every day in France is a public holiday, but suffice it to say that our next door neighbours and competitors have more holidays than we do. It is hard to make the case for economic concerns based on those numbers.

Some schools of thought hold that the economy is actually boosted by allowing the work force to have time away from work, which can be in the way, to shop or enjoy sports activities or observe faith-related events. After all, a happy work force is a productive one, as the old adage goes. It is impossible to tell the economic benefit of or the economic damage done by a public holiday, as there are simply too many factors involved. However, no one can doubt that national morale is important and, like it or not, people of different faiths are very much a staple part of our work force and our national cultural identity.

Just as the Christians get to enjoy the traditions associated with Christmas—an early morning start to open presents, joining family and friends in celebration and the traditional feast—so should our second and third largest faith groups be able to do the same on one or two days of particular importance.

In the departmental response to this e-petition, it is also stated, as a matter of rejection, that the

“current pattern is well established and accepted”.

That is true. However, I would argue that traditions have to be made, not just maintained. We have had British Muslims and British Hindus for decades. It is not a case of creating a new tradition; it is a case of observing traditions that already exist here on a more widespread basis—of validating the cultural heritage of all sections of our society, not just the majority.

Let us not forget that people from minority backgrounds still find it a great deal more difficult to have any sort of visibility in public life. I recently instigated the all-party group on British Hindus in an attempt to give that community in particular a way to make their concerns better represented—in politics, at least. I have met Hindus from various parts of the world who have taken the creation of the group as a positive sign that the political establishment no longer intends to ignore their needs.

Being such a peaceful, hard-working, well established and therefore integrated community has in some ways worked against British Hindus, as they were allowed to feel invisible for far too long. However, the truth is that establishing an all-party group is only one small part of what needs to be a far greater effort to ensure that our minority faith communities gain that sense of belonging that the majority take for granted.

Hon. Members who are interested will have noted that an effort is already being made in both Downing street and Parliament, generally, to observe holidays such as Eid and Diwali properly. I expect that many colleagues in the House have attended these occasions and supported them. They are popular, lively, joyous events that I enjoy getting involved with each year. There is something to be said about everybody embracing the heritage of these cultures, even if for only one day a year, and it would be nothing but a positive step to have our observances replicated nationally. If the Prime Minister can take time out to celebrate these occasions and the communities they belong to every year, why should not the rest of us?

The extremely high number of signatures gained by this e-petition should not go unheard in Parliament and by Ministers, because it is not simply about having more public holidays—although more of those would certainly be welcome, regardless of what they are for; it is about the meaning behind them. It is about giving an overwhelming indication that our minority communities are not just on the fringes of our society any more, but are a part of who we are and what our nation will become in future.

To have an Eid public holiday and a Diwali public holiday, as a starting point, would send a simple, straightforward message that transcends any cultural or language barriers. It would be a mark of modernisation in this globalised world for Britain to recognise non-majority faith holidays so decisively. Indeed, it would be unprecedented. I am not suggesting a flurry of new holidays, so the Minister can sit happily for the moment. All religions have many different festivals and occasions that are marked through the year and, if we had a public holiday for all of them, no one would have time to work. I am merely suggesting a single day for each, so that every part of our community is celebrated and able to celebrate fully, without having to sacrifice time in education or work.

I should be grateful if the Minister provided a fuller analysis of the Department’s causes of objection to this e-petition and responded to my points on the many and varied positive aspects of introducing these holidays. Some 122,000 people deserve a better answer than a vague excuse regarding costs and established traditions. I look forward to the responses from the Opposition spokesman and the Minister on this important subject that I believe is without precedent.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 4:48 pm, 21st July 2014

Before congratulating Bob Blackman, it is important to note that people are watching this important debate, which is being held in the House because it was proposed by a huge number of signatories. I know that many hon. Members wanted to contribute. However, it is unfortunate that the timetabling means that it is happening at exactly the same time as the statement in the main Chamber on the appalling travesty that has happened in Ukraine, and the incredibly serious situation that continues in Gaza and that is causing a huge amount of widespread concern. Unfortunately, a large number of people who would have been in this debate are listening to that statement. As a result, it is left to me to respond to the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the debate. He did so in a constructive manner, with a good deal more conviction and power than he showed with his recent penalty at White Hart Lane. None the less, he introduced the debate in a way that many people will have appreciated and respected. I place on record my pleasure at having the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley—I think it is the first time I have done so.

The debate is on an incredibly important matter. I am responding as Labour’s shadow small business Minister and, in doing so, I will take a moment to reflect on the huge contribution made by people of Muslim, Hindu or Sikh faith, not just to our society, social integration and the diversity of our country, but to our economy, which it is equally important for us to recognise. As I go to small business consultations up and down the country in my capacity as the shadow small business Minister, I am unsurprised but always blown away by the massive contribution of our south Asian communities and the huge number of businesses they have set up. There has been huge growth in the number of small businesses in the past 25 to 30 years, and it is no coincidence that that has coincided with a big increase in the number of members of those communities. Their contribution to our community and our economy is recognised, as is their contribution to our sense of diversity. On this day when England have sadly been trumped at cricket by India at the home of cricket, in front of what appeared to be tens of thousands of Indian cricket supporters—that loss would never have happened in Nasser Hussain’s day—it is important to recognise that contribution.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which is also known as the feast of fast-breaking. It marks the end of Ramadan and the start of a feast that can last up to three days in some countries. It is one of Islam’s two major festivals and involves many Muslims waking up early and praying, either at an outdoor prayer ground or a mosque. I know that the decorations that go with the festival and the people dressed up in their finery are a sight to behold. One lesson across all religions, and for those of all faiths and none, is that it is a festival where old wrongs are forgiven, money is redistributed to the poor, special foods are prepared and families and friends get together to share the feast—they share in not only a very spiritual time, but a time of great celebration. It is a joyous occasion, but underlining all that is that it is a festival of worship and praise. It is important to get that on the record.

Diwali is also known as the festival of lights. Anyone who has been involved in or invited to a Diwali celebration knows that it is a truly magical occasion, celebrated by Hindus and Sikhs. It refers back to the day that Rama returned to his people after 14 years of exile, during which he fought and won a battle against the demons and the demon king Ravana. The festival of lights symbolises that victory over evil—the victory of light over darkness, which has parallels in many other religions. I put on record the importance of these festivals to the two largest religious groups in this country aside from Christians. It is incredibly important to recognise that.

I will respond to some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made. He mentioned his constituency, which has tremendous diversity, and he rightly hit on one of the issues that faces us. As we become an increasingly diverse country and we see bigger communities—not just Muslim and Hindu, but Sikh, Jewish, Chinese and those of people from across Europe—if we go down the path of saying, “Everyone across the entire country should take time off for their festivals,” we may find that that path is never-ending. It is difficult to make judgments on which groups we would recognise by introducing time off for us all to celebrate with them. Is there a better approach to trying to recognise across all those religions and groups of people that their needs should be respected and that businesses and employers should try to work around those? Just because the Chinese community is smaller, it does not mean that its festivals mean less to them than festivals mean to Muslims and Hindus. That is one circle that the Government will find difficult to square, and we recognise that.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the fact that the festivals come at irregular times in the Gregorian calendar. He made the point that Easter comes at irregular times and that we manage to accommodate it. The truth is that the Easter festival has Good Friday and Easter Monday, so it always comes around a weekend. It naturally fits into being part of a long weekend, and that is a consistent feature. That is not to say that the irregularity of other festivals is impossible to get around, but it is an important issue.

The hon. Gentleman also made the point that many Muslim children take time off because of festivals. He then argued that, because they are falling behind educationally in some areas in comparison to children of other religions, the response should be that other children have that time off. I suggest that that possibly answers an important question with the wrong answer. Perhaps we should think more specifically about how schools can work more productively to recognise that some children will on occasion be off school because of festivals. We should look at how we can work with them to catch up outside of that time. It goes in the opposite direction of Government policy to say that all children should have more time off from school by creating an extra bank holiday when the problem that that tries to address is that children from those communities are already taking that time off. It would fly in the face of other Government policies.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of points with which I strongly agree. One of them was that a recognition of the significance of the festivals—he was talking about that in the context of a public holiday, but it is important to recognise their significance anyway—is part of a recognition that Muslims’ and Hindus’ faith is an important part of their contribution to our country and their make-up. We cannot celebrate their contribution, as we all do across the House, without recognising that those festivals are an important and integral part of their faith and that their faith is an integral part of their being. I am glad that he put that point on the record. It is one that I absolutely support.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that Britain has fewer public holidays than most other countries, but that is potentially misleading due to the difference between public holidays and the number of days that workers have away from work. On the basis of what he said about happy workers being productive workers, he will celebrate that the previous Labour Government introduced the statutory right to a minimum of 20 days holiday. An analysis of the number of days of holiday that employers allowed their workers versus the number that they took placed the Japanese at the bottom of the list with an average of 16 days allowed holiday per annum. Next were those from the United States with 17 days, then came New Zealanders with 19.5 days, Canadians and Australians came next with 20 days, and the Swedish and the Germans were found to have 27.5 days. Those from the United Kingdom have an average of 28 days.

The UK figure usually means a minimum of 20 days plus eight statutory holidays, so we are actually slap bang in the middle of the range of days that employers in major economies allow employees to have. While the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have the lowest number of days when we are all off on the same date—as someone who has recently been attempting to book a summer holiday, I am conscious of the fact that it is not always a good thing for us all to have holidays at exactly the same time—it is important to put it on the record that our number of holidays is not extreme one way or the other. Having claimed that he was not going to do so, the hon. Gentleman made a bit of a jibe at the expense of French workers. It is almost as if he shares the view that the French do not know the meaning of entrepreneur, but I am sure that he would not want to go down that route. It is important to recognise that this country is neither uniquely blessed in terms of holidays, and nor are we are we particularly badly off when compared with most of our competitors.

The hon. Gentleman said one incredibly important thing—that a happy work force is a productive work force. He said it in the context of a bit of a party political statement, but I share his view. He will be as disappointed as I am that productivity has fallen significantly over the past four years, that we have a surfeit of zero-hours contracts, that an ever-increasing number of people are leaving work and heading down to food banks, and that the number of people in work and in poverty is increasing. Huge numbers of people in my constituency and many others are earning less in insecure work and are paying more for the things that they rely on. The Opposition therefore share his concern about productivity and about doing more to make work pay. The issue’s time has come and it will be a central part of the Labour party manifesto. He was right to say that the issue is important, but my opinion differs on whether the Government have a tremendous track record.

On the substantive points in the hon. Gentleman’s speech, the question of how many bank holidays we should have is not new. Creating new bank holidays is not simple, which the previous Government found out when considering the creation of a new bank holiday for St George’s day. It was also a problem when there were plans to create a VE-day bank holiday. The plans were eventually not followed through because of the difficulties involved.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the cost implications, and it is fair to say that the margin of error is pretty broad. Some argue that there would be a net benefit to the UK economy of as much as £1.1 billion, but some believe that the economy would face a net loss of £3.6 billion. The most recent Department for Culture, Media and Sport assessment that I have seen suggests a £1.2 billion loss to the economy. He rightly referred to the report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research, which contains different figures, but the cost implications are important.

The irregular nature of the suggested new Eid and Diwali public holidays would also pose particular challenges. It is important to recognise that the UK has significant numbers of Sikhs and Jews and growing populations of other religions, so our response to the debate has to be about how to do more recognise their contributions. We should work with employers to ensure that they bear important festivals in mind when allocating work and shifts. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should show leadership, working with organisations such as British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses, in particular in areas that have smaller numbers of people from those religious groups and where awareness might not be so great. It may well be that people of all faiths in Harrow are aware of Eid and Diwali, but there may be less awareness in other areas with smaller but no less important communities of people who celebrate such festivals. As a result, employers in such areas may not be thinking about how they work with people of all faiths to ensure that they get the opportunity to celebrate their festivals.

I have several questions on this incredibly important topic and am interested in the Minister’s response. What assessment has she made of the number of bank holidays in Britain? What assessment have the Government made about whether holidays are spaced in the most effective way? Is the balance right? What discussions have the Government had with business groups and trade bodies to maximise the opportunities for Muslim, Hindu and Sikh worshippers to celebrate their festivals? What efforts have been made to promote awareness of different faiths and of the importance of these festivals among employers?

Has any review of bank holidays taken place under this Government or are there plans for such a review? What is the Government’s latest assessment of the benefits and costs to the UK economy of additional bank holidays? What are the Government’s thoughts about ensuring that bank holidays fall on days on which the largest number of people will want to celebrate, so that they are seen as inclusive rather than exclusive? How can the Government use bank holiday policy to bring different communities together?

In conclusion, I look forward to hearing to the Minister’s response to those questions. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East for securing the debate and for the manner in which he introduced this incredibly important topic. It may be that we are not able to deliver precisely what he calls for, but I hope that the debate has provided an opportunity for us to recognise the issues facing people in Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities, and for us to think not only in legislative terms, but also about Government guidance and leadership, to ensure that the maximum number of people get to celebrate such festivals. This country should continue to be diverse and we should go as far as we can to recognise people of all faiths, and to ensure that their right to celebrate their faith is not economically or culturally undermined in any way. This important debate should be a stepping stone towards greater diversity and social cohesion. If we are able to achieve that, it will have been a very important debate indeed.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Assistant Whip (HM Treasury) 5:09 pm, 21st July 2014

The subject of this debate is an important issue for us to discuss. I thank my hon. Friend Bob Blackman for ensuring that we have the debate before the petition expires. The issue is important to a very large number of people throughout the country.

I cannot claim a constituency as diverse as that of my hon. Friend’s, but Cardiff Central is mixed. I have two gurdwaras, two synagogues, five mosques and goodness knows how many churches, of all denominations and both English language and Welsh speaking. There is a ring of temples around the edge of my constituency, although none are in the constituency, and I have a Quaker meeting house and a Buddhist centre. A broad range of different religions is therefore represented. That diversity and vibrancy are among the things that I love about my constituency and my city. I am sure that my hon. Friend feels the same about his area. In this country, we are lucky to have such a hugely diverse, mixed and vibrant community, which we all benefit and learn from. We can all see the benefits to the country of that diversity.

Faith groups play a hugely important role in our communities throughout the country. Wherever they are, people from different faiths are working hard in churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras, synagogues and so on, as well as in charities and community groups, to address problems in their local communities. The faith groups of the country play a hugely important role in making life better for other people and in making our communities a better place to live. The Government want to support that, to develop friendly relationships between people of different faiths and to help those groups that are active, co-operating and working together for the benefit of all in our society.

We are talking about people from different backgrounds coming together, not only to sit down and share tea, samosas, pakoras or whatever, but to work together for the common good and to tackle shared social problems, regardless of faith background. That might be to deal with something that my hon. Friend mentioned, tackling extremism, but it might be about planning issues or protecting green spaces in our communities. Our faith communities should be working together on all such issues.

The Government have invested more than £8 million in the Near Neighbours programme, which is intended to build productive local relationships between people of different faiths in areas of high deprivation. Since the start of the programme in 2011, we have funded a number of Eid and Diwali-related projects, including many successful events, such as at the Quba mosque in Leicester or the Shree Krishna community centre in Bradford. Those events have been targeted at local residents and at local people of all faiths and of none.

The Shree Krishna centre in Bradford, for example, worked with a nearby Sikh temple, St Clement’s church and the Ahmadiyya mosque, as well as local schools, to put together a Diwali celebration for as many local people as possible. More than 2,000 people attended the event—hugely successful—where food, entertainment and a fireworks display were laid on for them to enjoy. Such events help to build relationships between communities and faith groups and make people in a local area feel more part of the community, more supportive of each other and stronger together.

The Quba mosque in Leicester supports the local Somali community and acts as a place of worship and a community centre. It held an Eid celebration for the local community, which was opened up to local residents of all faiths, with the intention of building relationships across the community. The mosque worked with Leicester city council and the St Philip’s centre to bring in a wider group of people to celebrate Eid.

The Government also funded the Oldham Interfaith Forum, which has hosted events to bring together different faith groups. It hosted a seasonal Festival of Lights to celebrate Hanukkah, Diwali, Eid and Christmas and to show the links between the different religions, bringing everyone together to celebrate each others’ religious festivals. Representatives of faith groups from the town had the opportunity to explain their festivals to other groups and to put on an artistic show involving music or dance. The Government funding ensured that many members of the local community were able to come together to share the event.

Together in Service is another Government programme to build on those relationships. It was launched last year to strengthen social action around the country. We are investing £300,000 in the programme over two years and 37 projects are already running. For example, the Dagenham Bangladeshi Women and Children’s Association runs a project to improve quality of life through participation in local community events, again bringing people together to have a better understanding of the different faiths in a community.

The Government are also funding a project called Remembering the Brave, which is particularly interesting. It works across faith groups, whether Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or others, to remember those who died for our country. When I meet members of my local community and discuss remembering the first and second world wars, the role of different faith communities and their contribution is frequently raised with me, because it is often overlooked and not remembered in quite the way that it should be. Such projects can therefore make a big contribution to bringing people together and to making them feel that their contribution to the past as well as the present of the country is properly recognised.

We continue to fund the important work of the Inter Faith Network for the UK in linking and encouraging inter-faith dialogue throughout the country. As part of that, I am pleased to say that more than 409 events are known to have taken place across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2013, which is an increase of nearly a third on the previous year. We are putting our money where our mouth is, and communities are coming together, which I am sure we all think is a good thing.

As we know, members of our Muslim communities are observing the month of Ramadan, so it is particularly appropriate to mention the Big Iftar, which I am not sure that people have heard about. In the past, many non-Muslims felt that they knew little about Ramadan and its meaning. In recent years, many have felt that they would like to learn more about it and to understand it more.

I was on holiday in Morocco a few years ago, when Ramadan began, and the owners of the apartment block in which we were staying invited us to break the fast with them and their family and to share the evening meal. It was a quite extraordinary experience. Not only was the food out of this world, but it showed what an important part of the celebration the coming together is. It is not only the food, but the fact that everyone is together and everyone shares the experience. I cherish the memory.

The Big Iftar initiative, which is supported by the Government, is designed to spread awareness and understanding of Ramadan, its implications and what it means throughout our communities. I am delighted that this year hundreds of multi-faith iftars have taken place. From Birmingham to Bradford, Leeds to London and Maidenhead to Manchester, a range of different events have taken place. Iftars have taken place in mosques, churches, synagogues, town squares and parks, and with the homeless. We have even seen World Cup iftars—a real innovation.

My hon. Friend mentioned hate crime and the fact that ChildLine has reported a significant increase in the number of students who have said that they have suffered racial and Islamophobic bullying. An increase of 60% is clearly extremely worrying and something that we take very seriously. The Government have funded Tell MAMA—Monitoring Anti-Muslim Attacks—which is the first service to report such incidents specifically, as well as to offer support to victims. We also set up the first ever cross-Government working group on anti-Muslim hatred to tackle that dreadful crime. We all recognise it as a worrying trend, which needs to be tackled as soon as possible.

I have set all that out to show that the Government support all that work because we understand that strengthening relationships with our neighbours and within communities is critical to teaching future generations to respect each other and to building links between members of a community. The more people understand each other the better it is for all of us. It helps us to accept differences between people and to break down some of the barriers and misunderstandings there may otherwise be. It also makes a real difference to integration and the way that people feel about the communities in which they live.

As part of that, we welcome the celebration of Diwali, Eid and various other religious festivals, just as we have always enjoyed celebrating Easter and Christmas together as a country. All faiths have a home in this country and it is important that their members feel that their faiths are valued and recognised. The religious observances and celebrations of Eid and Diwali are clearly important to followers of the Islamic and Hindu faiths. As I have already said, wider communities are now getting involved in the celebrations, showing the many common values that we all share regardless of our own religious beliefs.

The Government regularly receive requests for additional bank and public holidays to celebrate a variety of occasions, both religious and non-religious. Toby Perkins spoke about requests to recognise St George’s day. I am the MP for a Welsh constituency, and there are always calls to recognise St David’s day as a bank holiday in Wales. I think there have even been requests for a Margaret Thatcher day as a recognised bank holiday, so a range of different suggestions has been put forward over the years. However, the current pattern of bank holidays is well established and accepted. The Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 provides the statutory basis for UK bank holidays and bank holidays designated since 1971 are appointed each year by royal proclamation.

Provisions in the legislation enable the dates of bank holidays to be changed or other holidays to be declared, as we saw with the diamond jubilee, but that has to be done by royal proclamation. Such holidays are for celebrating special occasions or for one-off events such as the millennium. Proposals for the declaration of special bank holidays are considered by a ministerial committee. Any final decision requires the approval of Her Majesty the Queen. It is the usual process to consult widely when considering new bank holidays or amending the date of an existing one, and an impact assessment is carried out as part of that.

As hon. Members will know, there are currently eight permanent bank and public holidays in England and Wales, nine in Scotland and 10 in Northern Ireland, including St Patrick’s day and Battle of the Boyne day. Those figures include Christmas day and Good Friday, which in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are common-law holidays—they are not specified by law as bank holidays but have become customary holidays because of common observance. The last change to the pattern of bank holidays was for the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, which followed precedents for celebrating jubilees with an additional bank holiday.

Although bank holidays have become widely observed across the board, legislation does not give employees any right to time off or extra pay on bank holidays. Workers may use some of their annual leave entitlement for them. In the UK, that entitlement is 28 days, which is intended to reflect the combination of the eight bank holidays with EU minimum annual leave of 20 days. Those eight days of leave do not need not be taken on the bank holidays themselves, giving flexibility to workers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East talked about international comparisons. The hon. Member for Chesterfield took that one stage further and talked about total leave taken in different countries. The UK’s statutory leave entitlement is very generous when compared with countries outside the EU. The US has 10 public holidays, but there is no statutory entitlement to either annual leave or public holidays. Japan has 15 public holidays but employees are only eligible for 10 working days of annual leave, with one additional day’s leave for each year of tenure up to a total of 20 working days. There is also no guarantee of pay for public holidays there.

Our statutory entitlement is in line with that of other European countries. As I have said, providing an annual leave entitlement that does not distinguish between public holidays and annual leave gives employees greater freedom over how they use their leave entitlement, as they can choose when they wish to take it. Public holidays in Germany are paid, but the additional entitlement is 20 days of annual leave only for those who are over 18 years old and are working five days per week. Many other countries such as Denmark and Sweden offer only the European minimum of 20 days per year, with no additional public holiday entitlement. The UK entitlement is generous.

As the hon. Member for Chesterfield said, the Government’s policy is to encourage employers to respond flexibly and sympathetically to any requests for leave, including requests for religious holidays, bearing in mind business needs. The Equality Act 2010 also makes it unlawful for employers to treat staff from a particular religious group less favourably than those from other religions when considering requests for leave or requests to refrain from work on particular days. It is absolutely right that people should not suffer discrimination at work due to their religious beliefs. Under the Equality Act, employees can challenge their employers’ rules and practices if they unreasonably put people who have a particular religion or belief at a particular disadvantage and cannot be justified. We welcome any reasonable steps that employers can take themselves to accommodate the wishes of their religious employees. British employers are generally very good at being reasonable in accommodating people’s religious beliefs and there is often quite a lot of flexibility.

Although I appreciate a new public holiday may benefit some communities and sectors, both my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and the hon. Member for Chesterfield raised the cost to the economy, which remains considerable. For example, the most recent assessment of the economic cost of the additional holiday for the diamond jubilee shows that bank holidays across the UK as a whole cost employers around £1.2 billion, despite there being no statutory right to time off or extra pay on the additional holiday. That estimated cost of £1.2 billion is calculated by considering different scenarios for the extent to which businesses will be shut on the bank holiday and the associated loss in output.

The costs are partially offset by increased revenues for businesses in the leisure and tourism sectors and a boost in retail spending, but it is not expected that additional bank holidays for Eid and Diwali will result in increased tourism. Taking that into account, the cost figure would be higher for each bank holiday. In addition to the business cost, there is the unquantified operational impact from staff absences in health, local authority and transport services.

It is important that as a country we celebrate all major religious festivals together. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East said, the Government already take the lead in doing so—by hosting annual Eid and Diwali celebrations in Downing street, for example, which are extremely popular and always well attended. Ministers also take opportunities to go out to local communities to share in the celebrations marking major religious festivals. I am sure that all of us, as Members of Parliament, do the same in our own local communities.

The Government do not believe there should be a public holiday to mark these two particular occasions. I know that will disappoint some people, but I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue today. It is important that we should be able to discuss it and put on the record the value of the huge diversity and wide range of different faith groups represented in our communities, and the massive contribution they all make to our local communities and to society as a whole.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter today and for his continuing dedication to and support for the work of those communities. I hope that people who have been listening to us are at least happy and satisfied that we have debated the matter at length and that all of us have put on the record our belief that the contribution made by faith communities in the UK is critical to the way our society functions.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 5:29 pm, 21st July 2014

I thank both the Minister and the Opposition spokesman for putting on the record their considered and thoughtful contributions to this debate. We should remember that this e-petition, signed by 122,000 people, has demonstrated that there is a demand out there in the community for us to consider this particular idea. Today is the starting point for that discussion, not the end of it. It is important that I commend the Government and the Opposition for all their attempts to break down religious barriers. I believe passionately that if religions open themselves up to participation by those in other religions, to enable understanding of what they do, we will break down the barriers of ignorance and encourage people to celebrate their religions in peace and harmony.

The key point about the e-petition is that if we were to grant public holidays for Eid and Diwali, as well as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the Jewish community, that would enshrine the major religions of the world and recognise the important part they play in this country. There would also be a challenge—the hon. Member for Chesterfield asked whether Eid and Diwali would always fall on set days or during the week—but we are British and very good at resolving such problems for the benefit of the whole community. The British people’s traditional tolerance and ability to find practical ways of resolving issues would come to the fore.

The Minister raised the key issue of the work done by volunteers across communities. The Jewish community celebrates Mitzvah day, when everyone gives a day of service to the community free of charge, and the Hindu community does the same on Sewa day. Both should be applauded. The Minister also mentioned the Big Iftar, which is a tremendous boost for the whole economy. If we declared those to be public holidays in the UK, they would become a major tourist attraction, drawing people from across Europe and other parts of the world to celebrate those great religious experiences. They would bring great tourist trade to this country. Anyone who has been to a mosque or a temple on Eid or Diwali will know that they bring a tremendous number of people and families together. People would come from different parts of the world and we would attract more tourists—not just for one day but for many days either side of the great public holiday that would be created.

This e-petition, the largest we have had in Parliament, deserves a positive answer. As parliamentarians, we should consider it carefully, take it forward and develop it. Will the Government consider holding a consultation to see what benefits would accrue from enshrining those great religious days as public holidays in our calendar? There are difficulties, but we can overcome them if we come together as one big group.

This debate seems to have gone into overdrive in the Twittersphere this afternoon, with many people listening and observing. That shows that we have started a debate that the public think matters. That is all important, and we as parliamentarians are placing on the record views sympathetic to the concerns being raised. I thank hon. Members for the debate and the opportunity to put our views on the record, and I trust that this debate will be the beginning and not the end.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.