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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the contribution of Sikhs to the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to open this debate, which comes at the end of the first UK National Sikh Awareness and History Month. I am sure this debate will cover history, community, faith, economy and culture.
The Sikh community is an established community in the UK, whose members first arrived in significant numbers in the 1950s. We know that Sikhs are now well established with a significant and leading presence in almost all professions. In Hounslow, almost 10% of the population identifies as Sikh. There are almost 500,000 Sikhs across the UK—approaching 1% of the total population.
The “British Sikh Report 2019”, launched in Parliament last week as part UK National Sikh Awareness and History Month, describes the contribution of Sikhs across our economy. Sikhs have an 84% employment rate, with top sectors of employment including public service, charity work, healthcare, teaching, accountancy and finance, and IT and technology. Many businesses are run by those in the Sikh community, including many in my constituency. Dr Rami Ranger, who is Sikh, is perhaps one of the best-known Asian businessmen in the UK, having founded a company which has won the Queen’s award for enterprise more than six times.
“In the last two world wars 83,005 turban wearing Sikh soldiers were killed and 109,045 were wounded, fighting for the British Empire. During shell fire, they had no other head protection but the turban, the symbol of their faith.”
By the beginning of the first world war, there were more than 100,000 Sikhs in the British Indian Army, making up 20% of the force. Before 1945, 14 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Sikhs, which was a per-capita regimental record. In 2002, the names of all Sikh Victoria Cross and George Cross recipients were inscribed on the monument of the memorial gates on Constitution Hill, next to Buckingham Palace.
Despite that background, this shared history is far less known or understood by an increasing number of people.
Before my hon. Friend moves on from the incredible record of Sikh soldiers in service of this country and freedom, does she agree that it is appropriate that we should now have a war memorial recognising that effort? Fundamentally, the Government should get on with designating a site where that can be placed.
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I am sure that all hon. Members present would agree with him. My hon. Friend Mr Dhesi will talk further about that point and the campaign he has helped to lead in Parliament.
Following on from what our right hon. Friend has just said, the Sikh contribution in the first and second world wars was very significant, particularly in places such as Burma. Sikhs played a prominent part in the battles of El Alamein, which were some of the greatest victories of the second world war, and that should not be forgotten. I reinforce what our right hon. Friend said about a memorial to the Sikh soldiers.
My hon. Friend has a long-standing record of working with his local Sikh community. I will also make that point, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Slough.
I am pleased to be in this debate. My hon. Friend mentioned the lack of knowledge in this country of Sikh history. Will she join me in encouraging visitors to the Manchester Museum to see the Jallianwala Bagh exhibition, which has been prepared in conjunction with the Partition Museum in Amritsar? I think visitors from across the country and different cultures will find it very informative. I visited it during the Easter recess and I can warmly recommend it.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important contribution. I hope to visit the museum in the near future. I am sure that hon. Members across the House and those watching will be interested to attend that exhibition, which comes at a critical time, 100 years since the awful event that took place on Vaisakhi in 1919, in Amritsar. I will comment more on that centenary later.
Despite the background of Sikhs’ contribution to the UK, it is extraordinary that our shared history is little known or understood. Understanding different communities is vital for not just community cohesion, but getting policy right, including the rights of Sikhs to wear their articles of faith—an important right that led to exemptions for the kirpan in new knife crime legislation in the recent Offensive Weapons Bill debate.
Sikhs, like other communities, have faced an increase in hate crime attacks. Last year we saw an attack on a turban-wearing Sikh visitor outside the House of Commons. This appalling attack sent shockwaves across the whole community and the Houses of Parliament. That incident triggered our idea of a National Sikh Awareness and History Month, which is also referred to as Sikh Heritage Month and takes place this month, during April, the month of Vaisakhi.
Other right hon. and hon. Members will make speeches raising the issues that are important to them, so I want to focus on two main areas. First, I want to focus on the purpose and place in our national life of National Sikh Awareness and History Month, of which this debate forms the final parliamentary event. Secondly, I want to share a perspective on the Sikh community in my local area and the range of contributions made to the wider community.
Last April I tabled an early-day motion with cross-party support, calling for the UK to recognise April as National Sikh Awareness and History Month, noting that
To take that forward, we formed a cross-party parliamentary steering committee, and I thank all its members for their support in recent months. I thank my right hon. Friend Mr McFadden, who is here today, and Mr Grieve. I thank my hon. Friend Preet Kaur Gill, who is chair of the all-party parliamentary group on UK Sikhs and is also present.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Slough, who is leading the campaign for a permanent Sikh war memorial in London. Sikh war memorials have opened in Bristol and elsewhere, but it is absolutely time that we showed leadership and had a permanent war memorial in London. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend for working with me on the campaign for direct flights from London to Amritsar, which would serve communities in London and the surrounding areas. I also thank Sir Vince Cable, Alison Thewliss, who is present, my hon. Friend Mr Sharma and my right hon. Friend John McDonnell.
Many across the Sikh community were part of the early establishment of the idea last year with the Sikh Council UK. I thank Jagtar Singh Gill and Gurinder Singh Josan, along with Kirat Singh, for their support in the early days when the idea was growing, which led to the launch this month.
This month is just the start. With the foundations in place, we look forward to expanding the steering group and including community members and groups from across the country, so the project will be truly community led. The programme of events in Parliament in April has been supported by a range of Sikh community organisations and community channels, all of which I thank for making it happen. I also thank Satwinder Sehmi, an artist and calligrapher who contributed to the development of the logo for Sikh Heritage Month, which respectfully and symbolically brings together faith and heritage.
Our programme of events has been extremely well attended and hugely inspiring and engaging. The Vaisakhi event in Parliament, which is organised annually by the British Sikh Consultative Forum, brought together representatives from gurdwaras across the country for the launch of the project. There were also supportive messages from all parties, including from the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. On the same night, a launch took place in the Scottish Parliament.
Last week, we had a packed event and discussion in Parliament for the launch of the British Sikh Report 2019. The Sikh Channel, Everything’s 13 and the Basics of Sikhi, which are also attending the debate, helped with the incredible Turban Awareness Day, which was educational in recognising and educating people about the significance and relevance of the turban. That event in Parliament was attended by almost 50 Members of Parliament from all parties.
Two lectures were given, one by Dr Opinderjit Takhar, the director of the Centre for Sikh and Punjabi Studies, on Guru Nanak and feminism, and one by Anita Anand on her new book, “The Patient Assassin”, which is about the principal actors, the story before and the story after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, in which many Sikhs and people of all faiths were brutally murdered by the British. For her, the story is personal, as her grandfather escaped death by minutes while his close friends and colleagues were brutally murdered. She also told the story of Udham Singh, who made it his life’s mission to assassinate the lieutenant governor of the Punjab at the time, to whom she also had a strong personal link through her husband’s family, who had had contact with him in the past.
The massacre 100 years ago is a stain on our nation’s history to this day. It is time for an official apology. I am extremely disappointed that that was not forthcoming in our previous debate and during April. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that again today. It is no surprise that the “British Sikh Report 2019”, published last week, found that 79% of British Sikhs believe that the British Government should apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and that 85% believe that it should be taught and in school syllabuses. It is a huge disappointment that we continue that battle. The massacre was condemned by Winston Churchill, then Minister for War, as
“an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 131, c. 1725.]
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East for his work and for the way he has brought together Members of Parliament from both sides of the House to call on the Government to make sure that the official apology happens.
Through April, a range of community-organised events have also taken place around the country, with MPs and councillors involved in Visit My Gurdwara and Langar with your MP events, which often coincided with important Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtans or community processions. This month takes on greater significance this year, as Sikhs around the world mark the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji. I hope that National Sikh Awareness and History Month plays its part well in raising awareness and understanding of the Sikh faith, history and community, and continues to strengthen the bridges we build with Parliament and across nations with all our communities.
I will talk briefly about the gurdwaras in my constituency, Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha on Alice Way and my gurdwara on Martindale Road, which is run by the Nishkam trust, which play a huge role in many different ways, as I am sure gurdwaras across the country do. They extend charity and welcome and they support those in need. Every week, they welcome people who may be homeless or hungry. They welcome all, irrespective of background, through their doors. They run weekend classes and Punjabi classes, and host our surgeries as Members of Parliament so that we can reach all those in our communities. They have run immigration workshops —a huge issue in many ethnic minority communities— where immigration advisers are supported in providing confidential support and advice to those who desperately need it.
The Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha on Alice Way hosts the Hounslow Disability Network, which again provides vital support to those who need it. There are wellbeing events with the NHS, the police and many others across our community that make a huge difference. They also support the arts, culture and education. My constituent, Hardyal Luther, the former vice chairman of Guru Nanak Worldwide’s council of supporters, organises a Guru Nanak essay competition every year that brings together talent and encourages the younger generations to take part and explore their history, culture and faith.
We live in a peaceful and respectful society because we choose to make it so. The structures that we build between us as a society help to nurture those vital links that make us a safe place for all communities and a place in which we can be sure that future generations will also be safe and will understand and respect one another. The respect that we hold and the understanding that we nurture are part of a statement about how we as a nation recognise that we have more in common than that which divides us.
I realise that my hon. Friend is reaching the end of her excellent contribution, but she has come to a key point about the Sikh community in the United Kingdom. While enormously proud of its history, culture and tradition, it is also enormously proud to be British. Something like three quarters of the Sikh community in this country were born in the UK and are hugely proud of this country. Being proud to be Sikh and proud to be British identifies the Sikhs and is why the Sikh community makes such a great contribution to our country.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point that goes to the heart of what this debate is about. Whatever our heritage, as we play our part in British public life, it is vital that we respect each other and show that, in a time of rising hate crime not just across our country but across the world, we take the time to value each other, respect each other, understand each other’s history, and understand our nation’s history through the context and lens of all those who make a vital contribution.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, given that she is coming to the end of her speech. I thank her for an admirable and comprehensive contribution to the debate. The contribution of Sikhs to public life has gone unrecognised so far. I had the privilege of being the deputy to Lord King when he was leader of Sandwell Council. He was the first Sikh leader of a major metropolitan authority and subsequently became a Member of the House of Lords. I put on record his contribution to breaking down barriers and providing inspiration for subsequent generations of Sikhs to enter public life.
I will also make reference to our two Sikh Members of Parliament who are here today: our first turbaned Sikh Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough; and our first female Sikh Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston. They do us all proud and make a huge contribution, not only to debates in this House but to making sure that, as a minority community, we play our part and are seen to play our part in Britain’s mainstream public life.
With those words, I will end my speech. I thank you, Sir Edward, for chairing this debate, and the House for allowing me to call this debate and make my contribution to it.
As you can see, we have a large number of Members who wish to speak. We may need to set a time limit, because I want to try to get everybody in. In the meantime, perhaps we can have nice short speeches of no more than five minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to follow Seema Malhotra. I thank her and other colleagues for all they have done for the National Sikh Awareness and History Month.
I will mention three things that I have really appreciated about the Sikh community in my own constituency of Stafford, having visited the gurdwara on Tithe Barn Road on more than one occasion. The first is the wonderful hospitality that visitors receive, which I have experienced during my time in Stafford and also at the Sikh temple in Moshi in Tanzania, where I lived for many years. The warm welcome I received was tremendous and a great credit to both those communities.
The second point, which has already been mentioned by the hon. Lady, is the contribution that Sikhs have made, are making and will continue to make to our country, whether that is in business, the professions, public life, which she rightly mentioned, including the very highest levels of public life, or the armed forces. She has rightly mentioned the huge contribution, and sacrifice, that Sikhs have made on behalf of the United Kingdom throughout both world wars, and indeed elsewhere.
It was my privilege on Sunday to attend the Anzac memorial service in Cannock Chase in my constituency, and to see the contribution that others from the Commonwealth have made, particularly those from New Zealand. However, it is equally right that we remember the huge contribution of Sikhs. Let us not forget that the number of people who served was absolutely tremendous, including 100,000 New Zealanders out of a population of 1 million. Well over 100,000 Sikhs served in the first world war alone. Those are tremendous figures, and those who served were all volunteers; they were not conscripts, as far as I am aware.
Thirdly, it is important to note the interest that our Sikh community in Stafford has shown in the community and public life. During elections they always invite the candidates to speak and answer questions, which I welcome because they extend the invitation not only from the Sikh community’s point of view but from that of the whole community of Stafford.
I will make two further points. First, I very much hope that there will be an official apology for the events of 100 years ago. We need to look more closely at a number of events from right across the former British empire, which is now the Commonwealth. For instance, events during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya have not yet been sufficiently investigated, by which I mean events on both sides of the conflict, but particularly perhaps those relating the United Kingdom.
My Sikh constituents also have a real conviction—indeed, they make it really clear—about the importance of freedom of religion. The freedom to express one’s religion, and having the ability to do so across the world, matters hugely to me as a Christian. We in this place must uphold freedom of religion at a time when the situation in many countries around the world is becoming increasingly darker for those practising their faith.
Thank you, Sir Edward, for that ruling and for your chairmanship today.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra on securing this debate. As she said, it comes at the end of our first ever National Sikh Awareness and History Month. There have been lots of events, including the Vaisakhi celebration, Turban Awareness Day, the lecture on Guru Nanak and feminism—which I am glad to say was given by Dr Opinderjit Kaur Takhar, the director of the Centre for Sikh and Punjabi Studies at the University of Wolverhampton—and many others dedicated both to acknowledging the Sikh contribution and to teaching more about Sikhi and what it stands for.
I will mention a few things relating to that contribution. The first is the military contribution of Sikhs—the sacrifice in blood and life, with lives being laid down in two world wars, by Sikhs fighting for this country. It is estimated that some 83,000 Sikh soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice. Memorials have been erected to acknowledge that sacrifice, including, as we have just heard, in Bristol. A memorial was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire in 2015, and another was unveiled in Smethwick last year. We await, however, a national memorial in central London dedicated to their sacrifice. I acknowledge the leadership and hard work of my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi. We want a memorial to be erected and for the bureaucracy to be cut through. The issue has cross-party support, so I hope the Minister will provide a positive response.
The second contribution by Sikhs is, of course, economic. Many Sikhs came to my constituency and others in the west midlands in the 1950s and 1960s, often to do hard, even back-breaking, work in steel mills and foundries. They often faced barriers of prejudice as they laid down the foundations for their new life. Although we quite rightly associate the Sikh community with social mobility, that mobility rests on the hard work of the first generation of Sikhs who came here. As is the case with so many immigrants, they worked hard to make sure that their children had better chances than them in life.
I also pay tribute to those who have worked to record the stories of those early Sikh migrants. For example, Anand Chhabra, founder of Black Country Visual Arts, has lovingly collated the Apna Heritage Archive’s photography collection, which records early Punjabi life in the west midlands in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and which was exhibited at Wolverhampton Art Gallery last year.
Alongside that hard work, there was great bravery. For example, there is the story of Tarsem Singh Sandhu, who led the fight in Wolverhampton for Sikhs to be able to wear a turban while driving a bus. Unbelievably, that was banned in the past, even when half the bus drivers in the city were of Sikh heritage. Tarsem Singh Sandhu was told that he would lose his job unless he was clean shaven and abandoned his turban, but he took a stand, rightly saying that he was doing nothing wrong. He had to face down great hostility to win his battle, and his bravery and that of those who campaigned alongside him paved the way for change that today we take for granted. Even after that great progress, however, there are still struggles. Legislation still has to be amended to ensure that the simple act of observing the five Ks and wearing a turban can be done freely.
What can we draw as a broader conclusion? I see a community whose story is overwhelmingly positive. Sikhs have achieved success in business, education, public life and, increasingly, politics, with the historic election of the first turban-wearing Sikh, my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi, and the first woman Sikh MP, my hon. Friend Preet Kaur Gill. This is a timely debate, and Sikhs should build on their success in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my good and hon. Friend Seema Malhotra for securing this important debate and for her excellent speech.
Despite being only about 1% of the UK population, British Sikhs have without doubt made an immense contribution to our nation. They have among the highest numbers of graduates of any community, and huge proportions of them are in employment and in the voluntary and charitable sector. According to official statistics, they also have the highest level of home ownership—the most likely of all the faith groups to own their own home. However, despite there being such incredible achievements, I want to concentrate my remarks, in the limited time I have, on some current and future initiatives.
In particular, there is the national Sikh war memorial. Due to the hard work of the trustees, of whom I am president, a central London site has been identified. I pay tribute to Members of both the Government and the Opposition who, on a cross-party basis, have helped, and also the Mayor of London’s office. I fully hope that the Minister will today endorse all that good work and support us in the future in every possible way, so that the dream will be become a reality on that site.
I also want to touch upon direct flights to Amritsar, which is the global, spiritual and tourist hub for the Sikhs, and home to the most revered Sikh shrine, known sometimes as the Golden Temple. Since being elected, I have been pushing on this matter, and I am thankful to those hon. Members who, on a cross-party basis, attended the parliamentary event. Despite the anti-Sikh and anti-Punjab elements who successfully scuppered such efforts by the diaspora and the Punjab community over the previous decade, in 2018 we successfully reinitiated the Birmingham to Amritsar route with Air India, and this month, thanks to several meetings and sincere efforts, we were looking forward to the announcement of direct flights from London to Amritsar. However, the recent difficulties faced by Indian airlines, including the collapse of the major private operator, have unfortunately put paid to that. Furthermore, even the advances made with the Birmingham to Amritsar route have been cancelled, allegedly due to the escalating Indo-Pak tensions and the inability to use certain airspace, along with capacity issues.
Given the context, is the Minister willing to meet me, and perhaps team members from the Departments for Transport, for International Trade and for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as well as the Foreign Office, to see how we could encourage some of our British airlines to take on what would no doubt be a lucrative route? Post-Brexit, our ability to increase such communities’ cultural, trade and tourism ties will no doubt determine our nation’s success and enhance our global links. I sincerely hope that the Government will fully support National Sikh Awareness and History Month every April, after its having been initiated this year under the leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston, with excellent events being organised by other Members and hard-working Sikh organisations.
I fully endorse the calls for a formal apology from the Government for the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, massacre, and the need to incorporate such historic colonial events into our national curriculum, so that future generations may learn from the blunders of the past. There has been an increase in hate crime, and after the horrific attack last year on one of my turbaned guests, who was queueing outside Parliament, by a hate-filled individual who felt the need to try to remove his turban, we have turned a negative into a positive with a Turban Awareness Day for the second year in a row, attended by so many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Dawn Butler. I am sure that with continued political support, the British Sikh community will go from strength to strength.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra on securing this important debate. In our first ever National Sikh Awareness and History Month, I pay tribute to her work, and that of hon. Friends and Members across the House, in establishing it. It is absolutely right that we have this debate today, to highlight the contribution of the Sikhs to the UK on so many different levels, whether military, economic or political. I thank my hon. Friend for calling the debate, and for organising the fantastic turban awareness day last week. I know that many hon. Members present were there. It is certainly the first time I have worn a turban, and the process of having someone dress me in a turban was interesting and educational. I very much enjoyed it, and I thank everyone who was involved in organising the event.
I am proud that one of the first Sikh temples in the country outside London was the Guru Nanak Satsang gurdwara on the Cannock Road in my constituency. It is one of two Sikh gurdwaras in my constituency, the other being the Guru Nanak Sikh gurdwara on Well Lane in Wednesfield. I am always delighted to visit the gurdwaras. As Jeremy Lefroy said, people always get a very warm welcome reception, a delicious Indian tea, samosas and all sorts of other things, because of the Sikh tradition of offering food to anyone, regardless of their background. People are always well fed and warmly welcomed at gurdwaras, not only in Wolverhampton but elsewhere across the country and the world.
I am delighted to take part in the annual Vaisakhi procession in my constituency, which last took place a couple of weeks ago between the Well Lane and Willenhall gurdwaras. There will be a very late Vaisakhi celebration in Wolverhampton—we always have the Vaisakhi Mela on the first Sunday of the month in West Park. Thousands of people flock there, obviously from the Sikh community but also from all different communities, and from all religions and none. It is a joyous affair, and I look forward to attending again this year.
I am proud that Wolverhampton has the second-highest percentage of Sikh residents in England, second only to Slough. Our Sikh community in Wolverhampton is vibrant and well integrated and makes a huge contribution to the local community and to society. It is fantastic and fitting that the University of Wolverhampton last year launched its Centre for Sikh and Panjabi Studies, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend Mr McFadden. The centre is the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, and I congratulate Dr Opinderjit Takhar not only on setting it up, but on giving the recent lecture in Speaker’s House on Guru Nanak and feminism.
I would like to reflect on what the hon. Member for Stafford said about the strong advocacy of the freedom of religion that the Sikh community brings to the UK. At election time, we always know what the Sikh priorities in my area are. We get invited to the local gurdwara; we get fed and watered, but demands are also put on us for the election. That is good and right, and I congratulate the various Sikh organisations that actually draft a manifesto for the election.
I echo those who have asked the Government for an apology for the massacre 100 years ago at Jallianwala Bagh. Although the Prime Minister has expressed deep regret, it is a shame that the Government have not gone further. On a more positive note, I would like to say how proud I am of the contribution of the Sikh community in Wolverhampton to business, education, public life and politics.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank Seema Malhotra for securing the debate, and I thank the Minister for being here today and for his clear commitment to his role. I look forward to hearing his remarks.
As we have heard, Sikhs have made an immense contribution to British society in a wide range of areas. Whether through business, charity work or the invaluable impact of the 83,000 Sikh soldiers who gave their lives in the service of the British Army, it is no exaggeration to say that Britain would simply not be Britain without the contribution of the Sikhs. Despite their magnificent contribution, Sikhs in Britain—and across the world—often face significant discrimination because of their beliefs.
Just before the Easter break, along with others, I spoke in this very hall about the many Sikhs who lost their lives during the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, roughly 100 years ago. Thankfully, things have drastically improved since then, but Sikhs still face discrimination and even violence across the world. I declare an interest, as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, and I am here to speak out for the Sikhs as well. I am also pleased to have Preet Kaur Gill as an office bearer in that APPG and I look forward to her contribution shortly.
According to UK Home Office data, 117 incidents of hate crimes against Sikhs were recorded in 2017-18. That figure is likely to be underestimated, as many victims of hate crime do not report them. Incidents of discrimination towards Sikhs have been recorded for years. For example, the British Sikh Report 2013 estimated that three quarters of the UK’s Sikhs had experienced racism. According to the UK Sikh Survey 2016, almost one in five Sikhs had encountered discrimination in a public place over the past year, with one in seven having directly experienced workplace discrimination. The report found that Sikhs who wear religious iconography or clothing are the most likely to experience abuse. Since 9/11, both individual Sikhs and gurdwaras have regularly been on the receiving end of attacks by people who have mistaken them for Muslims and mosques respectively. There have been numerous high-profile incidents in the media, notably the attempted beheading of Sikh dentist Dr Sarandev Bhambra in a Welsh supermarket in 2015.
It is simply unacceptable that anyone should be subject to discrimination, abuse or violence because of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof. We should do everything in our power to tackle discrimination against Sikhs in Britain. It is also right that we work with our international partners to tackle discrimination towards Sikhs because, unfortunately, the problem also afflicts many other nations, as has been mentioned. For example, in the US, the Sikh Coalition estimates that Sikhs in the US have experienced an average of one hate crime per week since the start of 2018, with a 17% spike in anti-Sikh violence since the 2016 presidential election. Those figures, too, are expected to be underestimated.
In India, where there is the greatest population of Sikhs in the world, conditions for Sikhs and other religious minorities have deteriorated over the past decade owing to the rise of Hindu nationalism, and attempts to alienate non-Hindus have emerged in conjunction with that ideology. The 2017 report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom notes:
“Hindu nationalists often harass Sikhs and pressure them to reject religious practices and beliefs that are distinct to Sikhism, such as wearing Sikh dress and unshorn hair and carrying mandatory religious items...Article 25 of the Indian constitution deems Sikhs to be Hindus. This creates an environment in which Hindu nationalists view Sikhs as having rejected Hinduism and as being enemies of India because some Sikhs support the Khalistan political movement, which seeks to create a new state in India for Sikhs”.
The growth of such views serves only to make life harder for the Indian Sikh community.
Sikhs in Britain and around the world have contributed greatly to society. Despite that fact, their community continues to suffer significant discrimination. It is our responsibility in this House today to do what we can to tackle that discrimination at home in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and abroad, and to ensure that Sikhs and all other religious or belief communities are valued and allowed to live their lives in peace and to contribute yet more to society, having very clearly contributed much in the past.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra for succeeding in her application for this timely debate to mark the end of Sikh heritage, history and awareness month—a month she has worked incredibly hard to champion and organise. Like many Members across the House, I too have participated in the Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtan in Birmingham over the weekend. The gathering is one of the largest in Europe, with more than 100,000 in attendance.
As chair of the all-party group on UK Sikhs and the first female Sikh Member of Parliament, it has been a pleasure listening to Members from across the House rightly laud some of the contributions that individual Sikhs and the Sikh community as a whole have made to the UK.
When I was elected just under two years ago, I came to Parliament with a belief that it was here that we could make fundamental changes, and that we, as Members of Parliament, could lead on issues of importance for individual constituents, our community or the whole of the United Kingdom. I want us to do more than offer warm words about the contribution of Sikhs, or indeed any community, to the UK.
Despite making up 0.8% of the population, according to the 2011 census, Sikhs accounted for 2% of religious hate crimes recorded by the police in 2017-18. I want us to tackle hate crime and prejudice by taking today as a starting point for educating the whole population about the influence that Sikhs have had and how their impact has shaped the Britain of today, as well as many other parts of the world. It is in this place that we can choose to do more than discuss the contribution of diverse communities and speak solemnly about hate crimes. In this place we can put in place actions and policies to look at the link between the two.
The hate crime action plan refresh in 2018 was extremely disappointing, given the promises made to Sikh organisations that they would not be ignored or invisible to Government; but what matters now is how the Government address Sikh hate crime. I look forward to working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to address the under-reporting of Sikh hate. The new chair of the community safety group for the Sikh Council UK is Manchandan Kaur, and I hope the Government will reach out to her and the council to work with them.
Our children need to learn about the contribution of the Sikh community, and to do that, we must teach people about the honest history of Britain. We must learn about the positive and progressive parts as well as the repression and exploitation that has occurred in Britain’s name. We need to learn that, during the second world war, British soldiers were paid differently depending on their race. In their thousands Sikhs, along with others, gave up their lives for our freedom. My grandfather also fought in the second world war.
Our children must learn about the Amritsar massacre, where British troops massacred unarmed demonstrators. They must learn about the life of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of the last Maharaja of the Sikh empire and goddaughter of Queen Victoria, who pioneered the cause of women’s rights in Britain and abroad. They must learn about the grassroots activism of many Sikhs in the 1960s to challenge unfair pay, working conditions and cultural oppression.
My father, the late Daljit Singh Shergill, who was president of the Guru Nanak gurdwara Smethwick for 18 years, set up the first food bank during the 1980s recession in Smethwick. He worked with the miners during their strikes, raising funds to support them. He championed interfaith working and worked closely with the Harborne parish and the Bangladeshi and other minority groups. Gurdwara Smethwick has recently revealed the Lions of the Great War statue, commemorating the contribution of Sikhs to world wars one and two, led by the president, Jatinder Singh Bassi; the general secretary, Humraaj Singh Shergill; and leader of Sandwell Council, Steve Eling. And we must know the truth of the role of the then Government involvement in Operation Blue Star, otherwise known as the 1984 genocide of Sikhs.
If we genuinely want to recognise the contribution of Sikhs to the UK and the way it has shaped British society, the way it has moulded what it means to be British and the way it has shaped current and future generations, it is not enough simply to discuss it; we must end the discrimination that Sikhs face because of a lack of data. The race disparity audit used 100 datasets across Government to look at how people of all ethnic groups are treated across public services, but there was no data on Sikhs. As we celebrate their contributions, let us not ignore the fact that the Government’s aim to tackle burning injustices has been a concern when it comes to Sikhs. That is why Members across the House support the Sikh ethnic tick box in the census.
We in this place are here to make fundamental change and lead on what is important. I hope that today the Minister, as a Member of the Government, will commit to genuinely following through on the issues raised. In doing so the Minister will have my full support, and the APPG will be happy to work with officials to develop a programme of work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra on securing this extremely important debate today. I want to start by putting on the record my sincere gratitude for all the support and good will that I have received from the Sikh community in Coventry. Their help and encouragement has been and will always be very much appreciated.
There are many gurdwaras in my constituency and across Coventry. They are not only places of worship, but important community hubs that bring people together and, as anyone who has visited a temple will know, are places of great benevolence, where everyone is welcome and food is shared with the rest of the community. The annual Vaisakhi celebration is firmly woven into our city’s cultural calendar. Thousands of people take part in the Nagar Kirtan—the parade—which starts at the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Parkash in my constituency, and is a joyous and inclusive celebration that is attended and enjoyed by Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike. The event contributes successfully to broadening our city’s cultural life.
Similarly, the Sikh community contributes tremendously to the success of the economy of both Coventry and this country. The Sikh community certainly punches above its weight in this area, with a deserved reputation for having a strong work ethic and being disproportionately successful in business. It is a similar story in our vital public services, where Sikhs make such an invaluable contribution to our armed forces, our NHS and our education sector.
As well as the cultural and economic contribution that the Sikh community makes to our city, there is a significant social contribution, not least to the health and wellbeing of our environment. Sikhs have a strong relationship with the environment, which is an integral part of their faith and identity. That connection with the natural world prompted Coventry’s Sikhs to commit to planting more than 550 trees across the city to mark the 550th anniversary of the birth of Shri Guru Nanak Dev Ji. That fantastic initiative will help to restore nature to our cities, parks and green spaces, and secure a healthy, resilient and sustainable environment that will benefit people and wildlife for generations to come.
That sense of social responsibility does not end with the natural environment. Public service is hugely important to Sikh identity, and helping others is part of their way of life. Sikhs constantly strive to do more and find new ways of contributing to their local community, whether that is through the time they give up or the money they donate to important local charities and projects. I admire and am grateful for their work throughout my city, and I thank the 16,000 Sikhs in Coventry for their social, cultural and economic contributions.
I echo the points that my hon. Friend is making so well. In my constituency, the Sikh community has done a huge job and been at the heart of our community, both commercially and through its public leadership. I place on the record my thanks to Mota Singh, who is standing down as a councillor after 40 years of public service. What a terrific record that has been.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Sikhs contribute so much each and every day across all walks of life, and their culture, diversity, enterprise and values of faith, family, and community help to make our city a more unique, integrated, tolerant and vibrant place to live in, work and visit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra on securing the debate and on her powerful speech. I am delighted to speak in this debate, and I welcome the launch of National Sikh Awareness and History Month. I pay tribute to the work of my colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), for Feltham and Heston, and for Slough (Mr Dhesi) in pursuing that important initiative. It has also been wonderful to see recent events in Parliament—my personal favourite was definitely Turban Awareness Day.
My city of Manchester contains a significant Sikh population and provides a prime example of the beauty of our diverse society. It is particularly noticeable how well the Sikh community has integrated itself into the local community, not just through business, but through charity work and the hospitable nature of the local gurdwaras. My local gurdwara is a lively, colourful and welcoming place. I recently visited it for the Vaisakhi celebrations, and was touched by the warm and very Punjabi welcome.
I have seen over the years the positive impact that Sikhs have had not just in my constituency, but across Britain and in all walks of life. Minorities such as British Sikhs exemplify all that is great about Great Britain, which is home to many of the world’s religious and ethnic minorities. It is a place where we strive to create the conditions for minorities to thrive, safe in the knowledge that there exists a robust framework of equality and non-discrimination legislation, and professional practice. Other examples of the contribution that Sikhs make to the UK are witnessed in the British Army where, as Members have said, many Sikhs have served with distinction. We still have some way to go before we fully realise our equality aspirations, but the Equality Act 2010, passed by a Labour Government, remains a significant landmark on our journey to a more equal society for all.
As for other minority communities, however, challenges remain for British Sikhs, and ignorance of the Sikh religion often lies behind prejudices. Sadly, the Sikh community continues to face discrimination. For example, a report by the all-party group on British Muslims described the very direct and tangible impact that Islamophobia has on our Sikh communities. Whether that is gurdwaras being defaced, or Sikh men such as Dr Sarandev Bhambra being targeted by Islamophobes because of the mistaken perception that they are Muslims, we are acutely aware that more must be done by all in society to tackle the impact of rising Islamophobia that affects all our communities.
Given the escalation in bigotry after the Brexit vote and the rise in racial discrimination and hate crimes on grounds of race and religion, it is important that we reassert the Britishness of our minority groups, and integrate their history and stories in our national imagination. To challenge the racism of far right groups, we must repel the myths that are peddled about our communities, and we must celebrate the tremendous contributions made by those communities to the UK. I believe that the positive contributions made by Sikhs and other Commonwealth citizens to our British history should be included in national school curricula. The time is right to pay tribute to British Sikhs and all they have achieved, because their contribution amounts to so much more than their numbers. I am honoured to have had the opportunity to participate in this much-needed debate, which recognises and celebrates the wonderful contributions made by the Sikh community. Finally, let me conclude with the wise words of Guru Nanak, who said:
“He who regards all men as equals is religious”.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I pay tribute to Seema Malhotra for her work in establishing National Sikh Awareness and History Month. It has been a wonderful month of celebration, education, learning, and sharing food, which is a great thing and definitely to be encouraged. This month the Scottish Parliament held its first Vaisakhi reception, which was so well attended that extra people had to be squeezed into the garden lobby. More and more people kept coming, which was great to see.
I thank Charandeep Singh and Ravinder Kaur Nijjar from Glasgow for their help in gathering information on the Sikh community in Scotland for my contribution to this debate, and for their tireless community work. In her interfaith role, and through the network of Scottish gurdwaras, Ravinder has been incredibly active over nearly 30 years in promoting dialogue and understanding between faiths, as well as promoting the Sikh community. After our debate on Jallianwala Bagh, she told me that her grandfather had survived that massacre because, as a young man, he lay underneath the bodies. That brings home to us all how that link is still there within human memory, including here in the UK, and it is because that link is so real for so many that the lack of an apology from the Prime Minister was so disappointing. Ravinder also told me that in 1920, Sikhs based at Glasgow University wrote to the then Glasgow Herald to voice their outrage at those events. This is not something that happened in another country far away and a long time ago; this is very real to communities today, and I urge the Minister to do all he can to secure that apology.
The established Sikh community settled in Glasgow in the early 1920s, and the first gurdwara was established in South Portland Street in the Gorbals in the 1940s. The community has grown in both numbers and institutions. Scotland’s eight gurdwaras, based in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee and Irvine, serve communities across the nation and are used by 4,000 individuals each week, including Sikhs and those from other backgrounds. During the Vaisakhi celebrations we saw the Nagar Kirtan procession through the streets of Glasgow, and it was an absolute joy to behold and be part of. The tradition of langar—providing a free meal—was begun by the first guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, expanded by Guru Angad and Guru Amar Das, and it remains strong to this day. I very much enjoyed sharing a meal with my colleague Sandra White MSP and the congregation at the Glasgow central Gurdwara Singh Sabha a fortnight ago. The food was delicious, and I encourage anyone who can to go there. As other Members have reflected, visitors are very much welcomed when they go through the doors.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra on her role in securing this important debate. Everybody recognises the contributions of the Sikh community in the social and semi-political fields, but I am glad to say that in my constituency and my area, the Sikh community has played a major part in the mainstream politics of Britain. It was where the first Sikh—Indian-born—was elected as a local councillor, and where Piara Singh Khabra was elected as Member of Parliament. Parmjit Dhanda was elected as a Member of Parliament, as was Marsha Singh, who was the Member for Bradford West. The Sikh community is not only playing a part in social life, but playing a positive role in bringing communities together in the mainstream politics of Britain.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his excellent point. Sikhs have played a role in many different fields, as they should. Two Members who have spoken this afternoon, the hon. Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) and for Slough (Mr Dhesi), are Sikhs who have made their contributions to politics. There is a great contribution going on across the UK, and we need to see many more Sikhs taking up the role of elected Member.
Each week, the gurdwaras in Scotland serve over 3,000 meals, all prepared and distributed by volunteers. In addition, Seva Scotland prepares meals in the gurdwara and distributes them to the vulnerable in society through mobile food banks, which provide over 100 hot, fresh meals a week in Glasgow and Edinburgh to the most vulnerable, many of whom are homeless. In addition, the Sikh community regularly fundraises for Scottish charities, including the Glasgow Children’s Hospital Charity, for which it recently raised over £8,000.
The Sikh community works hard to create stronger, integrated communities. As the hon. Member for Slough and others have mentioned, there has been anti-minority hostility and hate crime about, which the Scottish Sikh community has taken on through a vibrant proactive approach to promoting diversity in Scotland. Each year, the Network of Sikh Organisations educates over 4,000 Scottish school pupils, and interacts and engages with over 40,000 non-Sikh visitors to gurdwaras. The Gurdwara Guru Granth Sahib Sikh Sabha on Albert Drive is recognised as being so welcoming that it has a four-star rating from the tourist agency VisitScotland. It also does outreach; it recently did a turban-tying event in Queen’s Park, with members of the community turning up on a beautiful sunny day to show how turbans are put together. As other elected Members have mentioned, learning how that feels was an experience, and it was good to get the opportunity to do that outside in the sunshine.
As the local elected Member for three of Glasgow’s four gurdwaras, I know that the Sikh community regularly engages with local and national Governments on issues of importance to the Sikh community, most recently the Sikh census question, but also on security issues after the scandalous attack on the Guru Nanak gurdwara in Edinburgh last year. My hon. Friend Deidre Brock asked me to pass on how strongly the community in Edinburgh felt about that. There was great solidarity, with the community coming out in support of those from the gurdwaras. The Scottish Government’s Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, Ben Macpherson, who is also the local MSP, was out there giving his support to the community as well.
My hon. Friend Martin Docherty-Hughes has been active in campaigning on the Jagtar Singh Johal case. I know that there was a meeting with the Foreign Secretary last week, and that the all-party parliamentary group led by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston has also been campaigning on that issue, backed by the solidarity of the gurdwaras.
I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman’s support; it is important that we stand together on these issues as much as we can.
I have received representations from the gurdwaras in my constituency about the difficulties caused by the UK Home Office in the recruitment of Sikh celebrants. When I visited the Vaisakhi celebrations, I was pleased to see that the Sikh celebrants had been able to get into Glasgow and participate in those celebrations, which I believe involved a 48-hour reading of the Sikh holy scriptures. If that is going to be done in a shift over 48 hours, there need to be plenty of celebrants to make it possible.
The Scottish Sikh community is engaged in international activity. The Sikh Council of Scotland was founded in 2002 by Gurdeep Samra, and under President Sulakhan Singh is providing scholarships worth £700,000 to 290 young children in the poorest parts of India, covering their tuition fees, transport, food and schooling costs and removing that burden from their parents. The community also supports work to empower young women by providing training in high-skilled tailoring centres, where those women are trained in the art of tailoring, sewing and design. Hundreds of young women have enrolled, and after their training, each qualified young woman is provided with a sewing machine free of charge to open their own tailoring shop locally, to act as a source of income for those women and their families. Some 90% of young women enrolled in that scheme reach the stage of opening their own local centre, which is quite incredible. The Sikh community also funds local water projects in India and provides six eye camps in that country, which have provided eye care and operations such as cataract surgery to over 6,000 individuals, completely free of charge.
Other hon. Members have mentioned the importance of education. All the Sikh gurdwaras in Scotland provide a range of educational facilities, including Punjabi heritage classes, tuition classes, computing classes and health and wellbeing classes. Those are all free, and seek to increase and improve the life chances of people from minority ethnic communities. Combined, the gurdwaras educate over 4,000 young Scottish Sikhs through their educational services. That is a great thing for the community, particularly as it links together the older and younger generations through language.
Leith-based Sikh Sanjog, founded by Trishna Singh OBE in 1989, is particularly notable as an organisation run by women, and I wish it all the best on its 30th birthday this year. Sikh Sanjog has run the Punjabi Junction cafe for the community, and offers a range of services to inspire and empower Sikh and other minority ethnic women and young people to advance their life opportunities through the building of skills, confidence and social inclusion. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith has told me how much that means to the local community. The Sikh community is also expanding its footprint on the national stage through the advocacy charity Sikhs in Scotland, under the leadership of Charandeep Singh, which will represent the needs of that community across civic Scotland. As other hon. Members have mentioned, Sikhs have made an economic contribution. The two stunning gurdwaras in Glasgow, which I invite everybody to visit, invested £15 million in Scottish communities, which is significant in fundraising terms.
I will finish with a wee story about how the Sikh community is regarded in Glasgow. The painting club at Toryglen community hall has produced for me the most gorgeous painting of the Glasgow skyline, with landmarks from my constituency. It has recognised the contribution of the Sikh community by including the gurdwara dome in that beautiful painting. What more fitting tribute by Glaswegians to their fellow citizens could there be? The Sikh community is very much part of Scotland's vibrant tartan, and I take this opportunity to thank it for its contribution.
It is a great pleasure to be part of today’s debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra on having secured it. I also congratulate all the members of the all-party parliamentary group on UK Sikhs who have contributed to this very special month. It is lovely to see Parliament as diverse as it has been this month; sometimes, I think this place is at its best when Members can debate and talk about the beauty and diversity of their constituents and how much they add and contribute. It makes this a very special place.
We have heard a lot about the contribution of Sikhs in both world wars, and a recognition of the role that Sikhs played in our history. Sikh British Indian soldiers were just 2% of the population, but 20% of the British Indian Army, and I join other Members in calling for a war memorial in central London to recognise and celebrate that fact. I hope that when the Minister rises to his feet, in the spirit of today’s debate, he will agree and say that that will happen. As we have already heard from my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi, a place for that memorial has already been identified.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston said, it is sad that this history month was born out of an attack on a turban-wearing Sikh outside Parliament, a place where we hope we break down barriers. However, as we have heard, something positive has come out of that negative. It was a pleasure to be a part of Turban Awareness Day in Parliament. I too now understand how long the process takes. It was a real education, and I thank Members, especially our Sikh Members, for allowing us to ask silly questions—I thought some of them were silly questions—and for the dignity with which they responded. That is testament to how we all need to embrace, understand and appreciate each other’s cultures.
A hundred years later seems like the right time for an apology for the Jallianwala Bagh murders. That incident should be taught in schools; it is time and it feels right. We have been talking about suffrage and the contributions that Sikh women made to suffrage movements, and we have talked about those centenary celebrations, but it is time to acknowledge the good and the bad and ensure that that incident is taught in schools.
We have heard a lot today about the “British Sikh Report 2019”. It refers not only to the many Sikhs who work in the public sector, but to those in the care sector. I found that a fascinating piece of research, and we should all reflect on the positive role that Sikhs play in public life.
Jeremy Lefroy spoke with pride about his Sikh community and about events in the British empire that need to be investigated. What he said is true. Often history likes to talk about what are considered to be the good bits, but for us to understand and mature as a society, we need to talk about the bad bits too, so that history does not repeat itself, as we have seen in the recent increase in hate crime.
My right hon. Friend Mr McFadden spoke about Sikh soldiers and the ultimate sacrifice. He talked about the cross-party support and all the firsts we have here in Parliament and, beyond that, in his constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Slough is a completely and utterly enthusiastic advocate for the war memorial. I congratulate him on all his campaigning since he has been in Parliament. He has hit the ground running, to say the least, and has always been so calm in doing so. He often talks about turning a negative into a positive, but I congratulate him on being elected as the first ever black, Asian and minority ethnic representative in the UK delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I am sure he will take that delegation by force and ensure that everything is considered in the right way.
My hon. Friend Emma Reynolds talked about education about the turban and the gurdwaras in her constituency. She is no longer in her place, but she talked about West Park, and it sounded like the place to be. I might just have to pay a visit.
My hon. Friend Preet Kaur Gill talked about her constituency with such joy and grace, but I must congratulate her on being the first female Sikh Member of Parliament. I remember when she was elected, everyone was saying, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that you are the first and there wasn’t one before.” There was almost a sense of it being a shame on the House. I congratulate her on being the first female Sikh Member and her words about being an advocate for action, not warm words. We must never forget how we can use this place to ensure that the Government make the changes they need to make. We need fewer warm words and more action.
My hon. Friend mentioned Princess Duleep Singh and the role she played in the suffrage movement. Often, women of colour are excluded from the history books and we have to dig deep to find the role they played, even when we know they played a full role and often made a bigger sacrifice to do so. She also mentioned the race disparity audit having no data on Sikhs. If the Government are going to do something, it is important that is done in its entirety, so that it is meaningful. If we are going to go through a process of auditing, it is important that we make it as meaningful as possible. The debate about having Sikh as a recognised box is not a new debate, and it could easily have been included in the Government’s race disparity audit. Will the Minister explain why that was not the case?
My hon. Friend Colleen Fletcher talked about how Sikhs punch above their weight and the planting of trees around Coventry. I should not forget to mention my hon. Friend Afzal Khan. He talked about the warm Punjabi welcome and everything that is great about Great Britain, and that is the thing: Great Britain is known for its diversity. People coming from other countries often say, “I love the diversity, the unity and the acceptance.” It is not about tolerance. I do not want to be tolerated; I want to be accepted and appreciated for the contributions to society that my family and I make. My hon. Friend talked about the role we can all play in rooting out racial discrimination. Debates such as this highlight how we all have a significant role to play in ensuring that there is less hate in society, and more acceptance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Edward. Being in the House of Commons, more often than not I am really proud of our role as advocates for our communities. It is brilliant that more than 20 Members of Parliament have come to this debate to make a contribution to celebrate Sikhs and Sikhs in British society. That is extraordinarily uplifting and a brilliant way of marking the almost conclusion of UK National Sikh Awareness and History Month. That event came out of a negative attack outside Parliament, and what a fantastic way it is of turning that negative, terrible thing that we all condemn into something positive.
In this debate, we have all come together to make a positive contribution about Sikhs in our society. I love the idea of having a month that is not only about history and what happened in the past, but about today and celebrating the hugely positive contribution that Sikhs make in Great Britain and around the world, as we have heard. We have had more than 20 contributions. I will do my best to respond to as many as possible of the points raised, while leaving the customary two minutes for Seema Malhotra. I congratulate her on securing this debate and pay tribute to her for the campaign she has run and all the work she has done.
My Department is in charge of communities in this country, and we work closely with communities across Great Britain to try to find ways to create that cohesion that the Opposition spokesperson just spoke about. I reiterate what has been said about the positive contribution that Sikhs have made to British society. Their vibrancy and selfless service are renowned. I have never visited a gurdwara, so I will have to do that. I do not have one in my constituency, but the huge contribution that gurdwaras are making to communities across Great Britain is absolutely fantastic.
Fantastic—I accept that invitation. I am sure my hon. Friend will also take that opportunity to lobby me on his high street competition bid, but I happily accept his invitation.
I am delighted that our Parliament has been made richer and more diverse. Having Mr Dhesi speak today was one of the highlights, as he is the first turban-wearing Sikh in Parliament. We should celebrate his historic role in the story of our Parliament and our nation.
In addition, Preet Kaur Gill is the first female Sikh, which we should also celebrate. I was surprised when the election results came in and that news came over the wires. It says something about this place that we had not until that point had a female Sikh representative. The hon. Lady is doing a fantastic job representing not just her constituents but the Sikh community more widely.
I appreciate that it is a couple of weeks late, but I place on record my good wishes to all Sikhs who celebrated Vaisakhi recently with their family and friends. I think it is fantastic. The Prime Minister will host an event in Downing Street early next month to celebrate Vaisakhi with members of the Sikh community from across the UK.
I thank the Minister for his opening remarks, and I am sure that the Sikh community will be very grateful for his Vaisakhi greetings, but the Government missed an opportunity a couple of weeks ago, on the 100th Vaisakhi since the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, to respond to cross-party calls for an official Government apology. Was that the last word on the subject, or can we expect to hear more from the Government, perhaps at the Vaisakhi celebration that he mentioned?
The right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to prejudge what the Prime Minister may or may not say at that Vaisakhi celebration; I do not have any information about what is planned. All I would say is that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of
“The tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 is a shameful scar on British Indian history.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 658, c. 308.]
That is a direct quote from the Prime Minister, and of course the British high commissioner to India, Sir Dominic Asquith, laid a wreath on the Jallianwala Bagh centenary, expressing regret for what happened.
It is important to reflect on the past, and I do not know what will happen at the Vaisakhi celebration in Downing Street. I will pass on the comments from this debate to the Prime Minister, and more widely to those across Government. There may be an opportunity for others to raise the matter with the Prime Minister if they have the opportunity to do so in Parliament, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, on or around the time of that celebration in Downing Street.
I will move on to talk about how the Government engage with the Sikh community. We have heard about the hugely important contribution that the Sikh community makes to Britain. It is important that I put on record how the Government, particularly through my right hon. Friend Lord Bourne, the Minister for Faith, engages with the Sikh community and particularly Sikh umbrella groups. He often hosts interfaith roundtables with representatives from different faiths. Part of that has been to engage heavily with the Sikh community and its representatives.
Lord Bourne is currently seeking to refresh the groups of Sikh communities and umbrella bodies with which he meets. He is seeking particularly to expand those groups to ensure that more women have an opportunity to contribute and that more members of grassroots and community representative groups can attend them. Knowing the interest that there will be in today’s debate, I put out a call to the community more widely, particularly to women, to come forward and engage with the Government on how we can more actively support the Sikh community in the UK. We look forward to continuing our engagement with the Sikh community throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I hope that that can be part of an active engagement, with Members from across the House playing their full part.
I really appreciate the commitment that the Minister is giving to carry on working closely with the Sikh community. Will he join all of us in campaigning to put pressure on the Prime Minister of this country to apologise on behalf of British communities? The Sikh community and the Indian community in general would appreciate that support.
I read out the direct quote from the Prime Minister expressing regret in relation to that. Any further change in the Government’s official position would be a matter for the Foreign Office and for the Prime Minister, although I have committed to pass on Members’ comments, and I am sure that the Prime Minister and her team will read the Hansard of our debate.
A few very specific points have been raised, to which I will respond. First, the hon. Member for Slough asked whether I would meet him to discuss flights directly. I will of course, but I wonder whether it would be more appropriate for him to meet a Transport Minister. Perhaps he and I can have a quick conversation after the debate to work out who the appropriate Minister would be. In the absence of any other Minister better qualified to deal with the matter, I will of course meet him with the greatest of pleasure.
Comments have been made about the Sikh war memorial and the cross-party campaign for proper recognition of the extraordinary contribution that Sikhs made during both world wars—14 Victoria crosses is a number that should humble us all. The Government are correctly supporting efforts to seek a permanent war memorial in London for that contribution. My Department has facilitated meetings with Westminster City Council and we have helped to persuade it, though I am sure it did not take too much persuasion, that there is a need for this war memorial. We support the planning application and have helped to identify potential sites. My Department is the ultimate arbiter of the planning application, so I cannot be drawn more widely on its success or failure, but we would all think it a wonderful outcome were such a memorial to be seen in London.
I hope I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. The Government are fully behind the proposals for the war memorial. If there is more we can do to assist, we will certainly offer that help. I congratulate him for all the work he has done and the extraordinary way in which he has reinvigorated the campaign since he arrived in Parliament relatively recently. We will continue to work with Westminster City Council. There are negotiations with the Crown Estate, and if we can assist in that work or those negotiations in any way, we will do so. If, following this fantastic month of celebration and history, we can make some real progress, we can all be really proud of that. If the hon. Gentleman runs into any issues—of course, my colleague Lord Bourne would usually deal with them—he can contact me and I will personally take them up with the relevant people in my Department.
Issues relating to hate crime have been raised. In the remaining moments, it may be helpful for me to highlight the additional funding that the Home Secretary has made available for places of worship. I have visited each of the mosques in my constituency to talk about the availability of that funding. It is right that the Government support places of worship, so that religious people can meet, come together, pray together and practise their faith. I hope that colleagues will do what I have done, which is to visit diverse places of worship in their own constituencies, to ensure that worshippers are aware of that funding and of the fact that they can apply for proactive security around places of worship. I congratulate once again everyone who has taken part in this extraordinary and uplifting debate.
I thank the Minister and all who have taken part. I am sure that the debate on the issue of a formal apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre will continue. I hope the Prime Minister will use her Vaisakhi event next month to move things forward.
I echo the words of my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill): raising awareness has a purpose, which is to build relations and to tackle hate, inequality and injustice. Where that requires Parliament to act, I hope we will have the courage to do so. In this debate, we have heard that people from the Sikh community have contributed to our society in so many ways—from Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who campaigned for suffrage in my constituency, to Fauja Singh in sport. We have not mentioned him, but this is a marathon week.
I close by thanking the Sikh community in my constituency and the leaders of our main local gurdwaras for all they do in working in an interfaith way, recognising the words of Guru Nanak Dev Ji that there is no Hindu and there is no Muslim. That we are all one together is a strong message that comes from the Sikh faith. I would like to mention Zora Singh Khangora, Gurmej Kaur, Gurmit Singh Hanzara, Premi Singh from the Afghan Sikhs, Sarup Singh Mahon, Gurmail Singh Malhi and our deputy mayor, Councillor Sumra, and all the other Sikh councillors who do a huge amount to keep the bridge strong between our community and our politics.
On a personal note, it has been a great privilege to chair this wonderful debate, in which we have all come together to celebrate the contribution of the Sikh community to our nation.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the contribution of Sikhs to the UK.