Speech to the British Sikh Federation
The Sikhs and the CRE
Some months ago, I was visited by a senior delegation of British Sikhs, many of whom are here this afternoon.
I was astonished to learn that as far as the Commission for Racial Equality was concerned, the Sikhs almost do not exist.
Why? Because the CRE code of practice advising Public Authorities on the monitoring of ethnic groups does not monitor Sikhs as a separate ethnic group.
Not only does this lack of recognition not give dignity to the Sikh population in the UK that it deserves, but it also means that the Code is meant to ensure equal treatment and enables Sikhs to be properly assessed and mentored by health, police authorities and other agencies.
The Sikhs' omission from the Code is astonishing given that there are 600,000 Sikhs in Britain today, probably the largest ethnic group in the country.
The CRE oppose ethnic monitoring of the Sikhs because the code reflects the 2001 census, which included Sikhs as a religious grouping not an ethnic grouping. Yet the CRE code strenuously monitors other smaller ethnic groups.
As you have pointed out, given that none of the existing categories fit Sikhs, the exclusion of Sikhs would mean that a distinct ethnic group - that constitutes 1.5% of the British population - would be rendered `invisible' from a statistical standpoint. But if statistics ignore real people, what is the point of them?
Whatever the Government or the CRE think, I don't think that the 10,000 people here today are invisible or the other 590,000 Sikhs in the country are either.
Last year we helped organise a Sikh lobby to Parliament on this issue and sent a petition to Tony Blair. We are determined to pursue this issue and it will be top of my agenda when I meet Trevor Phillips, the new Director of the CRE, next month. I and Dominic Grieve, the Conservative Shadow Community Cohesion Minister, look forward to working with you to continue the campaign at Westminster for proper recognition of Sikhs when Parliament returns after the Party Conference.
But you too will need to continue to campaign vigorously and as a united force.
That is why it is excellent news that the Convention today has announced the creation of a new national Sikh organisation, the Sikh Federation. It is good that you have decided to work with the mainstream parties. As a cohesive organisation you will have a better chance of achieving not just proper recognition of Sikhs, but a host of other objectives.
Sikhs and Conservatives
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am delighted to be here today for a number of reasons.
Not just because it offers me the chance to see and experience 10,000 strong members of the Sikh community engaged and active.
Not just because I want to learn from the Co-ordinating Committee of the National Sikh Convention as to how to get so many people to turn up to a public meeting.
We could use some of your skills at the Conservative Conference next month in Blackpool!
But because I believe that there is much common ground that Sikhism and Conservatism share. Sikh values of family, community, service to others and self reliance resonate with much Conservative thought.
Service to others
In a recent speech in Brixton, London, I suggested that my task as Shadow Home Secretary was to try and build a set of foundations on which the neighbourly society can build. I said then that four building blocks were essential:
· Firstly, a neighbourly society. This requires providing young people with exit routes from the conveyer belt to crime. We have to provide help for parents with young children facing difficulties. We have to offer serious rehabilitation for persistent offenders. We need to provide young drug addicts with serious abstinence based treatment;
· Secondly, Neighbourhood Policing. We need real active and sustained neighbourhood policing so that the police can recapture the streets for the honest citizen. That is why we have pledged to increase police numbers by 40,000.
· Thirdly, Active Citizens. We have to encourage a society which fosters the networks of support between individuals, families, neighbourhoods and community organisations. This kind of society depends on active citizens and flourishes from voluntary activity.
· Lastly, A Tolerant Society. We need to establish a framework which recognises that neighbours of differing creeds and colours, backgrounds and aspirations, can agree to live together in harmony.
The first two of these foundations - getting young people off the conveyer belt to crime and getting more police in our neighbourhoods will need commitment from Government.
But the last two cannot be just done by politicians.
Whatever social policies emanate from the politicians at Whitehall, whatever comes from local government, without the active participation of our active citizens in our neighbourhoods and communities very little will be achieved.
Encouraging active citizens in our communities and ensuring harmonious race relations can in the end only be done by all of us working together.
And this is where I see that the Sikh community has - and must have - a central role.
I am told that central to Sikhism is what is termed as Sewa - service to others. Service to religion, family, community, voluntarism and charity are regarded as the requirement and duty of every Sikh. I understand that the Guru Nanak once wrote:
"The essence of wisdom lies in the service of humanity."
I know that Sikhs run a host of community organisations dedicated to helping the needy, in the UK. In India, the Sikhs have a deserved reputation for running orphanages, widow's homes, institutes for the destitute and the handicapped and a Blind School.
But the work that you do in Britain, is not just important to Sikhs, it is essential for the well-being of every Briton in our country.
I salute the way you are making miracles happen in our inner cities. I pay tribute to the determination of the Sikh community to transform the lives for many of our disadvantaged people.
We strongly support your efforts to have Sikh faith schools. What better example could there be of community endeavour? What is more important than the education of our children?
I am glad to be able to tell you today that Conservatives feel that every community - parents, teachers and faith communities should be able to establish excellent new schools in their neighbourhoods. If Sikh schools are able to attract parents and children - as they no doubt will - then they will be guaranteed the required funding.
We believe that every school should have its own ethos and strongly support the creation of faith-based schools.
But the Sikh community also have a role in the second of these foundations - helping to build a more tolerant and harmonious society.
I mentioned earlier that the announcement of the establishment of the Sikh Federation is good news for Sikhs and good news for Britain.
Similarly your other two announcements today concerning the establishment of the National Council of Gurdwaras and the new Sikh Advisory Group are both positive developments.
You are showing a determination to act as a cohesive force. You are bringing the Sikh community together to ensure that you are best placed to work with the grain of political and social institutions in this country.
The work that you do has never been more important.
And I want to tell you why. Last week the British National Party won their 18th Council seat in the United Kingdom. They are now represented right across England.
Make no mistake; the hate and extremism of the British National Party do not just threaten ethnic communities. They threaten us all.
They threaten the democratic values all of us cherish.
They threaten Britain's proud status as a tolerant and liberal nation.
I understand that since the atrocity of September 11 2001, many Sikhs have had to deal with racial abuse - and some have been victims of racial violence.
My Party is determined to play its part in doing something about this and to try and curtail the BNP electoral success. We will be making an important announcement about this at our Party Conference next month.
Part of the reason for the success of the British National Party is because so many people feel let down by mainstream politics and politicians. So many promises made, so much promise unfulfilled.
In a country in which a crime is committed every five seconds, where criminals have just a 3% chance of being convicted, where our asylum system is in chaos, it is no wonder that extremists are successfully exploiting popular discontent.
There is a saying which states "nature abhors a vacuum". We are living at a time when there is such a vacuum. There is a deep absence of trust and malaise in our political life. At best this leads to apathy and at worst the support for extremist and fringe groups that I talked about a moment ago.
That is why this Sikh Convention today is so important. By organising this event today and coming here in such vast numbers. You are showing your commitment to public life and a determination to lead by example.
I am told that the Guru Nanak said that:
"Truth is higher than everything, but higher still is truthful living".
As I think of the loss of integrity in our public life, I can think of no better message to take back to Westminster:
Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh