Sikh Missionary Society U.K. (Regd)
10, Featherstone Road. Southall, Middx, U.K. UB2 5AA
Tel: +44 020 8574 1902
Fax: +44 020 8574 1912
Reg Charity No: 262404
The House of Commons
In November 1976, Her Majesty the Queen gave her Royal Assent to a Bill to exempt turbanned Sikhs from having to wear crash-helmets when riding a motor-cycle: The motorcycle Crash-Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act, 1976. Behind this measure, which has taken about three years to achieve, is a story of human kindness, religious and philosophical toleration in Britain. That story, I believe, is worth telling.
The ultimate triumph of the Bill reflects what most of us revere in our "way of life": the ability, sometimes in Parliament, to bring about its will across the boundaries of normal party politics: back-bencher's success over the reluctance of a government department (Tory and Labour) - in this case Transport. The measure reflects too, an acknowledgement of the forces of Anglo-Indian historical relationships which in this publication come shining through the debates recorded here in the House of Commons and more fully in the House of Lords.
In case some people may think such a measure is dependant solely on the persistence and skill of one Member of Parliament, let me readily acknowledge support from very many other colleagues and the warmth and friendship, of the Sikh community in Britain and interest shown throughout the world. It would be wrong of me to single out any particular MP colleague of any party in our united resolve, but several will know to whom our thanks are due.
However, all will agree, no progress with any measure may be made in Parliament, starting from a 10 minute afternoon rule Bill unless there is at the start goodwill both in and outside of Parliament.
This little story (for the British) which is so big (for the Sikhs) really began when my friend of Southall, Mr. Gurbachan Singh Rajasansir known as G.B. Singh (Chairman of Northcote Ward Labour Party), brought delegations consisting of representatives of Siri Guru Singh Sabha, Southall, both the Akali Dals of U.K. i.e. (Sikh Supreme Councils) and the Sikh Missionary Society (U.K.) to see me at one of my "Surgeries" at Hanwell Library in Ealing, London. G.B. Singh continued to liaise with me and the Sikh Community till the victory was achieved. A Road Traffic Act 1972 had been passed when Mr. John Peyton, M.P., Conservative, was Transport Minister. There was some opposition in Parliament on grounds of individual freedom, but the Sikh's special case was not then advanced, nor perhaps understood. Hitherto, there had been several campaigns notably in the Midlands and London, to safeguard the right to wear the long-hair and turban at work. And generally that battle had been won. The motor-cycle crash-helmet law presented a new challenge. That has now been met and overcome.
Before the resumption of Labour Government in February 1974, unsuccessful approaches were made to change the new law on behalf of the Sikhs. I was asked if the Sikhs were angry; I said no! - they were hurt. it had offended their Supreme religious symbol - the right to wear the turban at all times.
A new Labour Government in 1974, with a new Transport Minister Mr. Fred Mulley, afforded a fresh opportunity to make approaches for change. It was in September 1974 that I was visited by Southall and Ealing Sikhs - I joked, asking them if they had all come on motor-cycles. in fact they had all arrived in cars. I thought then that their protest was over-reacting as I generally supported protecting the heads of youngsters who were particularly vulnerable on motor-cycles. But it was a father in G.B. Singh's delegation who changed my mind. He observed that if his turbanned son was forced to turn from the religion in this way, he was afraid he would lose his influence upon his son in other directions.
I knew then what I had to do. I was convinced an attempt should be made to get the exemption.
I then arranged for some MPs and many Sikh representatives to meet Mr. Mulley at his office in the Ministry in London. He listened carefully to the arguments, but basically remained unconvinced that the Sikhs had a special case. He refused to make the changes.
I had several private conversations with him and it was all in vain. Other MPs with Sikh communities put on pressure to no avail.
I then decided to test the "parliamentary water" with a 10 minute rule Bill.
It was on January 28, 1975 that many Sikhs come to the House of Commons to listen to my presentation of the Bill which achieved an unopposed reading. Signatures were obtained from all parts of the House, but that is not to say that many MPs were not opposed or luke warm. But there was no division.
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That leave be given to bring in a Bill to exempt turban-wearing followers of the Sikh religion from the requirement to wear a crash-helmet when riding a motor-cycle.
Put in another way, 1 seek to persuade the House to support a Bill to enable turbanned Sikhs to ride motor cycles. It is especially important to those Sikhs who wish to motor cycle to work when public transport is not available or to ride a motor cycle as part of their employment.
News of my move to bring a Bill before the House has evoked much ill-informed talk and newspaper correspondence. There must be no doubt that the long coiled hair and the turban go together as one of the five Ks; as they are called, of the articles of the religion dating back over 500 years. Definitions have been clearly made by the Gurus from time to time.
There are obviously occasions when the turban is unwound and removed, but that does not mean that any other head covering may be put on its place. It is this religious fact which I did not at first understand and which others may not have understood.
Some Sikhs have cut their hair and have thus turned away from the full faith and would not qualify for exemption under the Bill. It is because of the devout Sikh's firm attachment to the long hair coiled and the turban that it is not now possible for him to ride a motor cycle. Because of the present law, he has, so to speak, lost a freedom.
It was the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) who as Minister of Transport brought in the present law. There was a debate, but the religious exemption argument was not made at that time. Some hon. Members opposed the law on the ground of individual freedom as a number are opposing the compulsory wearing of car seat belts. That debate is still before the House. I will not dwell upon it, except to say that in that case there will be exceptions on pure grounds of expediency and not on any grounds of principle. It is possible for those who support crash-helmets and seat belts in general also to support my Bill.
I must admit that I was slow off the mark in the previous Parliament when the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) led a motion on this question. I became convinced when I realised that to uphold the Sikh's religious belief meant in reality not being able to ride a motor cycle.
As most hon. Members know, there is a long historic tradition of toleration in this matter. In battle time the Sikh has never been called upon to discard his turban in favour of the war hat or tin helmet worn by other soldiers under battle fire. It has been known for bullets to lodge in the hair of Sikhs. No one would care if at that time a Sikh was not wearing a tin hat. So far as I know, right up to the present time the long hair and turban are freely accepted in the three branches of the British Armed Services. I cannot imagine that the true Sikh is ever told that his services are no longer required in any shape or form.
As citizens of the Commonwealth, many Sikhs from the middle 1950s onwards have come to the United Kingdom. They are hard working and are winning their way in British society. In the past, because of native prejudice and misunderstanding, they have had to struggle for the right to wear the turban, particularly at work. We have overcome objections to the right to wear long hair and the turban, notably in transport in the Midlands and in London. Some factory cases have been fought and overcome. Uniformed caps and helmets are not enforced against the Sikh's religious belief.
In the Post Office and in the police forces the turbanned Sikh is tolerated. Seldom was the turban question raised by employers and workpeople until the motorcycle crash-helmet question arose.
The turban is tolerated on building sites, where all workers except Sikhs are to be seen wearing protective headgear. Hon. Members will recently have witnessed this when our new car park was being built. I have a turbanned constituent who is a steel erector. The fact is that if compulsion to wear any type of headgear came into being on building sites many would leave the building industry and do something else.
Last year, with other Members and Sikhs from various parts of the country, I saw the present Minister for Transport. We found his attitude as mulish as that of his predecessor --argumentative with no imagination. He seemed to think that the Sikh's exemption would lead to other clamours for exemption. I do not think that the House will believe it probable. No other group is distinguished by long hair and the turban and can be identified by their names.
Sikh representatives are eager to enter into discussions on style, colour and helping to secure enforcement if the law is changed. Long hair and several yards of cloth in the turban is a form of head protection and could in certain circumstances prove to be an even better protection than some ill-fitting helmet.
The present Minister for Transport challenged me to show how the requirement to wear a crash-helmet might impair the Sikh's equal employment opportunity. Although my right hon. Friend said that he might reconsider this position, in fact he has not done so. I cited to him the case of the turbanned policeman. We are trying to recruit more Sikhs into the police forces. A turbanned Sikh would not under the new regulation be able to grab a motor cycle to chase a criminal. A devout Sikh cannot apply for a job as a Post Office messenger boy.
My right hon. Friend replies to those two cases I have cited -"Let the Sikhs throw away the turban."
This is why I have presented the Bill. I am sure that the House would not wish to take the attitude -"Let the Sikhs throw away the turban." I recall to the House the civilised words of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. In 1966 he defined integration thus "Not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance."
As far as I know, no other country gives less than the fullest tolerance to the turbanned Sikh, which means the occasional man on the motor bike.
The Bill is supported by the British Council of Churches. Our country is world-renowned for its hard-won principles of religious and political freedom. The Bill has wide support from both sides of the House and groups. It would upset no one. It would be a small step for us to take based on a great principle of religious freedom. Without it, we are not civilised and are lesser people.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Sydney Bidwell, Miss Janet Fookes,
Mrs. Winifred Ewing, Mr. Frank Hattou, Mr. Daffyd Thomas, Mr. Bruce George,
Mr. Cyril Smith, Mr. Neville Sandelson, Mr. David Steel, Mr. Churchill,
Sir George Sinclair and Mr. Andrew Faulds.
MR. SYDNEY BIDWELL accordingly presented a Bill to exempt turban-wearing followers of the Sikh religion from the requirement to wear a crash-helmet when riding a motor-cycle: and the same was read the First time: and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21st February and to be printed. (Bill 69.)
Despite evidence of goodwill the Bill receded as more Bills were introduced on other subjects. A private Member's Bill cannot succeed unless objections to an unopposed Second Reading are removed from any part of the House; or the Government may find time for debate. It was clear in the latter part of the 1975-76 Session, no time was to be afforded although 150 members signed the following Motion:
Mr Sydney Bidwell (Labour)That this House is of the opinion that time should be allowed for debate to proceed on the Motor-Cycle Crash-Helmets (Religious Exemption) Bill, awaiting a Second reading.
The Reverend Ian Paisley (Ulster Unionist)
Sir George Sinclair (Conservative)
Mr Dafydd Thomas (Welsh Nationalist)
Mrs Winifred Ewing (Scots Nat)
Mr Cyril Smith (Liberal)
In the new session on 19 December, 1975 the Bill was presented once more, this time without a speech. It was essential to start early to stand a chance. All the time goodwill was building up with much behind-the-scene discussion. A new Transport Minister, Dr. John Gilbert was approached but showed a similar reluctance as his predecessor, but indicated a more open mind. I wrote to the Prime Minister, then Mr. Wilson asking for reconsideration. I did this after I heard of his meeting with Speaker Mr. Dhillon, who was in Britain leading the Indian delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in London around this time. I heard through "grape-vine" that the turban question had been in evidence at their talk over lunch.
Mr. Wilson replied that he had every confidence in his Transport Minister to come to the right judgement. Apparently his faith was not misjudged.
A formal Second Reading was achieved without debate on Friday 27 February 1976. This meant that the Bill was due to go into a Committee Stage ''upstairs.''
This is what happened:
Bidwell, Mr. Sidney (Ealing, Southall)
Churchill, Mr (Stretford)
Faulds, Mr. Andrew (Warley, East)
Fry, Mr. Peter (Wellingborough)
George, Mr. Bruce (Walsall, South)
Hatton, Mr. Frank (Manchester, Moss Side)
Kerr, Mr. Russell (Feltham and Heston)
Lane, Mr. David (Cambridge)
Marks, Mr. Kenneth (The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment)
Miller, Mr. Hal (Bromsgrove and Redditch)
Ovenden, Mr. Jonn (Gravesend)
Sandelson, Mr. Neville (Hayes and Harlington)
Sinclair, Sir George (Dorking)
Smith, Mr. Cyril (Rochdale)
Smith, Mr. Dudley (Warwick and Leamingion)
Steen, ML Anthony (Liverpool, Wavertree)
Mrs. S.A. de Sainte Croix, (Committee Clerk)
Wednesday 23rd June 1976
AMENDMENT OF ROAD TRAFFIC ACT 1972
Mr. Bidwell: I am delighted that you have taken the Chair, Mrs. Butler, on this historic occasion, as 1 feel it to be.
I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in Clause 1, Page 1, leave out lines 7 to 10 and insert -
"(2A) A requirement imposed by regulations under this section (whenever made) shall not apply to any follower of the Sikh religion while he is wearing a turban".
The amendment does not in any way change the principle, but I am advised that it will make the measure easier to interpret. It will be easier for the police and everyone else if a case came to court. I therefore commend the amendment as a better form of wording.
Mr. Peter Fry : The relevant words that I wish to query are ''any follower of the Sikh religion"
I am sure that the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) is concerned that there should be no abuse of the legislation. Therefore, what steps does he expect will be taken to make sure that those who are exempt are genuine followers of the Sikh religion and not people who are merely using it as an excuse not to wear a crash helmet?
Mr. Bidwell : That is a perfectly fair question. Indeed the supporters of the Bill considered, in its preparation, the feasibility of enforcement and the prospect of abuse by a masquerader-for example a person-"the long-haired lover from Liverpool", who puts something on his head. I have nothing against long-haired lovers, but the thought occurred to me that such a person might be tempted to masquerade and describe himself as a Sikh.
We came to the conclusion that the simpler the form of the wording in the Bill, the better. We decided that the onus of proof should be on the motor cyclist. Instead of suggesting the paraphernalia of carrying identity cards and so on, we thought that it would not be beyond the wit of the police to determine a person's bona fides. The members of the Sikh community are, as we shall show in our arguments on the "clause stand part" debate, honourable people, and they will co-operate in every way possible to see that the purposes of the Bill are not thwarted by any kind of masquerader.
Mr. Dudley Smith :I wonder whether I might impose on the hon. Gentleman. There are many Sikhs in my constituency but without having done a head count, I find it difficult to remember seeing very many riding motor cycles. The hon. Gentleman has a large number of Sikhs in his constituency. Can he tell us whether there is very much motor cycling among them? Has he any rough idea of the number of Sikhs in the country as a whole who ride motor cycles?
Mr. Bidwell: No, I have not, except that the one is constrained to feel that the Sikh community as a whole, taking advantage of our equal opportunities policies are doing so well that they normally ride on four wheels for which they are not required to wear a crash helmet, although they might be required soon to wear a seat belt, unless they come within the exemption clause for reasons other than what they are wearing on their head, which is their religious symbol. I could give instances of rare occasions where a Sikh could be seen on a motor cycle, but one could not make an argument that no Sikh will take advantage of the measure of tolerance being suggested.
There is an argument that if such dispensation were in great volume, particularly as it affected some work measures, and so on, we should have to think again. But it is confined to the narrowness of the Bill, and one does not assume that one will see many Sikhs on motor cycles. Certainly, those who have been in the courts demonstrating-action which I counselled against-do not normally ride motor cycles, I understand.
Amendment agreed to.
Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Bidwell : I did not make too many comments on the amendment, and I am very conscious - I think I sense the mood of the Committee -- that I should not make a meal of this subject now and should help to get the proceedings over in reasonable time. We have all had a hard time in the House recently and I hope that moderation will shortly break out. If I had to come here again on another Wednesday, I would appreciate a little more sleep than I was able to get last night.
My original argument was made in the House with a Ten Minute Rule Bill in a previous Session of Parliament. Although I have the speech before me, the Committee will be pleased to hear thatI do not intend to read it word for word, but intend to refresh my memory about some of the ground that I covered on that occasion.
Ever since Sikhs have come to this country in growing numbers, from the middle of 1954 onwards, they have had to face the vexed problem of attitudes of the indigenous communities, particularly with regard to the work place. We were able to overcome that initial resistance where Sikhs chose not to wear their turbans, which is connected with the wearing of long hair and the tying of it on top of the head in a bun form, with the comb to go with that. We saw as a result, however, an element of a voluntary turning-away from the continuation of this religious symbolism.
Naturally, many other Sikhs -the more devout- were seriously worried about it, because they had had experiences in India, where there has always been this long tradition of British-Sikh toleration. Indeed, in the military, what should be worn on the head by Sikhs was laid down in regulations.
That is why there is two-pronged support and good will for the Bill. On the one hand, there is the whole British-Sikh military tradition, whereby in time of war the Sikh proudly wore his long hair and turban to go with it. I have a letter from a former general telling me all about his experiences, and I put that into my original Ten-Minute Rule Bill speech. He has known of a Sikh plucking bullets out of his hair and turban, and no one ever thought of trying to enforce a situation where he had to wear any other kind of headgear. There is a rich British-Sikh military tradition.
It is not surprising that that tradition is being carried on in the British Armed Forces. No Sikh in the Navy -I am talking of devout Sikhs - in the Army or in the Royal Air Force is obliged to wear the same kind of headgear as that worn by other serving men. The other prong to the argument is that in Britain we pride ourselves on religious toleration. In fact, I go so far as to say that without that toleration we should be lesser people.
There are those two aspects to the matter. Can we seriously say that we are carrying on our tradition of religious toleration if-not in every instance, because we have won the battle in industry-society imposes its will in such a way that a Sikh begins to turn away from his family religion instead of his making up his mind voluntarily?
When the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), as Minister for Transport, brought in his original measures, the religious argument was never advanced. I was slow off the mark and I was not, at that stage, convinced of the Sikh's cause. I thought and joked that they were better off in motor cars, for the safety reasons that I have already stated. It did not enter my mind that, in certain circumstances, employment opportunities could be impaired too, apart from the rich traditions of toleration that I have described, For example , I thought of the Post Office messenger boy. The other day I saw an AA motor cyclist-I do not know whether the Royal Automobile Club has motor cyclists-but as the law stands a Sikh could not apply to be a motor cyclist in the Automobile Association.
Similarly-and this is what turned me towards the Sikh case-if a boy wanted to apply for a Post Office messenger's job, which meant riding a motor cycle, his father would be scared that he could have the job only if he discarded his turban. That would be the beginning of society imposing conditions upon him and turning him away from his religious symbolism and ultimately; one would fear, from the religion altogether. We all know the right of parents to try to get their offspring to accept their philosophical beliefs and the right not to be impeded in so doing, and the present law impedes that process.
There was the case of the turbanned policeman, and there are now turbanned men on the buses and other transport. That is tolerated. In the Post Office Engineering Union there is a marvellous spirit of toleration, and there is a POEU-management agreement that no turbanned Sikh is to be turned away from applying for a position if he is qualified and suitable for a telecommunications engineer's posts notwithstanding the fact that there are circumstances at work where normally other kinds of headgear are required, not by law at the moment, but by edict or union-worker arrangement. That is the mood and spirit of toleration into which they have entered, and as things stand a Sikh would not be exposed to the requirement to wear protective head gear but would be withdrawn from such work.
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When the considerable engineering job of building our car park here at Westminster was under way, hon. Members may have noted that whereas other workers were wearing industrial head gear, the Sikhs were wearing their turbans I asked one of them what would happen if he were compelled to wear a different form of headgear-I was thinking of my Bill-and he said that he would have to leave that type of employment.
The situation regarding a turbanned policeman is ridiculous-and this is where the law is made to be an ass-because he cannot jump on a motor bike and chase a criminal. A Sikh in the Army cannot be a motor cyclist without being sacrilegious. I checked that with the Army Minister not too long ago.
Mr. Dudley Smith : The vast majority of people who criticise this move-apart from people who do it purely on racialist grounds-do so from a fundamental misunderstanding. They do not appreciate the religious angle. They think that some special dispensation is being given to immigrant communities and that the religious consideration is overriding.
Mr. Bidwell : They should be reminded of the history of this country and the regard that has been paid to the special position of the Jews in British society. When we are exercising our minds about militant racism in Britain these days, we recall especially the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. However, we also remember our own rich history of toleration, with our special laws which uphold the Jewish Sabbath. There are greater experts than myself around me this morning, but we know that they honour a different Sabbath day. A Jewish person cannot trade on both weekend days, but he can trade on Sundays in durables, whereas a non-Jewish trader cannot do so. Thus, we have the historic precedent of the Jews.
I have a letter from the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith) in whose constituency there is a large Sikh community. He says that there is sometimes some misunderstanding with Englishmen-that this is a bad term, these days, because it rules out the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, so let us say Britishers-who may have worked in India and known occasions when a Sikh has not worn his turban.
One such occasion is when one goes to bed. I have never been to bed with a Sikh, but I understand that when he goes to bed he unrolls his turban. I know from my experience as a co-delegate at a political conference that waiting for a Sikh to get up in the morning is as bad as waiting for a woman-not necessarily to get up in the morning, but on any occasion when a long time has to be taken in preparation for going out and facing the wide world.
There have been certain circumstances in India where the turban has not been worn, as in the case of sport where it is a matter of choice. But I have seen Sikhs playing hockey, a sport at which they excel, wearing the turban. They also wear turbans when playing cricket-though that is more of a fuddyduddy game-and it is difficult to play football wearing a turban. Because there have been sporting occasions when the turban has been laid aside and the puggree-the small piece of cloth which is used for convenience instead of a turban-worn instead, people have tried to argue that the requirement to wear a crash helmet is valid. It is not.
Who is to lay down religious laws on this? Someone who lived in India years ago and thinks he knows it all? One of the hallmarks of the letters is the pomposity of these people telling us non-Sikhs the doctrine of the Sikh religion. I suppose one could go to Warwick and Leamington for authenticity, Southall or the Golden Temple of Amritsar if one wanted to know the laws of the Sikh religion. Such laws are very well set out in history. The religion is over 500 years old : 1469 was the year of Guru Nanak, who was followed by a series of nine other gurus ending with Guru Govind Rai who died in 1708. It is necessary to say this.
Mr George Sinclair: I hope that hon. Gentleman will come to the point on which we are now engaged and give us the reassurance that the discipline of ensuring that this privilege is confined to strict followers of the Sikh religion is imposed by themselves as a community. They are used to discipline and we have shared it with them. I hope that in everything they say in public they will reassure us that they will keep this privilege strictly to themselves.
Mr Bidwell: I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman can be so assured. I think it would be wrong to withhold from the committee, anxious though I am to keep my speech short, that in Western Australia there is a similar law to the one we are trying to enact.
The present Indian Transport Minister, Mr, Dhillon, is well known to parliamentarians in this country because he has led numerous Indian delegation in connection with the IPU conferences. He is not now the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, but, as I have pointed out, a Minister. When I travelled with him recently from India he told me that he proposes to bring in a Bill for the wearing of crash helmets in India, where motor cycling is becoming rife, but proposes to exempt the Sikhs from wearing them.
I think the case is not of toleration, history and the necessity for Britain to exhibit that attitude to the world. Without such toleration, history and the necessity for Britain to exhibit that attitude to the world. Without such toleration and understanding, we are lesser people.
The Under-Secretary of state for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) on his persistence in reaching this stage with his Bill. Very rarely do Ten-minute Rule Bills reach a committee stage, Let alone a debate on Second Reading. Hon. Members will have noted that the original Bill was not debated on Second Reading. There were no objections from any part of the House, not from the Government. I am therefore taking this opportunity to express the Government's view on the substance of this amended clause.
We have great sympathy for the Sikhs' point of view. Bearing in mind the long tradition of religious freedom in this country, our position could hardly be otherwise. Moreover, the Sikhs have a most prodigious record of honourable service to this country in the past, and are still making a valuable contribution to British society in many ways. They are loyal, law-abiding and devout people, and there is no doubt of the sincerity of their desire to have freedom to wear the turban, one of the symbols of their faith. We also freely recognise that in their long campaign to obtain the exemption which the Bill would provide, they have conducted their case with impressive fervour and dignity. If the House accepts the case for granting an exemption to the Sikhs, the Government will respect that decision and carry out its provisions. I am concerned, however, that hon. Members should be fully aware of the arguments against a concession.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has said on many occasions that he fully recognises the religious claims of the Sikhs, but against them he has to balance the principle that a law which is amply justified on road safety grounds should apply equally to everyone.
In this sense, there is little in common between the Bill and the Sikhs' successful campaign to persuade bus companies to accept the turban as an alternative to the uniform cap. A uniform cap is at most a convenient identifying feature, but a motor-cycle helmet is an essential safety device. When compulsory helmet-wearing was introduced, only 20 per cent, of motor-cyclists were not already wearing a helmet voluntarily: yet compulsion is still estimated to have saved some 200 fatal and serious casualties a year.
If the helmet were merely an article of clothing, there would be no question of compulsion for anyone. Many motorcyclists who are not Sikhs find it irksome to wear a safety helmet, and would resent a concession to this one minority group. Letters to my Department and in the motor-cycle Press indicate the strength of this feeling, and it is not confined to motor-cyclists.
Finally, can I dispose of the argument that a properly tied turban in itself provides adequate protection in the event of an accident involving a blow to the head? Motor-cycle helmets are manufactured to very stringent British standards which lay down specifications concerning material, construction, shock absorption, resistance to penetration by a sharp object, and so on. I understand that a turban has been tested and was shown to offer no measurable degree of protection.
The Bill, therefore, is not based on road safety criteria. The need for road safety provisions is of tremendous importance. The Bill is based on religious tolerance and that, too, is an important and vital part of our society, in war as well as in peace. There is no possibility of a compromise decision on this difficult choice. There will be people who will oppose it, some on the grounds of road safety, some because of religious intolerance and some on grounds of equality. I repeat that if Parliament concludes that in this case religious tolerance outweighs road safety and equality, the Government will accept that decision.
Mr. Churchill :I warmly welcome the Bill and congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing-Southall (Mr. Bidwell) on his perseverance in this matter and on the fact that he has at last brought round the powers of Government with which both he and I, together with other hon. Members in the House, have been battling. We have battled with Governments of both colours for several years on this question.
It is universally accepted in the House of Commons that the immigrant communities must be treated equally and without discrimination. There is a corollary that they must be equally subject to the law. However, I think that we must go one step further than saying that they must be treated equally and without discrimination. It is important in this age of cynicism and breaking away from religion and traditions of the past, that those who wish to respect those traditions and religions should be allowed to do so. It is important that we in Parliament should uphold that right and respect their religious beliefs.
I believe, as has been mentioned already, that there is something of a misunderstanding among some of the groups that
have opposed this measure of exemption for Sikhs wearing the turban. Anyone who is fully versed in the history of Britain's relationship with the Sikhs and the present Sikh community would, on reflection, accept that the measure before us is fully justified.
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There can be no doubt that, as a people, we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Sikh community over many years. For me it is sufficient that in our time of need twice this century, when we needed the Sikhs to stand by us they did so and, in the case of too many, died beside us in two world wars to enable us to live in the freedom which we today enjoy. We did not then require them to wear a steel helmet in the front line of battle. If it was sufficient to do that when we needed them in a desperate situation, the least we owe them, now that that sort of crisis is past, is to continue respecting these traditions. That is why I wholeheartedly support the Bill, which is very much in accordance with the long libertarian traditions of our country.
Mr. Frank Hatton : I congratulate warmly my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) on achieving success in bringing a private Member's Bill to this stage. I also warmly welcome the statement which the Minister has made on behalf of the Government. I remember in my own city of Manchester the campaigns in which I was involved in helping the Sikh community to bring about a change of attitude towards the wearing of the turban in the public transport services. But fully accept what the Minister said, that this is a very different matter.
My knowledge of the Sikh community is such that I believe that they themselves will help us. As the hon. Member for Dorking (Sir G. Sinclair), said, we look to them to see that this is a genuine exemption for people who rightly deserve that exemption. In terms of some of the thinking and the action that are taking place in this country, this will be a real message that the British House of Commons, representing the nation can take a tolerant attitude towards a community within our midst. We want them to remain within our midst and work with us. So I warmly welcome the Bill in this respect.
Mr. Cyril Smith I, too, welcome the Bill and compliment the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) on his initiative in getting it to this stage. I hope that the House as a whole will find it possible to accept the Bill, and judging by the Minister's statement, that appears highly likely.
The great thing about the Bill is the religious tolerance that it shows. That is extremely important. I am the only Unitarian who is a member of the House of Commons. It is a religion which has been persecuted over the years. Indeed, in many parts of the country. even today, it has only just been admitted to the council of churches. I value religious tolerance and religious freedom very much. In my view, the Bill is a significant contribution to religious tolerance, and consequently a significant contribution to democracy and to the rights of human being as a whole.
The Minister said that one objection that had been made to the Bill-not by him-was that the law should apply equally to everyone. But then one argues as to which law we are talking about. Are we talking about the law which allows a man to practice the religion of his choice? Or are we talking about the law which requires a man to wear a helmet when he is driving a motor-cycle? One can argue that sort of case all day. For me, the key law is the one which deals with human liberty. In my view, that law and that justification for the Bill overrides all other considerations.
I, too, pay tribute to the record of the Sikhs over the years in the service that they have given this country. I warmly welcome the Bill, and hope that it will have a speedy and successful passage through the House.
Mr. Andrew Faulds : Let me just put in my pennyworth very briefly, as I think that some of us may wish to move to another occasion in the House today. I should like to put on record that I am one of the most fortunate Members of this House in that I have thousands of Sikhs in what used to be called Smethwick and has now sadly been changed to the somewhat anonymous name of Warley, East. The contribution that the Sikhs made in terms of their social discipline and in terms of their economic and industrial contribution to our community is quite out of proportion to their numbers.
I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) on his assistance in getting this necessary change on to the legislative books. I endorse very strongly the neat summary by the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill), whose constituency I can never remember. I always call him "the young Churchill"-of the reasons why we have introduced the Bill. I endorse everything that he said. It is most important, particularly in the climate of race relations in Britain today, which are perhaps not quite so healthy as we would have hoped them to be, that we should exhibit the long tradition of British tolerance, especially in questions of religious tolerance. I am pleased that we seem today to be upholding the very best traditions of British tolerance and our long history of giving special consideration to the interests of minorities.
I heartly welcome the Bill, and I hope that it will very soon reach the statute book.
Mr. Anthony Steen : I, too, should like to associate myself with the congratulations that have been offered from both sides. Having travelled around the West Indies recently with the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) I know of his perseverance in all temperatures and all terrains and his enlightened views on the importance of preserving the liberty freedom of minority groups.
One of the important things that the Bill has shown is that it can reach this stage in the House, which many outside feel has a kind of moribund bureaucracy. This has shown that on the contrary, we are still an enlightened group of people who can respond to the needs and demands of minority group
Mr. Russell Kerr : I shall be even briefer than my predecessor. I should simply like to pay tribute, as a political neighbour of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, South (Mr. Bidwell) as well as a personal friend, to the great work that he has done in that part of the world in terms of racial tolerance.
I must admit that I did not see the full implications of the Bill when it first saw the light of day in the House of Commons. My hon. Friend has succeeded, perhaps not for the first time, in making me see it differently. I am very grateful indeed for his instruction in these matters. But, above all, I place on record, in front of my friends and colleagues from the Sikh community here with us today, my tribute to the tremendous work that my hon. Friend the Member for Southall has done-a view that will be endorsed by members of all parties who happen to know the details of the efforts that he has put in that regard.
I am pleased and proud to be associated with my hon. Friend in this enterprise and to pay this modest tribute to his abilities.
Mr. Peter Fry : There is, of course, a free vote on this issue on the Opposition side. It is clear that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends feel that freedom of religious observance is very important indeed. That is why so many of them endorse the Bill. As there is a free vote, my remarks will, of course, in no way be construed as any kind of official Opposition transport policy. They are entirely my own feelings on. this subject.
For me, the Bill opens up one or two questions. To begin with I was a somewhat reluctant supporter of the original Bill to enforce the wearing of crash helmets. Like many colleagues, I had received representations from my constituents. However, in the long run I decided marginally to give the Government of the day the benefit of the doubt, and I voted in favour of the measure. Since then we have moved further into the realm of compulsion and at the moment are engaged in discussions on the compulsory use of seat belts. As the Minister knows my view was that there should not be compulsion. Indeed, I think that no matter what the safety arguments are, a small section of decision should be left to the individual.
The statistics produced by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) on Second Reading of the seat belts Bill clearly indicated that there had not been the enormous saving in death and injury to be expected after the implementation of the regulations on the wearing of crash helmets for motorcyclists. I remind the Committee that, comparing the first year following the implementation of the regulations with the 12 previous months, deaths and serious injuries increased by 11.6 per cent., which closely relates to the 12 per cent. increase in usage.
From that point of view, my inclination is not to do any-thing to oppose the Bill. But we must this morning take account of other considerations, and I am glad that one or two members, particularly the Minister, have touched upon them.
We would be failing in our duty this morning if we did not show the British public at large that we are aware of the concern of some of them and that Parliament is not in any way ignoring their feelings but is doing what it believes to be best in the circumstances.
As has been suggested, there are motor-cyclists who feel very strongly that no section of the motor-cycling community should be exempt. These are the people who objected in the first instance to the wearing of crash helmets. But their objections, 1 think, are purely on the grounds of equality of treatment, and they are not preoccupied with ethnic arguments. But we should place on record that we acknowledge the fact that a section of the motor-cycling community feels put out by this legislation.
Frankly, what perturbs me is that there is probably a much wider body of opinion that will resent the Bill on other grounds-in my view, mistaken grounds. They are the people who feel most strongly on the whole question of immigration and race relations in this country. They will tend to see the Bill as making a special exemption for what is basically an immigrant community.
I happen to believe that it is important to get the message across today that this is basically a matter of religious toleration and is in no way based on racial or other grounds. Indeed, it is important to make clear that if other sections of our population needed consideration on religious grounds, the Department would take a tolerant and benevolent attitude to them, too.
Nevertheless, I am worried that this Bill could be exploited by that small section of the population whose interests do not lie in creating good race relations but who are concerned solely to foment trouble. Therefore, we must make it absolutely clear that this Bill is one of the exceptions that proves the rule and that it will not be the rule in future in this kind of affair.
If we get that message across, we shall have shown both in Committee and the House at large that we are aware of the feelings that are widespread in the country. One of the greatest dangers that we in Parliament face is the accusation of being remote from public opinion and not understanding what the ordinary man-in-the-street may or may not be thinking. We have to make it abundantly clear that the Bill is in the best traditions of tolerance in this country. I think we have to make it abundantly clear that none the less we understand that many people are resisting it and that we are not making a decision perversely. We are making a decision in the very best interests of community relations.
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Mr. John Ovenden : Like my colleagues, I should like to place on record my appreciation of the work that has been done by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell). I must admit that I was something of a sceptic about the Bill when it first saw the light of day. I was far from convinced and I tended to regard it as a matter of expediency and convenience. It was only from my discussions with the Sikh community in my own constituency that I came to realise the deep religious principles which were involved in the Bill.
I accept what the Minister has said about the being some-thing of a compromise as far as road safety is concerned. There are strong road safety arguments for the wearing of crash-helmets by all motor-cyclists irrespective of religion. There are, I should have thought, very strong reasons for the wearing of crash helmets probably by the pedal-cyclists as well. But on the basis of expediency and convenience we decided not to do anything about that.
When one looks at road safety regulations one must come to the conclusion that we make a lot of compromises. Our speed limits themselves, for example, are compromises. I am sure that if our speed limits were halved our road accidents would be reduced. If all traffic was reduced to walking pace there would probably be no serious accidents at all. But we compromise because, in the interest of economic efficiency, it is a bit more convenient if traffic travels faster.
Equally, I understand that we are to have quite a number of exemptions in the seat-belts Bill. These are not exemptions based on the religious belief or-
The Chairman : Order. The hon. Gentleman is going very wide. He is also out of order in mentioning another Bill.
Mr. Ovenden : I am sorry. I was trying to answer the point about whether road safety should be the primary aim and whether it is justified in certain circumstances.
The Chairman : Order. I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but he must not make it in such a way that he is out of order.
Mr. Ovenden : I will sum up by saying that we have never in this country, said that road safety should be the be all and end all of everything that we do in legislation. On certain occasions we have put it in a back seat. We have done so far less good reasons than the reasons which are now put forward in the Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall and if we can do it on those occasions, I think the justification for doing it on this occasion is well made out. I hope the Minister will accept that that is a reasonable point of view to take on this issue and that we are not seeking in any way to undermine his adherence to road safety. I must admit, personally, that I have some grave doubts about whether it is the job of the law to legislate on the subject of safety. But if I were to go into them I am sure I should be completely out of order.
I will content myself with again congratulating- my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall, and by saying how much the Bill is welcomed by the Sikh community in my constituency, as it is by the Sikh community throughout the country. I think that at no time could it have been better for Parliament to be considering a bill of this nature. When we are faced with such instances of racial intolerance and bigotry as we have seen over the last few weeks, I think that this is a very good time for Parliament to go on record as being on the side of religious freedom and religious tolerance. I congratulate my hon. Friend, not only on producing the Bill, but for having the good fortune to have it going through Committee at this time.
Mr. Bidwell : I am, of course, delighted because it looks as if the Bill will become law, but we should never count our chickens before they are hatched in this place. I was saddened therefore, to read the report in the Daily Telegraph, fearing that it might be quite prophetic, with the Daily Express ringing me up at midnight on the basis of the first edition story in the Daily Telegraph. But I would not claim that it is all over bar the shouting. We still have to have the Report stage, and I want to retain the spirit of good will that has been evinced here.
Especially I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) because what he said had to be said. There was some danger, because of the general enthusiasm and the all-party support that is quite obviously there, that it might not have been said. I am hoping that there will not be a longwinded debate on the Friday that the Bill comes up in the House for eventual ratification-if that is the word. What the hon. Member had to say was of considerable importance, and I am glad that he said it. Although he is not an enthusiastic supporter of the Bill, he is not an opponent.
I do not want to single hon. Members out, but I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) because he has marshalled the Liberal troops behind the Bill. It achieved the remarkable and unique situation that it originally had a backer from every one of the six parties in the House, which means that the Ulster Unionists were there also, end I felt we might succeed.
I am grateful to my colleagues in my own party and to the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill), who is a modest fellow. Although he spoke powerfully and I am sure great attention will be paid to what he had to say, he forgot to say that he was the veritable pioneer. He brought before the House the original motion to collect support. I do not think he was fully aware at the time that I had a considerable Sikh community, a little larger than his own. But he was on the beam from the word "go" while I had not arrived at a final determination in my own mind. I think that is worth mentioning in this Committee. Of course, history is on his side.
What we are about to do today will not be kept just to ourselves; the message will go out to the world that Britain remains great, sane, sensible and tolerant. In the years to come, we shall look back and be proud of today.
The Bill was agreed to.
THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:
|Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Chairman)
|Sinclair, Sir George
|Smith, Mr. Cyril
|Smith, Mr. Dudley
|Kerr, Mr. Russell
The Third Reading was achieved on Friday, July 16th in these circumstances :
Wrecking amendments were put down and others may have been acceptable if debate had taken place. As it was, the handful of opponents, withdrew their amendments in an effort to kill the Bill. With lightening speed, all amendments were withdrawn and the vote was forced at an early stage that Friday morning, in the hope, one assumes, from the standpoint of the opponents, that there would be insufficient MPs present in favour of the Bill, on a "slack" Friday - which is different from the other parliamentary days. But the opponents were "hoist on their own petard" and the Bill achieved a Third Reading by 40 votes to 11.
Here is the record, but it must be understood that Mrs. Margaret Thatcher and Mr. Whitelaw, Conservative leaders, had intended to vote for the Bill. They arrived too late breathless from the Shadow Cabinet because of the "'snap" vote. However, the Bill was through the House of Commons.
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Motion made and Question, that the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading).
The House divided : Ayes 40, Noes 11.
|Beith, A J.
|Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown)
|Braine, Sir Bernard
|Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)
|Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
|Peart, Rt Hon Fred
|Cocks, Michael (Bristol S)
|Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)
|Price, C. (Lewisham W)
|Ewing, Harry (Stirling)
|Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
|Foot, Rt. Hon Michael
|St. John-Stevaa, Norman
|Silkin, Rt. Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
|Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)
|Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)
|Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
|Grimond, Rt. Hon J.
|Harrison, Waiter (Wakefield)
|Thorpe, Rt. Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
|Townsend, Cyril D.
|Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Mr. Sydney Bidwell and Miss Jo Richardson.
|Bernett, Andrew (Stockport N)
|Rooker, J. W.
|Langford-Holt, S John
|Ross, William (Londonderry)
|Taylor, R, (Croydon NW)
TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Mr. Ronald Bell and Mr. Jerry Wiggin.
Bill read the Third time and passed.
Lord Avebury very kindly agreed to move the Bill in the House of Lords.
He took pains to understand the Sikh case by consultation including a visit
to Siri Guru Singh Sabha, Southall.
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