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A Sikh with Turban
The Turban Victory

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 Third Reading at The House of Lords



LORD MONSON moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1. Line 6, leave out second ("subsection") and insert ("subsections").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, although the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, was kind enough to apologise on my behalf for my absence last Thursday, I should like to make my personal apologies to the House for having been unavoidably absent on that day to move these Amendments-or virtually identical ones-in Committee. As noble Lords will know, the date of the Committee stage was altered at twenty-four hours' notice and I had a very long-standing engagement on the revised date in question. It was a pity in so far as we could have had a more wide-ranging and probing debate on these Amendments, and indeed on the Bill as a whole, than we are allowed under Third Reading procedures.

It will probably be for the convenience of the House if I speak to all the Amendments together. I feel that a fairly full explanatory preamble will be necessary; and perhaps I could take the opportunity to clarify something I said on Second Reading, because I understand that some members of the Sikh community were, unhappily, upset by my references to "agitation". Such are the pitfalls of leaning over backwards to be tactful! One is consequently ambiguous and vague, and remarks are misinterpreted: I was not actually referring to agitation over crash-helmets. I believe that peaceful demonstrations, on this or any other topic, are entirely justified, provided that third parties are not thereby harmed or inconvenienced. In "peaceful demonstration" I would include seeking the martyrdom of courting arrest. Indeed, if I were myself a Sikh, I might well have acted in the same way, whether or not I was a practising Sikh, if I wanted to ride a motor-cycle. However, I am not a Sikh but I come from what is still, for the time being at any rate, the majority community in this country; and so I believe it is incumbent upon me to scrutinise legislation of this kind carefully to see that the rest of us are not inadvertently put at a disadvantage by what may superficially appear to be innocuous and, indeed, welcome legislation in so far as it is of liberalising nature.

I see three possible dangers in this Bill. Granting exemption in respect of what I hold to be a religious custom rather than a religious obligation could lead to demands for exemptions on the grounds of religious obligations of a less innocuous nature. I am thinking of the possible demand for the right to carry the kirpan-that is, the kirpan as such rather than the symbolic indentation in the comb. Secondly, I wonder whether passing a Bill like this towards the end of a Session might not slam the door on the possibility of extending similar liberalising legislation to other members of the community who ride motor-cycles. Thirdly, I wonder whether it might not cause resentment among the majority of motor-cyclists, who are not Sikhs, and perhaps thereby contribute to a worsening of community relations, which I am sure noble Lords would agree would be highly undesirable.

There has been a great deal of discussion in this House and in another place on whether or not the wearing of the turban, as opposed to the non-cutting of hair - which I entirely accept as being a religious obligation - is a religious obligation or merely a religious custom which has grown up over the years as a consequence of the hair not being cut. The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, voiced the opinion on Second Reading that this was not a fruitful line of discussion and perhaps we ought not to go into it but simply accept what the Sikhs themselves say.

The Sikhs themselves are divided in their views about this. I have heard differing views from Sikhs, to which I shall refer in a moment; and the danger of the attitude of simply accepting the assertions of people that it is indeed a religious custom is borne out by the report published in August in a South London local newspaper that certain West Indians had demanded the right to wear knitted woollen caps in court because it was their religious custom. The judge allowed them to do so. But, as anybody who knows the West Indies will know, the wearing of woollen caps has nothing to do with religion. It is simply a Black Power symbol found in the English-speaking islands in the Caribbean though not, in my experience, in the French or Spanish speaking islands. Sir Herbert Thompson, who was Resident in the Punjab, wrote in 'The Times' in January 1975 that in his view the wearing of the turban was not an absolute religious requirement He was opposed by Mr. Neville Sandelson in another place, who said that as far as he was concerned if Sikhs nowadays believed that it was a religious requirement that was all there was to be said about it.

My information on this point, which came from a Sikh lady of some eminence, is that the practice is comparable to the wearing of a nun's habit. That is to say, it is not an absolute religious requirement; it is the custom that nuns should cover their knees but it is not, of course, universal. It might be compared to the way in which many Methodists and Presbyterians abstain from alcohol. Unlike members of the Islamic faith, it is not a sin for them to indulge in alcohol but simply considered bad form. Again, it might be compared to the custom which prevailed until a few years ago among peasants in Mediterranean countries, who believed not simply that it was incumbent upon them to abstain from meat on Fridays, but that there was a positive obligation to cut fish on that day. That was not in fact the case, but they believed it to be so. I hold that it is a religious custom and not a strict religious requirement.

Other religious customs are not always given the sanction of law in this country: they are not always catered for Many years ago, I remember that we had a passionate debate over the orthodox Jewish custom of slaughtering meat; and I am bound to say I was finally convinced by the argument of a noble Lord from these Benches who possessed great medical knowledge and explained that in his opinion virtually no cruelty was involved. For that reason I voted for a continuance of the practice. Other noble Lords felt differently; as also do the Norwegians, who are a liberal people. On the other hand, we do not allow Moslems in this country, as far as I know, to slaughter sheep on the feast that commemorates the intended sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. That may be partly for public health reasons, but partly because the average lay Moslem may not be able to carry out such a task without causing suffering. We do not allow Parsees to dispose of their dead in the way that-

LORD WELLS-PESTELL : My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will forgive me, but I must remind him that before the House are his Amendments and he should be moving them. He is not doing so and, if I may say so-I hope without giving offence-he is really making a Second Reading speech which he virtually made at Second Reading. I think I must remind the noble Lord that his Amendments are before the House.

LORD MONSON : I am sorry, My Lords. I had thought it necessary to give a very full preamble to explain the reason behind my Amendments. Certainly I will cut short the preamble. What I really wanted to know was whether it is the Government's intention to continue to be selective about whether to legislate on certain religious customs, depending on - whether or not these conflict with the interests of the community as a whole - because if the Government continue to take this attitude the first doubt I had about this Bill can be completely disposed of. The other two doubts, that is, that the Bill would slam the door on the extending of benefit of such liberalising legislation to the rest of the community and that it might lead to bad community relations, are dealt with by my Amendments.

The Amendment to extend this legislation to those with a conscientious or religious objections (other than pertaining to the Sikh religion) is comparable to the Amendments moved by the Conservative Party in connection with the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Act and indeed the Employment Protection Act in 1975. I should have thought that they would commend themselves to the Opposition Front Bench for that reason. Off hand, I cannot think of any other religions which object to wearing helmets, but I can see that there might well be some. As regards extending the benefits of the Bill to other members of the community, who cannot prove a genuine religious or conscientious objection, upon payment of £10 to the Secretary of State as indemnification for any increase of burden on the National Health Service, this was inspired by an article in the 'Sikh Courier' to which I referred on Second Reading.

LORD MOWBRAY and STOURTON : My Lords, the question of the £10 insurance comes in Amendment No. 3. Can the noble Lord not take the hint of the noble Lord the Minister and move the Amendments, because all these matters will be discussed again individually.

LORD MONSON : My Lords, I had not intended to do that. I intended to discuss all the Amendments together, and if the House objected to them I would have withdrawn the first and not moved the others.

LORD AVEBURY : My Lords, I think that the noble Lord was meeting the wishes of the House when he suggested that he would discuss all five of his Amendments in the one debate.

LORD MONSON : My Lords, they all hang together and it is for that reason that I am proceeding in this way.

LORD MOWBRAY and STOURTON : My Lords, are we therefore to have just one discussion and no more, and have the Amendments moved en bloc or rejected en bloc?

LORD WELLS PESTELL : My Lords, as I understand the situation, that is so. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, will move all his Amendments in one speech, and any Member of your Lordships' House who wishes to participate will deal with them on that basis.

LORD AVEBURY : My Lords, if I may slightly correct the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Monson, is moving the first of his Amendments, but he is speaking to all of them. Of course, any noble Lord is free to touch on any of the matters raised in subsequent Amendments as he thinks fit.

LORD MONSON : My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has interpreted correctly what I said at the beginning of my speech. I took paragraph (c) of Amendment No. 3 from an Amendment tabled in another place by a learned Member on the Third Reading of the Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill, which was not in the event moved, and I have adapted it slightly. I have also provided that the Secretary of State could vary the amount by the Affirmative Resolution procedure, if it were found that the amount of £10 was too little or too great. It may be the feeling of the House that the Amendments should be dealt with separately, but Amendment No. 3 is the one on which there is more than one issue presented. The others are all consequential or to do with the Title, but we cannot divide Amendment No. 3 into its constituent parts.

I have said that I felt that granting exemption to one small section of the community could lead to bad community relations. and that suggestion was rather dismissed in another place on Second Reading by Mr. Sidney Bidwell. But I have some information which is not generally available. The 'Motorcycle Rider' took a poll among members of the British Motorcycle Federation-quite a large sample of just under 900 people-and of those who gave a positive reply 69 per cent were opposed to granting Sikhs an exemption which was not available to the public at large. This is a significant figure, and I believe that my Amendments would dissipate any feeling or antagonism or hostility towards the Bill as a whole. My Lords, I beg to move.

VISCOUNT MASSEREENE and FERRARD : My Lords. may I just say a few words? I cannot understand how anyone could possibly object to persons of the Sikh religion not wearing crash helmets, and I cannot support these Amendments. I understand that we are dealing with the Amendments en bloc, and as regards the sum of £10 to cover anyone who does not come into the categories covered in paragraph (b). I would say that if you fall off a motorcycle and crack your skull because you are not wearing a crash helmet, it will probably cost £400 to £500 to reimburse the Health Service. With due respect to my noble friend - he is not of the same Party, but he is my friend I do not think he is on the right lines here. If persons are to be exempted through the payment of money, which is a bad principle in itself, it should be more like £400 or £500. Having said that, I will sit down, but I cannot support these Amendments. I do not want to be rude, but I would say that they are rather nonsense.

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7.37 p.m.

LORD MOWBRAY and STOURTON: My Lords, I should like to say a few words. 1 appreciate what the noble Lord, Lord Monson, is trying to do. He has the idea that this is a Bill favouring a minority and I accept that, in principle, one does not like legislating for minorities to be exempted from what the rest of the country is doing. But, as I said on Second Reading, we have already in two World Wars allowed the Sikhs to fight for us in units organised, commanded, led and paid for by the Crown, and they have died for the Crown wearing their turbans instead of the regulation steel helmet The principle has been accepted throughout this country. The present Government of India-this is slightly irrelevant-still allows Sikhs to keep their turbans in- the Air Force and the Army of India.

With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, I found some of his remarks about nuns' habits slightly irrelevant. Then he talked about peasants in Mediterranean countries feeling that they had to eat fish. So far as 1 know, everyone in the Roman Catholic Mediterranean countries-peasants, nobles, industrialists, merchants, the lot-merely has to abstain from eating meat on certain days; and since Vatican II, as the noble Lord knows, that does not apply. But, as he also knows, it was never a mortal sin and when there is starvation this rule will obviously not apply.

These religious arguments are slightly immaterial; they are not comparing like with like. Equally, I do not regard Moslems slaughtering sheep in their houses as comparing like with like. Far more important, we should consider the police who have to enforce all these Acts. Here we have a simple Bill which the Government have put before us-not, with great respect, the Government of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury-and every time we legislate we make the life of the police more complicated. If we were to accept the noble Lord's widening of the defence to include all other people who have a genuine religious or conscientious objection, plus the people who are willing to pay an annual insurance of £10, the task of the police would be that much harder. Are the police to ask to see a motor-cyclist's insurance certificate or something like that? It is too much to ask, and it is not necessary. The noble Lord mentioned things like seat belts but let us not be drawn into that discussion, either. The question of seat belts is not before us at the moment and we should waste a lot of time if we discussed it. Let us keep the discussion simple because it is a simple Bill.

The Sikh community feel and have always felt passionately about this matter and their reasons were understood by Governments during two world wars and before those wars. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, I cannot accept, from what I have learned by speaking to people, that anything like 69 per cent. of the population objects to the Bill. I find that it is a most unacceptable percentage. If you said to anybody, "I suppose you know that Sikhs usually wear turbans and that they wear them in the Army and in the Air Force. If they are willing to take this risk on motor-bikes, a turban is a good protection", I do not believe that he would argue with you. I have met only one or two people who think that it is slightly unfair that although Sikhs can wear their turbans they cannot wear their ordinary headgear. It goes no further than that.

I do not believe that the Bill can possibly arouse the racial tension that the noble Lord is worried about. If I believed that I should be much more with the noble Lord but I do not believe that it is true. Much though I admire the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and his intentions, so far as I and these Benches are concerned I recommend the House not to accept these Amendments.

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7.42 p.m.

LORD AVEBURY: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, who has said just about everything that there is to be said on the group of Amendments that is before us and who has said it much more eloquently than I can. I must begin by apologising to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, for the very short notice which was given, stating that it was necessary to change the day of the Committee stage last week thereby causing him some inconvenience, as I am aware from the correspondence which we have exchanged. At the same time may I offer my congratulations to the noble Lord on the happy family event which prevented him from being with us during the Committee stage last week, something which I perfectly understand.

We have to ensure, as the noble Lord has said, that the rest of us are not put at a disadvantage by legislation which we introduce in favour of a particular religion. May I point out to your Lordships, if it needs pointing out, that there is nothing in the Bill which in any way effects the status of motor-cyclists other than those who are of the Sikh religion. They are still subject to the restrictions imposed by the Road Traffic Act. There is no alteration whatsoever to those restrictions.

I want to say also that I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, that the figure of 69 per cent of responses to the poll which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, probably requires considerable examination, more examination than we have time to give to it this evening. However, if you invite people to say what is their opinion of a particular change it is human nature that nearly always you get the people who are strongly opposed to something writing in and expressing an opinion. If those were the figures which arose from the request by this magazine for the opinions of its readers, I am not at all surprised but I think that I should tell your Lordships that after the Second Reading of the Bill, when the debates in our House were presumably reported in the motor-cycling Press, I had a total of two letters. One was couched in neutral terms but commented on what the person had read in the motor-cycling journal. The other letter was from a person who is mildly against the exemption of Sikhs. I would not put it any more strongly than that. From the discussions that I have had with non-Sikh motor-cyclists I do not believe that there is any resentment whatsoever against the concession that we are proposing to make. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, that it would be a disaster if, by passing legislation such as this, we were in any way to undermine the good relationships which have always existed between the Sikhs and the rest of the population.

If the noble Lord, Lord Monson, will forgive me, I do not propose to follow him in detail regarding the general points he has made on exemptions because we are not dealing with the wider issues that he was seeking to raise: whether the Government might feel, if we are to pass this legislation, that it would in any way inhibit their thinking on future changes to the Road Traffic Act. It is not for me to interpret the mind of the Government. However, one is bound to say to the noble Lord that of course the Government are always going to say that they are open to representations on a matter of this kind and that they do not close their mind from one Session to another but that it is extremely unlikely that, having gone down this road, any arguments which might be produced would convince them to make the kind of modifications that the noble Lord is suggesting in these two Amendments.

I say that for two reasons. First, prior to the introduction of the compulsory wearing of crash-helmets I believe that the percentage of voluntary crash-helmet wearing had increased to something like three-quarters of the total number of motor cyclists on the road, that the increase was beginning to slacken off at that stage and that we had probably reached the limit of what could be accomplished by voluntary persuasion. Therefore if we start to water down the regulations we might very quickly find ourselves back in the situation that we were in prior to the introduction of compulsion and there would be no point in having the legislation on the Statute Book.

Secondly, if we grant the concession that people will pay a penalty of £10 should not be required to wear crash helmets, there are in the first place the powerful objections voiced by the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton. Also it would extend the concessions so widely as virtually to nullify the whole of the Road Traffic Act. My honourable friend Mr. Bidwell whom I have consulted is not prepared to accept such an enormous widening of the Bill, since it was never his intention when he first introduced the Bill to do more than take care of the very carefully defined and limited claims which had been made by the Sikhs. There is no other religious, group which has any objection to wearing crash helmets.

May I suggest to your Lordships that the first part of the Amendment virtually invites the creation of such groups. Also, it invites an individual to declare that he has a genuine conscientious objection to wearing a crash helmet without saying how that objection is to be tested. I believe that it would wreck the principle of compulsory crash helmet wearing if we were to accept this series of Amendments. Therefore I must ask your Lordships to reject them.

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7.48 p.m.

LORD WELLS-PESTELL: My Lords, at this stage perhaps I should say something on behalf of the Government, although I do not want to repeat in detail what I said at Second Reading. The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, has put the Government position very well. As your Lordships will recognise, this Amendment would extend the exemption from Sikhs to many more people who object to wearing crash-helmets. The Government remain convinced of the value of compulsory crash-helmet wearing and could not remain neutral to a Bill which went beyond the Sikhs.

The Government take a neutral view at this stage. They recognise that an adequate case has been made out so far as the Sikhs themselves are concerned, but they have no intention to extend that exemption to any other group. If Amendment No. 3, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, were passed, the cause of an exemption for Sikhs would be gravely jeopardised as a result. It is because the Government attach considerable importance to the wearing of crash-helmets, recognise that in their view the Sikhs have made out an exceptionally strong case for exemption and have no intention to extend that exemption to any other group that I ask your Lordships to reject the Amendments which are before you.

LORD MONSON : My Lords, if I may, I shall deal first with a point made by my noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard. He spoke about the cost of a cracked skull being £400 to £500. Of course the £10 which I suggested was purely as an insurance premium. I am sure he does not believe that every time anybody gets on a motor-cycle they are going to fall off on to their heads. It might be useful at this point to mention the American experience. We have had a compulsory crash helmet law in this country for about 3½ years; the Americans have had it for 10 years. They have found that, although the incidence of fractured skulls is greatly reduced, the incidence of broken necks has increased because the weight of the helmet adds to the weight of the skull and causes a whiplash effect, upon sudden breaking. It may be useful to point out that both the American Senate and the House of Representatives have voted overwhelmingly to rein back, as it were, upon compulsory crash helmet legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, rather implied that I was opposing the Bill. In fact I am not opposing it and I hope I made that clear. I am trying to extend its benefits to more people; and I have certain doubts about it. The point about the nun's habit was made to me by a very respected Sikh lady. It is not the case, as he believes, that every Sikh is for the Bill as it stands. Some do not care very much either way, while others would like the Bill widened to include other members of the community, because they do not want to feel that they are specially privileged. It may be that they are in a minority; but they are a significant minority. The noble Lord spoke about the difficulties that would be imposed on the police. There is not time to go into how I suggest that that might be overcome.

I suggest that there are equal difficulties in trying to establish who is and who is not a Sikh. Supposing somebody a Hindu or Moslem or Indian Christian or indeed someone from the Near East or a Mediterranean country wants to put on a turban, how are they going to know, if they are doing that simply to challenge the law? Mr. Sidney Bidwell in another place believed that the Bill would apply only to those who practised the full faith, that others who had turned away from the full faith would not qualify for exemption under the Bill. The Bill does not say this. Nobody has to prove or produce a certificate to say that they are practising Sikhs, so I suggest that the task for the police, even with the Bill as it stands will not be as easy as the noble Lord suggests.

The noble Lord also cast doubt on my figure of 69 per cent of motor-cyclists opposing the granting of exemption to Sikhs alone, as did the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The poll was not confined to this one question only. There were many questions about the wearing of helmets, and about motor-cycling generally. Not only people who felt strongly about Sikhs replied. We shall know tomorrow morning whether the opinion polls in the United States are wrong, but more often than not they are reasonably accurate. I fear that if these Amendments are rejected, as it appears they will be, there will be resentment. Perhaps it will not be great but there will be some. I think it is a great pity, particularly as so many Sikhs would have liked the Bill extended to other sections of the community. Obviously I am in a fairly small minority tonight and therefore I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill passed.

The Bill was reported to the House of Commons and was agreed without division. A protest was made by a Conservative M.P. who alleged there had been insufficient debate in the Commons but Mr. Speaker ignored his protest. This member arrived late on the day of the successful Commons Third Reading.

Royal Assent was given on 15th November. 1976.

The battle of the turban in Britain stands forever in the history books and must receive world acclaim. I am proud to have played some part.

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Coat of Arms

Motor-Cycle Crash Helmets

(Religious Exemption) Act


1976 CHAPTER 62

An Act to exempt turban-wearing followers of the Sikh religion from the requirement to wear a crash-helmet when riding a motor-cycle.

(15th November 1976)
BE IT ENACTED by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows :-
Amendment of Road Traffic Act 1972.
1972c. 20
1. In section 32 of the Road Traffic Act 1972 there shall be inserted after subsection (2) the following new subsection :-

"(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."

2. This Act may be cited as the Motor-Cycle Crash-Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act 1976.

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