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Back in October 2018, we published a post titled is the All Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Sikhs truly representative?

The post referred to the issue of Seva School in Coventry, a dispute subsequently covered by Schoolsweek quoting our Director Lord Singh.

Concerned parents had called on the government to intervene in a dispute related to Seva School being compelled to join Nishkam School Trust, a trust which parents said did not fit with their beliefs. Some of the parents independently echoed concerns to our Director, Lord Singh of Wimbledon. He raised it with the APPG for British Sikhs, after all what’s the point of having such a group if it doesn’t consider Sikh interests, or in this instance the concerns of Sikh parents.

As described in our previous post this is an account of what transpired:

By chance I learnt of Tuesday’s AGM and accompanied by Lord Suri, attended the AGM to try to get the Group to issue a statement of concern over the bullying attitude of the Department for Education (DfE) in giving of a 2-week ultimatum to withdraw funding and move to a closure of a Sikh school, Seva School in Coventry unless it agreed to be run by Nishkam. Nishkam is a group regarded by many Sikhs as outside mainstream Sikhism, with a spiritual Head to whom some followers owe total allegiance.

Lord Suri and I were surprised at the poor attendance at the AGM, with one MP brought in for a while to make a quorum. After Preet Gill MP asked the 5 MPs present to confirm her as Chair, I spoke about the widespread concerns of parents, governors, staff, the Council of Gurdwaras in Coventry, the Sikh Council and the Network of Sikh Organisations and others. I also mentioned that an earlier complaint made by me of racist behaviour towards the school (in which Sikh teachings were labelled extremist and negative) had been upheld in an investigation by Sir David Carter a top civil servant with the DfE, with a promise of more supportive behaviour by the minister Lord Nash. Unfortunately, the harassment has continued culminating in a 2-week ultimatum of a cessation of funding unless the school agreed to be run by Nishkam.

Preet Gill MP seemed irritated by both my presence at the meeting, and because I had raised an issue about which she had clearly not been briefed by the Sikh Federation UK, the official secretariat of the APPG. She expressed her admiration of Nishkam. However asking a mainstream Sikh school to join Nishkam with its different ethos, is like asking a Church of England school to join a group led by Jehovah’s Witnesses. She then queried my credentials in raising the widespread concerns of the Sikh community. Ignoring the need for urgent action, she said that she would have to carry out her own investigation and consult local MPs, as if their views counted for more than those of the Coventry Sikh community and two national Sikh bodies.

On 25th March 2019, Preet Gill MP sent an e-mail titled ‘APPG British Sikhs’ in which she talks of Seva School following Lord Singh’s plea on behalf of concerned parents.

She writes, ‘As agreed, I wrote to the DFE and received a full and helpful response from Damian Hinds assuring us that the school would not be closed, and they had asked an outstanding Sikh academy trust to take over.’

NOTE. The request was not for her to write to the DfE, but to contact the Sikh community in Coventry and support them to stop the DfE abusing its authority to force the school to be run by Nishkam, a controversial Sikh sect. She totally ignored Lord Singh’s request to assist the worried Sikh community in Coventry.

A statement from the Board of Trustees (Sevak Education Trust) dated 3rd July says, ‘34 parents brought a legal challenge to the decision made by the Secretary of State for Education on 21 February 2019 to appoint Nishkam Schools Trust (“Nishkam”) as the sponsor for the re-brokerage of Seva School.’

The parents were successful, and the government conceded it had failed in providing alternatives to Nishkam School Trust. They go on to say, ‘This has been an incredibly difficult time for all those associated with the school.’

We are delighted the parents have won their legal battle, but surely this issue could have been resolved amicably sooner without parents having to resort to initiating legal proceedings against the state?

In our view, there are two issues which arise from the Seva School saga. The first relates to improving religious literacy in the DfE and across government circles to get them to appreciate doctrinal differences, and importantly, what is, and is not mainstream Sikh belief.

Secondly, given Preet Gill’s response to the matter, it begs an important question – can she really claim to represent British Sikhs?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have made recommendations for the content of the 2021 Census, which was published in a White Paper titled, ‘Help Shape Our Future: The 2021 Census of Population and Housing in England and Wales’.

The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is delighted common sense has prevailed and the ONS has not recommended the inclusion of a Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box for the 2021 Census. We’ve been strongly opposed to this ill-conceived campaign led by the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) and the APPG for British Sikhs whose secretariat is the SFUK and Chair Preet Gill MP. The ONS has conducted significant research and consultation on this matter across the British Sikh community over a long period of time. They revealed focus groups conducted showed, ‘younger second-generation participants wanted to express their Sikh background through the religion question as this is how they expected Sikh identity to be recorded.’[i]

Our position has always been clear. Firstly, Sikhs are already recorded appropriately in the Census under religion. The SFUK suggested there might be an undercounting of Sikhs, because the religion question is voluntary. However, research commissioned by the ONS in 2017 found, ‘There is no indication from the findings that the religious affiliation and ethnic group questions are capturing different Sikh populations. All respondents who stated they were ethnically Sikh also stated their religious affiliation was Sikh. This is in line with findings from the 2011 Census data.’[ii]

Secondly, the SFUK say we are an ‘ethnic’ group because of Mandla v Dowell Lee. The case involved a schoolboy discriminated against by his school for wearing his turban. When it went to the House of Lords they for the purposes of the then Race Relations Act 1976, ruled Sikhs could conveniently fit into an ‘ethnic origin’ box based on a few tests, like sharing common language, culture and geographical descent – this is because religion wasn’t protected under law at the time. If you apply the same tests today, Sikhs wouldn’t necessarily fit in the ‘ethnic origin’ box, because most Sikhs today are British born and speak English as a first language. Moreover, the Race Relations Act 1976 has been repealed in its entirety, and replaced by the Equalities Act 2010, in which all religions are equally protected from discrimination. In any case, from a doctrinal perspective, Guru Nanak was the founder of a great world religion, not an ‘ethnic’ group. Sikh teachings reject division of society on grounds of caste, creed. colour and by the extension of this debate ethnicity.

 

Concerns about the APPG’s methodology

We’ve seen a communication from the APPG for British Sikhs in response to the ONS decision, and it’s clear the SFUK and Preet Gill MP are upset and angry. They have put a lot of effort and energy into lobbying. On August 23rd 2018 (at 19:15) the SFUK put out a tweet suggesting Hounslow gurdwara (Alice Way) was one of the gurdwaras which supported their campaign with a letter written to the APPG.[iii] We asked the Hounslow committee if this was the case or not, and they informed us they did not support the APPG and believe Sikhism is a religion not an ethnicity. They had also made this clear in a meeting with the NSO, SFUK and Iain Bell from the ONS. Given the SFUK announced 112 gurdwaras have supported the APPG, and this figure has been reported in the press and provided to the ONS, we would like to see 1. The briefing given to gurdwaras by the APPG 2. Redacted versions of the letters received 3. The specific question asked to elicit a response. We have serious concerns that gurdwaras may have not been provided with a balanced view of the subject matter, which could lead to survey bias, and if there are 112 gurdwaras signed up in the first place.

The APPG have alleged the ONS has ‘misrepresented’ the survey of Gurdwaras they conducted.[iv] This is a serious allegation and given what we know about Hounslow frankly risible. Secondly, they go onto to claim the survey and response from 112 gurdwaras have an official membership of 107,000 and an estimated congregation of 470,000. How they came to these figures is not clear, however we can see that 470,000 is a larger number than the total population of Sikhs from the 2011 Census (423,000).[v] 112 gurdwaras is approximately 1/3 of the total number in the UK,[vi] so the suggestion is that more than the total population of British Sikhs (up to 2011) attended a fraction of UK gurdwaras. It is not clear whether the figures include overseas visitors or non-Sikhs coming to gurdwaras, or gurdwaras in Scotland which has a separate Census. They suggest 100% of gurdwaras that responded to their survey did so as an ‘independent decision’, however this again is unclear, until we see the particulars of the briefing provided to them by the APPG.

 

John Pullinger’s assurances to Preet Gill MP

What the APPG remarkably failed to disclose was a letter addressed to their Chair from the UK’s National Statistician John Pullinger. He has given Ms Gill significant reassurances that although the ONS don’t recommend an ‘ethnic’ tick box, they will support those who want to write in Sikh as an ethnic group under ‘other’. He informs her, ‘I want to assure you that everyone who wishes to identify as Sikh will be able to do so under our proposals for the Census.’

He describes the various options for Sikhs who may want to say they are ‘ethnically’ Sikh with the development of ‘search-as-you-type’ functionality online, which will assist those who want to fill the ‘other’ box under ethnicity. He confirms data outputs from both religion and ethnicity will be analysed and will, ‘increase the analytical offering and outputs for those who identify as Sikh.’ He also confirms there is a commitment to utilise the Digital Economy Act 2017 for data linking research purposes, so information about Britain’s Sikhs will be available across public services, not just Census collected data.

There are other clear commitments which aim to improve data collection beyond purely the Census, whilst encouraging collaboration with local authorities and British Sikhs. The ONS want to improve data collection and promote wider Census participation, as well as ‘raise awareness of the options of writing in their identity in the ethnic group question’.

We are surprised Preet Gill MP or the SFUK run APPG for British Sikhs have failed to mention this accommodating and conciliatory letter. The offer to help Sikhs who would still like to be categorised under a Sikh ethnic group is serious and goes much further than expected. It appears they are so obsessed with a tick box, they have lost sight of their initial goal.

[Ends]

[i] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-2021-census-of-population-and-housing-in-england-and-wales
[ii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/census
[iii] http://nsouk.co.uk/why-we-need-the-appg-for-british-sikhs-to-be-transparent-with-their-ethnicity-campaign/
[iv] https://twitter.com/appgbritsikhs?lang=en
[v] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/articles/religioninenglandandwales2011/2012-12-11
[vi] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-21711980

The APPG for British Sikhs has over the Past 12 months made successful efforts to keep Sikhs in the Lords excluded from its deliberations. By chance I learnt of Tuesday’s AGM and accompanied by Lord Suri, attended the AGM to try to get the Group to issue a statement of concern over the bullying attitude of the Department for Education (DfE) in giving of a 2-week ultimatum to withdraw funding and move to a closure of a Sikh school, Seva School in Coventry unless it agreed to be run by Nishkam. Nishkam is a group regarded by many Sikhs as outside mainstream Sikhism, with a spiritual Head to whom some followers owe total allegiance.

Lord Suri and I were surprised at the poor attendance at the AGM, with one MP brought in for a while to make a quorum. After Preet Gill MP asked the 5 MPs present to confirm her as Chair, I spoke about the widespread concerns of parents, governors, staff, the Council of Gurdwaras in Coventry, the Sikh Council and the Network of Sikh Organisations and others. I also mentioned that an earlier complaint made by me of racist behaviour towards the school (in which Sikh teachings were labelled extremist and negative) had been upheld in an investigation by Sir David Carter a top civil servant with the DfE, with a promise of more supportive behaviour by the minister Lord Nash.

Unfortunately, the harassment has continued culminating in a 2-week ultimatum of a cessation of funding unless the school agreed to be run by Nishkam.

Preet Gill MP seemed irritated by both my presence at the meeting, and because I had raised an issue about which she had clearly not been briefed by the Sikh Federation UK, the official secretariat of the APPG. She expressed her admiration of Nishkam. However asking a mainstream Sikh school to join Nishkam with its different ethos, is like asking a Church of England school to join a group led by Jehovah’s Witnesses. She then queried my credentials in raising the widespread concerns of the Sikh community. Ignoring the need for urgent action, she said that she would have to carry out her own investigation and consult local MPs, as if their views counted for more than those of the Coventry Sikh community and two national Sikh bodies.

Lord Suri and I, were perhaps, even more disappointed by the mute subservience of the 5 MPs. There was no discussion about the DfE’s bullying and racist behaviour, or the need for government to understand a little about Sikhism and the Sikh community. The MPs expressed no sympathy or concern over an issue affecting Sikhs and the education of our children.

Lord Suri and I left the meeting with the knowledge that the APPG exists only to further the interests of the Sikh Federation UK, and not those of the wider Sikh community.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon

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