Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (by private notice) : To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the expulsion by Britain of eight Soviet diplomats and three journalists and the expulsion by the Soviet Union of a similar number of British diplomats and journalists.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe) : The Soviet ambassador was asked to call at the Foreign Office on Friday 19 May. He was informed by the political director, Sir John Fretwell, that 11 present members of the Soviet community in London, and a further three who have recently departed, had been carrying out activities incompatible with their status. Mr. Zamyatin was asked to arrange for their withdrawal within 14 days. He was also informed that we were declaring persona non grata three Soviet officials who had recently left. I am arranging for the names of those concerned to be circulated in the Official Report. Less than 36 hours later, on the evening of Saturday 20 May, our ambassador in Moscow, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, was informed by the Soviet Foreign Ministry that eight members of our embassy staff and three British journalists were required to leave the Soviet Union within two weeks. A further three former members of the embassy were declared persona non grata. In addition, a quota would be established for the personnel of British organisations and representatives in Moscow.
The decision of Her Majesty's Government was taken only after very careful consideration and on the basis of incontrovertible evidence. By contrast, the Soviet Union's almost instant mirror-image response has no possible justification. It is all the more to be deplored that the Soviet Union should have chosen, in these circumstances, to expel three British correspondents whose independence is not in question. Their work has contributed directly to the recent significant improvement in relations between our two countries, which has been welcomed by the whole House. It was primarily to give the Soviet Union an opportunity to show that this improvement extended to an area where Soviet behaviour has been at its most unregenerate that we decided not to give any initial publicity to our decision to expel members of the Soviet community.
The Soviet Union's response to that deliberate restraint on our part shows how far it still has to go to live up to the standards of behaviour that the free world regards as normal. Even so, we shall continue to work to sustain the improvement in relations that has taken place and to which we attach importance. But we shall not turn a blind eye to unacceptable activity, which threatens our national security and so the safety of our citizens.
Mr. Kaufman : The Opposition regard the expulsion of three reputable British journalists from Moscow as wrong and completely without justification. We deplore any proven cases of Soviet espionage in this country. We assert the right of Britain to take proper action to protect national security and we ask the Government the following questions.
Column 678Why were the expulsions of Soviet nationals from Britain handled so incompetently, with the news announced not in London by the Foreign Office but as a result of Soviet action in Moscow? Did the Foreign Secretary really delude himself that he could keep this action quiet? Were the expulsions the best way, or indeed the only way, of handling the issue? Could not the problem have best been sorted out directly during the visit of President Gorbachev to Britain last month? When did these cases come to light? Was it during the last few days or was it earlier? Did the Government take into account the danger of tit-for-tat reprisals? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman worried about the serious deterioration in British-Soviet relations that is now occurring, with Mr. Genady Gerasimov today warning of a further 170 expulsions of British citizens from the Soviet Union to bring its quota into line with our limit of 205 Soviets here? British security must be safeguarded, but is it best safeguarded by reawakening cold war attitudes on both sides?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I was tempted to welcome the support that the right hon. Gentleman offered me in the first two or three sentences of his question, but in the light of the hand-wringing querulousness with which he continued, I do not now find it possible to do so. I explained to the House why we took the action in that way, precisely for the deliberate purposes that I have described. If I had announced these matters in a different fashion, ahead of the announcement made in the Soviet Union, the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends would have been the first to accuse me of provocative cold war attitudes. The decision to expel those people was taken only after the most careful consideration, after a long period in which the Soviet Union had been increasingly aware of our deep concern about such matters.
We are not alone in finding it necessary, sadly, to take such decisions. We are aware that a total in the past five years of 248 Soviet officials have been required to return to the Soviet Union from postings abroad, including expulsions in this country. In the past 12 months alone, a total of 24 Soviet officials have been expelled from 12 countries. We had no alternative but to take this action now, in the light of the mounting evidence of an accumulating risk to the security of the people of this country. I invite the entire House to support what we have done.
Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point) : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many of us have been impressed by the efforts of President Gorbachev to introduce more glasnost and openness in Soviet affairs, such as more openness in its conduct of foreign policy? While applauding my right hon. and learned Friend's reticence in announcing the action that was taken, I am aware that the Soviet response of expelling highly reputable journalists who had carried out their normal functions of reporting the news shows that the malign influence of the KGB is still abroad in the Soviet Union. Will my right hon. and learned Friend take it from those who want more co-operation with the Soviet Union that we are deeply depressed by the evidence that the KGB has not been put out to grass?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's support, especially over the way in which we have handled the announcement. He knows that no one has
Column 679striven harder than my right hon. Friend and myself, during the six years that I have held this office, to promote an improvement in east-west relations. My right hon. Friend and I have sincerely and warmly welcomed any improvements. We shall continue to welcome all the evidence of new thinking that President Gorbachev and my opposite number, Mr. Shevardnadze, have brought to the conduct and management of Soviet foreign policy. That makes it all the more regrettable that these matters have demonstrated a continuance of certain activities and of an attitude that shows that, at least in this area, new thinking has not yet penetrated the Soviet structure. We wanted to give that a chance to happen, and we still hope that it will.
Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear to the Soviet Government that both this House and this country regard the right of independent reporters to report independently as a fundamental civil liberty? Can he assure the House that there was no means other than expulsion to remove those Soviet citizens from this country? Could not that have been secured by a voluntary arrangement, which would not have created the resulting tension?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I welcome the hon. and learned Gentleman's first point. It is regrettable that the Soviet Union should have chosen to disregard the legitimacy of independent journalists' activity just at the conclusion of the London Information Forum, during which both east and west exchanged views to try to establish that principle.
It is not possible to take action other than expulsion in cases of such unacceptable activity. That has been plainly underlined by the unwillingness of the Soviet Union to respond to our action in the way that I had hoped.
Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West) : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the vast majority of people in Britain will welcome his action and deplore the Opposition's wimpish attitude? Does he further agree that this unhappy episode makes it clear that there is another face to the Soviet Union, which has nowhere near been exorcised yet, and that it behoves us to keep up our guard for the foreseeable future?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I welcome my hon. Friend's support and endorse his last point. The continuance of such conduct makes it necessary for us to remain vigilant in all aspects of the Soviet Union's conduct. I wish to emphasise one point, which I am sure has the support of the whole House-- that we would prefer to live in a world in which the Soviet Union, in this matter, had caught up with some of its new thinking in other matters. The world would be a far better place if the Soviet Union was willing to discontinue such unacceptable activity, which unfortunately still affects its relations with many other countries.
Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South) : I agree that the expulsion of the three journalists is foolish and that their work in the Soviet Union has been of great value. What does the Foreign Secretary mean by "new thinking"? Does not spying take place by all countries? During the past few minutes one would have thought that only the Russians engaged in spying. Would it be a good idea to hold a conference not only to balance nuclear and conventional weapons but to balance the amount of spying carried out by all countries?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The right hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the three journalists, who are all experienced writers and who have provided faithful reporting, of a high quality, on the Soviet Union. That has been in the interests of both countries. I must make it clear that the diplomats concerned have, in their different areas, also made an important contribution to relations between our two countries.
The right hon. Gentleman must surely appreciate from his experience in office, supported by the figures that I have given the House, that the scale and nature of unacceptable activities undertaken by the Soviet Union are in a class of their own and have continued unabated during recent years. That is why we have had to take this action.
Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton) : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that this action justifies the Government's cautious approach throughout the glasnost and perestroika of the past few months? Is he aware also that the term "deliberate restraint" is not in Opposition Members' vocabulary and that, by raising the matter in such a way today, they have demonstrated their total inadequacy to run the foreign affairs of this country?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I do not find it difficult to agree with my hon. and learned Friend's last point. I cannot emphasise too strongly that, in our handling of this matter, we were concerned only to take the right decisions for the security and safety of the people of this country. We were not looking for any kind of propaganda advantage. With the success that has been acclaimed on both sides of the House, we continue to remain committed to the improvement of relations betweeen East and West. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who was muttering from a sedentary position, is now repudiating the tribute that he has paid on many occasions to Her Majesty's Government's success in improving relations between East and West. That is our objective. It is a matter of the utmost regret that that kind of conduct on the part of Soviet authorities should continue.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Is the Foreign Secretary aware that although, unfortunately, there are several KGB people stationed in this country who could not care less about improving Anglo-Soviet relations, there is speculation that other people--certainly those on the Tory Benches and in other places--also could not care less about the undoubted improvements in relations which, as the Foreign Secretary has admitted, have occurred between the Soviet Union and this country? Is the Foreign Secretary aware also that there is added speculation that the Prime Minister herself wanted an issue prior to the NATO summit to try to demonstrate that the Soviet Union remains the enemy?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The hon. Gentleman's question is down to the usual quality of his interrogation. As I told the House this afternoon, the action that we have taken was taken in the face of accumulating evidence that could not have been allowed to continue any longer. It has been taken with regret, because we would like to see an end to such activity on the part of the Soviet Union. We are determined to go on working in the future, as we have done in the past, for improved relations. We only hope that the Soviet Union will understand exactly what that should entail on its part.
Sir David Price (Eastleigh) : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that Russian intelligence and secret services had an independent existence within the Soviet state long before the Soviet Union was ever invented--back to the days of Peter the Great? Does he recognise that, for Russian intelligence, glasnost and perestroika mean "take the foreign suckers for a ride"?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I would not follow my hon. Friend in the full sweep of his eloquent denunciation. However, I remind him that the whole House has welcomed what President Gorbachev is trying to achieve for the Soviet people and for the improvement of relations between that country and the rest of the world. Perestroika and glasnost are part of that. The whole House should join me in regretting the extent to which those propositions manifestly do not apply to the matters with which we are concerned today.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : What is the Foreign Secretary saying to Mr. Roxburgh, one of the journalists involved, who went into print to say that these matters are rather better handled in a number of other countries such as Germany and France? Without being offensive to the Foreign Secretary, he will forgive me for asking whether, in the light of GCHQ and Zircon, the incontrovertible evidence has been submitted to the Security Commission. For example, does Lord Griffiths of Govilon, a High Court judge and chairman of the Security Commission, agree that it is incontrovertible evidence?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The matter has been handled in accordance with the normal standards that apply to matters of this kind, without--
Mr. Dalyell : The normal standards are Westland.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : --without enthusiasm and with great regret. We have concluded that the action that we have taken was absolutely necessary. To remove the impression that was left by his question, I remind the hon. Gentleman that, in the past 12 months alone, Soviet officials have been expelled from a dozen countries covering a wide range of political backgrounds. This is the inevitable response to the character and quality of such Soviet action.
Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow) : Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in congratulating the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) on giving the House a courageous and rather terrifying insight into Labour party security policy?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I concur with that.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the statements made by some of his colleagues today suggest that-- contrary to all the meetings between Gorbachev and the Prime Minister and others in this country--they want the cold war flames to be fanned once again?
How many diplomats have been sent back to South Africa, apart from the three referred to earlier this year? How many have been sent back to Japan or to West Germany? If the Prime Minister is so concerned about the carryings-on in the Common Market, how many have been sent back to Common Market countries?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The hon. Gentleman can always be trusted to broaden the scope of the question. For his benefit and for the benefit of the House, I repeat that our action in this case has been careful, measured, to the point, and designed to deter the continuation of unacceptable activity by and on behalf of the Soviet Union. This is action that we have been compelled to take, together with many other countries in the free world. We hope that the Soviet Union will learn its lesson, because the whole House wants to see a comprehensive, genuine and sustained improvement in relations with the Soviet Union. That will not be possible on the scale that we would wish as long as misconduct of this kind continues to take place.
Several Hon. Members rose--
Mr. Speaker : Order. I remind the House that this is a private notice question and an extension of Question Time. We must now move on to a statement by the Secretary of State for Defence.
Following are the names :
List of those Soviet Officials currently in London who have been given 14 days notice to leave
A. A. Bagin, embassy driver
N. L. Kolodin, air attache
I. N. Kudashkin, Soviet trade delegation
I. N. Kuzmin, Novosti press agency
S. V. Kuznetsov, third secretary, Soviet embassy
A. V. Makarukov, attache , Soviet embassy
I. N. Peskov, TASS
Y. P. Sagaydak, Komsomolskaya Pravda
Y. A. Smirnov, assistant air attache
N. G. Tuyev, third secretary, Soviet embassy
M. G. Zhiltsov, assistant naval attache
List of those Soviet Officials who have left the United Kingdom but who have been declared persona non grata
V. I. Kozlov, former military attache
A. G. Marshankin, former assistant military attache
S. I. Novozhilov, formerly at the Soviet tradedelegation
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger) : With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas.
We have been considering the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas after the United Kingdom withdraws from Hong Kong in 1997. We recognise the concerns of the Gurkhas about their future, but there are many uncertainties inherent in trying to look this far ahead. The international scene is currently in a period of change with welcome improvements in east-west relations and correspondingly better prospects for progress in conventional arms control. Domestically, as a result of demographic factors, the number of young people from whom the Army must recruit is now well below the level of recent years and will continue to be so into the 21st century. Inevitably, recruiting into the British Army will become more difficult as a result. It is not possible therefore to be definitive at this stage about the future for the Gurkhas after 1997. Major changes in circumstances in the interim, particularly in the size of the British Army as a whole--or developments in the future manning situation--may require us to reconsider. However, on the basis of the information available at present, I have decided that, although the Hong Kong commitment will have ceased, we should plan on a future for the Gurkhas after 1997 based on a viable brigade structure. At present, we see this force being a balance of four Gurkha infantry battalions, squadrons of the Queen's Gurkha Engineers, the Queen's Gurkha Signals and the Gurkha Transport Regiment, together with the necessary infrastructure. It would comprise about 4,000 personnel. I would expect the future Gurkha force to have roles that lie within the main stream of the Army's defence commitments, including, as now, a substantial Gurkha presence in the United Kingdom.
There will be a progressive restructuring towards the new force over several years. The timing of these changes will depend on both the commitments and circumstances facing the entire British Army at the time, and, in particular, on the extent to which it is possible to recruit and retain British soldiers within the Army in the face of the demographic difficulties. These difficulties may also lead us to increase the number of Gurkhas to be retained. If necessary this can be considered at a later stage. The present arrangements with the Government of Nepal, whereby Gurkhas are recruited and discharged in Nepal and remain Nepalese citizens at all times, will continue. No change in the current deployments of Gurkhas is envisaged until withdrawal of a battalion from Hong Kong takes place, which would not be before 1992. No major decisions are needed on the future of this battalion until next year, when we shall have a clearer picture of the impact of demographic trends on army manning.
The House will wish to know that the Government of Nepal have been informed, in advance, of our plans.
Finally, I should like to emphasise that the Gurkhas have served the Crown with distinction since 1815. They have fought alongside British troops in many theatres, including two world wars and the Malayan emergency ; and most recently they served in the Falklands campaign. This announcement contains the elements necessary to
Column 684demonstrate to the Gurkhas that we are planning for them to have a worthwhile and viable future in the British Army after our withdrawal from Hong Kong. As such, it will, I am sure, be welcomed by them, by this House and by the country at large.
Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda) : Despite what the Secretary of State would have us believe, we view with great dismay a real cut in the number of Gurkhas serving in the British Army. There will be a cut of 50 per cent. from 8,071 personnel serving in the Gurkha brigade to 4, 000. That is a substantial cut in anyone's terms.
The Secretary of State has presented us with a mess of words and he has not come up with many answers. The number of Gurkha battalions is to be reduced from five to four, and we want to know how he will account for the 4,000 personnel. Are all the Gurkha battalions to consist of three companies rather than four? If so, to what use will the remaining companies be put? Are we to understand that the engineer, signal and transport regiments are to be reduced to mere squadrons? How many personnel are to be lost from these units? As the Secretary of State has said, from the point of view of tradition and history the Gurkhas have served us well for about 174 years. They served mainly on the Indian subcontinent during the previous century but in this century their battle honours reflect brave service in Europe, the middle east and, more recently, in the Falklands.
Their 13 Victoria crosses, which they have won since 1914, are ample testimony to the loyalty, courage and steadfastness of these great soldiers.
The enlistment of Gurkhas in the British Army has been vital to the economy of their native country of Nepal. It is stated in the admirable report of the Select Committee on Defence on the future of the Gurkha brigade, which was published earlier this year, that the value to Nepal of the British Gurkhas is about £30 million annually. As the report states, that is two and a half times the United Kingdom's overseas aid to Nepal. What proposals do the Government have to replace that? Are there to be further discussions on aid? Rather than inform the Nepalese Government, may we have an assurance from the Secretary of State that the Government will have serious discussions with the Nepalese on the imposition of a 50 per cent. cut in the income that they derive from the British Gurkhas?
What will be the future of the British military hospital in Katmandu? We know that it is to be handed over to the Nepalese in 1990, but will the Government carry out their promises of aid and support in the handover period?
The Secretary of State suggested that he was making a "nothing" statement. He seemed to suggest that he could pick things up in future. He seemed to be saying in a rather insulting way to the Nepalese, "You can have your soldiers back home now but when we want to pick them up again in future, we shall do so." I think that it is a shabby statement.
Mr. Younger : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) for his tribute to the Gurkhas and the remarkable service which they have given. I was rather surprised by his reaction to my statement and I think that the Gurkhas will be surprised as well. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Gurkhas' present role is to reinforce security in Hong Kong. We are talking about a position
Column 685after 1997 when, by definition, there will be no such role. The maintenance of a Brigade of Gurkhas is a real gesture of our appreciation of what the Gurkhas have done and what they can do in future. It is an enhancement of what is available to the British Army. The statement will be more widely welcomed than the hon. Gentleman seems to think.
I can confirm to the hon. Member that the companies in the battalions which will continue will probably number three instead of four. That will mean that they can match up more easily with the role of the other battalions which they will work alongside in the British Army, which will have three companies.
The squadrons will be reduced from regimental size to independent squadron size although, as I made clear in my statement, the expected figure of 4,000 can and perhaps will be increased when the effect of the demographic factors is considered. I appreciate what the hon. Member for Rhondda said about the economy of Nepal. We are very conscious of that factor because we value our relationship with the Government of Nepal on this matter. We will continue discussion with the Nepalese Government. We have already told the Nepalese Government that the hospital at Dharan--not Katmandu, as the hon. Member for Rhondda said--will be handed over to the Nepalese Government. The Nepalese have welcomed that. As that hospital deals almost entirely with Nepalese civilian patients, that move seems appropriate. We shall help the Nepalese Government to manage the transition and to pay for the handover business. We shall continue discussions with them.
I also welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the report of the Select Committee on Defence. The report was immensely helpful and very well researched. I join the hon. Member for Rhondda in thanking all the members of the Select Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), the Chairman of the Select Committee, for all their work.
Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that, while his general announcement about the future of the Gurkhas is welcome, the almost total lack of any detail after such a long delay is difficult to understand? This will still leave much uncertainty and anxiety in the many places that members of the Select Committee on Defence visited during the course of our inquiry where Gurkhas are to be found.
In particular, will my right hon. Friend confirm what I inferred from his reply to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers)--that the figure of 4,000 is very much the worst case figure which he thought he should set? Even the detail of reducing from five to four battalions and reducing the companies to three per battalion does not add up if my right hon. Friend says that all the infrastructure--the infantry and supporting arms and services--are to be retained in some form. In that context, is it planned to have a Ghurkha brigade or to merge the Ghurkha troops with British brigades, which would help my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State because there would be less infrastructure? How is that to work out?
If more Gurkha soldiers and their families are to be stationed in this country I can state that, from experience of the Gurkha battalion in my constituency, they will be most welcome. Over the past few years they have been
Column 686outstanding members of the community and they are extremely welcome wherever they go. I am sure that their brothers who follow from Hong Kong will be just as welcome in this country.
Mr. Younger : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments and for the work that he and the Select Committee on Defence put into this matter. I appreciate what he says about the detail, which cannot be included in the statement. However, I hope that that will not lead to any feeling of uncertainty among the Gurkhas. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, the figure that I announced today of a brigade strength Gurkha regiment with four battalions and a minimum number of 4,000 men is the figure which we definitely expect to be required after 1997. As I made clear in my statement, it may be necessary in due course, if other recruitment falls, to have a rather higher figure. I can confirm that we believe that the minimum viable number is about 4,000, as I have said. We certainly envisage that the battle order of this brigade and the strength of 4,000 allows for three infantry company battalions at full strength with the independent squadrons. With regard to the brigade structure, there will be a Brigade of Gurkhas with a brigade headquarters for administration. However, the operation of the Gurkha units will be tied in with that of the rest of the British Army according to where the particular units are serving.
With regard to the future and the uncertainty to which my hon. Friend referred, I must state that we are talking about providing in 1989 for a situation which will occur after 1997. With the best will in the world and long-term planning, that is a long time in the future. The fact that we have been able to give this element of assurance--the statement involves a rock-bottom level of assurance--should reassure all those who are concerned about the Gurkhas that we consider that their very valuable service should continue in future.
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : The Secretary of State paid tribute to the Select Committee on Defence and to its First Report on the future of the Gurkhas. Does he accept that his announcement today in reality rejects the Select Committee's conclusions? In particular, on what basis has he rejected the Select Committee's conclusion that
"The evidence of the Ministry of Defence gives us no grounds for concluding that a cut in the number of Gurkha infantry battalions is justified"?
Similarly, on what grounds did he reject the Select Committee's recommendation that
"there is good reason to suppose that the British Army will need them, in something like their present numbers, well into the 21st century"?
Do the proposals for redeployment involve consideration of a role in the British Army of the Rhine? Are the Gurkhas to be confined to the United Kingdom mainland or will they be available for service throughout the United Kingdom?
Mr. Younger : I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his comments. However, I do not agree that the statement amounts to any rejection of the report of the Select Committee on Defence. If we had decided to keep the Brigade of Gurkhas at its present full strength of about 8,000 after 1997 when the Hong Kong commitment, which takes up so much of their strength now, had gone, that would have been an enormous enhancement to the forces available to the British Army. I hope that everyone,
Column 687including my colleagues on the Select Committee on Defence, will accept that that would have been a very exceptional step to take. We have given a clear signal. Our minimum viable level for the Gurkhas ties in well with the view expressed by the Select Committee. The roles which the Gurkhas can carry out in future will be broadly similar to those of other battalions in the British Army. However, there are some roles for which the Gurkhas are perhaps not so suitable as other British battalions ; in particular, for service in infantry battalions in Northern Ireland where language problems would make them less suitable. However, there are many other roles in the British Army which the Gurkhas fulfil just as well as other battalions and we hope to weld them in there.
There is nothing new with Gurkhas being stationed in the United Kingdom. We aim to continue their present terms and conditions of service as closely as we can.
Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South) : Will my right hon. Friend accept the congratulations of the majority of the House on his firm commitment to a minimum level of 4,000? However, that figure begs a number of questions. What is the future of the long home leave system? Can we be sure that 15 to 20 per cent. of a Nepalese battalion will still be able to go on long leave, which is essential to maintain their cultural and home ties? Is the present plan likely to affect the arrangement whereby the Ghurkhas carry their own reserves? That is one of the main reasons why the Gurkhas have four companies instead of three. Does he expect that they will be tied into the Territorial Army in some way or to some other organisation?
Mr. Younger : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has a long and deep interest in the Gurkhas, for his congratulations on the general tenor of the statement. I confirm that we shall keep the long leave system and that the battalions' future strength and obligations will allow sufficient scope for the existing leave system to be continued. The main reason for having the fourth company in Gurkha battalions is their enormously manpower -intensive role on the Hong Kong border. When that role ends, three companies--as in other British battalions--will be more appropriate. The strength of the Gurkha battalions will allow for that three-company set-up still to provide for the essential long leave system that my hon. Friend mentioned.
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) : The Secretary of State should not believe that churlishness causes right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to think that his statement has some of the charactistics of a colander. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman must take into account the variables that can arise between now and 1997, and that it makes sense for him to be canny. I do not blame him for that. Perhaps I can plug just one hole in the colander. The Secretary of State will recall that at the time of press speculation and comment when the Select Committee was considering the Gurkhas' future, one school of thought of questionable origin was that the Gurkhas may be suitable for one type of warfare but not for another. I refer not to Northern Ireland but to their role in high tech, modern rapid response situations. The suggestion made in the media was that perhaps the Gurkhas do not think quickly enough. Will the right hon. Gentleman put that argument to bed once and for all and counter it, here and now?
Mr. Younger : Yes, certainly. I am glad to respond to the hon. Gentleman by countering that suggestion completely. The Gurkhas are not only extremely good soldiers who fought extremely well in many different conditions and theatres, but are clearly very adaptable. I have no doubt that they can cope with any task that they are given.
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I warmly congratulate him on making the long-term decision that he has, not just for reasons of recruitment but because--and this is the important factor--it maintains our honourable link with the Gurkhas over a great many years? Looking to the future, will my right hon. Friend give consideration not only to the Gurkhas' roles out of area but to roles that need extra support within NATO itself?
Mr. Younger : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. It is a long-term decision in the sense that it secures a long-term future for the Gurkhas when their present major role disappears. That is the good side of the long-term decision. The less good side is that it is not possible this far in advance to make detailed pronouncements about precisely where each part of the Gurkhas will serve. I take my hon. Friend's point about the Gurkhas' future roles. They will be available for most general duties throughout the British Army--the same as other infantry battalions.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : Will the Secretary of State reflect that Nepal needs help here and now? Without going into the merits of the country's very unfortunate dispute with India, is it not a fact that Nepal's forests are being cut down to provide fuel because that has been denied to the country, and that it is currently in a terrible economic situation? As a token of gratitude for much service, ought not the British Government to do something here and now? Will the right hon. Gentleman at least undertake to read my Adjournment debate tomorrow night, on the problems of tropical rain forests when I will describe the ways in which Nepal can be helped, and then discuss it with his hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development?
Mr. Younger : I shall certainly read the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate with great interest and--although I am sure that this will not be necessary--I shall draw it to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development. By making further use of the Gurkhas' excellent military skills, we indirectly make a contribution to the Nepalese economy, and we are glad to do so. However, overall responsibility for aiding the Nepalese economy is a matter for my hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas development, and I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are drawn to his attention.