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6 Mar 2003 : Column 1040—continued

Sandra Gidley: It has recently come to my attention that statistics for domestic violence are not collected separately by police forces. Will the hon. Lady do all that she can to ensure that we can have a more accurate picture from police force to police force?

Mrs. Roche: Some thought is being given to that issue. More than we do at present, we have to disaggregate the figures for grievous bodily harm or actual bodily harm, for example.

A great deal of work is being done. I have recently announced help to set up a national refuge helpline, and extra money is going into refuges. We are also getting people to speak out against domestic violence. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North spoke about the good work that is being done with trade unions. It was important that the Prime Minister launched the initiative on refuges, and that Digby Jones of the CBI and John Monks of the TUC have spoken out on the importance of dealing with domestic violence. We need prominent men to talk about the horror of domestic violence. That has to happen more and more.

I welcome the support that there has been for further proposals that the Government may introduce. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar spoke about women and the criminal justice system; and the hon. Member for Worthing, West spoke about gender in the criminal justice system. The hon. Lady spoke about rape and we have published a joint report by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service. There are real concerns about falling conviction rates and high attrition rates.

Excellent points were made about the important and serious issue of female genital mutilation; and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South made an important speech about transsexuals.

It is difficult to do justice to all the contributions that have been made this afternoon. This is one of the best debates that we have had on international women's day. I congratulate everybody and look forward to next year's debate, hoping that we have the same incredibly high standard.

It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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Gurkha Regiment

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

6 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): First, may I thank Mr. Speaker for selecting this debate for the Adjournment?

I wish to set the context in which I am raising the subject of conditions of service for personnel in the Gurkha Regiment. Mr. Justice Sullivan published a ruling on 21 February in which he addressed many issues, most of which I shall not raise in my speech. However, he said that the Ministry of Defence should review certain aspects of the conditions of service for personnel. In fact, I had applied unsuccessfully for this Adjournment debate for some weeks before Mr. Justice Sullivan's ruling. My concerns do not arise directly from that case or from the recent failed action on behalf of the Gurkhas.

My concerns arise from a conversation that I had not with Gurkhas but with British officers when I visited 36 Engineer Regiment, which is in my constituency and has a substantial Gurkha attachment. I went there on my annual visit after the Remembrance day service to have one of its splendid Gurkha curry lunches. While I was there, I was appalled to be told of some of the conditions that apply to Gurkhas. That determined me to try to raise the issue in the House.

The Minister may be relieved to learn that I do not intend to rehearse yet again the issue of Gurkha pensions. I want to consider two other aspects of their conditions of service. The Gurkhas are much respected, and I know that from my experience of the regiment in Maidstone. I know that there is huge public affection for them. Each time they parade on a ceremonial occasion in Maidstone, they are warmly received. The public would be appalled if they knew about some of the conditions that we inflict on the Gurkhas.

I turn first to the conditions that govern the accompaniment of married Gurkhas by their families. Gurkhas below the rank of colour sergeant—that is, 90 per cent. of them—are not allowed to have their families with them for all but three out of 15 years service. That provision does not go back to the mists of time and it has not accidentally been left there. In July 1997, a review resulted in the introduction of "married accompanied service" for Gurkhas serving in the United Kingdom, which stated that a quarter of married Gurkhas could be accompanied by their wives and families at any given time.

In reality, not even a quarter benefit from that privilege. Colour sergeants and those in the ranks above—I have already said that they account for 10 per cent. of Gurkhas—may have their wives and families with them permanently. Therefore the quarter has to be distributed among them, as well as among the rest. Only 15 per cent. of serving Gurkhas who are not above the rank of colour sergeant have their families with them at any given time. So for 12 years of their service, they are not allowed to have their families with them.

The Minister will doubtless point out that Gurkhas have five months' long leave every three years. If my arithmetic is correct, that means that they get about

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20 months' long leave during their period of service. So there is familial separation, enforced by the rules, of more than 10 years. It ill behoves the House to let that continue when MPs have just made such a song and dance about having half-term leave so that they can be with their families; yet we expect people who are serving our country to put up with more than 10 years' separation from their families. Furthermore, that precious five months' long leave is often shortened to two months because of the exigencies of the service. In addition, during those five months when the Gurkhas are in Nepal, they are paid less because they do not get the Gurkha universal addition.

So strictly is that unforgivable rule applied that surplus married accommodation is left empty rather than increasing the number of Gurkhas who might have their wives with them at any given time. Even when Gurkha children are born in this country and are therefore British, their parents cannot apply to stay in the UK after retirement. On proof that the parents are settled in Nepal, one parent can accompany the child to the UK, but only until it is 12, when either both go back or the child is left here alone.

All that is against a background of a proud history of service to Britain on the part of the Gurkhas. There are 26 Victoria Crosses in the Gurkha regiment, 13 of them won by Gurkhas. They have fought in almost every conflict since world war two. They were in the Falklands, Iraq, East Timor and Sierra Leone. At this very moment, as we sit here surveying what is a disgraceful state of affairs, they are in Kuwait, waiting to shed blood in the fight against one of the nastiest tyrants in history. How do we show our gratitude? With a P45 and a one-way ticket to Nepal.

After 15 years of serving this country Gurkhas cannot stay here even if they have British children. But how many Gurkhas are we talking about? Would they flood the immigration system? Would it cause chaos if we let them stay? No. In any given year, between 200 and 250 Gurkhas retire after 15 years' service. They are well trained, well disciplined and dutiful. They are exactly the sort of people we would usually welcome. Some 110,000 asylum seekers came to this country last year. Many of them will be allowed to stay by default because they will not be removed even though their applications are refused. Yet we sternly resist the claims of 200 to 250 people who have rendered sterling service to this country.

If anyone else had been in this country for 15 years, we would grant them naturalisation, but it is rare for a Gurkha to achieve that. So they are sent back to Nepal when most of them are still in their 30s. They have the rest of their adult life before them, but there is not exactly a glut of jobs in undeveloped rural Nepal. Any member of NATO armed forces can lawfully enter the UK upon discharge and can ask to stay here. If a Turkish infantryman can do that, why deny it to the Gurkhas? There is a perception that Gurkha soldiers and pensioners in Nepal are targeted by Maoist terrorists, so some of them will try to return here as asylum seekers. Why do we put them through that when we could simply recognise what they have done for us and grant them leave to stay here on retirement?

The Minister knows that I am not one of those who favours the extravagant language of institutional racism and all the rest of it, and I do not for one moment believe

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that the intention behind the provisions is racist, but their effect is undeniable: one group are discriminated against and treated in a way that those serving alongside them are not.

If the matter was reviewed as late as 1997, I am baffled as to how we could allow such a state of affairs to continue. I am aware that Mr. Justice Sullivan has asked that the MOD re-examine the rule for married accommodation. What surprises me is that, knowing that these issues were before the courts, the MOD had not prepared a response in case of just such a ruling. When we may shortly see on our screens Gurkhas in action—on behalf of us, not on behalf of themselves—I should like to think that we might then consider whether we should act immediately to solve the problem.

There is one phrase that Gurkhas probably learn fairly early. It is a phrase much used by the British and much used in the Army: "fair play". I am not asking for extra privileges for the Gurkhas. I am not asking for them to have what others in a similar position do not have. I am asking for them to have basic justice—in other words, fair play.

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