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6 Mar 2003 : Column 1043—continued

6.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on securing this debate on an important subject. I am, of course, aware of and wholeheartedly endorse the high esteem in which Gurkhas are held on both sides of the House. I am also aware of the concern frequently expressed by the media and general public about their terms and conditions of service.

Interest is particularly high at present because of recent judicial review proceedings in which seven former Gurkha soldiers made a number of very serious allegations in relation to their employment in the Brigade of Gurkhas. Those ranged from complaints about dress codes to demands for improved pay and pensions. There was also a general accusation about a so-called

In view of the widespread and often inaccurate reporting of the case, I welcome the opportunity to deal with the issues that it raises. Before doing so, I should make it clear that I very much welcome Mr. Justice Sullivan's ruling. I should point out, as he did, that of the 12 original complaints, eight were dropped by the claimants and therefore not pursued in the High Court. All the remaining complaints, which related to Gurkha pay, pension, married accompanied service and education arrangements, were subsequently dismissed. The ruling therefore tends to vindicate our view that, taken as a whole, Gurkha terms and conditions of service are reasonable and fair. I hope it also reassures the House and general public that there is certainly not a culture of institutional discrimination in the Army against Gurkhas, and that any such accusation is wholly without foundation.

Before I explain the thinking behind current Gurkha terms and conditions of service in more detail, perhaps I should take a few moments to explain why successive

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Governments have taken the view that Gurkhas are different, and why it is necessary for their terms and conditions to reflect that. Gurkhas have volunteered for British military service since 1815. Their numbers grew throughout the 19th century and large numbers fought with distinction, as the right hon. Lady pointed out, in the old Indian army in both world wars. Throughout this period, Gurkhas established a reputation as loyal, formidable soldiers—a reputation that they rightly enjoy to this day.

Many right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that Gurkhas are able to serve in the British Army today only because in 1947, at the time of Indian independence, an agreement was reached with the Governments of India and Nepal to enable four Gurkha regiments to transfer into the British Army. That is known as the tripartite agreement, or TPA. The Brigade of Gurkhas today consists of approximately 3,500 men who serve mainly in the infantry, but also in Gurkha logistics, signals and engineer units, some of which are based in the right hon. Lady's constituency.

One of the original aims of the TPA was to ensure that the Armies of Great Britain and India could recruit and maintain formed Gurkha regiments on an equal basis. It also safeguarded the cultural, religious and national heritage of Gurkha soldiers, in accordance with the wishes of the Nepalese Government. That is because it was important then, as it is now, for Gurkhas not to be seen merely as mercenaries. The TPA linked British Gurkha terms and conditions of service to those of the Indian army, reflecting sensitivities about whether the newly formed Indian army would be able to retain or attract Gurkhas if there was a substantial differential between British Gurkha and Indian army terms and conditions of service. There was also concern about creating a differential in Nepal, where British Gurkha pensioners continued to live alongside fellow citizens who served in the Nepalese and Indian armies.

While I acknowledge that perhaps not all of the principles that underpinned the TPA in 1947 apply today, I must stress that it remains the basic instrument enabling us to recruit Gurkhas. Without it, Nepalese citizens would be classed as aliens for recruiting purposes and would in practice be unable to serve in the British Army. Leaving aside difficulties relating to nationality, if it were not for the TPA, the English language skills of most Gurkha recruits would bar their entry to non-Gurkha units. The Brigade of Gurkhas has a command system that caters for the fact that Nepali is widely spoken and that English is not the first language of its soldiers. It is partly for that reason that Gurkhas serve in formed units.

There are therefore three principles that underpin service in the Brigade of Gurkhas: Gurkhas are recruited in Nepal; they serve in formed Gurkha units; and they are discharged as Nepalese citizens in Nepal. Gurkhas return home with their pension entitlement, which is a vital source of revenue to one of the poorest countries in the world. I have to tell the right hon. Lady that, given the history of the brigade and the unique nature of Gurkha service, it would be irrational if those differences were not taken into account when considering Gurkhas' conditions of employment. Most right hon. and hon. Members are already aware that while Gurkha basic pay continues to be set in accordance with the Indian army pay code, the TPA

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allows for a cost of living allowance to be paid for service outside Nepal. For many years, the Ministry of Defence has used that as a tool to enhance remuneration, and since 1997 "Universal Addition" has been paid, broadly aligning Gurkha income to the take-home pay of British personnel.

I shall briefly mention Gurkha pensions, as I received a comprehensive briefing and have enough time to cover the issue. Gurkha pensions, like basic pay, remain linked to the Indian army but have been significantly enhanced. A review in 1981 led to Gurkha pensions being linked to the top band provided for in the Indian army pension regulations. It was also decided that the annual uprating of pensions should be linked to cost of living increases in Nepal, rather than India. An examination of Gurkha pensions in 1999 led to the introduction of welfare-related cash uplifts to take account of Indian Government benefits in kind, such as access to Indian military hospitals, available to Indian army Gurkha pensioners. That increased pension payments for all 26,000 British Gurkha pensioners by at least 100 per cent. Pensions are now set at double the top rate of the Indian army and compare favourably with professional salaries in Nepal. Indeed, our embassy in Kathmandu advises us that a rifleman with 15 years of service now receives a pension higher than the salary of a royal Nepalese army captain.

I should make it clear that we do not link Gurkha pensions to the Indian army solely because of the TPA. There are very good contemporary reasons for maintaining our current policy, not least the fact that we are able to pay immediate pensions to Gurkhas after only 15 years of service. That suits their needs because, unlike the UK, Nepal does not have a sophisticated system of state benefits and support. Gurkha pensions also have to be viewed in the context of Gurkha service in formed units, which have wholly different recruitment and retention patterns from British units. Each year, over 25,000 potential recruits compete for 230 or so places. There is virtually no natural wastage. The result is that 99 per cent. of Gurkhas serve for at least 15 years and are then discharged with an immediate pension. Those arrangements are necessary so that the brigade can maintain its operational edge with a reasonable age and manning balance.

The average length of service for a British soldier, on the other hand, is much lower, and approximately only 8 per cent. of British soldiers serve the full 22 years needed to receive an immediate pension. The armed forces pension scheme is specifically designed so that preserved pensions can be paid to those who have less than 22 years service. If we were to apply those arrangements to Gurkhas, it would result in large numbers of Gurkhas being discharged in Nepal with no financial support until the age of 60. We therefore need separate terms and conditions for them. Most reasonable observers now agree that the arguments for Gurkhas to receive an immediate pension on discharge remain compelling.

Moving away from pay and pension arrangements, it would be right to acknowledge that there is one aspect of Gurkha terms and conditions of service that is very much a cause for concern, and it has been highlighted by the right hon. Lady tonight. I refer to married

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accompanied service which, in accordance with the TPA, is capped at 25 per cent. of brigade personnel. In practice, this means that family married quarters are provided for all Gurkhas holding the rank of colour sergeant or above. Below that rank, Gurkhas are entitled to only one accompanied tour of around three years. For many years, the MOD has taken the view that it is necessary to abide by this limit in order to stay within the terms of the TPA and ensure that linkages to Nepal are maintained. The importance of these links cannot be overstated, particularly now that the home base of Gurkhas has moved from the far east to the United Kingdom.

Gurkhas are discharged in Nepal because we have a duty to ensure that they return to their home country. We also have an obligation to ensure that they do not feel that they are returning to a foreign country. It is partly for this reason that Gurkhas are entitled to special periods of five months long leave in Nepal every three years, although I take account of the right hon. Lady's assertion that these tours can sometimes be reduced. This is quite unlike any provision available to British personnel.

The brigade also goes to great lengths to ensure that Gurkha personnel are able to observe key Hindu religious festivals and have access to Hindu temples and priests throughout their service. It is provisions such as these that help the brigade to maintain a distinct Nepalese flavour, ethos and identity. At the same time, and in recognition of the problems that Gurkha accompanied service policy can sometimes cause, Gurkha soldiers who are not on accompanied tours are now able to bring their families to visit them in the UK, albeit at their own expense. All Gurkha units now allow for visits of this kind, and surplus family accommodation is made available wherever possible.

In addressing these matters in the context of the recent judicial review, we will have to take account of the views of the Nepalese Government, who will of course be consulted about the outcome. There may also be implications for the garrison estate in Brunei, given that nearly a quarter of the brigade is stationed there. The MOD also has to bear in mind the potential impact that any changes would have on the effectiveness and utility of the brigade. For example, Gurkhas marry at a younger age than British personnel. They also serve in formed units. Any significant change would, therefore, undoubtedly result in Gurkha units requiring more family accommodation.

So, we find ourselves in a difficult situation. Personally, I have a great deal of sympathy with the arguments that the right hon. Lady has put forward. I have tried to stress in my reply to her just how complex the situation is, and that we do not have free and unfettered action available to us because of the terms and conditions of the agreement under which we employ Gurkhas in the British Army. I shall make one or two additional points in which she might be interested. I know that, like many of us, she will be concerned about the situation regarding family accommodation in Maidstone.

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