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7 Jun 2006 : Column 82WH—continued

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I, too, offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) who has set out his case in his usual passionate, humorous, colourful and casual manner. He is a great asset to the Liberal
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Democrat Benches and I am sure that all hon. Members agree that he has made a great contribution to today’s debate. I am sure that the Gurkhas are delighted to have him on their side.

Fairness and justice; recognition; dignified; equality; destitution; short-changed; begging and discrimination. These are words that have been used in the Chamber this morning and I think that they sum up the debate.

As we have heard, the Gurkhas have served the Crown since 1815. In 1947, the tripartite agreement set out their terms and conditions of service. While their numbers have decreased over the years, the Gurkhas still play an important role, having been deployed in Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Afghanistan and many other conflicts throughout the world. In nine years, the Gurkhas will have served this country for two centuries—200 years of dedication, protecting a country that is neither their birthplace nor their nation.

One of the key principles of the tripartite agreement was that soldiers in both armies should serve under broadly the same terms and conditions of service. That is an important principle and was an enlightened one at the time. I repeat that soldiers in both armies should serve under broadly the same terms and conditions of service; that is a principle to which I shall return, because it is important.

I like to give credit where credit it is due, and the Government deserve some credit on this issue. Since they came to power, there have been three important developments, which are rooted in the principles of the tripartite agreement. First, in 2000, the increase in death gratuity to rates comparable with those for British soldiers was a welcome step. Secondly, the introduction in 1997 of married accompanied service for Gurkhas serving in the UK is worthy of praise. Two months ago, all married Gurkhas with three years’ service became entitled to married accompanied service. They are also entitled to accommodation for their families, which is charged at the same level as for British servicemen.

Finally, until recently, Gurkhas could not get indefinite leave to remain in the UK when they were discharged from service. In 2004, the then Liberal Democrat defence spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), said:

That plea was backed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), the leader of my party. Shortly after, our call to allow Gurkhas to have British citizenship was finally granted by the Government, albeit upon completion of four years’ service and only on application. However, those new rules apply only to those discharged on or after 1 July 1997—the date on which the Brigade of Gurkhas moved its headquarters from Hong Kong back to the UK following the handover to China. It was a step in the right direction, but the situation today is unacceptable and is still discriminatory.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): I know that the hon. Gentleman is new to his post and that he is probably on as bewildering a parliamentary journey as I am, so I do
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not want to put him too much on the spot, but can he confirm that it is Liberal Democrat policy to agree to the demand of the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) for retrospective pensions for Gurkhas?

Willie Rennie: My understanding is that we are pressing for full citizenship for Gurkhas, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester.

Many Gurkha veterans and their families are still affected by discrimination in relation to citizenship. About 400 Gurkhas are resident in the UK, of whom 100 are not eligible under the new rules, and there are thousands—32,000, we have heard today—back in Nepal. I urge the Minister to consider changes in this area.

I also urge the Minister to re-examine the pensions issue. We continue to hear worrying reports from Nepal about Gurkhas living in poverty because they fail to receive sufficient pension payments. I would welcome a report from the Minister detailing his knowledge of the problem, with estimates of its scale. I would also welcome an estimate of the cost of introducing pensions equality between British soldiers and Gurkhas. Unless we have an idea of the real cost, it is difficult to get an exact handle on the situation.

A further review of Gurkha terms and conditions of service was announced in January 2005, but it has not yet reported back. A considerable period has elapsed—sufficient to allow an effective and professional review. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about progress to date. I urge him to use the opportunity to institute changes to the rules of citizenship and to introduce the necessary changes to the pension arrangements.

To sum up, this has been a short but good debate. It has allowed Members to reflect on the contribution that the Gurkhas have made to the security of our country and our interests abroad, to praise the Government for the improvements to the Gurkhas’ situation that have rightly been made—even if they are long overdue—and to encourage the Minister to take another step along the Gurkhas’ road to equality in citizenship and in pensions. It is the least that they deserve for 200 years of service to our country.

10 am

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on securing this debate and on the way in which he presented his case. Noting the ever-decreasing length of hon. Members’ service with the Brigade of Gurkhas, with the hon. Gentleman having undertaken four days and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) two, I have to say that having been in my post for only a short period, I have yet to do any.

I should like to pick up on a point that the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) made about the dignified way in which the Gurkhas have presented their case. He questioned whether it has been to their detriment compared with those who present their case loudly. Speaking for myself and for other hon. Members, I respect those who make a well argued and logical case, and I tend to pay more attention to people who make their case in that way than to those who shout from the rooftops, and I hope
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that the Gurkhas, who have campaigned in the former way, have not disadvantaged themselves. As far as my party and I are concerned, they have not, and I urge all who campaign for change in policy to do so in that way, so that we can engage in a logical and sensible debate, rather than yell at each other.

I, too, pay tribute to the service that the Gurkhas have provided to the Crown since 1815 and in the British Army since 1947. The British public understand and respect that service. That is why the Gurkhas are held in high esteem, and one of the reasons why the subject has been raised in the House on numerous occasions.

When thinking about the history of this issue, it is worth thinking also about the way in which we approach it and from which end of the telescope we look at it. If we consider it in the context of today’s circumstances and conditions, we can understand why people use such terms as “discrimination” and “injustice”. However, if one considers how the current arrangements were arrived at, when the British Army took in some Gurkha regiments, the Indian army took in others and the tripartite agreement was signed in 1947 in a different world and in different conditions, one can see why the arrangements were made in the way that they were.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), drew attention to the tripartite agreement and the fact that it set down that Gurkhas serving in the British Army should serve under broadly comparable terms and conditions to those under which Gurkhas serve in the Indian army. It is one of the principles that was established at the beginning. The tripartite agreement has not been revised since 1947, although it is true that when British Governments have made changes, they have made them in accordance with its original principles.

It is worth welcoming the several changes that the present Government have made since they came to power in 1997, but it might be sensible also to recognise that piecemeal change might not be the way forward. That is why in January 2005 we welcomed the then Secretary of State’s announcement of a comprehensive review of Gurkhas’ terms and conditions of service. That is probably a better approach than making changes incrementally and without thinking through the whole package. We welcome a comprehensive review. It is disappointing that it has taken a good deal of time, but I know that the Minister will say more about it today. I understand that he hopes to complete the review and make an announcement later this year.

Frustrating though the delay might be, having considered other issues during my time in my present post, I have concluded that it is greatly to be preferred to take the time to get the review right and investigate all complexities at this stage, so that when the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box later this year to announce the results of the terms and conditions review, it is comprehensive, well thought through and results in a change that endures. It should not be rushed, so that we end up returning to the matter every year to put right issues that were not thought through properly. One has to spend only a brief period considering the issues and the complexities that might arise to understand that. I welcome the review, and I am glad that the Minister is taking the time to undertake it properly.

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Bob Russell: Provided that the hon. Gentleman and I consider that the proposed recommendations are right, does he agree that they should be applied retrospectively and not only from the date when the decisions are put before the House?

Mr. Harper: Tempting though that invitation is, the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment without having considered the review. I intend to read what the Minister says, and I do not know what he is going to say.

Mr. Watson: Neither does the Minister yet.

Mr. Harper: The Minister says that he does not know either.

When the Minister comes to the House later this year with the results of the review, we will consider the review in detail, and if we consider it wise to give it our full support, we will. With the work not having been done yet and without having seen the review, however, I do not want to commit us in advance to whatever it may propose.

As part of the review, it would be wise to ensure that we discuss with the Government of Nepal the review’s implications and any impact that it may have on the situation in Nepal. It would be useful if the Minister could confirm whether that will happen. I am conscious that we must consider the impact of our changes on those areas of Nepal from which Gurkhas have traditionally been recruited. In making changes in Britain, we must ensure that there are no unfortunate effects in Nepal. Despite what hon. Members have said about the terms and conditions of service under which Gurkhas serve, and notwithstanding the questions that the hon. Member for Colchester has raised, if we consider the number of Nepalese who apply to join the Brigade of Gurkhas, which is about 100 for each available place, it seems that in their assessment, serving the Crown and serving in the British Army is attractive and rewarding. We should take the review forward in consultation with the Government of Nepal.

Without wishing to broaden the review, I ask that when the Minister is undertaking it, he considers this final point. There are more than 7,000 other foreign nationals serving in the British Army, and it may be worth him considering whether any changes need to be made in relation to them. The last thing that we want to do is change the terms and conditions of service for the Brigade of Gurkhas, and then find that a significant number of other issues arise.

Bob Russell: The figure that the hon. Gentleman gave for the number of foreign nationals serving in the British Army is, I think, somewhat greater than the figure in reality. However, the big difference is that the Gurkhas serve in their own units and regiments, whereas other foreign nationals who join Her Majesty’s armed forces serve in British Army regiments, battalions and other units. In terms of pay and conditions and, as far as I am concerned, all other respects, they are immediately treated as though they were British. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the significance is that the Gurkhas serve not in British Army units but in their own regiments?

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Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I have the latest figures, and there are just over 7,000 foreign nationals serving in the armed forces, most of them in the British Army. I am simply saying that if the comprehensive review considers indefinite leave to remain and the appropriate qualification for British citizenship, and the Minister makes decisions on Gurkhas in those areas, another set of questions will be raised about what expectations those serving in the British Army should have in relation to indefinite leave to remain and becoming a British citizen. It would be sensible to think about that while resolving one set of issues, so that we do not create another set of issues and end up coming back to this place to debate them. I am conscious that if we do not think about the overall position, we could make changes that, although welcome in themselves, create a whole set of other perceived unfairnesses. I urge the Minister to think about that.

In drawing my remarks to a close, I reiterate my congratulations to the hon. Member for Colchester and to those who participated in the debate. I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

10.10 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): I commend the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) for securing the debate. He had kind words for me on my first run-out in the Chamber a few weeks ago, but I suspect that he will not be as happy with my response this morning. However, I hope that I can give him some reassurances on the points that he raised. He will know that although I am new to this job, I am not new to Gurkha policy; he and I have often sat in on Adjournment debates on the issue just for the fun of it, not least those in which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made contributions in 2003 and 2004.

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s service of four days in the Gurkha battalion. I can just about beat my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar), in that I managed to spectate—but not serve—for two hours in Catterick last week, when I saw the Gurkhas training. After those two hours, I was not unapprised of their worldwide, fearsome reputation. I hope to spend more time with them in future.

On a serious point, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) talked about the quiet, restrained and dignified way in which many of the Gurkha ex-servicemen’s groups make their point. The United British Gurkhas Ex-servicemen’s Association is one of many Gurkha ex-servicemen’s groups that put their point to Government day in, day out, and the hon. Member for Colchester has been a powerful advocate for them this morning.

What amazes me about Gurkhas is the journey that they take as individuals. The brigade starts with 15,000 potential recruits in the hills of Nepal. Rigorous pre-selection training narrows it down to 200 recruits, who make a journey from Kathmandu to Manchester and then on to Catterick, where they undergo 39 weeks of training. I have been lucky enough to witness that training. We have all been impressed by their quality and the commitment with which they take up service in the Army.

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One thing that I would like to talk about this morning is the journey that the Government have taken since the tripartite agreement in 1947 to try to target and change policy to fit the changed circumstances of Gurkhas, in the military context. I have a number of detailed points to make in answer to issues raised by the hon. Member for Colchester. He will have read the report, “The Gurkhas: The Forgotten Veterans”, as have I, and I am considering it at the moment. I will respond formally when I have the opportunity to do so thoroughly. However, I want to honour the commitment made by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), to meet the authors of that report. I am trying to ensure that I see them as soon as possible. Also, I am meeting the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald to talk about her concerns about the terms and conditions that apply to our Gurkhas; the hon. Gentleman will know that she has made a large and lasting contribution on the subject.

Let me give some reassurances about the current terms and conditions of Gurkhas, and then I shall try to explain the veterans’ situation. We believe that successive British Governments have treated Gurkhas fairly, in the context of the time in which they served, and we have already introduced significant improvements to their terms and conditions, as has been acknowledged by Members of all parties today. The review of their terms and conditions of service that is in hand will definitely lead to an even better deal for modern Gurkhas. The Government deeply appreciate the contribution that Gurkhas have made over more than two centuries to our Army and, in more recent years, to the life of this country as their presence here has increased. As part of the British Indian Army, they served in numerous campaigns, culminating in the two world wars, in which thousands of Gurkhas participated.

The British Brigade of Gurkhas is an important element of our defence capability and now numbers some 3,300 men. It includes two battalions of infantry, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, and specialists in signals, military engineering and logistics. They are stationed in 14 locations across England, Wales and Scotland. A battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles is stationed in Brunei under our defence agreement with the Government of that country, and over the past 12 months, Gurkhas have been deployed in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq, where they served—as ever—with great distinction.

We have not forgotten Gurkha veterans or the debt that we owe them. We pay more than 26,000 Gurkha service pensions to retired soldiers and their dependants, and last year that amounted to some £33 million. Even a retired Gurkha private soldier’s pension is comparable to workers’ salaries in Nepal and is almost 10 times the national per capita income. On that point, I shall try to answer some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) later.

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