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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and he is making a very powerful case. Does not that illustrate that the Government are prepared to use any spurious statistical argument to avoid what I believe the British people consider to be our debt of honour to the Gurkhas? Should we not fulfil that debt of honour, and is not that what this debate is about?

Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend makes the point that all reasonable people make when they consider the issue, including Mr. Justice Blake, who made the point in precisely those terms.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I rejoice that in my constituency I have more than 400 Gurkha families. They enrich the borough educationally and in public life, and they also work, earn money and pay taxes. Gurkhas would be of enormous benefit to the United Kingdom, as they are to my constituency. The thing that really upsets me about the Government Front Benchers present is that there is a degree of inevitability about the matter, because as sure as night turns to day, the Gurkhas will win ultimately. I say to them: “Why don’t you embrace the proposal now? You wouldn’t understand a just policy or a popular policy if it were painted on your eyelids.”

Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman puts his point with a passion and directness that I can only admire. On 27 April, the “Channel 4 News” FactCheck rated the reliability of the figures of the Minister for Borders and Immigration as four. That was on a scale of one to five, in which the number five means that the claim

In other words, the Minister’s claim is a wild guess—just about as much of a wild guess as previous forecasts on immigration from his Department, which have proved to be wildly wrong. In fact, the Home Office estimate was based on a five-year-old figure for the number of Gurkha pensioners in Nepal of 36,000. We know from parliamentary answers from the Ministry of Defence
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that there are currently just 26,500 Gurkha pensioners, so even under the Home Office’s own preferred methodology, the total, including dependants, would be 75,000 not 100,000, but that makes the assumption that every single one of those discharged servicemen would want to move.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is still showing his ignorance of the entire subject. The 26,000 are service pensioners who are in receipt of a Gurkha pension. In addition, there are another 10,000 welfare pensioners, who served mainly during the second world war, who did not qualify for the Gurkha pension, so the figure is 36,000.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the Minister for pointing that out, but I have to say that the original figure given by the Ministry of Defence was 36,000, and it was on a comparable basis with the figure of 26,500 that it gave recently in a parliamentary answer. I would strongly recommend that the Minister gets the Ministry of Defence to answer parliamentary questions correctly, because clearly it has not been doing so.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab) rose—

Chris Huhne: Before I give way to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, from whom I very much want to hear on the issue, let me say that the key point is the attempt to take a narrow number of Gurkha pensioners and gross it up into the largest conceivable number that the Home Office can think of. Frankly, that number is nonsense on stilts. It is based on nothing at all—no polling, no questionnaires, no surveys, and certainly no knowledge of the Gurkhas’ beautiful and mountainous country, of the advanced years of some of the pensioners, who find it hard to contemplate walking to the next village, let alone taking a plane to London, and of the social status and prosperity of discharged servicemen in their own community. It is a fantasy to suppose that more than a fraction will want to settle in the UK.

Keith Vaz: May I caution the hon. Gentleman not to accept figures put out by the Ministry of Defence on the subject, simply because those of us who supported the right of the Iraqi interpreters to come to this country were consistently told by the Ministry of Defence that huge numbers of people would want to come here? In fact, very few have applied. That settlement process has gone very well indeed.

Chris Huhne: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good and helpful point; I appreciate it, and indeed the work that he has done in the Home Affairs Committee.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): May I ask my hon. Friend to remind the House that there is a fundamental moral argument here? Under the Government’s points-based scheme, if people from abroad have money, they can come here, and in due course apply for citizenship, but not all of those who have served this country abroad can do so. It seems that under the Government’s policy, if a person lays down their cheque book for the country, they are in, but if a person is willing to lay down their life for the country, they are not.

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Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend makes a good point, as always.

Bob Spink: Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to intervene?

Chris Huhne: I shall make a bit of progress, if I may.

An indication of what the true situation would be if we accepted the motion, and if the Government followed its recommendations, is provided by the number of pre-1997 Gurkhas who made their application for settlement before the Government’s deadline of October 2006. We know from what Ministers have said that there are only 1,350 outstanding Gurkha applications on the desk of the Minister for Borders and Immigration. Those are people who applied in the knowledge that discretion could be applied. Is the Minister really saying that if the right to enter were to be automatic, in line with the post-1997 situation, there would be nearly 30 times more applicants? If so, I merely thank heaven that he is not a Treasury Minister in charge of the Budget forecasts.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because it is important that we try to ascertain the numbers. As a Hampshire Member, he will be well aware not only that Gurkhas are serving in military units in my constituency of Aldershot, but that we have a very large Nepalese community, running into the thousands. Members of that community are very much valued and appreciated, but the situation is producing pressures locally. Major Dewan, the chairman of the British Gurkha Welfare Society, which is based in Farnborough in my constituency, has made it clear that of the 291 Gurkhas who are waiting to come to this country immediately, 80 per cent. will come to Farnborough. That means 1,000 people. My local authority tells me that it cannot cope. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has any plans to help us. He said that he would set out some practical propositions to deal with what might happen in particular areas of the country, where the Gurkhas are hugely valued, but where the move might cause a problem for local services—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that interventions have to be brief, and there are many Members waiting to contribute to the debate.

Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about immigration policy in its entirety. If he had come to some of the immigration debates that we have had, he would be aware that we Liberal Democrats have been putting forward proposals that would ensure that local authorities are better able to identify their needs, and better able to have the resources to meet them. I entirely accept that his is a legitimate concern, but I am afraid that it applies much more widely than merely to the narrow issue of the Gurkhas. For example, in areas of east London such as Newham, the NHS register is far out of line with the census results, which are used as a basis for the distribution of public finance, so I am entirely sympathetic to that point.

There is a fundamental point that a number of my hon. Friends have already made, and have anticipated. We can play the numbers game, and if we do, the Government will lose the argument, because their figures, frankly, are fantasy. However, the numbers are not the point. The point is simple: Gurkhas have given an
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unconditional commitment to this country. They have put their lives on the line for us time and again. More than 45,000 Gurkhas have died in the conflicts of the two world wars, fighting for our freedoms and our way of life. They represent a tradition of service to Queen and country that is almost without equal.

The Brigade of Gurkhas alone is the proud recipient of no fewer than 26 Victoria Crosses—the highest medal, of course, for valour in combat that our nation can award. Many units in the British Army have an outstanding record of valour and bravery under fire, but I have not been able to establish that there is any other unit that can match that record.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): There is one issue that does not seem to get a mention at all: the impact on Nepal. We are talking about important people who are pensioners in Nepal. They bring a quality of life because of their spending power. Has the hon. Gentleman considered an impact assessment on Nepal at all, particularly if we move in the direction of Gurkhas being likely to want to settle in this country when they leave the Army? More likely than not, that will result in them not sending remittances back home. I feel that we are duty bound to take account of that. If we agree to the measures in the motion, we have to help that country’s Government.

Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We have to consider the implications for the developing world of our policies, not just in this area but in others, too. I am sure that that was something of which Ministers were aware when they made the settlement for those who gave service after 1997. The hon. Gentleman should also bear in mind that Nepal is not as dependent on the remittances from Gurkha soldiers as popular folklore in the UK sometimes suggests. The population of Nepal—and this was reported to Mr. Justice Blake in a submission—is about 25 million, and its gross domestic product is substantial. Workers’ remittances from Nepalese working abroad in India, the Gulf and elsewhere are very substantial indeed, so I am satisfied, to answer the hon. Gentleman directly, that if we rose to our obligations, there would be no corresponding bad effect on Nepal. His concerns can therefore be allayed.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Was it not made clear to Mr. Justice Blake that the Nepalese Government have no objection to the right being given to former Gurkha soldiers to settle in the UK?

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for that question, and I am particularly grateful for his support for the campaign because, in its early days, as the constituency MP involved, he had some doubts about the right way to proceed. He is absolutely correct that, as far as we have been able to ascertain, and as far as Mr. Justice Blake could do so, the Nepalese Government do not have concerns on this issue.

Several hon. Members rose

Chris Huhne: Let me conclude, as I have given way enough.

As Sir Ralph Turner MC, who fought with the Gurkhas in the first world war, wrote in the poem that has become the calling card of the men of the brigade:

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Are we really to repay that unconditional commitment with the penny-pinching approach of the accountant? Are we really the sort of people who know the price of everything, and the value of nothing—who reward loyalty with a rebuke? Are we to say that people who are prepared to fight and die for our country are not good enough to live in it? This debate is not just about the Gurkhas. It is the about the sort of people we are. The House must today find the generosity of spirit to repay, in the small way that we can, the enormous debt of gratitude that we owe to the Gurkhas. I urge hon. Members to support the motion.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I inform hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

2.13 pm

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

I thank the Liberal Democrats for giving the House the opportunity to discuss this important issue, not least because it gives me the opportunity to put on the record the facts and the arguments that we need to inform ourselves about this debate. Everyone in the House accepts that Gurkhas have served this country with bravery and professionalism in many conflicts. I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) for reminding us of that record. The Gurkhas have, indeed, just returned from a highly successful deployment in Afghanistan. I hope that there is no questioning of the Government’s good intent towards the Gurkhas and their families. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind about the fact that the Government have the highest regard for the contribution of the Brigade of Gurkhas, and the contribution that it has made to Her Majesty’s armed forces over a significant period of time. Indeed, the Government can back up those words with their actions.

Bob Spink: The whole House agrees with the hon. Gentleman about the contribution that the Gurkhas have made, and their heroic military service. However,
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the point that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made is important. We should look not at what the Gurkhas have done, but at what they can do in future for this country: the great contribution that they can make to our economy and society should not be underestimated.

Andrew Mackinlay: They are going to win anyway, so just get on with it.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of Parliament, and he knows how to conduct himself in debate.

Mr. Woolas: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for protecting me from my hon. Friend from the mouth of the Thames.

Not only can the Government say that they pay tribute to the Gurkhas, but we can prove by our record that we are doing so. Let me explain the background to this case. It has been said that the guidelines that we published on Friday have undermined support for the Gurkhas, but I do not accept that that is so. Gurkhas are recruited in Nepal, and remain Nepalese citizens throughout their service with the brigade, in line with the wishes of the Nepalese Government. Before 1997, the Brigade of Gurkhas was based in Hong Kong, and following the handover of Hong Kong to China, the regimental base was moved to the UK, which put the brigade on the same footing as Commonwealth soldiers.

The service given by members of the brigade is chiefly recognised through the arrangements made to support them following their discharge. Gurkhas who served on or after 1 July 1997—the date of the handover of Hong Kong—are eligible to transfer to the armed forces pension scheme. Gurkhas who were discharged before that date, and who served for at least 15 years, receive a pension under the Gurkha pension scheme. In 2000, the value of those pensions was doubled. On top of that, the amount of the pension is regularly reviewed and increased in accordance with annual inflation in Nepal—for information, in 2009 it was 14.1 per cent. plus an additional 20 per cent. for those over 80. The pension received by ranks up to corporal is comparable to the salary of an engineer in Nepal, and it may be of interest to Members to know that the pension received by those of the rank of sergeant and above is equivalent to or greater than that of a Member of Parliament.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the Government’s position up to now on a number of issues. I do not think that the House would dispute the fact that the Government’s record is better than that of the Conservatives when they were in office. However, the question is whether it is good enough, and the answer out there—both around the world and through the eyes of those who are watching our debate—is not yet.

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