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That is an entirely fair and helpful point. At least the hon. Gentlemans party has been consistent on the GurkhasI have recognised thatin contrast with the Conservative party, which I shall come on to with great relish. I am setting out the position to tackle
the accusation that, somehow or other, the Government have not treated the Gurkhas fairly or properly, although I accept that he has not made that accusation, and I am grateful to him. [ Interruption. ] May I finish setting out the background, then we can deal with the second point, which is the subject of the debate?
In addition, for those Gurkhas who did not serve long enough to qualify for a pension, the Ministry of Defence gives just over £1 million annually to the Gurkha Welfare Trusthence the discrepancy between the two figures raised by parliamentary questions, which the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) addressed. The charity provides financial, medical and community aid to alleviate hardship among former Gurkhas. I do not accept the accusation that Gurkhas discharged before 1997 have been abandoned by the Government, and it is offensive to senior members of the armed forces who are charged with the welfare of ex-soldiers of all regiments. It is against that background that decisions on settlement rights for ex-Gurkhas must be seen. It was never the case that Gurkhas joining up did so in the belief or expectation that they would get settlement rights. There was no expectation that they would be permitted to settle in the United Kingdom on discharge, and that was not part of the terms and conditions under which they enlisted.
Notwithstanding that, the Labour Government chose in 2004 to introduce settlement rights for Gurkhas, in particular to bring their treatment into line with that of Commonwealth soldiers. Before that date, a discharged Gurkha had no route to apply to settle in the United Kingdom on the basis of service. In 2004, the then Prime Minister announced that those discharged after 1997, when the regimental base moved to the UK, would enjoy the same settlement rights as othersthat is, after four years of service and if they apply for settlement within two years of their discharge.
However, the then Prime Minister went further than that. He recognised that there would be former Gurkhas who were discharged before 1997 when the base was still in Hong Kong who would have made outstanding or exceptional contributions and for whom settlement in the United Kingdom would be desirable. He therefore announced that the cases of Gurkhas discharged before 1997 would be considered on a discretionary basis. Guidance was issued to immigration case workers on how to consider applications from Gurkhas applying to settle on this basis. Since these rules were introduced, we have welcomed to our country about 6,000 Gurkhas plus their families.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Can the Minister confirm without any shadow of doubt that the decision made in 2004 to allow Gurkhas who retired from 1997 onwards was retrospective, and that his ministerial colleague is therefore wrong to say that there cannot be retrospective legislation?
Mr. Woolas: I understand that point. The decision was retrospective to 1 July 1997. Those who have been granted settlement include significant numbers3,500 from the previous period, before the 1997 cut-off, and 2,500 post-1997. The hon. Gentlemans point is valid in that regard.
We come to the crux of the matter. The judicial review was launched against the background of that policy. It challenged both the 1997 so-called cut-off date and the guidance under which decisions were made on pre-1997 cases. The question has been asked, not least in the media today, where the guidelines come from. The answer is that they come from the instruction of the High Court to clarify the guidance pre-1997.
On the 1997 cut-off, the judge, Justice Blake, said:
The identification of July 1997 . . . was not an arbitrary or irrational consideration.
it cannot have been irrational or unjustifiable to distinguish July 1997 as the date after which rights as opposed to discretion to settle in the United Kingdom accrued.
So we have a judgment from the judge that the 1997 cut-off date is fair and lawful [Interruption. ] His exact words were not . . . irrational. The Government changed the situation in 2004, which has allowed 6,000 Gurkhas plus their familiessome 3,500 from before 1997to settle in this country.
No Government from 1948 to 2004 allowed the settlement of Gurkhas in the UK. From 1948, when the brigade was established on its modern-day footing, until 1997, the number of Gurkhas who were given naturalisation in the United Kingdom was fivefive ex-Gurkhas. It is against that background that the motion from the official Opposition claims that the current Government have betrayed the Gurkhas and implies that we should get rid of the 1997 cut-offsomething that no Government did from the second world war until Tony Blair did it in 2004.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): To go on about the judgment of the Court is to miss the point completely. The judicial review is itself determined by parameters that need to be reviewed. This is a special case. I speak as one who has met the Gurkhas in Staffordshire and who has campaigned on their behalf over a number of years. If the Minister intends to run the argument that this is about judicial review and the judges interpretation, he is missing the wood for the trees.
Mr. Woolas: I understand the hon. Gentlemans point. There are some in the House who have campaigned consistently to abolish the 1997 cut-off date. I think the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) have made those points, and there are others, but I raise the issue because the Government stand accused of betrayal. That is an unfair and disingenuous accusation to make, particularly against the background, which I have just outlined to the House, of the Governments proud record on the treatment of the Gurkhas.
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): The Minister appears to be a little confused. He seems to say that our amendment differs in respect of the situation before 1997 from the motion tabled by the Liberal Democrats. In fact, ours is a very small amendment to the original motion. On that issue we are at one with the Liberal Democrats. I do not understand what he can see in the amendment that justifies what he has just told the House.
Mr. Woolas: What I see in the motion from the Liberal Democrats is consistency and naiveté. What I see in the amendment from the hon. Gentleman is a bandwagon and inconsistency. If his party adhered to the policy of abolishing the 1997 cut-off, they had 18 years in which to do it and they did not. It ill behoves him to make the accusation that we have somehow betrayed the Gurkhas.
Mr. Woolas: I shall move on to the crux of what the hon. Member for Eastleigh said. He spoke about the judicial review. Let me clarify the figures. It has been claimed and reported that the Gurkhas and their supporters believe that the new guidelines will give settlement to only about 100 Gurkhas. That figure is an estimate, from the campaign, of the total number from the outstanding 1,500 appeals1,350 of which are from Nepal, and the remainder in countryof how many will be granted under the guidelines. It is not the estimate out of the total number of 36,000 Gurkhas plus their families to whom reference has been made, so it is disingenuous to suggest, as others have, that only 100 would qualify under the new guidelines.
Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): The Governments record on the Gurkhas is better than that of any previous Government. My hon. Friend is right about that. He is a just and fair-minded Minister. However, I would feel happier if he reassured the House that none of the Gurkhas who are awaiting appeals will be deported, and said that he accepts the principle behind the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), which is that although the Government have done a lot, they can improve the situation further.
Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, in particular for his kind remarks, which have been much more polite than some in recent days. Let me answer him directly. Some of the outstanding applications are from ex-Gurkhas who are already in the United Kingdom and have been resident here for some time, whether lawfully or unlawfully. My officials will consider these applications on a case-by-case basis, as we are bound to do, to assess whether they fall to be granted settlement under the revised guidelines.
Subsequent to that, the Border Agency is required under the immigration rules to consider all the relevant factors of an individuals circumstances to see whether the person should be allowed to stay in the United Kingdom. I can say to the House that I cannot foresee circumstances in which these honourable men who have served the UK so well would ever be removed from our country.
Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con):
I remind the House that I have an interest as a former officer in the Brigade of Gurkhas. My concern is the unintended consequences of this decision, which, if I am called to speak, I would like to explore. Will the Minister assure the House that none of the decisions today will jeopardise the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas? If in the future those of us on both sides of the House who are championing the future of the Brigade of
Gurkhas face a decision locally about supporting the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas or our local regiments, will we be equally vociferous in supporting the brigade?
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman, who speaks with great knowledge, is concerned that the decisions do not have the unintended consequence of damaging the brigade. The point about the potential resource implication of this is important, and the Prime Minister referred to it earlier at Prime Ministers Question Time. Let me be clear because the numbers have been challenged, I think unfairly. I looked at the numbers after I had met representatives of the campaign. I cannot base the advice of the Government on the Channel 4 News fact indicator; I have to base it on the best information available to us, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has explained the derivation of the figures. But it is an important point. The Government have never said that 100,000 people would apply and would get settlement. We have to look, as we do under all immigration law, at the potential, and our best estimate is that it is 100,000. It may be more, it may be less.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I am pleased that my hon. Friend has outlined the Governments very good record so far in dealing with this issue, and he is right to say that the heart of the dispute is about numbershis Departments estimates about the potential numbers and the numbers that the campaign has said would qualify under the new guidelines. There has been a lot of progress today. The Prime Minister accepted that Ministers would review the 1,300 cases and that that would be concluded by 11 June. I understand that it is now further being said that on the basis of the work carried out on those 1,300 cases, there will be a consideration of the implications of that for the new guidelines. Both those statements are welcome. I do not expect an immediate answer from my hon. Friend, but if he would go a little further and say that that process of looking at the 1,300 cases and their implications will be concluded by the time the House rises for the summer recess, I would feel far more inclined to support the Government in the Division Lobby this afternoon.
Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that comment; he brings us to the crux of the debate. For the benefit of those who wish to contribute to the debate, I will depart from my written speech. We have two worries about abolishing the pre-97 cut-off date. First, we are concerned that it would set precedents for other groups, and, as one would expect, I have taken legal advice on that. We fear that the precedent would be set for people from Commonwealth countries who had served in the armed forces, and that that retrospective decision from pre-97 would apply to other groups. We have to be clear that if a blanket decision was made on Gurkhas for pre-97 there would be no unintended consequence for other groups who may have the right to challenge on the basis of common law and public law. With that there is the consequential impact on budgets, and the Prime Minister referred to the £1.4 billion. I do not recall using the £1.5 billion figure, but if I did I withdraw that. Our estimate is £1.4 billion, and I remind the House that that would come from the defence budget.
Secondly, if right hon. and hon. Members are honest with themselvesI hope that we all arethe truth is that none of them knows how many would apply. But as the former Chief of the Defence Staff said in The Independent on Sunday, the Government have to live in the real world, not in the world of emotion. Therefore the staged approach that we have taken, as described by the Prime Ministerthis is the crux of my right hon. Friends proposal
Mr. Woolas: Just let me finish, then I will take an intervention. I am confident that my right hon. Friend will agree with me.
There are 1,500 cases outstanding, and we will get through those by 11 June. We have already started on that. I am more than confident that that will be significantly more than the 100 that has been estimated. We will then review the guidelines as time goes on. If our figures are wrong, we of course will change the guidelines, as we have always intended to do and as we stated in the written ministerial statement on Friday. We have made that point. My right hon. Friend is trying to push us on what we have announced as a review within 12 monthswe were always clear on thatand it will become pretty clear how the guidelines are being interpreted by the time scale that he gives. I cannot give him a cast-iron guarantee, because we do not know how many applications outside of the 1,500 will come in, but that is certainly my intention.
Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that and we have made still further progress. I accept that he cannot give a cast-iron guarantee, but if he were to tell me and those who support the amendment that stands in my name and those of others that he would use his best endeavours to conclude that process by the start of the summer recess, I would feel much more reassured.
Mr. Woolas: I can do that, with the caveat that I do not know how many applications will be made in that period.
Mr. Woolas: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman and then I will make the final points in my argument so that we can move on.
Chris Huhne: I am particularly interested in being a spectator at what appears to be an internal group meeting of the parliamentary Labour party between those on the Front and Back Benches about what these concessions may be. I welcome the Ministers commitment that there will not be deportations in the case of the appeals. But we come back to the key point, which I ask Labour Back Benchers to consider carefully when they decide how to vote, of how the Government are approaching the issue. Is it more credible to believe that 1,350 people who have actually applied from before 1997 is the rough order of magnitude of the numbers that we are talking aboutthere may be some moreor the Government estimate, which on the Ministers own admission just now is the maximum potential figure? Given that the maximum potential figure is an absurd basis for policy
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I must bring the hon. Gentleman to order. I understand the importance of this debate, but many Back Benchers also wish to make a contribution.
Mr. Woolas: Once again, the hon. Gentleman caricatures what I said. I have always been clear that the 100 per cent. is a maximum and an estimate. I made that perfectly clear in interviews in the media on Friday. Let me again clarify the point about the 1,500. Those are the outstanding appeals against applications that we have.
Hon. Members are also concerned about the 20-year limit and the accusation that it is somehow or other discriminatory against the lower ranks.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I welcome the Governments commitment in the amendment to review the impact of new guidance within 12 months, but will my hon. Friend give me a categorical assurance that that will include looking at that 20-year limit, as many have not been able to serve more than 15 years?
Mr. Woolas: Yes. Let me explain where the 20 years comes from. I think that when people hear the argument, if they are fair-minded they will accept it. I am sorry to go back to the judge, but this is the derivation of the argument. He said that the old guidelines were unclearwe therefore had to make them cleareron the basis of quality and quantity of service. The criteria that we have proposed provide for a range of circumstances that cover both points. It is the case that the majority of people who have 20 years service are below commissioned officer rank. Although it is true that soldiers in the private ranks join for 15 years and people who intend to be officers join for 20 years, it is also true and not contradictory that many people serve more than 15 years, but a majority of those who serve 20 years are below the rank of commissioned officer. In any event, that is only one criterion.
The other criteria, which include, as we know, a generous expansion of the guidance on people who have disabilities and, importantly, people who have drawn a pension in the past because of a disability or an injury, reflect the quantity and quality of service. I put those criteria before the House in the belief and expectation that more Gurkhas and their families will be granted settlement rights in our country, and with the review that my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) asked for and has just pressed me on. [ Interruption. ] Indeed, it was part of the written ministerial statement, but I recognise the feeling of the House and we will review the situation.
However, we as a Government must bear in mind the potential implication of that precedent for other groups of people and for the resources of our country, not to mention the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made about the future of Nepal itself, which seems not to have featured much in the debate.
Mr. Drew: I should be interested to know what the Governments of Nepal and India have said about the whole debate, and, more particularly, whether the UK Government have conducted an assessment of the impact on Nepals GDP if the greatest numberI know it is only an estimateof people who could enter this country do so.
Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friends point is extremely important, and I, as a Labour party member, think that we should give a lot of strength to it. The Government, through aid and the Department for International Developments budget, give £56 million to Nepal. We giveif give is the right wordor pay £54 million in pensions for Gurkhas, so those are the sums that are important to Nepal.
I sense that the House has heard enough from me.
Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Woolas: I am being pressed to take interventions, but there are a number of speakers, the Liberal Democrats have another debate this afternoon and we have only until 4 oclock.
I shall finish on this point, which involves a quotation from the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) who, at the time of the 2004 settlementdeal, agreement, arrangementthat we made, was a Conservative Defence spokesman. He said:
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