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We warmly welcome the governments decision. This should receive overwhelming support from the British people who have enjoyed the Gurkhas valuable service over nearly 200 years.
I should like to ask, what changed between 2004 and now, other than an opportunity to jump on a bandwagon, misrepresent the good intentions of the Government, question our motive and not even wait for the facts to see how many people secure settlement from the new guidelines?
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Mr. Speaker imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. In view of the limited time available, I propose to reduce that further to six minutes.
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I shall seek to be briefer than the previous two speakers, in recognition of how many Back Benchers are willing to speak.
It is a rare but genuine pleasure to support the motion moved by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne). We tabled an amendment, which the Minister misunderstands; it would improve the motion in small but important ways that I shall come to later. This is a day for the whole House to speak up for the Gurkhas and for the overwhelming majority of the people of this country who want to support them. We will vote for the motion, because our analysis of the Governments position is very simple: the Government are wrong.
The Minister spent a lot of time talking about history. Let me give him a bit more history, because he does not seem to understand it. In 1997 the terms of the Gurkhas engagement changed radically; their headquarters were moved to this country and they started doing tours of duties in this country; and so some of their children started to be educated in this country. Therefore, to say that a Government whose term had ended before that change happened should somehow have changed the rules to recognise that is simply absurdbut that was the assertion that the Minister made in his speech.
The Minister also asked what has changed since thevery wisewords of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) in 2004. What has changed is the court decision. The Government were taken to court and lost the case, so for the Minister to say that nothing has changed since then is also absurd.
I assure hon. Members that a Conservative Government would scrap this Labour Governments plans for the Gurkhas, although I hope that the House passes the motion so that we can proceed more rapidly. I have rarely seen such an outpouring of public outrage as the one that has engulfed the Minister since he made his ill-fated decision last week.
David Cairns (Inverclyde) (Lab): We all honour the past service of the Gurkhas, and I have a great deal of sympathy with the cause that has been put forwardwith one important caveat about which I hope the hon. Gentleman can lay my fears to rest: the implications for future recruitment from Nepal. He will know that the current Maoist Government of Nepal were elected on a manifesto commitment to stop Gurkha recruitment to the UK Army. They performed a U-turn at a meeting with UK parliamentarians in Kathmandu, at which I was present, but it is a very shaky U-turn. If a large number of people leave Nepal, and there is the impact that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned, it could flip the Nepalese Government back into stopping the recruitment of Gurkhas to the British Army. Will the hon. Gentleman tell me clearly what discussions he has had with the Government of Nepal, or their representatives, about whether changes [ Interruption. ] Opposition Members are laughing; they do not think that this situation has any impact on the 12th poorest country in the world. What discussions
Damian Green: That is a faintly ridiculous point. Clearly, the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas is extremely important, but the way in which the hon. Gentleman phrased his point suggests that he is not interested in having the constructive debate that we need.
The current situation is part of a long-running set of mistakes by the Government on the issue. They have been wrong on it ever since the High Court made its ruling last year. We have heard a lot about Mr. Justice Blake, but his judgment came down to this central point, when he said that the Gurkhas service is worthy of
an unquestionable moral debt of honour
from the British people. The Opposition have been absolutely clear about that. The following day, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said:
Yesterday the courts ruled that Gurkhas who want to come and live in Britain should be able to. They risked their lives for us and now we must not turn our backs on them. I say to the government... Do not appeal this ruling. Lets give those brave Gurkha soldiers who defended us the right to come and live in our country.
Many Gurkhas outside this House today, and millions more of their supporters throughout the country, will be not only appalled by the Governments position but puzzled about how they arrived at it, so it is worth investigating why the Government find themselves in
this position. The underlying reason they have to behave in such an unfair and ungenerous way to the Gurkhas is that the Governments overall immigration policy has been out of control for many years. Why are they trying to stop Gurkhas coming here? It boils down to the fact that they have failed to stop so many much less deserving people from coming here and, what is worse, staying here.
A long list of failures on immigration policy has driven the Minister to his present uncomfortable position. The Government failed to deport the killer of Stephen Lawrence; they failed to remove the suspected terrorist Abu Qatada; only one third of released foreign prisoners have been deported; and only 14 employers of illegal immigrants have been prosecuted since 2008.
Then there is the wider point about immigration numbers. The Government used to say that there was no obvious upper limit on immigration, and in their headlong retreat from that disastrous policy, they are now in the ridiculous and immoral position of trying to keep out some of the best and most loyal servants of this country.
Keith Vaz: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
The net result of this succession of failures is that the Minister has to find new ways of looking tough; that is what he was appointed to do, and that is what he seeks to do. Todays victims of that are the Gurkhas. The Government are making the Gurkhas the scapegoat for their own incompetence on immigration policy. Let me set out for the Minister how he could immediately climb out of the hole that he finds himself in. I will tell the House what we would do if we were in power, and offer the Minister a way to bring in our proposals quickly so that the Gurkhas do not have to wait.
Keith Vaz: This is just a point of clarification; I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to clear it up now. He talked about the deportation of the killer of Stephen Lawrence; I am sure that he would like to reflect on that.
Damian Green: It was not Stephen Lawrences killerthe right hon. Gentleman is, as so often, right.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman understand that it sticks in the gullet slightly to find that a representative of the party that at each general election within my memory has run disreputable campaigns about the admission of foreigners and migration generallyI note that the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, which are also virulently anti-migrant, are leading this campaignis now championing what appears to be an open-door policy for this category of migrants and, who knows, some others too?
Damian Green: I have great admiration and liking for the hon. Gentleman, but that intervention was nonsensical and disgraceful in every individual part. I remind him that he is sitting on the Government Benches representing a party whose leader talked about British jobs for British people. If he wants to talk about unpleasant rhetoric, I suggest that he look in his own house first.
A Conservative Government would make a presumption that Gurkhas who left the service before 1997 would be allowed to settle in this country. That is the big divide in this debate. I think that everyone on the Conservative Benches is on one side of the debate, and most, although I hope not all, on the Government side of the Chamber are on the other side of it. Those of us who are on our side of the debate are also on the side of the Gurkhas. We are on their side because ours is the only fair solution to the problem that the Government face. How would we do it? We would fit their applications into the general framework of our proposed immigration policy. As the Minister knows, we would build on the points-based system with our proposal for a limit on the number of work permits issued every year, so that we have a properly controlled immigration system. We would create a new category within the points-based system for former service personnel who are not British citizens, and allow them the right to settle.
The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who is no longer in his place, objected to
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Damian Green: Can I finish my sentence first? [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Lady can contain herself, I was referring to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who said that his objection to the points-based system was that it was entirely economically driven and had no room for any other drivers. That is an interesting point, although I do not completely agree with it.
We would create a new tier for which people would qualify simply by having served the British armed forces. I think we all agree that we owe those people a debt, and the vast majority of those who would benefit from that category would be pre-1997 Gurkhas.
Damian Green: I think that the hon. Lady wishes to speak.
Lyn Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being so gracious. Under the new Conservative policy, will anybody who has served this country in the armed forces abroad have an automatic right of entry to this country?
Damian Green: As I said, as the hon. Lady would have heard had she been listening, there would be a presumption in favour [ Interruption. ] Let me deal with this now. One of our small differences with the Liberal Democrats is that, although we support the motion, there is a problem that it appears to allow that right to anyone, even if, for example, they have committed serious crimes. I am sure that the hon. Member for Eastleigh would not wish people like that to be given the right to come to this country. Our amendment would ensure that we retained controls over individuals whom we might not wish to come here. I cannot believe that that would be a controversial point even among Government Members.
One of the key questions that remains is about the numbers who are eligible to apply. The Minister tried to convince us that the figures from the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence were unquestionable. I am afraid that those of us who spend large parts of our lives dealing with Home Office figures, and those of my
colleagues who deal with MOD figures, will not share his confidence that absolutely everything that comes out of those Departments is necessarily of the highest calibre. At various stages, the MOD has estimated that the total numbers eligible will be 22,000; it has mentioned other figures, but I will stick with the lower one because it helps the Ministers case. The British Gurkha Welfare Society estimates that the total would be 30,000. On top of that, of course, there are the dependants, because we all agree that we need to be fair to them as well. In their statement last week, the Government estimated that there are about 1.5 dependants per Gurkha4,000 soldiers with 6,000 dependantswhereas the British Gurkha Welfare Society estimates that there are three dependants per Gurkha.
This is a significant area where any Government would need to do some proper research to find the truth. Even on those two estimatesthere are others; this morning, I heard the BBC reporting a figure of 40,000 potential qualifying ex-Gurkhasthe numbers eligible to come here could vary between 55,000 and 120,000; those are the absolute maximums. Before we settle on a final policy, the Government need to sort out that confusion and make a sensible assessment of how many people will actually apply to come here. Over the past couple of years, about 1,300 have made applications. If that is the realistic level of demand, then our proposals would solve the problem on day one; certainly, the number of visas on offer would be significantly higher than that. We can be clear that a Conservative Government would grant visas under the new tier of the points-based system to give the Gurkhas what they deserve: the right to settle in this country with their immediate dependants. The lower the number who apply, the faster we can right this wrong, which I am sure hon. Members in all parts of the House want to do.
I know from my own talks with Gurkha campaigners that they want this matter solved quicklyin fact, nowso I have a suggestion for the Minister. The Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill is currently passing through Parliament. It has completed all its stages in the other place and will come to this House in the next few weeks. The long title of the Bill includes the words
To make further provision about immigration and asylum.
It would therefore be perfectly in order for the Minister to introduce our proposalor, indeed, any other proposal that he wants to introducein that Bill so that it could be on the statute book within the next few months. If his proposal is sensibleif he wishes to adopt ours, or anything similarmy party will support him, and I guess that the Liberal Democrats would also want this problem to be solved as quickly as possible. This debate is about playing fair with the people we should let into this country while at the same time, in wider immigration policy, doing much better in stopping the people who should not be allowed in to this country.
Over the course of the past few days, the Minister has managed to attract opposition from all parts of the spectrum. In looking at the various options put forward by Members in all parts of the House, I am particularly struck by one that we have already touched on, which points out that only officers benefit from the Governments proposals. It must strike the House as the most exquisite irony that in the week that the Government publish their Equality Bill they produce another policy which
favours the officer class and tramples all over the other ranks. I cannot imagine that many Labour Members came into politics to support such divisive nonsense.
There are two genuine concerns that need to be addressed, the first of which was raised by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). If the vast majority of former Gurkhas were to leave Nepal over a very short period, that would do huge damage to the Nepali economy and the structure of governance in Nepal. I do not believe that that huge exodus would happen, and I take the points that the hon. Member for Eastleigh made about that, but we need to bear the possibility in mind.
The second concern, which we have not discussed much, is that those who arrive here need to be properly assimilated into British society as easily and comfortably as possible. I can draw on my experience in saying that, because my constituency has a fast-growing Nepali community. They are model citizens, from the dedication of the children at school to the big efforts made by adults to play a key role in wider civic life, while demonstrating their justifiable pride in their history and culture. That is a lesson in how cohesion and integration can work in this country, and above all, what has happened in my constituency is a tribute to the wholly admirable people that the Gurkhas are.
Before I close, I should mention that the changes proposed in the amendment that we tabled were designed not to change the sense of the motion in any way but to tidy it up. I have made the point that expressing a presumption of the right to come rather than an absolute right would alleviate one of the potential problems. That shows that it is not very difficult to change the motion in minor ways that give a basis for practical legislation that the Government could introduce as soon as they wanted, and that a Conservative Government would introduce as soon as they were able.
I urge the Minister once again to stop digging the hole in which he finds himself. He has created a rare degree of unity inside and outside the House, and it is a united front against his policy. He must now listen to the voices of those who support the Gurkhas, respect the strength of feeling throughout the country and reverse this unfair, ungenerous and divisive policy. The Gurkhas should not be made the scapegoat for the failure of the Governments immigration policy. I support the motion.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. May I remind the House that there is now a six-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches?
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