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Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I come to this issue as somebody who was a child in the period following the second world war. Pretty well everybody I knew—my father, my mother, uncles, neighbours—served in the armed forces and fought in the war in some capacity. Not many people spoke much about their wartime experience—it was a kind of convention that people did not go on in great detail about what had happened to them. However, one of my clear recollections is the extent to which those
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who served with Gurkhas were full of praise for their fierceness in battle, their loyalty to the UK and their contribution in the second world war. That is the background to my own sentiments towards the Gurkhas.

More recently, I have had some direct experience of Gurkhas. Since the conflict in Iraq began, I have travelled there on three occasions either as Chairman of a Committee, as a guest of the Government or, on one occasion, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). On all those occasions, I encountered Gurkhas who were serving out there, sometimes working in a private capacity for private security companies and in some cases with the armed forces. I have nothing but respect for the Gurkhas.

It was for that reason that I joined forces with my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) yesterday and tabled an amendment that has attracted the signatures of 70 right hon. and hon. Members, the majority of whom, although not all, are Labour Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I have been around the House long enough to know that an amendment tabled by a Back-Bench member of the governing party is unlikely to be selected when the Government and the official Opposition have tabled amendments. However, I thought that it was important to send the Government a message that I, and those who signed the amendment, did not believe that they had given the Gurkhas the honour and recognition that they deserved.

In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Minister, I indicated that progress had been made in the past 24 hours. At Prime Minister’s questions, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that the 1,350 cases that are currently in the Home Office will be dealt with by 11 June. He went on to say—my hon. Friend the Minister confirmed this from the Dispatch Box—that the lessons that could be learned from those cases would be examined and a statement made about the outcome of that examination. Shall I use the word “review”? In particular, it was said that there would then be a review of the impact that those findings would have on all cases if the new guidelines were applied. That is basically the point that we had reached at the time of my intervention.

Since then, the Home Secretary has written to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West, a co-signatory of my amendment, and it might help the House if I read out some of the letter. She wrote:

Again confirming a point that my hon. Friend the Minister made earlier, she continued:

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Prior to receiving that letter and the developments of the past 24 hours, it had been my intention to abstain on both the Government amendment and the Liberal Democrat motion. In the light of those assurances, I now feel that my party’s Government have proved to be an honourable Government, and they are a better Government than they were 24 hours ago for that. I will support them.

3.8 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): The 2nd Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles is based at Shorncliffe, in my constituency. In a bitter irony, soldiers from that battalion returned to Shorncliffe on Sunday 19 April, 10 days ago—just five days before the Government made their announcement—from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. It was a tour of duty in which, yet again, they demonstrated their heroism and valour, and during which they lost two of their comrades. On Tuesday 4 November, Rifleman Yubraj Rai received a gunshot wound from enemy fire. He received medical treatment at the scene but he died a short time later from his wounds. Only a few days later, on Saturday 15 November, Colour Sergeant Krishnabahadur Dura was taking part in a road move in the Musa Qala district of Helmand, when the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle in which he was travelling was struck by an explosive device.

Those Gurkha soldiers made the supreme sacrifice for our country. When they died, the Prime Minister told the House that we should never forget the sacrifice that they had made, just as he did some three hours ago in respect of the death of the Welsh Guardsman who lost his life yesterday. However, those words must be accompanied by deeds.

When the Gurkhas returned to Shorncliffe 10 days ago, they were warmly welcomed home by the rest of my constituents. The welcome home that they got from the Government was the decision that we are debating this afternoon. The Gurkhas are a most cherished part of the community that I represent in this place. To say that they are held in high regard would be a gross understatement.

Two weeks ago, I attended and spoke at the launch of an appeal in Folkestone for the erection of a statue dedicated to the Gurkhas. Hundreds of people turned up: Gurkhas themselves, including their two holders of the Victoria Cross, our highest award for valour—Tul Bahadur Pun and Lachhiman Gurung—civic dignitaries of the area and many local people, who wanted to show the affection and esteem in which the Gurkhas are held locally. We are proud to have them as members of our local community. We are not proud of the Government’s decision, which we are debating this afternoon.

Mr. Kevan Jones: What would you do?

Mr. Howard: I would do exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) outlined. [Interruption. ] Another hon. Gentleman from a sedentary position says that we did not do it. Of course we did not because the question did not arise before 1997, for all the reasons that were given earlier. Before 1997, the Gurkhas’ terms and conditions were governed by the tripartite agreement. I do not remember ever being asked to address the issue before 1997—it simply did not arise.

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Mr. Jones rose—

Mr. Howard: I will give way to the Under-Secretary because I have a particular word to say shortly about one of his contributions to our debate.

Mr. Jones: I accept the support that the right hon. and learned Gentleman gives Gurkhas, but, when he was Home Secretary, he had on his watch the naval personnel in Hong Kong, who wanted citizens’ rights. I carefully wrote down the new policy of the Conservative Opposition and potential Government. It would allow anyone who has served in the British armed forces in the past to come here. Does that include the people that the previous Conservative Government did not honour when they withdrew from Hong Kong?

Mr. Howard: The Under-Secretary’s comments have nothing to do with the Gurkhas. I am talking about the position on the Gurkhas before 1997, which was the point made from a sedentary position.

Others have spoken of the feats of the Gurkhas throughout the centuries and I do not need to repeat them. They have also spoken about the criteria that the Government set out in the decision that we are debating. I therefore do not need to go into any great detail about them, but I want to say a word about one, perhaps the most objectionable—the 20 years’ service requirement and the extent to which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford pointed out, it favours the officer class.

The Under-Secretary now shakes his head. His rebuttal of the point was that more other ranks than officers had served for more than 20 years before 1997. [Interruption. ] He tells me that the Minister for Borders and Immigration said that, and I am more than happy to accept the correction. It was an entirely bogus point and disingenuous statistic, which characterises the Government’s approach. Most other ranks did not serve for 20 years before 1997; most other ranks were not allowed to serve for more than 15 years before 1997.

I ask hon. Members to consider what might have been in the minds of the Gurkha riflemen returning to my constituency 10 days ago, knowing that they are not allowed to serve more than 15 years and that the Government regard that as inadequate for consideration under their eligibility criteria in the decision.

Mr. Woolas rose—

Mr. Howard: I have only a few seconds left and I want to bring my remarks to a close.

At the end of his judgment in the case of Limbu and others, which was heard and decided last September, Mr. Justice Blake recited the military covenant. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) read it out, so I do not need to do so again. It is familiar to many hon. Members. However, the last sentence of his judgment has also been mentioned and is worth repeating. Mr. Justice Blake said:

I agree with those words and commend them to the House.

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3.16 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). Perhaps I have been a Member of Parliament for too long—22 years—when I can take part in a debate in which a Labour Government are trying to restrict numbers coming into the United Kingdom, and Conservative spokespersons and former Conservative Home Secretaries are inviting us to increase those numbers.

I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on using some of their precious Opposition time on holding not only one but two important debates—on the Gurkhas and on Sri Lanka. Obviously, I will not participate in the next debate because I am speaking in this one. Enabling the House to discuss two such important matters, which are current and occupy the minds of the British people, is very worthy, and I thank the Liberal Democrats for that.

The Government have done an enormous amount for the Gurkhas and the Minister for Borders and Immigration should not feel upset about criticism. I know that he does not—he is the immigration Minister, so he should expect such criticism. I stress that we are grateful and I am proud to support a Government who have done so much for the Gurkhas. I strongly believe, however, that we should go that one step further.

The Minister has accepted representations from the Gurkhas. At the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who has led the campaign on the parliamentary issues, he met several Gurkhas at the end of last year. He has listened carefully to what they said, but it is wrong to change an important aspect of policy through an exchange of letters between the Home Secretary and Back Benchers, when the Government have had considerable time to deal with the matter and to fashion a fair and just policy.

Of course I accept what the Home Secretary said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), but hon. Members will excuse my taking the letter with a pinch of salt. The Home Secretary and the immigration Minister talk about speed in the immigration and nationality directorate, when it has a backlog of more than 220,000 cases—

Mr. Woolas: More.

Keith Vaz: The Minister says that there are more. Given that, he will excuse me for not taking at face value a statement that there is a hope that the cases will be resolved by June.

There is a problem with processing such matters and I will need more than a letter read out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East, wonderful though he is, to be convinced that the Government will try to review the guidelines by June. When the Minister spoke at the Dispatch Box, he did not say that. He said that it was a hope, not an expectation.

Mr. George Howarth: My right hon. Friend is ungenerously trying to make out that I have been naive. I was relying not on the words of my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration at the Dispatch Box, important though they were, but on the words of the Home Secretary, which she put in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) this afternoon.

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Keith Vaz: I did mention the letter from the Home Secretary, but my right hon. Friend was talking to our right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) and did not hear me. However, whether the letter comes from the Home Secretary or the Minister for Borders and Immigration and whether it is written in blood, wax or whatever, I have such an enormous immigration case load that I have difficultly accepting that the Home Office and the immigration and nationality directorate can process 1,500 cases by June. I do not think they can do it.

Let me turn to the crux of what I want to say, which is about the decision of the Select Committee on Home Affairs last year. We wrote a letter to the Minister for Borders and Immigration on 4 November last year—this also goes to the question of speed—that reflected a unanimous decision by the Committee after taking evidence from him and from campaigners from the Gurkha community. The letter said four things.

First, the Committee recognised the historic debt of gratitude that is owed to the Gurkhas. We called them brave, loyal and distinguished. Secondly, we agreed that the current Government policy of distinguishing those Gurkhas who retired before 1 July from those who retired afterwards has, in effect, created two classes of Gurkhas. We considered that there was no reason for that distinction. Thirdly, we concluded that the treatment of the Gurkhas was unfair, given the discrepancy between that and the settlement rights afforded to other Commonwealth citizens. Fourthly, we asked the Minister to bring forward regulations to replace the regulations that have already been declared unlawful and to extend the rights of settlement to all the Gurkhas who had applied for settlement. That was absolutely in keeping with the motion that the Liberal Democrats have tabled. The Committee came to a unanimous decision—I see one Committee member, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), in his place. I will now need the speech of a lifetime from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), to convince me that the Government’s position has changed since the motion that they have tabled. We need to move much further.

My final point relates to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). The view that there has to be an impact assessment for other countries—in this case Nepal—when Parliament takes a decision on immigration policy is ludicrous. I came here as a first-generation immigrant, and for a country that at one stage ruled a third of the world suddenly to start talking about having impact assessments is bizarre. My hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration will know the Bangladeshi community in Oldham. He will know, as will anyone who knows the south Asian community, that just because those people are settled in Oldham, that does not mean that they do not have connections with Bangladesh or that they do not send remittances back to their country of origin. It is a spurious argument that is being developed. I have received no representations from the Government of Nepal, but to be perfectly frank, would we take into consideration representations made by India about the points-based system? I do not think so, because India is against the points-based system, yet we have already told India that we are going to implement it anyway.

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For those reasons I am still minded to support the Liberal Democrat motion, despite the speech from the Opposition Front Bench, which almost put me off. However, the Lobbies belong to everybody and, in keeping with the unanimous decision of the Home Affairs Committee, I think that that is the honourable thing for me as the Chairman to do, given that I signed the letter to the Home Secretary.

3.23 pm

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), particularly as he has just announced that he is going to keep the faith.

The weakness of the Government’s case is surely illustrated by the fact that in the course of this debate the Home Secretary has felt it necessary to send a letter to a Labour Back Bencher, apparently without having the courtesy or the foresight to send it to the Minister who was addressing the House. It is something of an insult to the House that our proceedings should be treated in that way. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I have been here for 22 years, and in that time I do not remember letters being passed around the Back Benchers of any Government in that way.

The Minister did his best to put a brave face on the decision that he has to justify, but the truth is that it is a shabby decision. That is why he sounded both unconvinced and unconvincing. I approach the matter as an issue of principle. We have had a lot of exchanges about calculations and potential numbers, but at the bottom of this debate there lies a question of principle. It seems to me that we have not only a moral obligation to recognise those who risk their lives and who, as we heard in an eloquent speech by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), often make the ultimate sacrifice, but a moral obligation to fulfil. All the speeches that we have heard this afternoon have mentioned that moral obligation. When we come to vote in a little while, there will be a chance to fulfil that obligation in a way that the recipients undoubtedly deserve.

Earlier today the Prime Minister spoke about a stage-by-stage process, as if the Government had embarked upon a carefully planned journey, in which the rights of Gurkhas were to be enhanced over a period of time by a series of carefully considered measures. However, that is simply not true. Changes have been made during the lifetime of this Government because of the pressure in the House and the pressure outside it. We are only here today because Mr. Justice Blake partially upheld the proceedings for judicial review in the High Court. If he had not done so, does anyone think that the Government would have brought forward proposals of any kind whatever? They were compelled to do so because of that judicial decision.

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