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Like others, I have a quarrel with the so-called qualifications. As others have dealt with them, including the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, I do not need to deal with them further, except to say this. Although there may be persons other than officers who serve for 20 years, the curious symmetry between the 20-year period that was chosen and the length of service of officers has undoubtedly figured in the minds of those members of the public who have
made it clear in their droves that they support the campaign to extend rights of residence to deserving Gurkha soldiers.
Another point that I do not think anyone has made, but which is worth drawing to the Houses attention, is this. There appears to be a qualification based upon receipt of a decoration. That is a qualification based not on being brave, but on being recognised as having been brave. Anyone who has been engaged in conflict will say that some of the bravest and most selfless acts of heroism are committed by people who never receive any recognition of any kind whatever. The proposed qualification seems to me to be wholly artificial. The bravery lies in volunteering and in fulfilling a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.
My objection is to the fact that there is discrimination between Gurkhas and citizens from Commonwealth countries; without all of them, many of the regiments in our Army would be sadly below strength.
All the indications are that those Gurkhas who have settled here have been good citizens, contributed to their communities, paid their taxes and done everything that might be expected of them. That is why I regard with some suspicion the suggestion that, were the criteria set out by the Government to be relaxed, there would be an inundation of people that would be deeply damaging to public services and things of that kind. If we introduce people into this country who are motivated, who want to be employed and who will be good citizens, that will be entirely for the benefit of this country. Look at the impact that the Asians who were expelled from east Africa have made in the time that they have been in the United Kingdom. That is the precedent that we should be concerned about, and no other. And that is as good a reason as any to vote for the motion.
Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): The Gurkhas are superb, as the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said. The Brigade of Gurkhas is doing a superb job in his constituency, and I have had the honour of visiting it. However, the Conservatives cannot have it both ways. The changeover in Hong Kong did not just appear on the horizon; they knew many years beforehand that it was coming, and that it would affect the Gurkhasand, therefore, their terms and conditionsbut they did nothing about it.
The real reason that I want to speak is my admiration for and involvement with the Brigade of Gurkhas during my two years as the Defence Minister with responsibility for Gurkha terms and conditions. I was proud to introduce and agree the new terms and conditions for Gurkhas, which are the best that they have ever had. I argued strongly in the Department for the extra money needed to support those new terms and conditions. I believe that the sum was £30 million a year, given the massive increase in pensions.
A number of issues need to be considered in relation to any decision to extend entry rights to former Gurkhas, some of which have already been alluded to today. It
was this Government who changed the immigration rules and allowed many Gurkhas to come in. We have heard that about 6,000 have settled here. We have also heard arguments about the figures. The Ministry of Defence team that dealt with Gurkha issues was superb, and I always had trust in what it provided me with as a Minister. When we look at the potential outcomes of such a decision, it is important that we do so with an open mind.
It is possible that not all the Gurkhas who have served in the armed forces would decide to come to this country. However, the evidence so far is that all those who have been able to do so have done so, and I suspect that a large proportion of the 36,000 to 40,000 who have served in our armed forces would come here, with their family members. We are talking about a large number of ex-Gurkhas and their families coming to this country.
The point was made about the effect of such a decision on other nationalities, including members of the Indian army. When we were dealing with the compensation for the far east prisoners of war, an appeal was lodged in London on behalf of between 40,000 and 50,000 former members of the Indian army from Pakistan and India. If we were to open the door, I do not believe for a moment that many of them would not seek to apply to come to this country, as well as many other ex-service personnel from other Commonwealth countries. I do not see how we could have a policy that says that it is okay for Gurkhas who have served this country to come here, but not okay for those others. I do not see how such a policy could legally stand up.
Mr. Woolas: I am grateful for those comments from my hon. Friend, given all his experience. In his time as a Minister, did he receive the advice that I have received on this issuenamely, that the abolition of the 1997 cut-off date would not only create a precedent for other groups but lead to legal action on behalf of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people?
Derek Twigg: That is absolutely the advice that I received. I dealt with many cases in which the Ministry of Defence needed legal advice during the various campaigns that were going on. I received very strong legal advice on this matter, and I adhered to it. There is a potential for such a decision to affect many tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of people. I accept that we do not actually know how many people might be affected, but perhaps that is the point. There is a potential for such a change to affect many people, and we need to understand what that would involve.
I also want to talk about the effect on Nepal. The loss of that many people could be a major problem. First, there could be a brain drain, because the people who get through the Gurkha test and training are Nepals best people, and they would be leaving the country to come here. That would clearly have an impact on their society, both socially and economically. Secondly, Gurkhas pensions are currently paid in Nepal, but they would be paid here following such a decision. That would result in a significant loss of income in Nepal, which is one of the worlds poorest countries. We need to take account of that as well. It is all very well to say that we need to stick with the principle and allow people in, but such a decision would have an impact.
Mr. Howard: But are not the Government of Nepal the best people to judge that? Did not they give unchallenged evidence in the court case that they had no objection to the Gurkhas being given the right to settle here?
Derek Twigg: I am suggesting that, given the potential numbers of people who would come here, there would clearly be a major impact, and I would be surprised if such a learned and intelligent gentleman did not understand that.
The pensions that are paid to Gurkhas represent a good amount of money in Nepal. It would not be seen as a good amount of money in this country, so there would then be a campaign for pre-1997 Gurkha pensioners to get the same pension as current Gurkhas and, therefore, the rest of the British Army. That would be a significant extra cost as well. So there is another implication of which we need to take account.
The fact is that when we agreed the terms and conditionsit took a number of years, as those matters were complex and difficult, and involved a lot of time and effort at the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and elsewherethey were widely welcomed by serving Gurkhas because there was a massive change in their circumstances. I announced the change and they were delighted that it was going to happen. We took that decision as a Labour Government, and we should not forget that this Labour Government made that massive change to Gurkha terms and conditions, which has given the best pay and pensions that the Gurkhas have ever had here.
On the immigration changes, if I have any criticism of the Home Office, it is that it has perhaps been trying to be too helpful in many ways and has tried to change things to allow more people in. As a result, it gives weight to the argument of those who want more changes to allow more people to have the opportunity to come to this country as well. There would be major implications for housing, jobs, benefits and health support if tens of thousands of people could come here and did so, although we do not know whether they would. That is a major consideration and we need to take account of it.
There are significant implications involved with changing the policy. Legally, we must go back to the point I made earlier: the advice I received was that such a change could open the door to many tens of thousands of other people coming to this country and we could not hold the line just for the Gurkhas, however much we may want to do so. In fairness, anyone who has fought for this country would have the same legal right as the Gurkhas. The fact that someone might have fought in the second world war and had in the past a chance to apply to come to this country would not cut much ice because the legal precedent would have been set. That is the key part of this debate.
I say to the Government that obviously I have concerns about the 20-year rule. I understand what my hon. Friend the Minister said, but people might perceive that rule as disproportionately helping officers, who generally serve longer than the 15-year average. I ask him to have a look at that. It has, in one sense, come across to me
from my constituents as an unfairness in what was announced last week, but I stress to the House that it was this Government who made those massive changes to Gurkha terms and conditions and introduced the immigration changes.
We have created many opportunities for more Gurkhas and their families to stay in this country, which did not happen under the previous Government. While I understand the Liberal Democrats point of view, they are too simplistic in terms of what they want and it does not take account of the implications for the Government, the country as a whole, our social institutions, our jobs and the economy.
Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): During my brief and much curtailed comments, I shall highlight several real-life cases in the knowledge that the Minister will have to hear what is the real plight faced by those very brave Gurkhas.
I start by mentioning a true story of real heroism. Bhim Prasad Gurung, who lives in my constituency, was posted to Brunei with the 6th Queen Elizabeths Own Gurkha Rifles in 1964. During a jungle operation, Mr. Gurung and a small group of his comrades were ambushed by Indonesian guerrillas. They did not have their weapons, as they had been locked away for the night in a store.
During the fierce and one-sided firefight that ensued, seven Gurkha soldiers were killed and the same number severely wounded. Mr. Gurung and the survivors somehow regained their rifles and took the fight to the enemy, but unfortunately they ran out of ammunition. Their wireless radio was destroyed and they could not call for help or support. Alone in the jungle, out of ammunition and surrounded by their dead and wounded comrades, they never gave up hope.
Mr. Gurung and his comrades roared out the famous Gurkha war cry, Ayo Gorkhali!, which means, The Gurkhas are coming! Through their shouts of defiance, they terrified the enemy so much that, despite Mr. Gurung and his brothers in arms being outnumbered and without ammunition, their enemy retreated.
That is just one example of heroism displayed by those brave Gurkha soldiers. It is truly a disgrace, then, when they are forced to come to this country and live in destitution after their retirement from the Army.
Many of the brave Gurkhas who have settled in Reading have found themselves living in abject poverty. Former Gurkha Ash Bahadur Gurung served in the 6th Queen Elizabeths Own Gurkha Rifles for 16 years. He lives with his wife and their 12-year-old daughter in a small, rented house paid for out of the basic salary of his son, who is in the British Army. He struggles to make his Gurkha pension of £25.67 last the week. He says that the main problem he faces is getting his daughtershe goes to Reading girls schoolto school, which costs £3 a day on the bus. That is a lot of money out of a £25 pension. Mr. Gurungs wife is not entitled to use the NHS, so she had to buy a pair of crutches and a wheelchair from the Red Cross after one of her legs was amputated after having cancer.
To treat anyone in such a way is dreadful, but to do it to the brave Gurkhas is a national disgrace. The Home Office criteria that were put out recently are immoral. I could not have put it better than Joanna Lumley, who said that she is ashamed of this Government. Today, the whole nation is ashamed of them.
Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): We have had a good and lively debate this afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) started it off by reminding the House that we owe a debt of honour, which we are repaying with the penny-pinching mentality of an accountant, as the Government try to get away with the least that they think they can under the terms of the law court ruling. I do not know whether it will prove that they have done enough today, but I am perfectly clear that they have approached the task with as mean a spirit as they could. In the bandying of numbers between my hon. Friend and the Minister, we saw the absurdity of the Governments case.
I do not assert that the 1,350 whose cases are currently at the Home Office would be the end of the matter, but it is nonsensical for the Government to total up the maximum number and then bandy it about as representing those who are likely to wish to take advantage of such a right. We do not devise our immigration policies with any other part of the world, the free movement of citizens within the EU, or the policies that we adopt for Commonwealth countries, on the basis that every person who could avail themselves of them is likely to do so. It is a completely illogical approach to the issue.
I regret hearing Ministers do that, as they have the right to pat themselves on the back for what they did in 2004, and for their improvements to the conditions of Gurkhas, to which the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) referred. By doing what they did in 2004, and creating the entitlement for those who have served since 1997, they have crossed the line in principle. They have done the big thing, and are being dragged kicking and screaming on the smaller issue of who served before 1997. By creating mythological numbers, they are putting a stain on that for which they deserve congratulation.
I do not accept the logic of the 1997 threshold as those on the Conservative and Labour Front Benches seem to accept. The fact that the Gurkhas were garrisoned in Hong Kong until 1997 is of no real significance. The Government seem almost to have looked for something that happened in 1997they might as well have asked who won the FA cup in that year, and hung everything around that. The point is of no significance. The Gurkhas were members of the British armed forces, and were sent to serve in different parts of the world, and it is of no consequence whatever that they happened to be garrisoned in Hong Kong. They cannot settle in Hong Kongtheir service was not to Hong Kong or China, but to Britain. That gives them the moral entitlement to settle in the UK, and that is what we are debating this afternoon.
A variety of Members who have Nepalese and Gurkhas living in their constituencies have rightly paid tribute to their contribution to civic society and the community. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said that we should consider more broadly the role played by immigrants, and be more welcoming and open-minded towards the contribution that the Gurkhas could make if more of them came here in the future.
I listened with interest to the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who at the outset of his remarks set down a yardstick that he wanted the Government to clear. He said that in addition to their processing the 1,350 cases by a date in June, he wanted the review of those cases, which might lead to some amendment of the criteria that the Government have laid down, to be concluded by the summer recess. He seems to have been bought off rather easily with a letter from the Home Secretary, which, as has been mentioned, is a strange device in and of itself. The letter says nothing more than that the Government will begin the process by the summer recess; no indication is given as to how long it might take or when they might conclude the work.
Mr. Howarth: I think that the hon. Gentleman has misread the letter. What my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary says is that the Government will examine the implications of those 1,350 decisions straight away and will make a statement in the House about what the implications are for the guidance. There will then be, as he rightly says, another review, which will commence before the end of the summer. The implications of those 1,350 decisions will be analysed and brought to the House immediately, and we will understand better what they are.
Nick Harvey: The rest of us have not had the advantage of seeing this letter, but the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) made the point that ours is a debt of honour and we must judge the Government on their deeds, not their words. I very much agree with him that the most objectionable of the criteria that have been laid down is the one relating to the 20 years of service, for exactly the reason to which many hon. Members have alluded.
The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), reminded us of the excellent letter that the Committee sent, which was signed by all of its members, from across the parties. He rightly urges us to take with a pinch of salt a letter from the Home Secretary that has been catapulted into this debate at this stage. He was also right to say that the suggestion that we should conduct an impact assessment on the effect in Nepal is bizarre. I say that because surely it was when the Government allowed those who have served since 1997 the right of settlement that those who would have the most direct impact on the Nepalese economy were allowed to come to this country. The young ones coming to this country with many years of wage earning ahead of them will have far more impact than a relatively small number of those whose service took place long ago.
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