Previous Section Index Home Page

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): Is it the intention that every patient who phones their GP after
29 Apr 2009 : Column 987
having isolated themselves at home will get the test, so that they will know whether they and their close contacts must have antivirals?

Alan Johnson: That is what we are trying to do. Those concerned have had a connection with Mexico or people on flights from Mexico—that is the basic issue. We want to differentiate those people who are just feeling ill and those who have a link to Mexico. At the moment, not a single case has arisen anywhere that does not involve a recent trip to Mexico.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): In outlining his plans for barriers and chemoprophylaxis, the Secretary of State has rightly focused on health care staff. Were the situation to go to level 6, however, he would have to consider other infrastructure-critical workers. I wonder what thought he has given to that, and which workers he has identified as potentially being in need of prophylaxis to keep our infrastructure on an even keel.

Alan Johnson: We have considered that, and it is set out in some detail in our framework for when we move to phase 6, and indeed to phase 5, when some of the preparations will start. I do not want to list the workers concerned, because such a level would involve fatalities, and an awful lot of staff would be covered. Perhaps when we move to that level, a full list of people—

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): When?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman asks, “When?” from a sedentary position. As the World Health Organisation is now considering moving to phase 5, we should not be optimistic that the situation will stay at phase 4. At that stage, we will make it absolutely clear that other workers—too many to mention in this statement—will need to be covered.

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Will the hygiene advice to households include more than the basic hygiene rules mentioned in the Secretary of State’s statement, so that those who have to nurse relatives at home can attempt to replicate some sort of barrier nursing domestically?

Alan Johnson: Not at this stage, although the basic hygiene messages are the important ones at the moment. The hon. Lady makes an important point about the role of carers, if we move to a full-blown pandemic, in collecting antivirals and so on. We want everyone, including carers, to abide by those basic, good-sense messages about hygiene, in all spheres.

29 Apr 2009 : Column 988


7.43 pm

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): This Government respect the will of the House of Commons. As the Prime Minister said today, this Government took the first action to provide justice for the Gurkhas and enable them to settle in the United Kingdom. Under this Government, the first ever rights of settlement for Gurkhas in Britain have been granted, and 6,000 of them have applied successfully to settle in this country.

We have also introduced equal pay and pensions for the Gurkhas—something that had not happened previously. We doubled the pensions of people staying in Nepal and increased the overall pension for Gurkhas, especially those at a senior age. The guidance that we introduced last week will increase the number of Gurkhas eligible to come to this country by 4,000 or, including families, about 10,000 people.

However, we recognise the strong feeling in all parts of the House on this subject. As was recognised in the debate this afternoon, this is a complex issue with wide-ranging implications. The cost of implementing the decision of the House of Commons could well run into billions of pounds. The Government also have an obligation to consider the precedent for future decisions on other immigration categories, and wider Government policy. We cannot, therefore, responsibly or fairly rush into the formulation of new policy. We can and do commit to immediate action on individual cases, and we are setting a clear time frame for the next stage of the reform.

In the light of the decision of the House, I am bringing forward the date for the determination of the outstanding applications to the end of May. That will ensure that those who qualify under the guidelines now in force get confirmation of that as soon as possible, and we will report to the House the outcome of this work. In addition, based on that work, and recognising the strong feeling of the House, we will come forward with proposals for the next stage of our reform of the rules, to ensure that the Government continue to deliver a fair outcome for ex-Gurkhas and their families. We will publish this next stage before the summer recess.

I said in the House earlier that we cannot foresee circumstances in which ex-Gurkhas in the UK, who have served this country so well, would ever be removed from the United Kingdom. I can now say, in addition, that anyone whose case is considered under the current guidelines and does not qualify, whether in the UK or in Nepal, will not have that decision implemented pending the publication of the next stage of our reform.

The House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs has indicated its intention to conduct a hearing on this issue next week, and I welcome that. In addition, I will share our review of the applications with the Committee, once it has been completed. We will consider the guidelines published last Friday in the light of the decision of the House today, and we will introduce proposals based on the experience of our consideration of the outstanding applications.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for advance sight of his statement. He clearly recognises the importance of what happened earlier.
29 Apr 2009 : Column 989
The House of Commons spoke, and spoke clearly—it told the Government that their attitude to the Gurkhas was unfair, ungenerous, and unacceptable. The Opposition parties and brave members of the Labour Party came together to speak and vote on behalf of the Gurkhas and their families. These are people to whom we owe a huge debt of honour, and it reflects well on this House that we have collectively recognised that debt.

It is also good that Ministers recognised so quickly that they needed a new policy, and I can see that the Minister could give us only a holding statement today. The test that we will now apply is whether that policy meets the needs of the Gurkhas and their supporters. Will Ministers be able to look Gurkhas in the eye and say, “We are being fair to you”? [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), says from a sedentary position that they can do that now. I suggest to him that he should remember that several hours ago the House of Commons told him that he could not do that now. Rather than adopt the arrogant approach of saying that they can do that now, he should recognise that he lost the vote, that the House of Commons spoke clearly and that he should stop trying to defy the will of the House.

This afternoon, I offered the Minister for Borders and Immigration, who throughout this has taken a more sensible view than his colleague from the Ministry of Defence, a route to a position where we could look the Gurkhas in the eye fairly and a practical way of bringing it into law quickly. I suggested introducing a new tier in the points-based system specifically for non-UK ex-service personnel, which would overwhelmingly mean giving these new rights to pre-1997 Gurkhas. I also said that the Minister could introduce this idea, or any of his own new ideas, in the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill, which is about to come to this House. If the campaigners for the Gurkhas are right and roughly 8,000 soldiers and their dependants would want to apply, the problem could be solved within a few years, and the permanent right to settle would be enshrined in that law. I once again commend that solution to the Government.

The Minister once again repeated the claim that the cost would be billions of pounds. How does he arrive at a sum of that magnitude? What age profile is he assuming for those who would want to come here? What illness profile is he assuming and, most of all, what numbers is he assuming to arrive at that very large number? Will he recognise that if he adopted our proposal, or something like it, it would lead to proper control of the cost on an annual basis, as well as meeting our obligations to the Gurkhas? If, as he says, he cannot foresee circumstances in which any Gurkha would be removed from the UK, why does he not simply say that no Gurkha will be removed from the UK?

Above all, can the Minister assure us that the next time he comes before the House there will be some real substance in his statement and a real and substantial change of policy? This has been a bad day for the Government, but much more importantly it has been a good day for the Gurkhas. We need to move on, so that not just Ministers but the whole country can look the Gurkhas in the eye and say, “We owe you a debt of honour and we are prepared to repay that debt.” Unless and until we can do that, this issue has not been resolved. We, and more importantly the Gurkhas, will need a good deal of reassurance on that point.

29 Apr 2009 : Column 990

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the statement. First, he asked whether the Government will be able to look the Gurkhas in the eye. In this afternoon’s debate and in my statement, we have explained the proud record that we have in providing support for current and ex-Gurkhas, but clearly both sides of the House feel that we need to go further.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked about the basis for my figures. The lesson of today is that it is easy to form policy in opposition. It is easy to make pledges in opposition, as the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Bramall—no Labour supporter he—said in an article in The Independent on Sunday, which I commend to those Opposition Members who may be tempted to crow. The fact is that the commitment to the Gurkhas and their families and dependants would incur public expenditure for the taxpayer, and the responsible behaviour for a Government is to calculate those costs and not rush into decisions.

Thirdly, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s reasonable questions, I can assure him that we will cost the policy that he has announced on the hoof today. It appeared to me that that took his leader by surprise. The hon. Gentleman has swapped an immigration cap for an immigration helmet. If he fulfils his pledge to the Commonwealth servicemen that they will have the rights that he wishes the Gurkhas to have, his policy for a cap on immigration would have severe implications for tiers 1 and 2 of the new points-based system. In fact, we calculate that the numbers would wipe out tier 1 altogether. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman trying to square that circle— [ Interruption. ] It is characteristic of him that he chunters rather than answers the question. The Conservatives’ policy would involve a cap as well as a separate tier.

The hon. Gentleman asked— [ Interruption. ] Listen to this point, because the Gurkhas deserve our respect. The hon. Gentleman asked whether any Gurkha would be removed. I think that he accepts—he made this point in the debate—that there are certain provisos and a presumption on this point. The policy situation is that removals are looked at case by case. No Government can give a blanket general policy on deportation for fear of setting a precedent that the law could apply elsewhere, with unintended consequences.

I made the position of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary very clear: we cannot envisage circumstances in which people involved in the applications will be deported. In recognition of the debate this afternoon, I give again the commitment that we will not take action against people from the 1,500 who do not meet the current guidelines until we have clarity on the new guidelines. I hope that the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), whose debate it was, accepts the genuine intention of the House in that regard. The hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) asked for “real substance”, and I think that that measure will be the test. We are committed to it.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I am grateful to the Minister for giving me advance sight, albeit fleeting, of his statement, which was obviously done in some haste. I thank him, too, for responding so quickly to the requests of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who asked that he come to the House and make a statement as soon as possible in
29 Apr 2009 : Column 991
response to the House’s clear view this afternoon. That was a victory for democracy and for the will of this House.

Frankly, that vote was an historic moment. It was only the fourth defeat of this Government since 1997. However, I am trying to make a point not about party politics, but about the widespread feeling across this House that the Gurkhas were not being treated as fairly and equitably as they should be given the exceptional service that they have rendered to this country. We had to move beyond looking in detail at the penny-pinching aspects of this decision, and we made a rather larger statement about what we felt to be our moral obligations to the Gurkhas, given that they have served with such distinction and have been prepared to lay their lives on the line for us.

The test of what the Government do will be actions and not words. I welcome the most important aspect of this statement, which came at the beginning when the Minister said clearly that this Government respect the will of the House of Commons. In his response to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), he slid a little way back into the to-ing and fro-ing of the earlier debate, but I hold him to that early statement, because that is the fundamental point.

I have some detailed questions about the statement, and particularly about the costs. We have now had three estimates of the likely costs—one of £1.5 billion, one from the Prime Minister of £1.4 billion and now one from the Minister, which states that the costs of implementing the decision could well run into billions of pounds. We have an entire absence of detail about what the Home Office, the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence think that the costs are. At no point in today’s debate were any of the details spelled out, and I believe that it would be very helpful for the Home Office to put a note in the Library to spell out what it believes the public expenditure implications are and, importantly, what it thinks that the revenue implications should be. The House should remember that if we allow indefinite leave to remain to a large number of extremely hard-working, diligent and skilled men, who are still young, there will be revenues for the Exchequer that can be put off against those items of expenditure.

I understand that much of the detail will need to come later, but I seek reassurance about one aspect of the statement. The Minister says that he cannot foresee circumstances in which ex-Gurkhas in the UK who have served this country so well would ever be removed. I very much welcome that, as I am sure do hon. Members from across the House, because that was the clear implication of what we voted for this afternoon. However, I am concerned about the circumstances under which those people will be in the UK. For example, would they have temporary permission to work? Will they be able to survive in a way that does not push them into—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am going to gently interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I have made a ruling that Front-Bench Members should not monopolise the questioning session in statements. The Liberals get three minutes, but we are now into four— [ Interruption. ] I hope that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is not going to defy the Chair or give me a hard time. I just
29 Apr 2009 : Column 992
do not want a hard time tonight. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) is well into four minutes now. He can have a few more seconds, and then he should let the Minister answer.

Chris Huhne: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the latitude that you have given me. It was, of course, a Liberal Democrat debate, and I am therefore—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am not considering what happened this afternoon. I am considering the fact that my policy has always been that a Minister comes to the House and gives information. This Minister has done that, and now Back Benchers and not Front Benchers have to questioning him. The best thing that I can do is call the Minister to respond.

Mr. Woolas: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) asked a number of questions. I am sorry if the appearance is given that the Government are penny-pinching. It is the responsible act of a Government to look at the potential cost implications for the taxpayer. That would be right in any event, but it is especially right in the current circumstances. The fact is—and the hon. Gentleman accepted as much—that, in advance of new guidelines, we do not know how many applications and settlements there will be. We can only make estimates: we will do that to the best of our ability, but without political interference from Ministers and based on the best available advice.

The hon. Gentleman said that there was a hint of sliding back in my statement. I was not at all intending to slide back from our commitment that the Government recognise that we must implement the will of the House of Commons. I was trying to make the partisan political point that his policy—that is, the one set out by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green)—was made up on the back of a fag packet. The policy set out by the hon. Member for Eastleigh, of course, was made up on the back of a matchbox.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh asked about costs. I answered his point before, but I am not aware that I used the £1.5 billion figure. The £1.4 billion figure is our best guesstimate, but I must tell the House that that is an annual figure that will not apply for ever. If, as a result of decisions for Gurkhas, the policy to be adopted by the Government and accepted by the House were to allow settlement rights for Commonwealth soldiers and former soldiers that went beyond those currently available, there would be implications. In our view, we believe that in total they would run into billions of pounds. I do not say that as a scaremongering tactic. We lost the vote, so it would serve no purpose to say that now. I say it only to inform the House.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh then mentioned the revenue implications, but the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), has pointed out that the Government anticipate that older members of the Gurkhas will tend to take advantage of the change. That is recognised by the Gurkha campaign, and there is already anecdotal evidence that that is the case.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about deportations. I remind the House that the Government have powers on discretion anyway, consequential to the Immigration
29 Apr 2009 : Column 993
Act 1971. I think that all Members of the House—apart from one right hon. Gentleman, who is not listening—will know that we have discretion under the 1971 Act, which of course means that we have more flexibility than is provided under the strict guidelines.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I suspect that tomorrow will be a bad day for the House of Commons, but today was a very good day for Parliament. Some 1,350 Gurkhas will now not face deportation. An unacceptable policy put forward on Friday was disowned on Wednesday, and will be reviewed in a matter of weeks. Does the Minister accept that one of the most offensive arguments put forward was the assumption in advice given to Ministers—I have copies of that advice—that those Gurkhas will be on the dole and on the council housing waiting list? In fact, studies that we have done in communities with substantial numbers of Gurkhas show that the Gurkhas are working, are economically active, pay their way, and will make a massive contribution to this country.

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the points that he raised. He organised the meeting in the House of Commons during the consultation. May I say, for the record, that as a result of that meeting we revised the figures, based on the evidence that he and others presented? I intend to keep an open mind on the figures, because many people have many different points of view.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): The Minister has made much this evening of the costs of the decision that the House of Commons took today. The costs come to about £1.5 billion, if one takes the average of the various figures that have been bandied about. Will he please put that in the context of the costs of immigration in this country as a whole? Could he please take into account the cost of supporting asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers, the cost of benefits, and the cost of all the other aspects of immigration that we in this country willingly take on board? Why are we so unwilling to take on the relatively minor costs in this case?

Mr. Woolas: The right hon. Lady has been consistent in her point of view

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): On most things.

Next Section Index Home Page