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Mr. Woolas: On all things, I think. The right hon. Lady has been consistent, and I respect that, and I understand the question that she asks. The answer is that the Government are implementing the biggest shake-up in immigration policy since, I would argue, the arrival of the Empire Windrush. It has been an important policy, and I think that she supported the main thrust of the issue. However politically convenient her argument is, it does not take away the fact that the costs of expanding the guidelines are real. Indeed, I think that I am right to say that the Ministry of Defence pension is a pay-as-you-go pension. An additional cost to it would have to be met from defence budgets. I know that the right hon. Lady would be the first in this House to
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stand up and complain if there were cuts elsewhere as a consequence of the arithmetic done to balance the books.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Nobody doubts the Government’s commitment to the Gurkhas, given what the Government have done so far. The problem has been the way in which the issue has been handled. I wrote to the Minister on 4 November last year, setting out a clear and unanimously agreed policy put forward by the Home Affairs Committee. He took six months to reply to that letter, and answered it last Friday. As the debate went on, the policy was changed by the Home Secretary, who e-mailed Members of the House announcing a change in policy regarding the review. That is not the best way to handle a sensitive policy of this kind. However, I welcome the Minister’s commitment to working with the Select Committee, and I am extremely grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), and the Minister for agreeing to come before the Select Committee next Tuesday. Let us have a commitment to work with Parliament and the Select Committee, so that we can have a just policy for the Gurkhas.

Mr. Woolas: I am very grateful to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee for saying that I agreed to come before the Committee. I did agree to do so, but I suspect that I would not have had a choice if I had not agreed; I would have been there anyway. As I hope he knows, I respect that; I think that Select Committees do a terrific job.

There are implications for other areas of immigration policy—the House can have a debate, but that is a fact, as former immigration Ministers on both sides of the House have recognised—and there are unintended consequences, which is why we took so long, particularly regarding the issue of Commonwealth soldiers. If hon. Members do not think that there would be legal cases in the courts very quickly as a result of an expansion of policy on the Gurkhas, they should reconsider their position. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, however: we will take the Select Committee very seriously and share our findings with it, as I said in the statement.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): The Minister is to be commended for finding a reverse gear quite so quickly. However, does he regret the fact that the Government failed to accept not only the letter but the spirit of the judgment and the action for judicial review last September? Does he now accept that if the Government had accepted the spirit of that judgment, they would have been spared their embarrassment, and the Gurkhas and their dependants would have been spared both uncertainty and anxiety?

Mr. Woolas: I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman follows these issues closely, but I have to disagree with his interpretation. Our view is that we have accepted the spirit of the judgment that related to the guidelines. The debate and the dispute have been about the 1997 cut-off. I respect the debate and his point of view which, again, has been consistent, but for the record it is unfair to say that the Government did not accept the spirit of the judgment. [ Interruption. ] No, the judge was very clear that the 1997 cut-off was fair. He said that it was “not...irrational”, and he called
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on us to clarify the guidelines. We have done so, but the House wanted to go further, and I recognised that in the statement.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement, particularly the speed with which he has returned to the House after the vote to make some clarifications. I also welcome the fact that the deadlines for the various phases of his approach have been shortened. Does he accept that the core of the problem is the disparity between the Government’s estimate of the number of people who would be affected one way or another by the new guidelines and the estimate by people who are campaigning on the Gurkhas’ behalf? Will he give us an assurance that the exercise that he is about to conduct will provide a definitive answer?

Mr. Woolas: That is an important point, and I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. I know that the House was frustrated by the debate on the numbers, but I attempted to clarify the position. My understanding is that the figure of 100 that the campaigners used was their estimate of how many of the 1,500 outstanding applications would meet the guidelines. That is a trivial figure in terms of the total numbers, and I have explained that we will not refuse any of the others until the new guidelines have been put in place. I thank my right hon. Friend for his role in that policy development.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): I am enormously pleased that, whatever the Minister’s personal views, the Government have decided that their position is unsustainable and that they will look at this matter seriously. In the past, I have had the privilege of serving alongside the Gurkhas, who are a remarkable body of men. We owe them a massive debt of gratitude, not just for their service in previous wars but, I am sure, for their service in future wars in which we may have to call on them. The right thing to do is to take the course of action on which the Minister has embarked, and I urge him, when he meets his civil servants and anybody else who talks to him about the problems, to take on a wholly different attitude and say, “Let right be done.”

Mr. Woolas: I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but may I repeat to the House what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my colleagues from the Ministry of Defence and I have said? We want to do right by the Gurkhas in a way that does not set a precedent that is damaging to the UK taxpayer or the immigration system. Within that context, I welcome the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): The debt of honour that we owe to the Gurkhas is one that has been felt particularly strongly in Blackpool because of the historic connections of the town with the far east in the second world war and since. The issues have been brought home forcefully to me and to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). Having been dismayed at the initial proposals, I welcome the changes that were announced not just in the debate this afternoon, but in the further statement that my hon. Friend has made. They underline
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what the Government have done for Gurkhas over the past five years, which was too often forgotten in today’s debate.

One point of contention today was the issue of 20 years’ service. I heard some of the explanations relating to the lower ranks, but if my hon. Friend were able to give us, perhaps during his appearance before the Select Committee, a full and definitive account of how the roll-over period from 15 years works to benefit lower ranks, that would be greatly appreciated.

Mr. Woolas: Thank you. I pay tribute to the role of my hon. Friend and his colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). I am aware of the importance of the issue in Blackpool—Britain’s finest tourist destination. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] The Conservative party’s policy seems to be to decry Blackpool. The intent of the policy on the 20 years’ service was to recognise the judge’s ruling that the guidelines should be clear and should take into account both quality and quantity of service. People have ascribed to us unfairly a motive that did not exist. Under the current guidelines, the 20 years takes in 2,000 Gurkhas who would not have been included, had we not introduced the 20 years criterion. Clearly, we will need to consider the matter in the light of the view of the House and bring forward revised proposals in the review.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The one thing missing from the statement is what lessons the Government have learned from a policy disaster that could have been averted if they had accepted the spirit of the judgment. In the same Department, on the highly skilled migrant programme, the Government have lost twice in the High Court and are still havering about doing the right thing, even in the case of economically productive migrants. Will the Minister say whether he thinks the Secretary of State has learned that an early change of policy on these matters would be welcomed, not condemned?

Mr. Woolas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, but I do not accept his point about the highly skilled migrant programme. A legal point was argued; the Government had one point of view, and some lawyers had another. I do not accept, as I said in answer to the previous question, that we have gone against the spirit of the judgment. The problem has been—as a parliamentarian, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt accept this—that the intent of Parliament and the rulings of the court sometimes present difficulties for the Executive. That is the square that any Government must circle, and it is an important point. The court’s judgment was that the 1997 cut-off was fair and not irrational, but the guidelines should be clearer. The issue that has been debated today was not, in principle, the judgment of the court, nor should it be. I think the hon. Gentleman would support the idea that the intent of Parliament should carry the day, not necessarily the flexibility that the courts sometimes exercise.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement today. Will he confirm that he cannot offer a blanket guarantee to prevent the removal from the UK of someone who may have served with the Gurkhas, if that removal relates to some offence that may have been committed? It would not be fair or right to allow a rule to apply to one group and not to others.

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Mr. Woolas: That is a very important point. In his contribution this afternoon the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) explained the wording of a presumption. The House will understand that in immigration law, as elsewhere, one cannot give blanket guarantees. Were we to do so, all sorts of skulduggery could, and no doubt would, take place. That is my experience.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that Members on both sides of the House appreciate the policy complexities of this issue, appreciate that the Government have allowed 6,000 Gurkhas to settle—an unprecedented number—and appreciate Ministers coming promptly before the House to make a statement? None the less, Gurkhas occupy a special place in the hearts of British people, and the entire House hopes that Ministers are able to come to a resolution of the issue that the Gurkhas themselves and their supporters in the British people feel is fair and just.

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her kind comments. I am not sure whether they enhance my career, or perhaps my career is over anyway, but if they were intended to help, I thank her very much indeed. She makes an important point when she reminds the House that 6,000 Gurkhas and ex-Gurkhas have been granted settlement by the Government since 2004. From 1945 to 1997, the number was five.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Minister will be aware that I am fortunate enough to have the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst within my constituency, and therefore I am lucky enough to have a number of serving and retired Gurkhas among my constituents. The Minister stressed the costs of the policy that he is contemplating, as though the presence of these heroes in this country were somehow a burden to be borne rather than a thing to be celebrated. Will he now place on the record his view, which is my view, that the presence of the Nepali community in this country is a direct and beneficial contributor to the social, economic and cultural life of our country? We should celebrate what those heroes have done in the past and what they continue to contribute to this country.

Mr. Woolas: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I stressed the argument about costs. I did not stress that argument—it makes up one sentence in the statement. However, it is right to say, as any Government would have to say, that the Executive have to look at the consequences for the taxpayer, not just at the moral issues involved. That is the way of the world.

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about his constituency, but I am sorry that he feels that he has to ask that question. That contribution has never been in doubt. The Government’s policy is that migration to this country on the whole is beneficial, economically, culturally and in other ways. However, it is a question of balance. I know that he speaks on behalf of his constituents tonight, not on behalf of his Front-Bench team, but he needs to look at the pledge made by the hon. Member for Ashford, because if he does not, we will.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I will press him again on the need to look at the impact on Nepal. On the one
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hand the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), slightly changing his view, and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), said that there were considerable revenue advantages of Gurkhas settling in this country, which was somewhat criticised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). This is not a zero sum game. If there are considerable advantages for people settling in this country, there will be an impact on Nepal. Will he assure me that, with the Nepalese Government and the Indians, who are obviously privy to this matter, he will look at the arrangement to ensure we consider its whole impact? We may have to talk to the Department for International Development about ways in which we provide support, because it is wrong that another sovereign state is being asked to lose out because of changes here.

Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend’s point about consideration in policy decisions of the country of origin is extremely important and is often left out of the debate about immigration and migration. The DFID budget for Nepal is £56 million, and the amount in pensions for Gurkhas in Nepal is £54 million. This is an extremely important contribution to the Nepalese economy, and one that we should not ignore. Consideration of immigration policy should rightly include this area. Remissions are a good thing and are important to many poor countries, but we can teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime, or give a man a fish and feed him for the day, and it is important that we do the former.

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): Having lived in Nepal for three years, and to follow up on the previous point, I seek from the Minister an assurance that there will be no cut in aid to Nepal, because it is one of the poorest countries in the world, and it is not fair that it should suffer in any way.

Mr. Woolas: The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who is better informed than I, tells me not only that I can give the hon. Gentleman that guarantee, which I respect, but that £170 million has been announced for the next three years for Nepal. We certainly will not turn our back on Nepal because of this issue, and nor would we want to.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): Lance Corporal Guyanendra Rai served in the British Army for 13 years, and, while fighting in the Falklands war, his back was severely damaged by an Argentine shell explosion. Owing to the fact that he served for “only” 13 years, he was not entitled to a pension or to British residency, unlike a Commonwealth soldier, who would be entitled after four years’ service. Will the Minister’s new proposals, which are to be put before the House, provide a better and a fair deal for a soldier such as Guyanendra Rai?

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is very difficult to comment on individual cases, and I add the caveat that I am not aware of the specifics of that case. Under the proposals that we published on Friday, however, his constituent would meet those criteria, and that is certainly the intention of any new proposals, too.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): On a point of clarification, under what circumstances will Gurkhas remain in this country if they do not qualify under the
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current guidelines? He said that they will not be deported, but will they be able to work, receive benefits and use the NHS? What will the terms be, because that worries families to this day?

Mr. Woolas: Obviously, again, I must add the caveat that my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) prompted me to add. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made it very clear to me what she expects, and I should point out that, as well as the guidelines, there are the Secretary of State’s discretionary powers, which she has instructed me to use in this respect.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The Minister is correct to say that his Government have done more for the Gurkhas than any other, and in 18 years the Conservative Government did nothing for them, but that makes the way in which this Government have behaved towards the pre-1997 Gurkha soldiers all the more unfortunate. As he has told the House that he does not envisage deporting any Gurkhas who are currently in the country, what is the problem with issuing work permits immediately to those who do not have them?

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about the Labour Government’s actions, and I assure him that, in the current debate, our intention was to do nothing but help Gurkhas—without setting a precedent that would be damaging elsewhere, as I have said before. I cannot answer his question at this point, because of the categories that may exist in respect of migration cases. Under immigration law, one must look at each case individually, but I assure him that our intent is to meet the point that he makes.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I welcome the Minister’s statement. In it, he said that he will bring forward the reform of the rules and that “we will publish this next stage before the summer recess.” Will he confirm not only that the Government will publish them before the next recess, but that we will be able to debate them before that recess, and that what he brings forward will take into account the will of the House, given that the original motion called for

That is what the House voted for; that is what the House expects.

Mr. Woolas: I quite understand that, but I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, will appreciate that it is not within my remit to determine what the House debates. Clearly, I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman’s views to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House. I suspect that, on this issue, however, the House will have a view.

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Sri Lanka

8.29 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): I present this petition on behalf of 600 of my constituents who are members of the British Tamil community, who recently came to see me and my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) at a public meeting to tell us of their fear, frustration and anger about what is going on in Sri Lanka, and particularly to tell us about their fears for their families in Sri Lanka. Fifty thousand people are trapped in 5 square miles of Sri Lankan territory between the military and the LTTE. They are sitting targets, they are dying, they are being injured, and they are being terrorised. When they do escape, they find themselves in so-called welfare camps, which are little more than concentration camps, with no rights, no food and no humanitarian relief. There is no independent humanitarian access or rights of monitoring.

Outside this place at this very moment, and for many days previously, thousands of Tamils have come to Parliament square to make their voice heard, and today Parliament made its voice heard on these matters.

The petition states:

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