Previous Section Index Home Page


21 July 2009 : Column 856

Storage of Embryos

10.4 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): My second petition relates to an issue of human rights in respect of people who have had life-saving medical treatment but, as a result, become infertile. However, they have made provision to store embryos prior to the treatment so that they are able to have biological children of their own. It cannot be right to force those in such circumstances-those who have embryos stored under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990-to destroy those embryos because there is a gap between that Act and the 2008 Act. A statutory instrument before the House at the moment will, I hope, be debated in October. It would be tragic if embryos were destroyed in September and therefore the House did not have a chance to bring its judgment to bear on the matter. I hope therefore that, at the very least, Ministers will act to prevent that destruction prior to the House returning in October. I believe that there should be no destruction at all.

The petition states:


21 July 2009 : Column 857

Gurkha Pensions

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Kerry McCarthy.)

10.7 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have this debate, the last act of the Session. I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker, and wish you and your family a happy recess. I also welcome the Minister, the Whip and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell).

This is an important debate and one that has reverberated for some months since the settlement issue was resolved. I have taken an active part in the matter, as the Minister will know. I have asked a number of parliamentary questions and I feature in the accompanying paper from the Library, which is a good backcloth to the issue.

Surprisingly, in some respects, I supported the Government over the settlement issue. I did so because I felt that the motion moved by the Liberal Democrats was opportunistic and did not take account of the full consequences of settlement, principally Gurkha pensions. I did not go gooey-eyed at the thought of having my photo taken with Joanna Lumley, but I took some stick in my local press from people who thought I was unwilling to take the side of the Gurkhas. I am trying to reverse that now by taking forward the argument on Gurkha pensions.

This is an issue that leads to considerable emotion as I found when I met the Gurkha Welfare Society. I thought it was a useful meeting. I also went to see the Nepalese chargé d'affaires in London. There is another reason why I voted as I did. It involves a Member whom I shall not name as he is a good friend of mine who sits on the Opposition Benches. He is a former Gurkha officer and some years ago he expressed the concern to me that if we got this wrong by arbitrarily changing the conditions of service and Gurkha pensions, we could end up doing the very thing we did not want to do: undermine, and possibly destroy, the Gurkha relationship with the British armed forces, rather than sustain it. It was therefore important to find out whether that was likely, and what the repercussions were of the settlement vote.

Things have moved on and some sores have healed, but there is an ongoing worry and growing anger. It is felt that the pay and conditions, and principally the pensions, have to be resolved as a matter of urgency. That was the sentiment of the Nepalese Government representatives and the Gurkha Welfare Society.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister has, in a sense, got his retaliation in first as a letter has been sent to the Members who signed early-day motion 1726, which basically sets out the Government's position-I am not going to pursue that argument now because I am sure the Minister will use his own opportunity to respond to my points. The Government position, if I have got this right, is that the arrangement whereby, pre-1997, the Gurkha pension scheme is the extant method by which people are paid, and post-1997, people move on to the regular armed forces pension scheme, should not be subject to retrospection. The Government feel that legal judgments support their view. They also feel that the pre-1997 rewards to those 36,000 Gurkha pensioners are sufficient because many of them are
21 July 2009 : Column 858
living in Nepal, and that the process of moving from the old to the new scheme has been relatively painless. They believe that it is only right and proper that the differential is upheld.

I met the Gurkha Welfare Society, and Major Tikendradal Dewan in particular said to me that although they do not want any particular special favours, they want justice, and they feel that the pensions are not right. They refer back to the tripartite agreement between Britain, India and Nepal and the fact that Gurkhas who retired before 1997 are considerably worse off. The crux of the questions I have put to the Government are about the £1.5 billion cost of not only the pensions but of the settlement, and its repercussions for pensions. That figure has been questioned. It is not a cheap option, and now we have gone along the settlement route, we must get the pensions right. I welcome this opportunity to debate the issue. The Gurkha Welfare Society asked me to put in some questions, which I have done, and to seek an Adjournment debate, which I have also now achieved.

The notion is that there is still unfairness because of the 1997 break. Those Gurkhas who received a pension before 1997 receive a much lower pension than those awarded one post 1997, and they feel that that has got to be put right. At present, these 36,000 Gurkhas receive a monthly pension supplement of as little as a sixth, or even as low as an eighth, of that of a UK soldier whom they serve alongside. A Gurkha pension received today by those who retired prior 1997 is about £172 per month for a rank below corporal, and £351 for a lieutenant, which is way below the figures for someone on the armed forces pension scheme.

I know that the argument that the Government advance is that, in the main, Gurkhas have served for less time and have retired earlier, even though these are very brave people who have served this country immeasurably in so many different ways. However, this sore has to be recognised and remedied. Gurkhas feel that it is a form of discrimination and make the point that one of the reasons why they retired earlier and served less time was because that was the expectation. The 15-year limitation was not of their making; it was what the scheme demanded. Many Gurkhas would have liked to have served for longer, but the scheme did not allow them to do so. In addition, many served much shorter times than that and so are particularly disadvantaged.

Contrary to what the Minister has said-I know that he has been to Nepal and I am sure that he will talk about that-former Gurkhas who have retired to Nepal do not have a life of luxury and many face deprivations. As they say-this point has been made clearly to me-one strong reason why so many have to seek alternative employment and take on dangerous jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they do not see themselves having a well-paid future in Nepal. They have, thus, sought to use their military expertise in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.

My final point on this element of my submission is that a penalty is implicitly involved for those who have converted from the Gurkha pension scheme to the armed forces pension scheme: a transfer rate of three to one; for every 15 years on the GPS someone gets only five years on the AFPS. That penalty is discriminatory and is where much of the hurt comes from.

21 July 2009 : Column 859

I know that complex arguments are involved here, including those about where the Gurkhas were based. The Gurkha regiment was not necessarily based in this country, although at times in the 1960s there was a regiment here. There was a regiment in Hong Kong until July 1997, and so making comparisons is difficult. However, if we believe in justice and fairness-we have now accepted the settlement issue-we must move on the pension issue. If we do not, we will be penalising the very people who may wish to come to this country and who we are now encouraging to come to this country. They will be coming here on a pension that will not allow them to live in this country on anything other than poverty wages.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): My constituency contains a large Gurkha community; the Hayes Nepalese association has now been formed and it contains at least 500 people. The old patterns of pension payment no longer reflect the pattern of settlement of Gurkhas, as families now want to reunite, even in this country. As a result, some are living on very low incomes.

Mr. Drew: That is the case, which is why I am pleased to have secured this debate, even if it is at this late hour, at the very last moment of this Session. We have examined the settlement issue in terms of the closeness of ties, and we have now identified that that closeness is a strong reason why settlement is allowed, but we must move further on the equality of treatment, particularly pension treatment. The comparison with India and those troops from the Indian part of the tripartite agreement is also worth dwelling on for a moment. The Gorkhas-the Indian equivalent of the Gurkhas-were similarly disadvantaged because there was, again, a break pre-1997. Interestingly, India has recognised that that break is wrong and I understand that it now treats those who retired before that date in the same way as it treats those who retired thereafter. That makes a significant difference, and there has always been an understanding that that is right in that case, so I ask the Minister why that does not apply to the Gurkhas. It is causing hurt among those who have retired as well as to later generations, because Gurkha servicemen do not think, "Oh, we're all right and our predecessors do not matter." This matters to one and all in the Gurkha community and to many others in Nepal.

I ask the Minister to look again at this issue. I am sure that he will say that the law is clear, and there have been judgments that would allow the Government to feel that the 1997 break is the right place for the differential to be imposed. But that is not the view of the Gurkha community, and it is certainly not the view of the Gurkha Welfare Society, which has raised this with me and other hon. Members.

It is not only a question of money. There is an argument about what this would cost. If many Gurkhas came to settle in this country, fewer resources would be available for Nepal. The Nepalese Government representatives have made it clear that it is up to the individuals to make their minds up where they wish to reside. As long as they receive support when they are living in Nepal, the Nepalese Government will be satisfied, but if people choose to resettle in this country, they have to be compensated for the higher cost of living, and that can be done only if they have a decent pension.

21 July 2009 : Column 860

The Gurkhas are a key part of the British armed forces, and we wish that to remain the case. But there is an ongoing feeling of unfairness. This will not go away even if the settlement issue has been resolved. I ask my hon. Friend to look carefully at what is being said, how this can be funded, to talk directly both to the Gurkha Welfare Society, which is the advocate for the Gurkhas, and to the Nepalese Government-who support the Gurkhas who choose to live in this country and those who choose to live in Nepal-and to provide the wherewithal so that we can resolve this situation once and for all.

10.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing tonight's Adjournment debate on Gurkha pensions, which gives me an opportunity to explain what the Government are doing for Gurkha pension arrangements and explode some of the myths that surround them. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend has repeated some of those myths tonight.

The Government recognise the debt of honour that we owe the Gurkhas, their bravery and the contribution that they have made not only in current operations but in the first and second world wars, as well as their proud tradition of contributing to the security and safety of our country. We need to recognise that the issue of Gurkha pensions cannot be taken in isolation from other pension arrangements for either the British armed forces or other public servants. Gurkha pensions are part of a wider package of terms and conditions of service that were designed to recognise and reward the dedication to which I have just referred. Many high-quality recruits come forward every year to enter the Gurkha regiment-typically 17,000 for 2,000 places. A place in the Gurkha regiment is highly prized by families in Nepal.

In general, pension schemes need to recognise the service given by individuals in their occupations, and that is what the Gurkha pension scheme has done for successive generations of Gurkhas. I want to dispel one myth. I was in Nepal earlier this year, and I know that the pension provides a comfortable retirement income. To describe Gurkha pensioners as living in poverty or deprivation could not be further from the truth. I met many of them when I was in the country, and I can tell my hon. Friend that their standard of living is very high compared with that of many of their fellow citizens. I shall say more about that later.

Before I explain the position of Gurkha veterans, it is important to dispel some myths surrounding the GPS. It cannot be separated from other pension schemes, including the current and previous schemes for our armed forces. It has been the policy of this and previous Governments that the terms and conditions of pension arrangements cannot be changed retrospectively after people leave public service. That is true for the GPS and for the pension schemes covering the armed forces and the public sector as a whole. The GPS cannot be treated separately so I shall deal with it in detail because, when we talk about "equalisation", we must understand what that means in practice.

Let us be clear-under the GPS, all Gurkhas with service after 1997 now enjoy the same terms and conditions as their British equivalents. We are therefore talking
21 July 2009 : Column 861
about veterans who retired before 1997 and comparing their scheme with that of their contemporaries with the same period of service.

The GPS pays a pension after a rifleman has completed 15 years' service, so a man who joins at the age of 18 can retire at 33. In contrast, the armed forces pension scheme 1975 does not pay a pension until age 60 for other ranks with fewer than 22 years' service. That covers the majority of British veterans, and means that most Gurkhas receive a significant pension value before equivalent British soldiers receive anything at all.

My hon. Friend was right to say that, by the time they reach 60, Gurkhas receive lower monthly pension payments than their British counterparts. However, Gurkhas soldiers will have received some 27 years' of annual payments by that point, whereas their British equivalents will have received none.

In any scheme, the earlier pensions are drawn, the lower the annual payments will be. Nevertheless, the reality is that a Gurkha who reaches 60 will generally have received at least as much pension value as a British soldier with an identical period of service, if not more.

For example, a Gurkha rifleman who retired in 1994 at age 33 will have received some £61,000 in pension payments so far, at 2009 prices. In comparison, a member of the armed forces pension scheme 1975 who is the same age will not have received any pension yet. When both turn 60 in 2021, the Gurkha will receive an annual payment of £2,900, whereas his British equivalent will start getting £5,700 a year. That is assuming that the retail prices index in both countries is the same, although in fact the rate in Nepal is, at 14 per cent., much higher than here. As I announced earlier this year, we have increased Gurkha pensions in line with that rate so, based on those figures, the British soldier would never catch up with his Gurkha equivalent.

The crossover point, when a British veteran's pension is significantly better than that of a Gurkha, is generally at senior NCO level. If we agreed to equalisation, the only significant improvement would be for a relatively small group-about 10 per cent.-of officers. It is not the case that equalisation of the pension would benefit the majority of Gurkhas.

The Gurkha pension provides a good standard of living in Nepal. The figures look low in comparison with Britain, but £172 a month is equivalent to the salary of a doctor or chief of police in Nepal, and more than is paid to a Member of Parliament there. A British soldier who served less than 22 years before 1975 receives no pension at all. Many Members have championed the cause of people who served 21 years before 1975 and received no pension.

Next Section Index Home Page