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2.33 pm

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I, too, thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time on the Floor of the House to debate this important subject. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) for the extraordinary work she and her office did—and, I understand, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins)—in organising the inquiry. The logistics of organising it were quite immense. I guess that more than 200 people attended some of the hearings. It was a magnificent sight to see serving and veteran Gurkhas in the Committee Rooms on the floor above the Chamber.

Many of the subjects addressed by the inquiry report have already been mentioned in hon. Members’ contributions, but what brings together many of our interests is that we have Gurkhas in our constituencies. In Brecon and Radnor, based around the old garrison town of Brecon, we have the Mandalay company of Gurkhas, which is a demonstration unit for the training of senior non-commissioned officers in the British Army. Much of the training takes place in Sennybridge or up on the Epynt ranges. The Gurkha soldiers act both as forces to be commanded by the senior NCOs, or as attack forces so that the senior NCOs can organise defences. The Gurkhas play a very valuable role in ensuring that our NCOs in the British Army are of the highest calibre and quality.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) mentioned the consequences of resettlement, and we certainly have some of the same consequences in Brecon, although not on the same scale. Seeing elderly Gurkhas walking around the streets of Brecon, unable to understand where they are or to communicate with the rest of the community, is quite distressing. The Gurkhas are in general very welcome in Brecon, and their children are certainly very welcome in our schools. If I may put it this way, Brecon and Radnorshire does not have a very ethnically diverse community, so having Gurkha children in school is a real advantage to our schoolchildren.

The Gurkhas have been given the freedom of the borough of Brecon. Every year they march through Brecon in a wonderful ceremony, in which they bear arms—they are allowed to do so, having been given the freedom of the borough—and afterwards we are entertained by a display of dancing by Gurkha soldiers and children, which provides a real element of cohesion.

The more elderly Gurkhas who come to Brecon, without the ability to speak English, certainly have great difficulty in dealing with benefits and such issues, and that can be quite distressing. I have tried, although not with my hon. Friend’s success, to get extra funds for a support officer for the Gurkhas.

Sir Gerald Howarth: My hon. Friend is making a very important point. The £1.5 million that came to Rushmoor was not exclusively for Rushmoor. The council, particularly its chief executive, Andrew Lloyd, has done a huge amount of work to try to use some of the money to help other councils that are similarly affected. I cannot promise anything, but if my hon. Friend would like to write me a note, I will see what I can do.

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Roger Williams: That is most helpful. I dare not mention the Barnett formula in this debate, but I was wondering whether such money might flow into Wales. I thank my hon. Friend for his very kind offer.

The major subject of the report was the equalisation of pensions. There is no point trying to skate around it: like other hon. Members, I find it very difficult to recommend a move towards equalising pensions, because it is very hard retrospectively to alter pension arrangements that were entered into voluntarily by people when they were recruited into the Gurkha regiments.

The report mentioned a number of difficult issues, which are obviously of real concern to Gurkha veterans, that I think the Government could do something about. If the veterans were funded by some of the LIBOR money that is meant to be used to support the work of the military covenant, that would be very well received by the Gurkhas. Let me run quickly through such issues.

Damian Collins: Does my hon. Friend agree that the inquiry highlighted a number of terms and conditions that seem extremely archaic? For example, it was not until the 1990s that Gurkhas were allowed to marry non-Gurkhas.

Roger Williams: My hon. Friend is quite right. That is a point that I was going to come on to. Not only were Gurkhas not allowed to marry non-Gurkha women; if they did, they were discharged from the Army and, as a result, had no pension at all. That affects some of the Gurkha veterans that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock mentioned.

We have an arrangement with the Sultan of Brunei, who runs a very light-touch taxation system. Our Gurkha soldiers, being based in Brunei, were not liable to tax, but the Ministry of Defence took some money off their pay in management fees. That was equivalent to a tax. The MOD could look at that again, because it was iniquitous. Gurkhas serving in this country were given dummy national insurance numbers, but they did not get the benefits that a national insurance number and paying national insurance in this country should generate.

Another issue is health care in Nepal. Although the pension of the Gurkhas in Nepal was increased to address that issue, they have to pay for their health care. As I understand it, Gurkhas in the Indian army do not have to pay for their health care. The Ministry of Defence could look at that issue as well.

During the evidence to the inquiry, there was criticism of the Gurkha Welfare Trust and its work in Nepal. I have talked to a constituent who was quite senior in the trust, but he said that he was out of touch with what was going on at the moment and referred me to somebody else. However, I have not had time to talk to that gentleman yet. The criticism was made that the funds of the Gurkha Welfare Trust were not used entirely for the benefit of Gurkha soldiers in Nepal and their families. A review of the work of the Gurkha Welfare Trust would perhaps not be inappropriate.

Gurkhas were encouraged to invest in Equitable Life to increase their pensions. I wonder whether the Gurkhas who did invest in Equitable Life have received the benefits that the Government have given to other people

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who invested in it to compensate them for their losses, especially if they were advised by the MOD or some other organisation to save through that route.

Once again, we come back to the main grievance of the Gurkha people, which is the equalisation of pensions. There are some quite young Gurkha retirees in Brecon who are in good employment, as the hon. Member for Aldershot described. They tell me that they were senior NCOs or warrant officers in the Gurkha regiment, but because only part of their service was after 1997, the pensions that they receive are a lot lower than the pensions of people who were in British regiments. They are really aggrieved about that, as one can understand. They put their lives on the line for this country, yet they are not getting the same rewards as many of their fellow soldiers.

It is difficult for the inquiry or the MOD to make a move at the moment because there is an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. As far as I am concerned, the matter is in limbo and it would be difficult for anybody to come to a conclusion. There is much in the report and the work that we have done that will be welcomed by the Gurkhas, but their great concern is that there will be no move to equalise pensions.

2.44 pm

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and the other Members who made powerful speeches.

I am delighted to speak in this debate. I have taken a keen interest in the campaigns that have been undertaken by the Gurkhas for a number of years. I am pleased to hear that the inquiry is making good progress under the excellent stewardship of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). I look forward to reading the full report and recommendations very soon. I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Backbench Business Committee on holding this debate, which comes one year shy of the 200th anniversary of the Gurkhas first serving in the British Army.

Any mention of the Gurkhas would not be complete without paying tribute to their service and their bravery. From Sierra Leone to Kosovo, the Gurkhas have been a fixture of the British armed forces. Their skill and bravery have been widely praised again this afternoon. The Gurkhas have served in every major conflict in which Britain has been involved since the Falklands. If any group of people are deserving of this House’s time and attention, it is these brave soldiers and veterans.

Because of their history and record, the Gurkhas command widespread public support. There is a great strength of feeling that they should receive fair treatment from the Ministry of Defence and the British Government. The treatment of the Gurkhas should not have been reliant on a campaign led by Joanna Lumley, although her dedication and tireless zeal were admirable. This issue holds the attention of the wider public. That is certainly the case in my constituency, where there is a significant Nepalese community. It is estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 Gurkhas live in the Reading area. It is not just the Nepalese community that feels strongly about the treatment of the Gurkhas: at the height of the campaign for residency in 2009, people

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from all backgrounds asked me to intervene and support the campaign. Perhaps with hindsight one can say that those people did not all fully understand the consequences of the changes that were made.

The Gurkhas in my local community are supported by a number of fantastically hard-working local charities, such as the Reading Ex-British Gurkha Association and the Gurkha veteran centre. Those organisations provide much needed practical support and a sense of community and friendship for Gurkhas.

I fear that I am personally responsible for some of the work load of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock on this issue. Indeed, this morning I received a handwritten note from her:

“Do hope you can join the debate on Thursday—you got me into this!”

I am afraid I plead guilty, although it was actually my constituent Gyanraj Rai, who was on hunger strike last year in Downing street. He is a friend and someone I campaigned alongside for years, so it was very distressing to see him literally fading away, and I wanted to stop him taking his life. With the support of my hon. Friend, I managed to broker a deal that led to the Gurkha welfare all-party group inquiry, which I hope will lead to a more congenial relationship between Gurkhas and the MOD in future.

I do not regret getting my hon. Friend into this. She has done an outstanding job so far and should have all our thanks and congratulations. However, I stand by the view I gave at the time that the tactic of hunger striking was misguided, and in a democracy that cannot be the way to conduct or resolve an honest debate. The Government are put in the invidious position that if they give in there will be a procession of other hunger strikers outside Downing street who think they will be successful. Even more importantly, it put huge strain on the local community, and even more so on the family of Gyanraj Rai. I remember when it was over that Mr Rai’s wife sought me out in the crowd, embraced me, broke down in tears and thanked me for helping to end the hunger strike. I think we both knew that he would have gone through to the bitter end. With the establishment of the inquiry, I am hopeful that a real discussion can be triggered about the Gurkhas’ wider grievances and concerns, not just pensions but health care, education and other issues that have affected the community.

Jackie Doyle-Price: Having been reminded of the events around the hunger strike, I wish to put it on the record—I would welcome my hon. Friend’s feedback on this—just how positive it has been to see all the Gurkha groups positively engage with the institutions of our democracy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) said, we had upwards of 200 Gurkhas at each of the meetings. Let us go ahead in the spirit of that mature dialogue.

Mr Wilson: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. From this point onwards it is important to keep that type of engagement going, and I hope to say a little more about that.

We are talking not just about pensions but about wider issues of health care, education and so on. I worry that in the past Governments did not truly listen to the Gurkha community, but as a consequence of my hon. Friend’s inquiry that cannot continue to be the

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case. I wish to draw the House’s attention to two parts of the evidence given to the inquiry that I feel are particularly noteworthy, and I hope Ministers will take time to respond to them comprehensively.

The first is the evidence given by my friend and constituent Gyanraj Rai. His description of poverty in Nepal was moving and should throw into sharp focus the importance of the subject under discussion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) said, there is perhaps a bigger role for the Department for International Development in Nepal, with the UK giving more assistance to health services and education to veterans. Education and trade are ways we can build a better future for Nepal, but it will take time and a lot of effort. I hope we can reflect some of that in the report.

Mr Gray: My hon. Friend mentioned Nepal, and one point we have not touched on is the downside in Nepal of the Gurkhas being resettled in the United Kingdom, which is significant. I visited a number of DFID bases in Nepal and they do fantastic work, particularly in educating women in Nepal. We should pay tribute to DFID for the huge contribution that Britain makes to some of those efforts in that country.

Mr Wilson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Some hon. Friends and colleagues from across the House are visiting Nepal, and it would be useful to get their feedback on what is happening on the ground. A lot of people have left Nepal to come to the UK, and one worries that there is a hollowing out of the community and society there because of that.

Gyanraj gave an account of his experience of what he described as a punitive approach to discipline, leading to some Gurkhas losing their pensions. If that has been the case, and evidence is provided for it, I hope that the Ministry of Defence will look into the matter carefully and respond accordingly.

I was also interested to read the Government’s response to the inquiry’s questions, which I felt for the first time put many of the Gurkhas’ questions properly on the record in one place. I thank the Ministers responsible for their work. I feel that many of their arguments are persuasive, especially with regard to the general principle of not having retrospective changes. However, more must be done to ensure that the community is engaged with the MOD’s reasoning, as that would encourage an improved relationship with parts of the Gurkha community.

I fear that the complexity of the pension issue is the greatest stumbling block we face, because whatever accommodation is reached is likely to cause further anomalies and exclude someone or some group. The situation with pre and post-1997 pensions is far from ideal, but we must ensure that any recommendations and changes do not make the situation worse. I await the final report with interest and hope that Ministers respond comprehensively in due course. I also hope the opinions of hon. Members that we have heard today are taken into account.

It is likely that we will be unable to deliver on every proposal or grievance that the inquiry hears, as doing so may incur an unsustainable financial cost. My hope is that the inquiry deals fairly with the long-standing Gurkha grievances. I hope it finds a way for more Gurkhas to remain in Nepal and to have a successful

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and fulfilled life there without feeling the financial pull of coming to the UK. I further hope that the bad feeling that has developed between the MOD and Gurkha representatives over many years can be cleared up, so that reasonable dialogue can take place in future.

We are entering a crucial time for the Gurkhas and their grievances. It is important that we openly engage in sensible and honest dialogue on solutions. We owe the Gurkhas a serious, independent and honest report. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock will deliver just that.

2.56 pm

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in this incredibly important debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who has been a champion of Gurkha welfare. The campaign she has run, both individually and as part of the all-party group, has been a master-class in getting an issue to the forefront of Ministers’ minds. She made a brilliant speech, and I will not repeat the points that she or other hon. Members have made in this interesting debate.

I pay tribute to the Gurkha veterans who live in my constituency. Mr Bhutia, Mr Rai, Mr Garong and Mr Thapa have been to see me several times to explain their concerns in detail. I pay tribute to Tashi Bhutia, whom I am proud to call a friend. He was the first Conservative Gurkha councillor, which makes the point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). He is standing again for the council in next year’s elections. He has made a valuable contribution to the community, not only as an elected politician, but as a local family man who represents the Gurkha community, and as a much-valued employee of BAE Rochester. He has integrated very well into the community—he and his family have lived in this country for more than 20 years—and acts as a major conduit between other members of the Gurkha community and elected politicians such as me.

The Gurkha community has a clear association with Kent and Medway. As my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) said—Hythe is my home town—many Gurkhas have settled in the area around the coastal barracks of Shorncliffe. It was right that the military parade before the unveiling of the Step Short memorial arch by His Royal Highness Prince Harry in Folkestone on 4 August—my hon. Friend was chairman of the committee—was led by the band of the Brigade of Gurkhas. That was incredibly appreciated by the local community throughout the county. It was well respected as a consequence.

Other hon. Members have made it clear that the Gurkhas have served this nation with great pride and loyalty. Many sacrificed their lives for our nation’s freedom and democracy. Nobody underestimates that. We all have sympathy with the fact that all they ask is to be valued equally to their British and Commonwealth counterparts. I hear hon. Members’ concerns about whether terms and conditions can be rewritten, but I think there is a gap that needs to be addressed, and I will come to that shortly.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, I supported the Joanna Lumley campaign. I appreciate the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member

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for Aldershot—I am not in the same position, as a constituency MP, but people should respect his standing up for his wider constituency in outlining possible unintended consequences of the resettlement campaign. Nevertheless, I think it was the right campaign and the right outcome.

Sir Gerald Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being so understanding, because it is important that people realise that Aldershot is particularly affected. I must put it on the record, however, that many of my constituents feel extremely aggrieved that Joanna Lumley, having run that very emotional campaign, has been nowhere near Aldershot ever since, as far as I am aware.

Tracey Crouch: That is a matter for Joanna Lumley.

Sir Gerald Howarth: I was just putting it on the record.

Tracey Crouch: It is important that my hon. Friend does that, but the issue of resettlement was an emotional one; everybody in the nation got caught up in the campaign, one way or another. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) made clear, it was a good campaign at the time. It might have had unintended consequences, but goodness—if we thought only about the possible unintended consequences of what we do in the House and of campaigns we run, we would do nothing. It is fair to say, however, that the vast numbers forecast to flood into the UK did not appear, and many who came now live in poverty—an unfortunate and unforeseen consequence of the resettlement campaign.

My constituents tell me they want to live a life of dignity, not live on charity handouts from the Ministry of Defence and others, but unfortunately that is happening, and in many respects that is the nub of the issue. I congratulate the British Gurkha Welfare Society on its ongoing campaign. It is important to recognise that much progress has been made on the welfare of Gurkhas in the UK. We have mentioned the settlement rights, but much progress has also been made on visas and access to rehabilitation, as I have seen in my constituency with a horrifically injured Gurkha being cared for by the Royal British Legion Industries in Aylesford—a site that has been a rehabilitation centre since the beginning of the first world war. Progress has also been made regarding the financial support for those settling in the UK.

Furthermore, the Department for International Development has spent, and continues to spend, a lot of money supporting programmes to improve access to quality health services in Nepal. As was mentioned, the Nepal health sector programme provides £72 million on increasing access to those services, which, taken alongside the Government’s £1.5 million fund to help Gurkhas settle in the UK, represents an incredibly important financial investment.

I want to address the thorny issue of pensions. The British Gurkha Welfare Society states on its website that,

“Gurkhas receive a pension of only £2,150 per year with the many that relocate to the UK being reliant on pension tax credits and State benefits to survive. A pension of £5,000 per year would enable these veterans to live out their lives in comfort and without reliance on charity”.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock made that point incredibly well. If we address some of the gap between what they currently receive and what they should receive—not, I appreciate, as part of their terms and conditions, but perhaps in the spirit that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe mentioned —ironically we could end up saving the state money, because it would reduce their reliance on state benefits.

That said, I recognise that this issue is before the European Court, so I would not encourage the Minister to make any further statement or commitment today, but we need to think about how and why people joined the British Army and how they have been treated since their service. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock and others about the 7,000 Gurkhas who get nothing at all is one that we need to look at—and thoroughly. When the report from the inquiry is published, I am sure that that will be a key aspect of it.

Sir Gerald Howarth: It is kind of my hon. Friend to give way yet again. Yes, these are hard cases, but I was a shadow Minister for veterans and I was made acutely aware of the range of existing anomalies for British ex-service personnel, not least the post-retirement marriage issue. It is all very well to say that we must give way here, but there will be a real outcry from many other former service personnel who have also served our country and feel that they have a grievance. If this one is addressed before their grievances, my hon. Friend will get a few letters.

Tracey Crouch: I am glad to have given way to my hon. Friend, who raises an incredibly valid point. The Minister is aware that she has letters on her desk, awaiting signature, in reply to me on this very matter. I am not suggesting that one grievance should take priority over another; I am simply saying that this one must be addressed. There certainly is an anomaly; there is a gap, and it is only right and fair to have a look at it. The proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock on LIBOR is an excellent idea. If that can somehow help to reduce some of the burden and the gap, I think it would be the right way forward.

We should be—I think most of us generally are—very proud of how the nation views and respects our armed forces: both those serving now and those who have served. I do not believe that anyone thinks there should be any discrimination within that. The report from the inquiry will be essential. As many have pointed out, with the 200th anniversary coming up next year, now is the right time to address these outstanding issues. I look forward to reading the report. Once again, I congratulate all those involved. My interest in the issue is not just one of emotion. I want to represent my constituents who have fought and served this country abroad while serving within the Brigade of Gurkhas. I am proud to call many of them my friends, and I hope that we will be able to address this matter within acceptable time scales.

3.7 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I would like to record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for its excellent work in facilitating debates such as this one today. I congratulate the

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hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) on securing the debate on Gurkha pensions and terms of employment. The topic has been discussed at length here before but, as I would have expected, she gave an extremely thoughtful and well balanced speech. We have heard knowledgeable and passionate speeches from other Members, highlighting very specific concerns, including the issue of dismissals and Hawaii. I shall not get involved in those; I am sure the Minister will consider all those detailed and specific points.

I thank the hon. Member for Thurrock for the hard work that she and her colleagues do in the all-party group. Many people and organisations have given up their time—we have heard about the huge number of attendees—in connection with it. Having walked down the Committee corridor on a number of occasions when events were taking place, I know that the hon. Lady has had an interesting and, I suspect, at times quite difficult-to-manage task. She deserves the plaudits she was given, particularly from the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth); they were entirely justified.

Members will understand why so many colleagues have been absent from today’s debate, but the defence of the United Kingdom and the Union is a paramount concern. Scotland plays an important role in the overall defence of our realm. A yes vote, which would leave the Scots unable to respond to incidents, without intelligence cover and losing jobs is not, I think, something that any Member in the Chamber would want to see, so I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aldershot for his comments. As he said, many Members whose constituencies contain significant Gurkha and Nepalese communities have gone to fight for the Union today.

The hon. Member for Thurrock set out some of the initial findings, and highlighted some of the key issues that had been raised with the all-party group. I am pleased that she sought to obtain this debate in order to listen to the views of Members, and—here I return to the fact that so many Members have not been able to participate in it because of their commitments elsewhere—I hope that she will pursue the issue. I hope that she will give all Members a copy of the report of the debate, and seek their views further to ensure that she has all bases covered. I am sure that others will want to read what has been said here today.

Members in all parts of the House recognise the enormous contribution made by the Gurkha soldiers to Britain. The Gurkhas are held in much public affection and esteem by the British public, and rightly so. They have represented and protected our nation gallantly for well over 100 years—indeed, as we heard from the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), for approaching 200 years. They fought alongside British troops before and during the first and second world wars, and continue that tradition in present-day operations. I was interested to hear what was said by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) about the Mandalay company’s involvement in training in his constituency. That, I think, illustrates just how important the Gurkhas are currently to the British armed services.

The last Government, appreciating the contribution and service of the Gurkhas, made a commitment to honour the Gurkha regiments, first by eliminating differences between their terms and conditions of service and those of their British counterparts, and later by

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delivering the first ever rights of settlement for Gurkhas, their spouses and their dependent children. We are proud of the work that we did in government in enhancing the lives of Gurkha soldiers and their families. I understand, however, that although there have been significant developments in recent years in relation to the pay and conditions of Gurkha soldiers and the extension of their right to settle in the UK, some outstanding grievances remain. We heard about a number of them during the debate, and of course we have also heard from Gurkhas and organisations that represent them, such as the Gurkha Welfare Trust.

Chief among those grievances is the issue relating to Gurkha pension arrangements for those who served prior to 1997. The last Government introduced a policy under which all who served after 1997 were able to transfer into the armed forces pension scheme and enjoy the same terms and conditions as their British equivalents. Of course, before 1997, Gurkha regiments were focused in the far east. Recruits came from Nepal, pay and other conditions reflected the terms available in the Indian army and it was assumed that Gurkhas would retire not in the UK, but in their home country of Nepal.

Following the transfer of the Brigade of Gurkhas to the United Kingdom in 1997, it seemed only right for the Gurkhas’ terms and conditions to be brought in line with those of British soldiers. As increasing numbers of Gurkhas were based here and began to put down roots in the UK, it became necessary to give them the right to settle with their families, a right that the last Government delivered. As for those who had served before 1997, and who were not part of the cohort of soldiers who moved with the base to the UK, it was still the expectation that they would settle in Nepal. They remained under the Gurkha pension scheme, which allows them to collect a pension after 15 years of service—far less than for a British soldier—and which provides them with an amount that can secure a good standard of living in Nepal.

I heard what the hon. Member for Thurrock said about the way in which that income is now spent, and what other Members said about the pressures on those living in Nepal. I shall be interested to read the evidence from the all-party review, particularly that relating to medical services. I am sure that the Minister will also be interested to read it when it is made public.

During a debate on this topic in 2009, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) pointed out that the early payment of pensions for Gurkhas, after 15 years of service, actually means that most Gurkhas receive a significant pension before equivalent soldiers receive anything at all. A Gurkha soldier enrolled in the Gurkha pension scheme who enlisted at the age of 18 would have been able to retire at 33 and begin to collect his pension then. That has raised a number of issues; as I have said, I shall be interested to see the report. Members have posed further questions to the Minister today, including questions about the use of LIBOR funding and various other pots of money, and I am sure that she will give that some thought. I listened with interest, and I shall listen with great interest to the Minister’s response, although I suspect that she, like Opposition Members, will want to see the detail and consider it, because the devil is always in the detail when looking at such complex issues.

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In contrast, those under the armed forces pension scheme 1975 cannot collect a pension until they are 60. By the time they reach 60 it is correct to say that the Gurkhas will receive lower monthly payments than their British counterparts, but they will have already benefited from 27 years of annual payments by that time, whereas the British soldier will have received none.

We should also remember, of course, that the Gurkha pension scheme cannot be separated from other pension schemes, including the current and previous schemes for our armed forces. It has been the policy of Governments across time that the terms and conditions of pension arrangements cannot be changed retrospectively after people leave public service. I know that a number of organisations are still seeking to make changes to the pension arrangements for those who served prior to 1997, and as Members have pointed out, there has been a series of legal challenges, to the High Court and Court of Appeal. The latter found, in relation to the pre-1997 pension arrangement, that the previous Government had acted fairly, especially given that the soldiers’ entire service was completed before the base was moved from Hong Kong, and at a time when the assumption and, importantly, the reality was retirement to a life in Nepal. We maintain that the policy introduced by the last Labour Government was reasonable, rational and lawful.

I should like to touch briefly on the emotional and complex issue of the changes sought to rules in relation to adult children. With regard to changes in the rules to allow adult children to settle in the UK, we must be clear that the UK Government’s policy has to be consistent and fair. What has been sought would not be in line with policy offered to other former servicemen from abroad and with wider UK immigration policy. This is a highly emotive area, but the Home Office has very clear rules about this, and those rules need to be acknowledged.

Jackie Doyle-Price: The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we must ensure that our application of our immigration laws is consistent. A number of Gurkhas are applying to get their families over on the basis of a right to family life, but ultimately anyone can apply under other visas—student visas or work visas—and does the hon. Lady agree that their adult families might use those routes, rather than the right to family life or any right that might arise from their veterans’ service?

Alison Seabeck: The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, although it would probably be better answered by a Home Office expert than me. This is complex, however. I have in my constituency a large number of Fijians who are based in Plymouth and in the Navy, and have a long-standing commitment. They could possibly equally argue that things need to be altered because of their degree and level of service. The rules must be clear, consistent and fair. If the hon. Lady’s report can give an indication that that would be the case, I am sure the Home Secretary would be interested to read it—and I, too, would be interested to read it—but at the moment, as the rules stand, there can be no specific exceptions.

This is not a day for tub-thumping party politics, but I make one small observation: the Gurkhas are being disproportionately affected by the Government’s handling

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of their proposed reform to the armed forces and the rationale behind the removal of 350 Gurkhas from service still needs some explanation—but I will go no further on that point in terms of the cuts to the regiments and the timing.

The welfare and well-being of our serving personnel and our veterans is a priority for this party, as I am sure it is for the Government parties. That is one reason why we pushed so hard to enshrine the principles of the armed forces covenant in law. It is also why we undertook to introduce equal pay and pension rights for Gurkhas and to provide them with the option to settle in the United Kingdom if they wished to.

We have heard from many hon. Members. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) highlighted his constituency links to the Nepalese community in a very positive way. The hon. Member for Aldershot spoke of the pressures of resettlement on local councils and health services. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) spoke of her constituent’s commitment to his community in being elected as a local councillor. None of us would want to suggest that the Gurkhas and other members of the Nepalese community are anything other than a positive benefit to the communities in which they settle, as long as the right support is in place for them. The Gurkhas play a vital role in our armed forces, and I hope that we can look forward to many more years of their dedicated, brave, committed and highly skilled service.

3.20 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Anna Soubry): I thank the Backbench Business Committee for ensuring that the debate has come into this place. I also want to pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). It is important that I set the record straight regarding certain comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), of whom I make no criticism. There might have been a suggestion, given the note from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock that he described, that she had been reluctant to take on this task, but that is not the case. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Gurkha welfare, she took on the task, with absolutely no support other than from fellow members of the group, knowing that it would be hugely complex and emotive. As has been mentioned, she has had support from my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) and other members of his team.

We have heard some great speeches this afternoon. During the debate—I hope Members will forgive me—I was talking to the Solicitor-General, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), and we were trying to recall whether an all-party group had ever taken on such a task without the support of any charity or industry. This might be a bit of a first. I do not know; it does not matter. The point is that they have done it, and we look forward to the report.

I do not hesitate to tell the House that I agree with almost everything that my hon. Friend—as she now is, on this point—the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) said. She commented on the absence of Labour Members from the Chamber today; indeed, the same applies to my side of the Chamber to some

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extent. It is important for people to understand that that is not a reflection of any lack of interest in this important matter. Perhaps the public at large do not appreciate that Members of Parliament do not have to be in the Chamber to take a firm interest in a debate. They can watch it in their rooms, but in any event they will read it in


, either electronically or on paper. I know that that will happen.

The biggest tribute that I want to pay today is to every member of the Gurkha community and, in particular, to all those who have served. They rightly deserve their reputation as being among the bravest and most fearless of soldiers. It was one of my great pleasures, honours and treats to go along to their regimental dinner earlier in the summer. I watched as they drilled and marched as the band played, and it was fabulous. I have never experienced anything like it. Those are perhaps the exterior things, the extra bits, but at the heart of the matter is their reputation for courage. It is often said that they are the most fearless of soldiers. Next year, the Gurkhas will celebrate 200 years of service to the Crown, and we look forward to the celebrations and commemorations. The United Kingdom—let us hope that it remains the United Kingdom—is proud of the Gurkhas, and we have always sought to meet the aspirations of successive generations of Gurkha soldiers and their families. I should like to put that into the context of the subject of the debate.

In 2009, our appreciation of the Gurkhas culminated in Parliament’s decision to permit Gurkhas discharged before 1 July 1997 to settle here in the United Kingdom. Many retired Gurkhas have since done so, and many have received vital welfare support and medical treatment as a result. However, as we have heard today, those settling here also became aware of differences between Gurkha terms and conditions and those of the rest of our armed forces. In particular, as many speakers have mentioned, they have highlighted the difference between a Gurkha pension pre-1997 and that of their British counterparts. Suffice it to say, these are complex issues, rooted in a set of unique historical and political circumstances, but context is all and I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the Government’s position. Of course we welcome the report and I assure hon. Members that it will be read and analysed, and all points will be considered. Most importantly, my door will be open to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock and to other hon. Members who have served so well on her all-party group.

The Government’s view is that the Gurkha pension, established in 1947 by the tripartite agreement between the UK, Nepal and India, was fair for the time and did not disadvantage Gurkhas. There are three reasons why I say that. First, although the Gurkha pension was smaller, it was paid for a much longer period. Gurkhas received an immediate pension after 15 years’ service, typically in their early 30s. By contrast, British personnel who served less than 22 years prior to 1975 receive no pension. A calculation made in 2009 showed that a Gurkha rifleman who retired in 1994 will have received some £61,000 at 2009 prices by the age of 60—his British comparator will have received nothing at all.

Secondly, the Gurkha pension placed Gurkhas among Nepal’s highest earners as a result. Significantly, a retired Lieutenant—a Queen’s Gurkha officer—with 24 years of service receives a pension more generous than the

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salary of Nepal’s Prime Minister. Thirdly, over the years Gurkhas’ pensions evolved as they benefited from the flexibility built into their terms and conditions. That meant that we were able to enhance their pensions to suit changing circumstances. Initially, as we have heard, Gurkhas mainly served in the far east, but when they undertook temporary posting to the UK or other overseas locations they were entitled to a cost of living addition. From 1997, when Gurkhas were based in the UK, they received a universal addition regardless of where they then served. Since 2007 Gurkhas joining our armed forces have been placed on an equal footing with the rest of the Army.

The argument has been made by others, and it is the right argument, that all those who receive a pension are bound by the rules of the game. Those who did not serve the requisite period of time or who came to this country on a pre-1997 pension cannot expect their pension arrangements to change. I should add that it would be the same in the case of a British soldier. The legal principle that individuals receive benefits in accordance with the scheme rules is well founded. As we heard, retrospective changes are not good and cannot be right—as is the principle, upheld by successive Governments, that improvements to pensions schemes are not made retrospectively. There are many quotes on that from previous Ministers of State for the Armed Forces and Ministers in my position. All of them, whatever the colour of the Government, support that important principle.

However, decisions can be reviewed in circumstances where incorrect information was provided to individuals. We have heard about the ramifications of mixed marriage, which make for uncomfortable listening in our, happily, more enlightened age. I want to know more about any Gurkha who finds himself in that situation. I want to know the detail, to have those cases placed before me and to get those things sorted out. I find the fact that Gurkhas were given dummy national insurance numbers utterly bizarre, and my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and I were debating it. It is almost as if money were obtained by some deception, in that people were paying in money but they have had no benefit from it. Again, I make no promises, but that cannot be right and we need to sort that out. My door is open and I want to have proper discussions about how we can do that.

That brings me back to the first speech in this excellent debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock spoke about fairness. This is about fairness, but it is also about having a mature dialogue. I listened with great care to the points that she so ably advanced, and to the points that were taken up by others. I will, if I may, respond to some of them now.

My hon. Friends the Members for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) and for Thurrock talked about the role of some sort of middleman. I always shy away from making adverse comments about lawyers, as I was a lawyer in a previous life. In all seriousness, I am concerned that there might be individuals who seek to exploit Gurkhas, or ex-Gurkhas, in Nepal. I will ask my officials both in the United Kingdom and in the embassy in Nepal to explore that matter so that we do all we can to ensure that that those who wish to come to the United Kingdom are not only fully and properly informed but not in any way exploited.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East made a point about the Department for International Development, which was taken up by others. Let me just say this: DFID has been investing in the health sector in Nepal for nearly 17 years; it has contributed more than £19.7 million to the rural water and sanitation programme of the Gurkha welfare scheme since 1989. In addition, its operational plan commits up to £331 million of UK official development assistance during the period of 2011 to 2015. The DFID Nepal programme now totals around £90 million to £100 million per annum. I hope that my hon. Friend finds that helpful and useful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe gave a well crafted speech, which made some very good points. The great work of the Gurkha Welfare Trust was mentioned. It was suggested that a boost in LIBOR funds could be a way to solve some of these feelings of injustice and unfairness and, most importantly, these feelings that a need is not being met.

I am grateful to all Members for their comments, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams). In relation to his point about funding, which my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot says has benefited his constituency, I am helpfully advised by my officials and by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General that that £1.5 million funding is available for Gurkhas in his constituency. I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire to talk about how we can ensure that his constituents benefit.

Joanna Lumley’s campaign has been mentioned. I am aware of the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Aldershot and for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). Let me say this, if I may: Joanna Lumley’s campaign had the highest and most honourable of motives. It was welcomed and it was the right thing to do. None the less, I accept the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot, who said that there have been some unintended consequences.

Sir Gerald Howarth: It is important that the House understands that those consequences were not entirely unforeseen. At the time, I suggested that there were potential consequences by virtue of the fact that Aldershot has an historic association with the Gurkha community. I would not like it to be thought that somehow this has all suddenly come upon us without any warning.

Anna Soubry: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the comment, but I would counter it by saying that we are where we are. We have to deal with the reality of where we are and see whether we can make things considerably better for those who find themselves away from home, struggling to speak English and in the circumstances

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described, while ensuring that their welfare is an absolute priority. Those things must be done as we take these matters into consideration.

In conclusion, we believe that the terms and conditions of the Gurkhas were fair but, having said that, we also understand the concerns of those who, having fought for this country, settled here and subsequently found themselves in difficulty. That is why we are so grateful to all those who have participated in the inquiry and we look forward to the report’s conclusions. Its focus has been on resolving historical anomalies and that must be right.

Today’s Gurkhas, in terms of engagement, pay, allowances and pension matters, are regarded no differently from personnel in any other part of the Army. Again, I thank all who have taken part in the debate and in the inquiry and we look forward to the report.

3.35 pm

Jackie Doyle-Price: I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate. There is an immense amount of unanimity on the desire to do right by the Gurkhas but to do so within the rule of law. That is why it is so important that we do not make more anomalies as we address these problems.

We need to address the outcomes of poverty that we have talked about and we will do that by showing imagination and being practical. I welcome the Minister’s attitude. The relationship between Gurkha veterans and the Ministry of Defence in previous years has not been characterised by mature dialogue and I think there is fault on both sides for that. I will put myself in the position of being the glue that brings the Gurkhas to the negotiating table if the Minister promises to keep her door open, and she has given us that indication.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Gurkha pensions and terms of employment.

Business Without Debate



That Mr Robert Buckland and Heather Wheeler be discharged from the Committee of Privileges and Mr Dominic Grieve and Sir John Randall be added.—(Greg Hands.)



That Mr Robert Buckland and Heather Wheeler be discharged from the Committee on Standards and Mr Dominic Grieve and Sir John Randall be added.—(Greg Hands.)

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Flood Protection (West Kent)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(John Penrose.)

3.37 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): As the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, I am fortunate to represent one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, constituencies within 30 miles of London. Environmentally, my constituency has one drawback, however, and that is its topography. It falls between the southern slopes of the north downs and goes on further south, going gradually downhill across the northern slope of the River Medway’s valley down to the River Medway. It therefore creates a natural flood risk area.

That has been known and has been a feature of the area over a long period. Indeed, I have seen many photographs in black and white, taken between the wars, of men suitably attired in bowler hats and cloth caps propelling themselves in rowing boats down Tonbridge High street when it was flooded. Since then, there have been significant improvements, the most significant of which took place shortly after I was elected in 1974, when the Southern Water Authority introduced the River Medway (Flood Relief) Act 1976. That created the Leigh flood storage barrier, upstream of Tonbridge. The barrier was created in association with an extensive flood storage area on which flood water was captured on agricultural land during periods of intense flooding and then, hopefully, held there and released in a controlled way down the River Medway.

Subsequently, under the previous Labour Government, there was significant expenditure on strengthening the Tonbridge flood defence wall. In addition, we had a new flood defence scheme to protect the village of East Peckham. Sadly, those measures did not prove enough to withstand the exceptional rainfall that occurred, at great intensity and over a short period, last Christmas. It had serious consequences in my constituency.

Individual constituents found themselves having to evacuate their homes and then return to clear up the awful mess that occurs when flood water penetrates. They have had to go through a long period of trying to dry out, repair and internally reconstruct their homes, replacing all the goods destroyed by the flood water. As if that were not enough, they have also had to face a double financial whammy: the terms of their flood insurance, if such insurance was still obtainable, were moved very severely against them and coupled with that was significant depreciation in the capital value of many properties.

The excellent leader of Tonbridge and Malling borough council, Councillor Nicolas Heslop, has just written to me with the latest position, which is that

“a total of 290 homes and 146 businesses were flooded in the Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council area alone over Christmas and the New Year. Even today, nearly 9 months after the flood event, 59 families in that area remain unable to return to their homes due to the huge scale of repair works.”

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate. May I place on record my tribute to Tonbridge and Malling borough council, which does great work in defending many of my constituents, many

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of whom were once his constituents before boundary changes were made? Does he agree that while we continue to see increased climate change, it is important that local government, national Government and regional government assess and reflect on the threat to people’s houses posed by rising flood waters?

Sir John Stanley: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. One point that all those concerned with the climate change debates need to recognise, whether they are fully supportive or among the sceptics, is that one characteristic of climate change, which is happening now, is greater transition between one extreme and another. That has serious implications with respect to rainfall and she has rightly drawn attention to that.

May I make it clear to the Minister that the figures from the leader of Tonbridge and Malling borough council that I cited relate only to part of my constituency, because another part of it is covered by the Sevenoaks district council area?

Against that background, what should the Government be doing as regards west Kent—in particular, if I may say so, my area of west Kent? I want to put three representations to the Minister. First, the present situation in trying to find out who is responsible for maintenance and repair of a great number of surface water channels is totally inadequate and insufficient. In my constituency, and similarly, I suspect, in a great many others across England, the flooding was created not merely by the River Medway bursting its banks but by all the water sources that flow towards the Medway—other watercourses that are not main rivers, such as streams, culverts and irrigation ditches. In many cases, the clearance of those watercourses and the maintenance of their banks and beds has been seriously deficient and inadequate.

Another issue relates to sub-surface water problems adding to flooding when highway drainage is insufficient and water bubbles out from the drainage system on to the surface. Even more serious is the problem of the foul water drainage system—the sewerage system—not being adequately maintained or having adequate capacity. I am afraid that in some roads in Tonbridge human excrement was forced up on to the surface as a result of the inadequacy of the sewerage drainage system.

In some areas, the responsibility for maintenance is very clear. For what are described as main rivers—the Medway is a main river—the responsibility lies clearly with the Environment Agency. For highway drainage, it lies clearly with the highways authority. For sewerage drainage, it lies clearly with the water companies. Beyond that, however, there is a totally unsatisfactory impenetrability as to where ownership and, in particular, maintenance responsibilities lie. For many watercourses, they may fall between the Environment Agency, the water company, the internal drainage board, a public landowner and a private landowner. When we, as MPs, try to find out on behalf of our constituents who has the responsibility for clearance, maintenance and repair at a given spot, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

My proposal for the Minister is radical, but my goodness it is needed. I accept that it would need to be implemented over a period, but it would be an immense step forward in terms of transparency and accountability. We need to create a surface water equivalent of the land register so that people in flood risk areas—property owners, whether domestic or business, their professional

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advisers, and, indeed, Members of Parliament—could see at a glance, easily and electronically, and possibly with access to large-scale downloadable maps, where the responsibility for maintenance and repair lies at a particular location. I put it to the Minister that that is a critical and urgent necessity for flood risk areas.

The second point I want to put to the Minister relates to flood insurance. I welcome the Government’s establishment of the Flood Re insurance scheme. It is a very good step forward for domestic householders in flood risk areas who find that their properties are non-insurable against flood risk. I put it to the Minister, however, that the scheme needs to be extended to premises that provide very important community facilities. Such premises may be in the ownership of charities, provident societies or clubs.

I shall give the Minister two illustrations from my constituency. The first is the Tonbridge indoor bowls club, whose membership runs into hundreds and which provides a very important focal point of enjoyment and social and community cohesion for a significant group of people. The other is the Tonbridge Juddians rugby football club, which is a very important facility for the people and area of Tonbridge.

Both premises were seriously flooded over Christmas and the new year, and the clubs have been put in a parlous position as a result of the insurance companies questioning whether they can continue to insure the premises. If the serious flooding that both clubs experienced is repeated, the repair of the buildings and the future of the clubs will undoubtedly be called into question, because the repairs may not be financeable from the clubs’ own resources. I therefore strongly urge the Government to consider this relatively limited extension of the Flood Re insurance scheme.

My third and most important representation to the Minister relates to the Leigh flood storage barrier and the related storage area. It has undoubtedly been a great help since it was brought into operation in the early 1980s, but as the events of last Christmas demonstrated, its capacity is clearly seriously insufficient. That was acknowledged by Environment Agency officials at our public meeting with them in Tonbridge in February when, in response to our questions as to why, notwithstanding the existence of the barrier, such serious flooding occurred in Tonbridge and further downstream, they recounted precisely what had happened over the 72 hours before Christmas day. They recounted how the intense rainfall led to the flood storage area filling up very rapidly and how the water rose higher and higher until it reached the legal maximum height allowed against the flood storage barrier.

In those circumstances, when the whole of the barrier’s structural integrity was threatened, which would have had catastrophic consequences, the Environment Agency had no alternative but to let a much greater volume of water out through the barrier than it wished. The consequences were very severe, with serious flooding all the way downstream from the barrier—at Hildenborough, Tonbridge, Hadlow, East Peckham, Wateringbury and Yalding, where there was a lot of national publicity about the scale of the flooding, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant).

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Demonstrably, therefore, the capacity of the Leigh flood storage barrier is insufficient. The Environment Agency has costed increasing its capacity by a third at £11 million. The construction of the increased capacity is not a particularly sophisticated project, and the scheme only awaits Government approval. The former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), wrote to me in July to say that the Government would announce in the autumn statement the flood protection projects that will be implemented in the next six years, from 2015 to 2021. As we now know, the autumn statement will be made on 3 December. That date will be of very great importance to me and many of my constituents, as we wait to hear the Government’s decision.

As I hope the Minister will know, I wrote on 31 July to the present Secretary of State. I will conclude by reading what I said at the end of that letter:

“I am writing to urge you in the strongest terms to include the scheme to increase the capacity of the Leigh Flood Storage Area in the Government’s flood protection projects to be given the go-ahead at the time of the Autumn Statement.

I cannot state too strongly how important it is to a significant number of my constituents that the Government gives its approval to the Leigh Flood Storage Area increased capacity scheme this Autumn.”

3.57 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing this debate, in which he has given us the benefit of his long-standing knowledge of this catchment and of the effects of its management during the time he has represented the area.

To have one’s home or business flooded is a devastating experience. I know that all of us in the House would want to extend our sympathy to all those who have previously been affected. I recognise the specific concerns that have been expressed in respect of west Kent.

I first want to thank the many people who have worked tirelessly in response to recent and previous flooding events, including those in west Kent, both during the flooding and through the process of recovery. As my right hon. Friend has pointed out, the process of recovery can be long and painful for those affected. Those who have participated in such efforts include the staff of the fire and rescue, ambulance, police and other services, as well as local authorities, the Environment Agency, the voluntary sector, the armed forces in various locations and, of course, the local communities that have been affected.

Last winter saw record levels of rainfall and the stormiest period for at least 20 years. The unprecedented weather events caused the flooding across the United Kingdom. We experienced a prolonged period of very unsettled weather over the winter. It was the wettest January in England and Wales since 1766. Central and south-east England received over 250% of the average rainfall figure. Met Office statistics suggest that it was one of the most exceptional periods for winter rainfall in south England in at least 248 years. Added to that, tidal surges caused by low pressure, strong winds and high tides led to record sea levels along many parts of

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the east coast. High spring tides brought coastal flooding to parts of the south and west coasts. River, surface water and groundwater flooding occurred in many areas.

Although it is not yet possible to attribute a single instance of extreme weather to climate change, last winter’s storminess is in line with what we expect to see under climate change scenarios. We expect an increase in the frequency and severity of such weather events. We already prioritise the need to adapt to our changing climate across Government and beyond, but we will look to learn any lessons from the recent extreme weather events.

In west Kent, homes and businesses in Tonbridge, Yalding, East Peckham and other smaller communities are at risk of flooding from the River Medway and its tributaries, as my right hon. Friend set out. There have been nine flood events in west Kent since 1960, with three in 2000 and the latest in the winter of 2013-14, when 847 homes were flooded, including those that he spoke about. The Leigh barrier was full on Christmas day in 2013 and the level was the highest that had been seen for some time. The reservoir level reached 1 metre below the emergency spillway. However, no problems were reported and the barrier operated as designed.

The Middle Medway strategy was updated in 2010 and sets out ways in which the risk could be managed. The options included enlarging the capacity of the Leigh flood storage area, which would improve the standard of protection to approximately 1,300 homes and businesses in Tonbridge. The strategy also considered a second flood storage area on the River Beult, a tributary of the Medway, which would reduce the risk of flooding to approximately 2,000 homes and businesses in Yalding and the surrounding communities. Those two flood storage areas are being planned as one scheme. Together they will reduce the risk of flooding to 3,302 properties, 2,060 of which are at significant risk. The scheme will safeguard existing economic development and there is the potential to improve 31 km of the River Beult site of special scientific interest.

All the local Members are aware of the scheme and its potential benefits, and have indicated their support, as my right hon. Friend set out in his letter to the Secretary of State. Meetings are taking place at all levels with beneficiary local authorities to seek support and funding. Since the floods in the winter of 2013-14, the Environment Agency has received a written commitment from Kent county council to match flood defence grant in aid to ensure that the scheme can proceed. The scheme is currently 50% funded by Kent county council and further contributions are being sought. Scheme development, including land negotiations, is expected to take three years. The completion of the scheme is anticipated in 2021-22.

The flooding events of last winter impacted on the homes, businesses and farms of people across the country. There was significant damage to sea and flood defences. The latest figures suggest that more than 8,300 homes were flooded and more than 4,300 commercial properties affected across England. However, the existing flood defences and improvements to the way in which we respond to incidents meant we protected about 1.4 million properties and more than 2,500 sq km of farmland from flooding.

We consider carefully what lessons can be learned from the various incidents that we experience. The many organisations that were involved in responding to

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the exceptional weather, including the Government, our agencies and all the other services, will look at those lessons in detail. While the response was generally effective, the Government acknowledged at the time that some aspects of the response and recovery could be improved. In response to the extreme weather, we made an extra £270 million available to repair, restore and maintain the most critical flood defences. Repair work at many of those sites started as soon as the weather conditions allowed and has continued throughout the summer. I visited some of the sites this week and was very impressed by the work that is being carried out.

At the local level, we are improving the way in which we engage with local communities to increase the awareness of river maintenance projects and reduce flood risk. Over the autumn, meetings are being held in every part of the country to explain the Environment Agency’s plans, which will give people an opportunity to contribute to and influence local maintenance programmes for the year ahead. We have great respect for local knowledge. My right hon. Friend mentioned the expertise of internal drainage boards and how they have worked with the Environment Agency on local catchments. We respect that expertise and want to take advantage of such information.

My right hon. Friend raised a number of specific questions that I would like to address. First, he spoke about the complicated issue of the ownership and maintenance of the different watercourses, drains and assets, which varies across the country.

The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 is clear about who has responsibility for what, and the right hon. Gentleman set out some examples of main rivers, highway drainage, and so on. He went further to suggest that there should be an official register of every asset, and we must ensure that any work we carry out in that area prioritises spending on the sorts of things that we want and that will minimise and address flood risk. I know that the agency is carrying out work into the sorts of questions he raised, so that we can make clearer for some of the smaller landowners or those who might have questions, where those responsibilities lie.

Sir John Stanley: Does the Minister recognise that in the internal maintenance of streams, watercourses and associated river banks, and the clearance of rubbish and things that get dumped in those watercourses, although those water flows may appear small, they build up and contribute to a flooding problem and can exacerbate a main river flooding problem substantially? Therefore, being able to identify who is responsible for the maintenance of a particular stretch of stream or watercourse—something that is virtually impossible now—is critical.

Dan Rogerson: I understand my right hon. Friend’s point. I was seeking to respond to his specific proposal about some sort of formal register, and to reassure him that work is being undertaken in that field. He is right to say that maintenance is important, but he will appreciate that the responsibilities for that maintenance lie with various agencies and with private landowners who have their own responsibilities and should be aware of them. We have published information to make clear to those in riparian ownership what their responsibilities are, and once the agency has completed its work into what

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might be helpful, that will be shared in the usual way. I would be happy to write to my right hon. Friend to update him on that specific area as soon as it is beneficial to do so.

My right hon. Friend’s second point was on flood insurance and some aspects of the Government’s new Flood Re scheme. I welcome his support for that scheme. The scheme will make a big difference to many homeowners across the country and those in all types of property who are able to get support and access to contents insurance that they would otherwise not be able to receive. He set out the problems for valued community assets such as sports clubs and associations in his constituency. I appreciate that this is a difficult period for such associations. Money was made available to help with the provision of sports grounds, and support was given through Government grants as part of the flood packages that were made available for extreme weather events.

On flood insurance, the Flood Re scheme is funded by a levy on domestic insurance bills. It would not be appropriate for us to take that levy from everyone else’s domestic insurance and use it to subsidise other forms of more commercial policy. However, colleagues across the Government will continue discussions with the Association of British Insurers, representatives of business organisations and other sectors, and consider the problems with more commercial policies. The advice from the ABI is that commercial policies are more flexible, and that brokers can help in accessing the cover that is available. However, we have asked for evidence from organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the CBI, and others, on the need for a scheme to help with those commercial policies. Flood Re is not really the model for that, as it is focused on the domestic insurance market, where it will make a big difference. However, I hear my right hon. Friend’s contribution to the debate on what might be beneficial and help other forms of organisation.

My right hon. Friend referred to the Leigh flood storage barrier and aspirations for investment. I have sought to explain that the current assessment from the Environment Agency set out what might be available in grant in aid. I welcome the work that the agency, Kent county council and other local partners, including MPs, who are playing a leading role, are doing in putting together the package, which will make a difference by protecting even more properties to a higher degree, given the risk of more such extreme weather events in future.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for setting out those specific local constituency issues. To reassure him, the Government will spend more than £3.2 billion in this Parliament on flood and erosion risk management. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has successfully secured a protected, long-term, six-year capital settlement to improve flood management infrastructure. We will make record investment in capital improvement projects of more than £2.3 billion in a six-year period, with £370 million in 2015-16 and the same in real terms each year, rising to more than £400 million in 2020-21. The investment will reduce the risk of flooding for a further 300,000 households between April 2015 and March 2021. That is on top of the 165,000 that have been protected during the current spending round.

As my right hon. Friend has set out, we will publish the pipeline for flood defence improvement projects with the 2014 autumn statement. That will help to secure at least 10% efficiencies, which will be reinvested in more projects, and which will leverage at least 15% contributions from other sources. That partnership approach allows us to reach further with that significant investment to deliver more schemes than we would be able to deliver otherwise.

Despite the exceptional weather conditions last winter, the impacts were significantly less than from previous events of similar magnitude. For example, existing flood defences protected 1.4 million properties. That reinforces the importance of continuing our investment in flood defence schemes and in forecasting capability. We will never be able to stop flooding entirely. However, we have acted on the lessons learned last winter and put in place numerous measures to improve the response capability of both the Government and other front-line organisations. The process will continue, with further improvements set to be rolled out over the coming months.

I again express my sympathy to those who were and who continue to be affected by the severe weather. I am pleased with Kent county council’s commitment to match that flood defence grant in aid funding to ensure that the local schemes proceed. I look forward to hearing how the schemes develop to the benefit of the constituents of west Kent.

Question put and agreed to.

4.13 pm

House adjourned.