Gurkha Settlement Rights

Opposition Day — [10th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 1:44 pm on 29th April 2009.

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary 1:44 pm, 29th April 2009

I beg to move,

That this House
regrets the Government's recent statement outlining the eligibility criteria for Gurkhas to reside in the United Kingdom;
recognises the contribution the Gurkhas have made to the safety and freedom of the United Kingdom for the past 200 years;
notes that more Gurkhas have laid down their lives for the United Kingdom than are estimated to want to live here;
believes that Gurkhas who retired before 1997 should be treated fairly and in the same way as those who have retired since;
is concerned that the Government's new guidelines will permit only a small minority of Gurkhas and their families to settle whilst preventing the vast majority;
further believes that people who are prepared to fight and die for the United Kingdom should be entitled to live in the country;
and calls upon the Government to withdraw its new guidelines immediately and bring forward revised proposals that extend an equal right of residence to all Gurkhas.

I am particularly pleased to be leading in this debate since my county of Hampshire has a long and intimate association with the Gurkhas and the Gurkha museum is based in Winchester, next door to my constituency. The museum is a remarkable celebration of this remarkable brigade, and I recommend it to any Member.

The Gurkha regiments have provided extraordinary service to this country since 1815, when the first Gurkhas entered service with the East India Company, which had been impressed by their fighting prowess as opponents in the Nepal war. The company took the eminently pragmatic view that if we found it hard to beat them, we had better hire them. During the first world war, the Gurkhas fought in France, the Suez canal, Mesopotamia—that is, Iraq—and Gallipoli. During the second world war, the regiments took part in the campaigns of north Africa, Italy, Greece, Malaya and Burma.

After the war and Indian independence, the Gurkha regiments split between the Indian army and the British Army. Our British regiments saw service in the 12-year Malayan emergency, the Falklands, Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Gurkhas have a deserved reputation for effectiveness, bravery and loyalty. Given that remarkable history, it is perhaps surprising that until 2004 it was difficult if not impossible for foreign and Commonwealth members of the armed forces and Gurkhas to obtain settlement and British citizenship at the end of their service.

The view before 2004 seemed to be that Gurkha rights were governed by the tripartite agreement of 1947 between Britain, India and Nepal, which stated that a

"Gurkha soldier must be recruited as a Nepali citizen, must serve as a Nepali citizen, and must be resettled as a Nepali citizen".

We should pay tribute to the Gurkha welfare campaign and to Miss Widdecombe, who I do not believe is in her place today, for raising the issue in 2003 both in parliamentary questions and in two Adjournment debates. We should also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr. Kennedy for pushing the issue at Prime Minister's questions.

In 2004, Mr. Blunkett, who was then the Home Secretary, set out changes to the immigration rules so that all those with at least four years' service in HM forces could apply for settlement in the UK after discharge. It is important that we recognise that crucial precedent. However, one key stipulation discriminated against Gurkhas compared with other foreign and Commonwealth troops, namely that they had to be discharged on or after 1 July 1997. There were some exceptions, but the fundamental rule was there.

The rationale was simply that 1997 was the point at which the Gurkha regiment moved from its base in Hong Kong to the UK, following the handover of Hong Kong to China. That was never, frankly, the dividing line that some in Government seemed to think. One has only to look at the areas in which the Gurkhas served in the last 100 years to see that they were an integral part of the British armed forces. That decision led to some ridiculous and shameful anomalies. In a famous case, the Victoria Cross holder, Honorary Lieutenant Tul Bahadur Pun, was initially refused indefinite leave to remain for having inadequate ties to the United Kingdom. Indeed, veterans of Malaya, the Falklands, the first Gulf war and long service veterans who were seriously ill were all refused entry. The standard reason given was that they had failed to demonstrate strong ties to the United Kingdom.

A landmark in the recent history of the issue was the judicial review of the Limbu case by the honourable Mr. Justice Blake on 30 September 2008. Mr. Justice Blake found that the policy regarding Gurkhas was unlawful and should urgently be revisited. He noted the apparent concerns of the Ministry of Defence concerning the attitude of the Government of Nepal, but pointed out that they were not based on evidence. Instead, Mr. Justice Blake cited the honouring of an historic debt, and quoted the military covenant as follows:

"Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices—including the ultimate sacrifice—in the service of the Nation. In putting the needs of the Nation and the Army before their own, they forego some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces. In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they and their families will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service."

Mr. Justice Blake added his own comment:

"Rewarding long and distinguished service by the grant of residence in the country for which the service was performed would, in my judgment, be a vindication and an enhancement of this covenant."

I agree.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and thank him for the case that he is making. We want justice for the Gurkhas but does he agree that, rather than introducing easier immigration procedures, that just means giving priority to people who served this country well?

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that clear and obvious point. I entirely agree with him, and I shall deal with some of the practical implications a little later in my speech.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case, but the motion says that

"people who are prepared to fight and die for the United Kingdom should be entitled to live in the country".

Does he apply that to all foreign nationals who have served in our armed forces?

Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for signing the early-day motion earlier this year that called for exactly what today's motion calls for, so I hope that he will join us in the Lobby later today. However, he will know that the current arrangements are that foreign and Commonwealth servicemen have the right, after four years of service, to apply for citizenship. That seems to be absolutely crucial.

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

On a point of clarification: my grandfather, in his beard and turban, fought in the Indian army's Bengal Engineers but he also fought for King and country in Burma, so would he have fallen under the proposed rules? He passed away a few years ago, but many of his colleagues are still around. Would they be entitled to come and live in this country?

Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making the point that some traditions in the armed services go back many generations. However, not many regiments can boast the continuous tradition that the Gurkhas have shown for nearly 200 years. That makes the Gurkhas a rather special case, but I believe that the case for the hon. Gentleman's grandfather, were he still alive, would be worthy of consideration by the Ministry of Defence. However, I suspect that any policy along those lines would be impractical, if only because the people involved would be unlikely to avail themselves of it.

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, and assure him that I am not asking awkward questions merely for the sake of it, but because this is a complex area of policy and we need to clarify exactly what his motion proposes. Is he saying that he would widen the eligibility criteria so that they covered not just the Gurkha regiments but also, for example, the Sikh regiments that served with the British Army over the years?

Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

No, I am not saying that. Although I believe that we ought to give serious consideration to extending the criteria to people who have served in the British Army or armed services, today's motion is specifically limited to the Gurkhas because of the long history involved. Moreover, I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I said about the history of the Gurkha regiments. Some of those who served in the Gurkhas and who went into the Indian army regiments after independence would not necessarily benefit from our proposal—although, frankly, the age of the people involved means that the question is no longer of practical relevance. However, if Ministers are able to find any members of the Brigade of Gurkhas who went into the Indian army after independence and who are still alive, I would be delighted.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

The hon. Gentleman is talking complete nonsense. There are people who fought for Britain in the second world war who transferred into the Indian army. My hon. Friend Mr. Dhanda asks a very good question: is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that they should be included as well? He says that not many of them are still alive, but I met some of them when I was in Nepal three weeks ago.

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

The Minister makes a nitpicking point about a handful of people, but the key issue that he needs to address concerns those Gurkhas who went into the British armed services after Indian independence. They pose a practical problem, and that is what we are concerned about. The Minister is talking about people aged over 80 whose numbers can be counted on the fingers of one hand. If he wants us to believe that they represent a serious impediment to the House passing the motion before us this afternoon, all I can say is that he is living in a fantasy land.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

My hon. Friend has referred to Mr. Justice Blake, who made exactly that point in his judgment. He said that any member of the Indian army was entitled to apply for British citizenship from 1947 until at least 1962, when visa restrictions were introduced. All the people about whom we are talking would be 80 years old or more, but they all had the opportunity to apply for British citizenship—an opportunity that is being totally denied to the Gurkhas because they are from Nepal. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as Mr. Justice Blake pointed out in his judgment, the situations of the two groups are therefore utterly different?

Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point and for reminding us of the other terms of Mr. Justice Blake's judgment.

Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

No, as I want to make some progress.

Last week's Government response was to announce new criteria for the settlement of discharged Gurkhas. They must now have at least three years' continuous lawful residence in the UK during or after service, and close family ties in the UK. They must also have at least a level 1 to 3 award for gallantry, leadership or bravery, 20 or more years of service, or a chronic or long-term medical condition. There were some other exceptions for Gurkhas who did not fulfil those criteria, but many hon. Members want to speak so I will not go into them.

However, to make the point that I want to make, I shall deal with just one example from the list of criteria that I have set out. The 20-year rule seems to me to be a key discriminator, as so many Gurkhas—and especially private soldiers and riflemen—serve just 15 years. Only officers would have achieved 20 years of service—something that some Labour Member might find surprising, given what I am sure is their desire to treat officers and men equally. That criterion is five times as long as the period for which a foreign and Commonwealth soldier must serve to be granted settlement in the UK.

What does this new package mean in practical terms? The Government say that 4,000 ex-Gurkhas and 6,000 spouses and children will be able to enter—in other words, a total of 10,000 people. Lawyers acting for the campaign say that, to their knowledge, the total would be more like 100. What if we were to extend the pre-1997 rights on a equal footing with those after 1997? The Minister is on record as saying that 100,000 people could enter.

Who should we believe? When I was an economic journalist, I was always very suspicious of well rounded numbers, and hon. Members may note that the Minister's estimate of our proposed policy is precisely 10 times as big as his estimate of his own policy—which, in turn, is a nice round 10,000. Let no one accuse the Home Office of failing to decimalise.

However, we see the same cavalier attitude to figures when we look at costs. The Minister has spoken in various interviews about a potential extra cost of £1.5 billion, but during today's Prime Minister's questions the Prime Minister put that at £1.4 billion. The Government cannot even get their own story straight to within the nearest £100 million.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and he is making a very powerful case. Does not that illustrate that the Government are prepared to use any spurious statistical argument to avoid what I believe the British people consider to be our debt of honour to the Gurkhas? Should we not fulfil that debt of honour, and is not that what this debate is about?

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

My hon. Friend makes the point that all reasonable people make when they consider the issue, including Mr. Justice Blake, who made the point in precisely those terms.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I rejoice that in my constituency I have more than 400 Gurkha families. They enrich the borough educationally and in public life, and they also work, earn money and pay taxes. Gurkhas would be of enormous benefit to the United Kingdom, as they are to my constituency. The thing that really upsets me about the Government Front Benchers present is that there is a degree of inevitability about the matter, because as sure as night turns to day, the Gurkhas will win ultimately. I say to them: "Why don't you embrace the proposal now? You wouldn't understand a just policy or a popular policy if it were painted on your eyelids."

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

The hon. Gentleman puts his point with a passion and directness that I can only admire. On 27 April, the "Channel 4 News" FactCheck rated the reliability of the figures of the Minister for Borders and Immigration as four. That was on a scale of one to five, in which the number five means that the claim

"has absolutely no basis in fact."

In other words, the Minister's claim is a wild guess—just about as much of a wild guess as previous forecasts on immigration from his Department, which have proved to be wildly wrong. In fact, the Home Office estimate was based on a five-year-old figure for the number of Gurkha pensioners in Nepal of 36,000. We know from parliamentary answers from the Ministry of Defence that there are currently just 26,500 Gurkha pensioners, so even under the Home Office's own preferred methodology, the total, including dependants, would be 75,000 not 100,000, but that makes the assumption that every single one of those discharged servicemen would want to move.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is still showing his ignorance of the entire subject. The 26,000 are service pensioners who are in receipt of a Gurkha pension. In addition, there are another 10,000 welfare pensioners, who served mainly during the second world war, who did not qualify for the Gurkha pension, so the figure is 36,000.

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

I am grateful to the Minister for pointing that out, but I have to say that the original figure given by the Ministry of Defence was 36,000, and it was on a comparable basis with the figure of 26,500 that it gave recently in a parliamentary answer. I would strongly recommend that the Minister gets the Ministry of Defence to answer parliamentary questions correctly, because clearly it has not been doing so.

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

Before I give way to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, from whom I very much want to hear on the issue, let me say that the key point is the attempt to take a narrow number of Gurkha pensioners and gross it up into the largest conceivable number that the Home Office can think of. Frankly, that number is nonsense on stilts. It is based on nothing at all—no polling, no questionnaires, no surveys, and certainly no knowledge of the Gurkhas' beautiful and mountainous country, of the advanced years of some of the pensioners, who find it hard to contemplate walking to the next village, let alone taking a plane to London, and of the social status and prosperity of discharged servicemen in their own community. It is a fantasy to suppose that more than a fraction will want to settle in the UK.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

May I caution the hon. Gentleman not to accept figures put out by the Ministry of Defence on the subject, simply because those of us who supported the right of the Iraqi interpreters to come to this country were consistently told by the Ministry of Defence that huge numbers of people would want to come here? In fact, very few have applied. That settlement process has gone very well indeed.

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good and helpful point; I appreciate it, and indeed the work that he has done in the Home Affairs Committee.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

May I ask my hon. Friend to remind the House that there is a fundamental moral argument here? Under the Government's points-based scheme, if people from abroad have money, they can come here, and in due course apply for citizenship, but not all of those who have served this country abroad can do so. It seems that under the Government's policy, if a person lays down their cheque book for the country, they are in, but if a person is willing to lay down their life for the country, they are not.

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

My hon. Friend makes a good point, as always.

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Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to intervene?

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

I shall make a bit of progress, if I may.

An indication of what the true situation would be if we accepted the motion, and if the Government followed its recommendations, is provided by the number of pre-1997 Gurkhas who made their application for settlement before the Government's deadline of October 2006. We know from what Ministers have said that there are only 1,350 outstanding Gurkha applications on the desk of the Minister for Borders and Immigration. Those are people who applied in the knowledge that discretion could be applied. Is the Minister really saying that if the right to enter were to be automatic, in line with the post-1997 situation, there would be nearly 30 times more applicants? If so, I merely thank heaven that he is not a Treasury Minister in charge of the Budget forecasts.

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Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because it is important that we try to ascertain the numbers. As a Hampshire Member, he will be well aware not only that Gurkhas are serving in military units in my constituency of Aldershot, but that we have a very large Nepalese community, running into the thousands. Members of that community are very much valued and appreciated, but the situation is producing pressures locally. Major Dewan, the chairman of the British Gurkha Welfare Society, which is based in Farnborough in my constituency, has made it clear that of the 291 Gurkhas who are waiting to come to this country immediately, 80 per cent. will come to Farnborough. That means 1,000 people. My local authority tells me that it cannot cope. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has any plans to help us. He said that he would set out some practical propositions to deal with what might happen in particular areas of the country, where the Gurkhas are hugely valued, but where the move might cause a problem for local services—

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that interventions have to be brief, and there are many Members waiting to contribute to the debate.

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about immigration policy in its entirety. If he had come to some of the immigration debates that we have had, he would be aware that we Liberal Democrats have been putting forward proposals that would ensure that local authorities are better able to identify their needs, and better able to have the resources to meet them. I entirely accept that his is a legitimate concern, but I am afraid that it applies much more widely than merely to the narrow issue of the Gurkhas. For example, in areas of east London such as Newham, the NHS register is far out of line with the census results, which are used as a basis for the distribution of public finance, so I am entirely sympathetic to that point.

There is a fundamental point that a number of my hon. Friends have already made, and have anticipated. We can play the numbers game, and if we do, the Government will lose the argument, because their figures, frankly, are fantasy. However, the numbers are not the point. The point is simple: Gurkhas have given an unconditional commitment to this country. They have put their lives on the line for us time and again. More than 45,000 Gurkhas have died in the conflicts of the two world wars, fighting for our freedoms and our way of life. They represent a tradition of service to Queen and country that is almost without equal.

The Brigade of Gurkhas alone is the proud recipient of no fewer than 26 Victoria Crosses—the highest medal, of course, for valour in combat that our nation can award. Many units in the British Army have an outstanding record of valour and bravery under fire, but I have not been able to establish that there is any other unit that can match that record.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

There is one issue that does not seem to get a mention at all: the impact on Nepal. We are talking about important people who are pensioners in Nepal. They bring a quality of life because of their spending power. Has the hon. Gentleman considered an impact assessment on Nepal at all, particularly if we move in the direction of Gurkhas being likely to want to settle in this country when they leave the Army? More likely than not, that will result in them not sending remittances back home. I feel that we are duty bound to take account of that. If we agree to the measures in the motion, we have to help that country's Government.

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We have to consider the implications for the developing world of our policies, not just in this area but in others, too. I am sure that that was something of which Ministers were aware when they made the settlement for those who gave service after 1997. The hon. Gentleman should also bear in mind that Nepal is not as dependent on the remittances from Gurkha soldiers as popular folklore in the UK sometimes suggests. The population of Nepal—and this was reported to Mr. Justice Blake in a submission—is about 25 million, and its gross domestic product is substantial. Workers' remittances from Nepalese working abroad in India, the Gulf and elsewhere are very substantial indeed, so I am satisfied, to answer the hon. Gentleman directly, that if we rose to our obligations, there would be no corresponding bad effect on Nepal. His concerns can therefore be allayed.

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Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

Was it not made clear to Mr. Justice Blake that the Nepalese Government have no objection to the right being given to former Gurkha soldiers to settle in the UK?

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for that question, and I am particularly grateful for his support for the campaign because, in its early days, as the constituency MP involved, he had some doubts about the right way to proceed. He is absolutely correct that, as far as we have been able to ascertain, and as far as Mr. Justice Blake could do so, the Nepalese Government do not have concerns on this issue.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

Let me conclude, as I have given way enough.

As Sir Ralph Turner MC, who fought with the Gurkhas in the first world war, wrote in the poem that has become the calling card of the men of the brigade:

"Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you".

Are we really to repay that unconditional commitment with the penny-pinching approach of the accountant? Are we really the sort of people who know the price of everything, and the value of nothing—who reward loyalty with a rebuke? Are we to say that people who are prepared to fight and die for our country are not good enough to live in it? This debate is not just about the Gurkhas. It is the about the sort of people we are. The House must today find the generosity of spirit to repay, in the small way that we can, the enormous debt of gratitude that we owe to the Gurkhas. I urge hon. Members to support the motion.

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

I inform hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury 2:13 pm, 29th April 2009

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and add:

"recognises that this Government is the only one since the Second World War to allow Gurkhas and their families settlement rights to the United Kingdom;
notes that in 2004 the Government permitted settlement rights to Gurkhas discharged since 1997, following the transfer of the Brigade HQ from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom;
further notes that under these rules around 6,000 Gurkhas and family members have been welcomed to the UK;
acknowledges that the court judgement of September 2008 determined that the 1997 cut-off date was fair and rational, while seeking clarification of the criteria for settlement rights for those who retired before 1997;
further notes that on 24 April the Government published new and more generous guidelines for the settlement applications of Gurkhas who retired before 1997;
supports this revised guidance, which will make around 10,000 Gurkhas and family members eligible to settle in the UK;
further notes that the Government undertakes actively to inform those who may be eligible in Nepal of these changes and to review the impact of the new guidance within 12 months;
further notes that the contribution Gurkhas have made is already recognised by pensions paid to around 25,000 Gurkhas or their widows in Nepal that allow for a good standard of living there;
and further notes that in the year 2000 Gurkha pensions were doubled and that, earlier in April 2009, in addition to an inflationary uplift of 14 per cent., those over 80 years old received a 20 per cent. increase in their pension."

I thank the Liberal Democrats for giving the House the opportunity to discuss this important issue, not least because it gives me the opportunity to put on the record the facts and the arguments that we need to inform ourselves about this debate. Everyone in the House accepts that Gurkhas have served this country with bravery and professionalism in many conflicts. I thank Chris Huhne for reminding us of that record. The Gurkhas have, indeed, just returned from a highly successful deployment in Afghanistan. I hope that there is no questioning of the Government's good intent towards the Gurkhas and their families. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind about the fact that the Government have the highest regard for the contribution of the Brigade of Gurkhas, and the contribution that it has made to Her Majesty's armed forces over a significant period of time. Indeed, the Government can back up those words with their actions.

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Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

The whole House agrees with the hon. Gentleman about the contribution that the Gurkhas have made, and their heroic military service. However, the point that Andrew Mackinlay made is important. We should look not at what the Gurkhas have done, but at what they can do in future for this country: the great contribution that they can make to our economy and society should not be underestimated.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

They are going to win anyway, so just get on with it.

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of Parliament, and he knows how to conduct himself in debate.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for protecting me from my hon. Friend from the mouth of the Thames.

Not only can the Government say that they pay tribute to the Gurkhas, but we can prove by our record that we are doing so. Let me explain the background to this case. It has been said that the guidelines that we published on Friday have undermined support for the Gurkhas, but I do not accept that that is so. Gurkhas are recruited in Nepal, and remain Nepalese citizens throughout their service with the brigade, in line with the wishes of the Nepalese Government. Before 1997, the Brigade of Gurkhas was based in Hong Kong, and following the handover of Hong Kong to China, the regimental base was moved to the UK, which put the brigade on the same footing as Commonwealth soldiers.

The service given by members of the brigade is chiefly recognised through the arrangements made to support them following their discharge. Gurkhas who served on or after 1 July 1997—the date of the handover of Hong Kong—are eligible to transfer to the armed forces pension scheme. Gurkhas who were discharged before that date, and who served for at least 15 years, receive a pension under the Gurkha pension scheme. In 2000, the value of those pensions was doubled. On top of that, the amount of the pension is regularly reviewed and increased in accordance with annual inflation in Nepal—for information, in 2009 it was 14.1 per cent. plus an additional 20 per cent. for those over 80. The pension received by ranks up to corporal is comparable to the salary of an engineer in Nepal, and it may be of interest to Members to know that the pension received by those of the rank of sergeant and above is equivalent to or greater than that of a Member of Parliament.

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S

Dear Rt Honorary Mr Phil Woolas, Minister of Immigration As an ex-Gurkha, I feel victimisation of institutional discrimination, I think you are trying to derail (deceits) the point of Equality here. Gurkhas are asking for Equal Rights to other comrades of the same Forces. It is totally unfair and sad to see that you seem trying to treat the Gurkahs of the same British Forces with double standard. Probably that's what the HQBG had/s been suggesting you but whose ultimatum responsibility to imply the law of Equality Act, but not to alienate or discriminate the Gurkhas? Do you think the whole world will believe in what you preach if you do not treat the Gurkhas on the ground of Equality properly? To your point of comparing the pension to the salary of an Engineer, have you got a record of how many Gurkhas or their children have been able to hold the high positions in Nepal or elsewhere comparing to the Engineers’ children? Or given the nearly 200 years of service in the British Army, how many Gurkhas or their generation are there in Neapl in the richest or brainiest list? My point is the money...

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Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the Government's position up to now on a number of issues. I do not think that the House would dispute the fact that the Government's record is better than that of the Conservatives when they were in office. However, the question is whether it is good enough, and the answer out there—both around the world and through the eyes of those who are watching our debate—is not yet.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

That is an entirely fair and helpful point. At least the hon. Gentleman's party has been consistent on the Gurkhas—I have recognised that—in contrast with the Conservative party, which I shall come on to with great relish. I am setting out the position to tackle the accusation that, somehow or other, the Government have not treated the Gurkhas fairly or properly, although I accept that he has not made that accusation, and I am grateful to him. [ Interruption. ] May I finish setting out the background, then we can deal with the second point, which is the subject of the debate?

In addition, for those Gurkhas who did not serve long enough to qualify for a pension, the Ministry of Defence gives just over £1 million annually to the Gurkha Welfare Trust—hence the discrepancy between the two figures raised by parliamentary questions, which the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend Mr. Jones addressed. The charity provides financial, medical and community aid to alleviate hardship among former Gurkhas. I do not accept the accusation that Gurkhas discharged before 1997 have been abandoned by the Government, and it is offensive to senior members of the armed forces who are charged with the welfare of ex-soldiers of all regiments. It is against that background that decisions on settlement rights for ex-Gurkhas must be seen. It was never the case that Gurkhas joining up did so in the belief or expectation that they would get settlement rights. There was no expectation that they would be permitted to settle in the United Kingdom on discharge, and that was not part of the terms and conditions under which they enlisted.

Notwithstanding that, the Labour Government chose in 2004 to introduce settlement rights for Gurkhas, in particular to bring their treatment into line with that of Commonwealth soldiers. Before that date, a discharged Gurkha had no route to apply to settle in the United Kingdom on the basis of service. In 2004, the then Prime Minister announced that those discharged after 1997, when the regimental base moved to the UK, would enjoy the same settlement rights as others—that is, after four years of service and if they apply for settlement within two years of their discharge.

However, the then Prime Minister went further than that. He recognised that there would be former Gurkhas who were discharged before 1997 when the base was still in Hong Kong who would have made outstanding or exceptional contributions and for whom settlement in the United Kingdom would be desirable. He therefore announced that the cases of Gurkhas discharged before 1997 would be considered on a discretionary basis. Guidance was issued to immigration case workers on how to consider applications from Gurkhas applying to settle on this basis. Since these rules were introduced, we have welcomed to our country about 6,000 Gurkhas plus their families.

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Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Can the Minister confirm without any shadow of doubt that the decision made in 2004 to allow Gurkhas who retired from 1997 onwards was retrospective, and that his ministerial colleague is therefore wrong to say that there cannot be retrospective legislation?

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

I understand that point. The decision was retrospective to 1 July 1997. Those who have been granted settlement include significant numbers—3,500 from the previous period, before the 1997 cut-off, and 2,500 post-1997. The hon. Gentleman's point is valid in that regard.

We come to the crux of the matter. The judicial review was launched against the background of that policy. It challenged both the 1997 so-called cut-off date and the guidance under which decisions were made on pre-1997 cases. The question has been asked, not least in the media today, where the guidelines come from. The answer is that they come from the instruction of the High Court to clarify the guidance pre-1997.

On the 1997 cut-off, the judge, Justice Blake, said:

"The identification of July 1997 . . . was not an arbitrary or irrational consideration."

He went on to say that

"it cannot have been irrational or unjustifiable to distinguish July 1997 as the date after which rights as opposed to discretion to settle in the United Kingdom accrued."

So we have a judgment from the judge that the 1997 cut-off date is fair and lawful— [Interruption. ] His exact words were "not . . . irrational". The Government changed the situation in 2004, which has allowed 6,000 Gurkhas plus their families—some 3,500 from before 1997—to settle in this country.

No Government from 1948 to 2004 allowed the settlement of Gurkhas in the UK. From 1948, when the brigade was established on its modern-day footing, until 1997, the number of Gurkhas who were given naturalisation in the United Kingdom was five—five ex-Gurkhas. It is against that background that the motion from the official Opposition claims that the current Government have betrayed the Gurkhas and implies that we should get rid of the 1997 cut-off—something that no Government did from the second world war until Tony Blair did it in 2004.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

To go on about the judgment of the Court is to miss the point completely. The judicial review is itself determined by parameters that need to be reviewed. This is a special case. I speak as one who has met the Gurkhas in Staffordshire and who has campaigned on their behalf over a number of years. If the Minister intends to run the argument that this is about judicial review and the judge's interpretation, he is missing the wood for the trees.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. There are some in the House who have campaigned consistently to abolish the 1997 cut-off date. I think Miss Widdecombe and my hon. Friend Martin Salter have made those points, and there are others, but I raise the issue because the Government stand accused of betrayal. That is an unfair and disingenuous accusation to make, particularly against the background, which I have just outlined to the House, of the Government's proud record on the treatment of the Gurkhas.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The Minister appears to be a little confused. He seems to say that our amendment differs in respect of the situation before 1997 from the motion tabled by the Liberal Democrats. In fact, ours is a very small amendment to the original motion. On that issue we are at one with the Liberal Democrats. I do not understand what he can see in the amendment that justifies what he has just told the House.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

What I see in the motion from the Liberal Democrats is consistency and naiveté. What I see in the amendment from the hon. Gentleman is a bandwagon and inconsistency. If his party adhered to the policy of abolishing the 1997 cut-off, they had 18 years in which to do it and they did not. It ill behoves him to make the accusation that we have somehow betrayed the Gurkhas.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

I shall move on to the crux of what the hon. Member for Eastleigh said. He spoke about the judicial review. Let me clarify the figures. It has been claimed and reported that the Gurkhas and their supporters believe that the new guidelines will give settlement to only about 100 Gurkhas. That figure is an estimate, from the campaign, of the total number from the outstanding 1,500 appeals—1,350 of which are from Nepal, and the remainder in country—of how many will be granted under the guidelines. It is not the estimate out of the total number of 36,000 Gurkhas plus their families to whom reference has been made, so it is disingenuous to suggest, as others have, that only 100 would qualify under the new guidelines.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Manchester, Blackley

The Government's record on the Gurkhas is better than that of any previous Government. My hon. Friend is right about that. He is a just and fair-minded Minister. However, I would feel happier if he reassured the House that none of the Gurkhas who are awaiting appeals will be deported, and said that he accepts the principle behind the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend Mr. Howarth, which is that although the Government have done a lot, they can improve the situation further.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, in particular for his kind remarks, which have been much more polite than some in recent days. Let me answer him directly. Some of the outstanding applications are from ex-Gurkhas who are already in the United Kingdom and have been resident here for some time, whether lawfully or unlawfully. My officials will consider these applications on a case-by-case basis, as we are bound to do, to assess whether they fall to be granted settlement under the revised guidelines.

Subsequent to that, the Border Agency is required under the immigration rules to consider all the relevant factors of an individual's circumstances to see whether the person should be allowed to stay in the United Kingdom. I can say to the House that I cannot foresee circumstances in which these honourable men who have served the UK so well would ever be removed from our country.

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Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Shadow Minister (International Development)

I remind the House that I have an interest as a former officer in the Brigade of Gurkhas. My concern is the unintended consequences of this decision, which, if I am called to speak, I would like to explore. Will the Minister assure the House that none of the decisions today will jeopardise the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas? If in the future those of us on both sides of the House who are championing the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas face a decision locally about supporting the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas or our local regiments, will we be equally vociferous in supporting the brigade?

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

The hon. Gentleman, who speaks with great knowledge, is concerned that the decisions do not have the unintended consequence of damaging the brigade. The point about the potential resource implication of this is important, and the Prime Minister referred to it earlier at Prime Minister's Question Time. Let me be clear because the numbers have been challenged, I think unfairly. I looked at the numbers after I had met representatives of the campaign. I cannot base the advice of the Government on the "Channel 4 News" fact indicator; I have to base it on the best information available to us, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has explained the derivation of the figures. But it is an important point. The Government have never said that 100,000 people would apply and would get settlement. We have to look, as we do under all immigration law, at the potential, and our best estimate is that it is 100,000. It may be more, it may be less.

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Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has outlined the Government's very good record so far in dealing with this issue, and he is right to say that the heart of the dispute is about numbers—his Department's estimates about the potential numbers and the numbers that the campaign has said would qualify under the new guidelines. There has been a lot of progress today. The Prime Minister accepted that Ministers would review the 1,300 cases and that that would be concluded by 11 June. I understand that it is now further being said that on the basis of the work carried out on those 1,300 cases, there will be a consideration of the implications of that for the new guidelines. Both those statements are welcome. I do not expect an immediate answer from my hon. Friend, but if he would go a little further and say that that process of looking at the 1,300 cases and their implications will be concluded by the time the House rises for the summer recess, I would feel far more inclined to support the Government in the Division Lobby this afternoon.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that comment; he brings us to the crux of the debate. For the benefit of those who wish to contribute to the debate, I will depart from my written speech. We have two worries about abolishing the pre-'97 cut-off date. First, we are concerned that it would set precedents for other groups, and, as one would expect, I have taken legal advice on that. We fear that the precedent would be set for people from Commonwealth countries who had served in the armed forces, and that that retrospective decision from pre-'97 would apply to other groups. We have to be clear that if a blanket decision was made on Gurkhas for pre-'97 there would be no unintended consequence for other groups who may have the right to challenge on the basis of common law and public law. With that there is the consequential impact on budgets, and the Prime Minister referred to the £1.4 billion. I do not recall using the £1.5 billion figure, but if I did I withdraw that. Our estimate is £1.4 billion, and I remind the House that that would come from the defence budget.

Secondly, if right hon. and hon. Members are honest with themselves—I hope that we all are—the truth is that none of them knows how many would apply. But as the former Chief of the Defence Staff said in The Independent on Sunday, the Government have to live in the real world, not in the world of emotion. Therefore the staged approach that we have taken, as described by the Prime Minister—this is the crux of my right hon. Friend's proposal—

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

Just let me finish, then I will take an intervention. I am confident that my right hon. Friend will agree with me.

There are 1,500 cases outstanding, and we will get through those by 11 June. We have already started on that. I am more than confident that that will be significantly more than the 100 that has been estimated. We will then review the guidelines as time goes on. If our figures are wrong, we of course will change the guidelines, as we have always intended to do and as we stated in the written ministerial statement on Friday. We have made that point. My right hon. Friend is trying to push us on what we have announced as a review within 12 months—we were always clear on that—and it will become pretty clear how the guidelines are being interpreted by the time scale that he gives. I cannot give him a cast-iron guarantee, because we do not know how many applications outside of the 1,500 will come in, but that is certainly my intention.

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Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that and we have made still further progress. I accept that he cannot give a cast-iron guarantee, but if he were to tell me and those who support the amendment that stands in my name and those of others that he would use his best endeavours to conclude that process by the start of the summer recess, I would feel much more reassured.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

I can do that, with the caveat that I do not know how many applications will be made in that period.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman and then I will make the final points in my argument so that we can move on.

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Home Secretary

I am particularly interested in being a spectator at what appears to be an internal group meeting of the parliamentary Labour party between those on the Front and Back Benches about what these concessions may be. I welcome the Minister's commitment that there will not be deportations in the case of the appeals. But we come back to the key point, which I ask Labour Back Benchers to consider carefully when they decide how to vote, of how the Government are approaching the issue. Is it more credible to believe that 1,350 people who have actually applied from before 1997 is the rough order of magnitude of the numbers that we are talking about—there may be some more—or the Government estimate, which on the Minister's own admission just now is the maximum potential figure? Given that the maximum potential figure is an absurd basis for policy—

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I must bring the hon. Gentleman to order. I understand the importance of this debate, but many Back Benchers also wish to make a contribution.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

Once again, the hon. Gentleman caricatures what I said. I have always been clear that the 100 per cent. is a maximum and an estimate. I made that perfectly clear in interviews in the media on Friday. Let me again clarify the point about the 1,500. Those are the outstanding appeals against applications that we have.

Hon. Members are also concerned about the 20-year limit and the accusation that it is somehow or other discriminatory against the lower ranks.

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Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Labour, Llanelli

I welcome the Government's commitment in the amendment to review the impact of new guidance within 12 months, but will my hon. Friend give me a categorical assurance that that will include looking at that 20-year limit, as many have not been able to serve more than 15 years?

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

Yes. Let me explain where the 20 years comes from. I think that when people hear the argument, if they are fair-minded they will accept it. I am sorry to go back to the judge, but this is the derivation of the argument. He said that the old guidelines were unclear—we therefore had to make them clearer—on the basis of quality and quantity of service. The criteria that we have proposed provide for a range of circumstances that cover both points. It is the case that the majority of people who have 20 years' service are below commissioned officer rank. Although it is true that soldiers in the private ranks join for 15 years and people who intend to be officers join for 20 years, it is also true and not contradictory that many people serve more than 15 years, but a majority of those who serve 20 years are below the rank of commissioned officer. In any event, that is only one criterion.

The other criteria, which include, as we know, a generous expansion of the guidance on people who have disabilities and, importantly, people who have drawn a pension in the past because of a disability or an injury, reflect the quantity and quality of service. I put those criteria before the House in the belief and expectation that more Gurkhas and their families will be granted settlement rights in our country, and with the review that my right hon. Friend Mr. Howarth asked for and has just pressed me on. [ Interruption. ] Indeed, it was part of the written ministerial statement, but I recognise the feeling of the House and we will review the situation.

However, we as a Government must bear in mind the potential implication of that precedent for other groups of people and for the resources of our country, not to mention the point that my hon. Friend Mr. Drew made about the future of Nepal itself, which seems not to have featured much in the debate.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I should be interested to know what the Governments of Nepal and India have said about the whole debate, and, more particularly, whether the UK Government have conducted an assessment of the impact on Nepal's GDP if the greatest number—I know it is only an estimate—of people who could enter this country do so.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

My hon. Friend's point is extremely important, and I, as a Labour party member, think that we should give a lot of strength to it. The Government, through aid and the Department for International Development's budget, give £56 million to Nepal. We give—if give is the right word—or pay £54 million in pensions for Gurkhas, so those are the sums that are important to Nepal.

I sense that the House has heard enough from me.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

I am being pressed to take interventions, but there are a number of speakers, the Liberal Democrats have another debate this afternoon and we have only until 4 o'clock.

I shall finish on this point, which involves a quotation from Mr. Simpson who, at the time of the 2004 settlement—deal, agreement, arrangement—that we made, was a Conservative Defence spokesman. He said:

"We warmly welcome the government's decision. This should receive overwhelming support from the British people who have enjoyed the Gurkhas' valuable service over nearly 200 years."

I should like to ask, what changed between 2004 and now, other than an opportunity to jump on a bandwagon, misrepresent the good intentions of the Government, question our motive and not even wait for the facts to see how many people secure settlement from the new guidelines?

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Several hon. Members:

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. Mr. Speaker imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. In view of the limited time available, I propose to reduce that further to six minutes.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 2:44 pm, 29th April 2009

I shall seek to be briefer than the previous two speakers, in recognition of how many Back Benchers are willing to speak.

It is a rare but genuine pleasure to support the motion moved by Chris Huhne. We tabled an amendment, which the Minister misunderstands; it would improve the motion in small but important ways that I shall come to later. This is a day for the whole House to speak up for the Gurkhas and for the overwhelming majority of the people of this country who want to support them. We will vote for the motion, because our analysis of the Government's position is very simple: the Government are wrong.

The Minister spent a lot of time talking about history. Let me give him a bit more history, because he does not seem to understand it. In 1997 the terms of the Gurkhas' engagement changed radically; their headquarters were moved to this country and they started doing tours of duties in this country; and so some of their children started to be educated in this country. Therefore, to say that a Government whose term had ended before that change happened should somehow have changed the rules to recognise that is simply absurd—but that was the assertion that the Minister made in his speech.

The Minister also asked what has changed since the—very wise—words of my hon. Friend Mr. Simpson in 2004. What has changed is the court decision. The Government were taken to court and lost the case, so for the Minister to say that nothing has changed since then is also absurd.

I assure hon. Members that a Conservative Government would scrap this Labour Government's plans for the Gurkhas, although I hope that the House passes the motion so that we can proceed more rapidly. I have rarely seen such an outpouring of public outrage as the one that has engulfed the Minister since he made his ill-fated decision last week.

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Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

We all honour the past service of the Gurkhas, and I have a great deal of sympathy with the cause that has been put forward—with one important caveat about which I hope the hon. Gentleman can lay my fears to rest: the implications for future recruitment from Nepal. He will know that the current Maoist Government of Nepal were elected on a manifesto commitment to stop Gurkha recruitment to the UK Army. They performed a U-turn at a meeting with UK parliamentarians in Kathmandu, at which I was present, but it is a very shaky U-turn. If a large number of people leave Nepal, and there is the impact that my hon. Friend Mr. Drew mentioned, it could flip the Nepalese Government back into stopping the recruitment of Gurkhas to the British Army. Will the hon. Gentleman tell me clearly what discussions he has had with the Government of Nepal, or their representatives, about whether changes— [ Interruption. ] Opposition Members are laughing; they do not think that this situation has any impact on the 12th poorest country in the world. What discussions—

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

That is a faintly ridiculous point. Clearly, the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas is extremely important, but the way in which the hon. Gentleman phrased his point suggests that he is not interested in having the constructive debate that we need.

The current situation is part of a long-running set of mistakes by the Government on the issue. They have been wrong on it ever since the High Court made its ruling last year. We have heard a lot about Mr. Justice Blake, but his judgment came down to this central point, when he said that the Gurkhas' service is worthy of

"an unquestionable moral debt of honour" from the British people. The Opposition have been absolutely clear about that. The following day, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said:

"Yesterday the courts ruled that Gurkhas who want to come and live in Britain should be able to. They risked their lives for us and now we must not turn our backs on them. I say to the government... Do not appeal this ruling. Let's give those brave Gurkha soldiers who defended us the right to come and live in our country."

Many Gurkhas outside this House today, and millions more of their supporters throughout the country, will be not only appalled by the Government's position but puzzled about how they arrived at it, so it is worth investigating why the Government find themselves in this position. The underlying reason they have to behave in such an unfair and ungenerous way to the Gurkhas is that the Government's overall immigration policy has been out of control for many years. Why are they trying to stop Gurkhas coming here? It boils down to the fact that they have failed to stop so many much less deserving people from coming here and, what is worse, staying here.

A long list of failures on immigration policy has driven the Minister to his present uncomfortable position. The Government failed to deport the killer of Stephen Lawrence; they failed to remove the suspected terrorist Abu Qatada; only one third of released foreign prisoners have been deported; and only 14 employers of illegal immigrants have been prosecuted since 2008.

Then there is the wider point about immigration numbers. The Government used to say that there was no obvious upper limit on immigration, and in their headlong retreat from that disastrous policy, they are now in the ridiculous and immoral position of trying to keep out some of the best and most loyal servants of this country.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

In a second.

The net result of this succession of failures is that the Minister has to find new ways of looking tough; that is what he was appointed to do, and that is what he seeks to do. Today's victims of that are the Gurkhas. The Government are making the Gurkhas the scapegoat for their own incompetence on immigration policy. Let me set out for the Minister how he could immediately climb out of the hole that he finds himself in. I will tell the House what we would do if we were in power, and offer the Minister a way to bring in our proposals quickly so that the Gurkhas do not have to wait.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

This is just a point of clarification; I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to clear it up now. He talked about the deportation of the killer of Stephen Lawrence; I am sure that he would like to reflect on that.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

It was not Stephen Lawrence's killer—the right hon. Gentleman is, as so often, right.

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Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

Does the hon. Gentleman understand that it sticks in the gullet slightly to find that a representative of the party that at each general election within my memory has run disreputable campaigns about the admission of foreigners and migration generally—I note that the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, which are also virulently anti-migrant, are leading this campaign—is now championing what appears to be an open-door policy for this category of migrants and, who knows, some others too?

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I have great admiration and liking for the hon. Gentleman, but that intervention was nonsensical and disgraceful in every individual part. I remind him that he is sitting on the Government Benches representing a party whose leader talked about British jobs for British people. If he wants to talk about unpleasant rhetoric, I suggest that he look in his own house first.

A Conservative Government would make a presumption that Gurkhas who left the service before 1997 would be allowed to settle in this country. That is the big divide in this debate. I think that everyone on the Conservative Benches is on one side of the debate, and most, although I hope not all, on the Government side of the Chamber are on the other side of it. Those of us who are on our side of the debate are also on the side of the Gurkhas. We are on their side because ours is the only fair solution to the problem that the Government face. How would we do it? We would fit their applications into the general framework of our proposed immigration policy. As the Minister knows, we would build on the points-based system with our proposal for a limit on the number of work permits issued every year, so that we have a properly controlled immigration system. We would create a new category within the points-based system for former service personnel who are not British citizens, and allow them the right to settle.

Dr. Harris, who is no longer in his place, objected to—

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Can I finish my sentence first? [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Lady can contain herself, I was referring to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who said that his objection to the points-based system was that it was entirely economically driven and had no room for any other drivers. That is an interesting point, although I do not completely agree with it.

We would create a new tier for which people would qualify simply by having served the British armed forces. I think we all agree that we owe those people a debt, and the vast majority of those who would benefit from that category would be pre-1997 Gurkhas.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I think that the hon. Lady wishes to speak.

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Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Labour, West Ham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being so gracious. Under the new Conservative policy, will anybody who has served this country in the armed forces abroad have an automatic right of entry to this country?

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

As I said, as the hon. Lady would have heard had she been listening, there would be a presumption in favour— [ Interruption. ] Let me deal with this now. One of our small differences with the Liberal Democrats is that, although we support the motion, there is a problem that it appears to allow that right to anyone, even if, for example, they have committed serious crimes. I am sure that the hon. Member for Eastleigh would not wish people like that to be given the right to come to this country. Our amendment would ensure that we retained controls over individuals whom we might not wish to come here. I cannot believe that that would be a controversial point even among Government Members.

One of the key questions that remains is about the numbers who are eligible to apply. The Minister tried to convince us that the figures from the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence were unquestionable. I am afraid that those of us who spend large parts of our lives dealing with Home Office figures, and those of my colleagues who deal with MOD figures, will not share his confidence that absolutely everything that comes out of those Departments is necessarily of the highest calibre. At various stages, the MOD has estimated that the total numbers eligible will be 22,000; it has mentioned other figures, but I will stick with the lower one because it helps the Minister's case. The British Gurkha Welfare Society estimates that the total would be 30,000. On top of that, of course, there are the dependants, because we all agree that we need to be fair to them as well. In their statement last week, the Government estimated that there are about 1.5 dependants per Gurkha—4,000 soldiers with 6,000 dependants—whereas the British Gurkha Welfare Society estimates that there are three dependants per Gurkha.

This is a significant area where any Government would need to do some proper research to find the truth. Even on those two estimates—there are others; this morning, I heard the BBC reporting a figure of 40,000 potential qualifying ex-Gurkhas—the numbers eligible to come here could vary between 55,000 and 120,000; those are the absolute maximums. Before we settle on a final policy, the Government need to sort out that confusion and make a sensible assessment of how many people will actually apply to come here. Over the past couple of years, about 1,300 have made applications. If that is the realistic level of demand, then our proposals would solve the problem on day one; certainly, the number of visas on offer would be significantly higher than that. We can be clear that a Conservative Government would grant visas under the new tier of the points-based system to give the Gurkhas what they deserve: the right to settle in this country with their immediate dependants. The lower the number who apply, the faster we can right this wrong, which I am sure hon. Members in all parts of the House want to do.

I know from my own talks with Gurkha campaigners that they want this matter solved quickly—in fact, now—so I have a suggestion for the Minister. The Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill is currently passing through Parliament. It has completed all its stages in the other place and will come to this House in the next few weeks. The long title of the Bill includes the words

"To make further provision about immigration and asylum".

It would therefore be perfectly in order for the Minister to introduce our proposal—or, indeed, any other proposal that he wants to introduce—in that Bill so that it could be on the statute book within the next few months. If his proposal is sensible—if he wishes to adopt ours, or anything similar—my party will support him, and I guess that the Liberal Democrats would also want this problem to be solved as quickly as possible. This debate is about playing fair with the people we should let into this country while at the same time, in wider immigration policy, doing much better in stopping the people who should not be allowed in to this country.

Over the course of the past few days, the Minister has managed to attract opposition from all parts of the spectrum. In looking at the various options put forward by Members in all parts of the House, I am particularly struck by one that we have already touched on, which points out that only officers benefit from the Government's proposals. It must strike the House as the most exquisite irony that in the week that the Government publish their Equality Bill they produce another policy which favours the officer class and tramples all over the other ranks. I cannot imagine that many Labour Members came into politics to support such divisive nonsense.

There are two genuine concerns that need to be addressed, the first of which was raised by Mr. Drew. If the vast majority of former Gurkhas were to leave Nepal over a very short period, that would do huge damage to the Nepali economy and the structure of governance in Nepal. I do not believe that that huge exodus would happen, and I take the points that the hon. Member for Eastleigh made about that, but we need to bear the possibility in mind.

The second concern, which we have not discussed much, is that those who arrive here need to be properly assimilated into British society as easily and comfortably as possible. I can draw on my experience in saying that, because my constituency has a fast-growing Nepali community. They are model citizens, from the dedication of the children at school to the big efforts made by adults to play a key role in wider civic life, while demonstrating their justifiable pride in their history and culture. That is a lesson in how cohesion and integration can work in this country, and above all, what has happened in my constituency is a tribute to the wholly admirable people that the Gurkhas are.

Before I close, I should mention that the changes proposed in the amendment that we tabled were designed not to change the sense of the motion in any way but to tidy it up. I have made the point that expressing a presumption of the right to come rather than an absolute right would alleviate one of the potential problems. That shows that it is not very difficult to change the motion in minor ways that give a basis for practical legislation that the Government could introduce as soon as they wanted, and that a Conservative Government would introduce as soon as they were able.

I urge the Minister once again to stop digging the hole in which he finds himself. He has created a rare degree of unity inside and outside the House, and it is a united front against his policy. He must now listen to the voices of those who support the Gurkhas, respect the strength of feeling throughout the country and reverse this unfair, ungenerous and divisive policy. The Gurkhas should not be made the scapegoat for the failure of the Government's immigration policy. I support the motion.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. May I remind the House that there is now a six-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches?

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Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East 3:02 pm, 29th April 2009

I come to this issue as somebody who was a child in the period following the second world war. Pretty well everybody I knew—my father, my mother, uncles, neighbours—served in the armed forces and fought in the war in some capacity. Not many people spoke much about their wartime experience—it was a kind of convention that people did not go on in great detail about what had happened to them. However, one of my clear recollections is the extent to which those who served with Gurkhas were full of praise for their fierceness in battle, their loyalty to the UK and their contribution in the second world war. That is the background to my own sentiments towards the Gurkhas.

More recently, I have had some direct experience of Gurkhas. Since the conflict in Iraq began, I have travelled there on three occasions either as Chairman of a Committee, as a guest of the Government or, on one occasion, with my right hon. Friend Ann Clwyd. On all those occasions, I encountered Gurkhas who were serving out there, sometimes working in a private capacity for private security companies and in some cases with the armed forces. I have nothing but respect for the Gurkhas.

It was for that reason that I joined forces with my hon. Friend Martin Salter yesterday and tabled an amendment that has attracted the signatures of 70 right hon. and hon. Members, the majority of whom, although not all, are Labour Members, including my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I have been around the House long enough to know that an amendment tabled by a Back-Bench member of the governing party is unlikely to be selected when the Government and the official Opposition have tabled amendments. However, I thought that it was important to send the Government a message that I, and those who signed the amendment, did not believe that they had given the Gurkhas the honour and recognition that they deserved.

In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Minister, I indicated that progress had been made in the past 24 hours. At Prime Minister's questions, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that the 1,350 cases that are currently in the Home Office will be dealt with by 11 June. He went on to say—my hon. Friend the Minister confirmed this from the Dispatch Box—that the lessons that could be learned from those cases would be examined and a statement made about the outcome of that examination. Shall I use the word "review"? In particular, it was said that there would then be a review of the impact that those findings would have on all cases if the new guidelines were applied. That is basically the point that we had reached at the time of my intervention.

Since then, the Home Secretary has written to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West, a co-signatory of my amendment, and it might help the House if I read out some of the letter. She wrote:

"We have committed to reviewing around 1,350 individual cases where there is an outstanding application by 11 June. We will inform the House immediately thereafter of the impact of the guidance on those cases, and the numbers of cases which fell to be granted, the number refused, and the number where we have requested and are still awaiting further information from the applicant. In the light of lessons learned from this we will review carefully what further policy changes may be required. I am happy to confirm that we will begin this work before the summer recess."

Again confirming a point that my hon. Friend the Minister made earlier, she continued:

"Subsequent to that, UKBA is required under the immigration rules to consider all the relevant factors of an individual's circumstances to see whether the person should be allowed to stay in the United Kingdom. I cannot foresee circumstances in which these honourable men, who have served the UK so well, would ever be removed from the UK."

Prior to receiving that letter and the developments of the past 24 hours, it had been my intention to abstain on both the Government amendment and the Liberal Democrat motion. In the light of those assurances, I now feel that my party's Government have proved to be an honourable Government, and they are a better Government than they were 24 hours ago for that. I will support them.

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Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe 3:08 pm, 29th April 2009

The 2nd Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles is based at Shorncliffe, in my constituency. In a bitter irony, soldiers from that battalion returned to Shorncliffe on Sunday 19 April, 10 days ago—just five days before the Government made their announcement—from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. It was a tour of duty in which, yet again, they demonstrated their heroism and valour, and during which they lost two of their comrades. On Tuesday 4 November, Rifleman Yubraj Rai received a gunshot wound from enemy fire. He received medical treatment at the scene but he died a short time later from his wounds. Only a few days later, on Saturday 15 November, Colour Sergeant Krishnabahadur Dura was taking part in a road move in the Musa Qala district of Helmand, when the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle in which he was travelling was struck by an explosive device.

Those Gurkha soldiers made the supreme sacrifice for our country. When they died, the Prime Minister told the House that we should never forget the sacrifice that they had made, just as he did some three hours ago in respect of the death of the Welsh Guardsman who lost his life yesterday. However, those words must be accompanied by deeds.

When the Gurkhas returned to Shorncliffe 10 days ago, they were warmly welcomed home by the rest of my constituents. The welcome home that they got from the Government was the decision that we are debating this afternoon. The Gurkhas are a most cherished part of the community that I represent in this place. To say that they are held in high regard would be a gross understatement.

Two weeks ago, I attended and spoke at the launch of an appeal in Folkestone for the erection of a statue dedicated to the Gurkhas. Hundreds of people turned up: Gurkhas themselves, including their two holders of the Victoria Cross, our highest award for valour—Tul Bahadur Pun and Lachhiman Gurung—civic dignitaries of the area and many local people, who wanted to show the affection and esteem in which the Gurkhas are held locally. We are proud to have them as members of our local community. We are not proud of the Government's decision, which we are debating this afternoon.

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Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

I would do exactly what my hon. Friend Damian Green outlined. [Interruption. ] Another hon. Gentleman from a sedentary position says that we did not do it. Of course we did not because the question did not arise before 1997, for all the reasons that were given earlier. Before 1997, the Gurkhas' terms and conditions were governed by the tripartite agreement. I do not remember ever being asked to address the issue before 1997—it simply did not arise.

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Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

I will give way to the Under-Secretary because I have a particular word to say shortly about one of his contributions to our debate.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

I accept the support that the right hon. and learned Gentleman gives Gurkhas, but, when he was Home Secretary, he had on his watch the naval personnel in Hong Kong, who wanted citizens' rights. I carefully wrote down the new policy of the Conservative Opposition and potential Government. It would allow anyone who has served in the British armed forces in the past to come here. Does that include the people that the previous Conservative Government did not honour when they withdrew from Hong Kong?

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Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

The Under-Secretary's comments have nothing to do with the Gurkhas. I am talking about the position on the Gurkhas before 1997, which was the point made from a sedentary position.

Others have spoken of the feats of the Gurkhas throughout the centuries and I do not need to repeat them. They have also spoken about the criteria that the Government set out in the decision that we are debating. I therefore do not need to go into any great detail about them, but I want to say a word about one, perhaps the most objectionable—the 20 years' service requirement and the extent to which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford pointed out, it favours the officer class.

The Under-Secretary now shakes his head. His rebuttal of the point was that more other ranks than officers had served for more than 20 years before 1997. [Interruption. ] He tells me that the Minister for Borders and Immigration said that, and I am more than happy to accept the correction. It was an entirely bogus point and disingenuous statistic, which characterises the Government's approach. Most other ranks did not serve for 20 years before 1997; most other ranks were not allowed to serve for more than 15 years before 1997.

I ask hon. Members to consider what might have been in the minds of the Gurkha riflemen returning to my constituency 10 days ago, knowing that they are not allowed to serve more than 15 years and that the Government regard that as inadequate for consideration under their eligibility criteria in the decision.

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Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

I have only a few seconds left and I want to bring my remarks to a close.

At the end of his judgment in the case of Limbu and others, which was heard and decided last September, Mr. Justice Blake recited the military covenant. Chris Huhne read it out, so I do not need to do so again. It is familiar to many hon. Members. However, the last sentence of his judgment has also been mentioned and is worth repeating. Mr. Justice Blake said:

"Rewarding long and distinguished service by the grant of residence in the country for which the service was performed would, in my judgment, be a vindication and an enhancement of this covenant."

I agree with those words and commend them to the House.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 3:16 pm, 29th April 2009

It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Howard. Perhaps I have been a Member of Parliament for too long—22 years—when I can take part in a debate in which a Labour Government are trying to restrict numbers coming into the United Kingdom, and Conservative spokespersons and former Conservative Home Secretaries are inviting us to increase those numbers.

I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on using some of their precious Opposition time on holding not only one but two important debates—on the Gurkhas and on Sri Lanka. Obviously, I will not participate in the next debate because I am speaking in this one. Enabling the House to discuss two such important matters, which are current and occupy the minds of the British people, is very worthy, and I thank the Liberal Democrats for that.

The Government have done an enormous amount for the Gurkhas and the Minister for Borders and Immigration should not feel upset about criticism. I know that he does not—he is the immigration Minister, so he should expect such criticism. I stress that we are grateful and I am proud to support a Government who have done so much for the Gurkhas. I strongly believe, however, that we should go that one step further.

The Minister has accepted representations from the Gurkhas. At the invitation of my hon. Friend Martin Salter, who has led the campaign on the parliamentary issues, he met several Gurkhas at the end of last year. He has listened carefully to what they said, but it is wrong to change an important aspect of policy through an exchange of letters between the Home Secretary and Back Benchers, when the Government have had considerable time to deal with the matter and to fashion a fair and just policy.

Of course I accept what the Home Secretary said to my right hon. Friend Mr. Howarth, but hon. Members will excuse my taking the letter with a pinch of salt. The Home Secretary and the immigration Minister talk about speed in the immigration and nationality directorate, when it has a backlog of more than 220,000 cases—

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The Minister says that there are more. Given that, he will excuse me for not taking at face value a statement that there is a hope that the cases will be resolved by June.

There is a problem with processing such matters and I will need more than a letter read out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East, wonderful though he is, to be convinced that the Government will try to review the guidelines by June. When the Minister spoke at the Dispatch Box, he did not say that. He said that it was a hope, not an expectation.

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Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

My right hon. Friend is ungenerously trying to make out that I have been naive. I was relying not on the words of my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration at the Dispatch Box, important though they were, but on the words of the Home Secretary, which she put in a letter to my hon. Friend Martin Salter this afternoon.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I did mention the letter from the Home Secretary, but my right hon. Friend was talking to our right hon. Friend Joan Ryan and did not hear me. However, whether the letter comes from the Home Secretary or the Minister for Borders and Immigration and whether it is written in blood, wax or whatever, I have such an enormous immigration case load that I have difficultly accepting that the Home Office and the immigration and nationality directorate can process 1,500 cases by June. I do not think they can do it.

Let me turn to the crux of what I want to say, which is about the decision of the Select Committee on Home Affairs last year. We wrote a letter to the Minister for Borders and Immigration on 4 November last year—this also goes to the question of speed—that reflected a unanimous decision by the Committee after taking evidence from him and from campaigners from the Gurkha community. The letter said four things.

First, the Committee recognised the historic debt of gratitude that is owed to the Gurkhas. We called them brave, loyal and distinguished. Secondly, we agreed that the current Government policy of distinguishing those Gurkhas who retired before 1 July from those who retired afterwards has, in effect, created two classes of Gurkhas. We considered that there was no reason for that distinction. Thirdly, we concluded that the treatment of the Gurkhas was unfair, given the discrepancy between that and the settlement rights afforded to other Commonwealth citizens. Fourthly, we asked the Minister to bring forward regulations to replace the regulations that have already been declared unlawful and to extend the rights of settlement to all the Gurkhas who had applied for settlement. That was absolutely in keeping with the motion that the Liberal Democrats have tabled. The Committee came to a unanimous decision—I see one Committee member, Bob Russell, in his place. I will now need the speech of a lifetime from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend Mr. Jones, to convince me that the Government's position has changed since the motion that they have tabled. We need to move much further.

My final point relates to the issue raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Drew. The view that there has to be an impact assessment for other countries—in this case Nepal—when Parliament takes a decision on immigration policy is ludicrous. I came here as a first-generation immigrant, and for a country that at one stage ruled a third of the world suddenly to start talking about having impact assessments is bizarre. My hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration will know the Bangladeshi community in Oldham. He will know, as will anyone who knows the south Asian community, that just because those people are settled in Oldham, that does not mean that they do not have connections with Bangladesh or that they do not send remittances back to their country of origin. It is a spurious argument that is being developed. I have received no representations from the Government of Nepal, but to be perfectly frank, would we take into consideration representations made by India about the points-based system? I do not think so, because India is against the points-based system, yet we have already told India that we are going to implement it anyway.

For those reasons I am still minded to support the Liberal Democrat motion, despite the speech from the Opposition Front Bench, which almost put me off. However, the Lobbies belong to everybody and, in keeping with the unanimous decision of the Home Affairs Committee, I think that that is the honourable thing for me as the Chairman to do, given that I signed the letter to the Home Secretary.

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Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Liberal Democrat, North East Fife 3:23 pm, 29th April 2009

I am delighted to follow Keith Vaz, particularly as he has just announced that he is going to keep the faith.

The weakness of the Government's case is surely illustrated by the fact that in the course of this debate the Home Secretary has felt it necessary to send a letter to a Labour Back Bencher, apparently without having the courtesy or the foresight to send it to the Minister who was addressing the House. It is something of an insult to the House that our proceedings should be treated in that way. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I have been here for 22 years, and in that time I do not remember letters being passed around the Back Benchers of any Government in that way.

The Minister did his best to put a brave face on the decision that he has to justify, but the truth is that it is a shabby decision. That is why he sounded both unconvinced and unconvincing. I approach the matter as an issue of principle. We have had a lot of exchanges about calculations and potential numbers, but at the bottom of this debate there lies a question of principle. It seems to me that we have not only a moral obligation to recognise those who risk their lives and who, as we heard in an eloquent speech by Mr. Howard, often make the ultimate sacrifice, but a moral obligation to fulfil. All the speeches that we have heard this afternoon have mentioned that moral obligation. When we come to vote in a little while, there will be a chance to fulfil that obligation in a way that the recipients undoubtedly deserve.

Earlier today the Prime Minister spoke about a stage-by-stage process, as if the Government had embarked upon a carefully planned journey, in which the rights of Gurkhas were to be enhanced over a period of time by a series of carefully considered measures. However, that is simply not true. Changes have been made during the lifetime of this Government because of the pressure in the House and the pressure outside it. We are only here today because Mr. Justice Blake partially upheld the proceedings for judicial review in the High Court. If he had not done so, does anyone think that the Government would have brought forward proposals of any kind whatever? They were compelled to do so because of that judicial decision.

Like others, I have a quarrel with the so-called qualifications. As others have dealt with them, including the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, I do not need to deal with them further, except to say this. Although there may be persons other than officers who serve for 20 years, the curious symmetry between the 20-year period that was chosen and the length of service of officers has undoubtedly figured in the minds of those members of the public who have made it clear in their droves that they support the campaign to extend rights of residence to deserving Gurkha soldiers.

Another point that I do not think anyone has made, but which is worth drawing to the House's attention, is this. There appears to be a qualification based upon receipt of a decoration. That is a qualification based not on being brave, but on being recognised as having been brave. Anyone who has been engaged in conflict will say that some of the bravest and most selfless acts of heroism are committed by people who never receive any recognition of any kind whatever. The proposed qualification seems to me to be wholly artificial. The bravery lies in volunteering and in fulfilling a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

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Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Liberal Democrat, North East Fife

I am going to finish in a moment.

My objection is to the fact that there is discrimination between Gurkhas and citizens from Commonwealth countries; without all of them, many of the regiments in our Army would be sadly below strength.

All the indications are that those Gurkhas who have settled here have been good citizens, contributed to their communities, paid their taxes and done everything that might be expected of them. That is why I regard with some suspicion the suggestion that, were the criteria set out by the Government to be relaxed, there would be an inundation of people that would be deeply damaging to public services and things of that kind. If we introduce people into this country who are motivated, who want to be employed and who will be good citizens, that will be entirely for the benefit of this country. Look at the impact that the Asians who were expelled from east Africa have made in the time that they have been in the United Kingdom. That is the precedent that we should be concerned about, and no other. And that is as good a reason as any to vote for the motion.

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Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton 3:29 pm, 29th April 2009

The Gurkhas are superb, as Mr. Howard said. The Brigade of Gurkhas is doing a superb job in his constituency, and I have had the honour of visiting it. However, the Conservatives cannot have it both ways. The changeover in Hong Kong did not just appear on the horizon; they knew many years beforehand that it was coming, and that it would affect the Gurkhas—and, therefore, their terms and conditions—but they did nothing about it.

The real reason that I want to speak is my admiration for and involvement with the Brigade of Gurkhas during my two years as the Defence Minister with responsibility for Gurkha terms and conditions. I was proud to introduce and agree the new terms and conditions for Gurkhas, which are the best that they have ever had. I argued strongly in the Department for the extra money needed to support those new terms and conditions. I believe that the sum was £30 million a year, given the massive increase in pensions.

A number of issues need to be considered in relation to any decision to extend entry rights to former Gurkhas, some of which have already been alluded to today. It was this Government who changed the immigration rules and allowed many Gurkhas to come in. We have heard that about 6,000 have settled here. We have also heard arguments about the figures. The Ministry of Defence team that dealt with Gurkha issues was superb, and I always had trust in what it provided me with as a Minister. When we look at the potential outcomes of such a decision, it is important that we do so with an open mind.

It is possible that not all the Gurkhas who have served in the armed forces would decide to come to this country. However, the evidence so far is that all those who have been able to do so have done so, and I suspect that a large proportion of the 36,000 to 40,000 who have served in our armed forces would come here, with their family members. We are talking about a large number of ex-Gurkhas and their families coming to this country.

The point was made about the effect of such a decision on other nationalities, including members of the Indian army. When we were dealing with the compensation for the far east prisoners of war, an appeal was lodged in London on behalf of between 40,000 and 50,000 former members of the Indian army from Pakistan and India. If we were to open the door, I do not believe for a moment that many of them would not seek to apply to come to this country, as well as many other ex-service personnel from other Commonwealth countries. I do not see how we could have a policy that says that it is okay for Gurkhas who have served this country to come here, but not okay for those others. I do not see how such a policy could legally stand up.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (also in the Home Office), Home Office, Minister of State (also in the Home Office), HM Treasury

I am grateful for those comments from my hon. Friend, given all his experience. In his time as a Minister, did he receive the advice that I have received on this issue—namely, that the abolition of the 1997 cut-off date would not only create a precedent for other groups but lead to legal action on behalf of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people?

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Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

That is absolutely the advice that I received. I dealt with many cases in which the Ministry of Defence needed legal advice during the various campaigns that were going on. I received very strong legal advice on this matter, and I adhered to it. There is a potential for such a decision to affect many tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of people. I accept that we do not actually know how many people might be affected, but perhaps that is the point. There is a potential for such a change to affect many people, and we need to understand what that would involve.

I also want to talk about the effect on Nepal. The loss of that many people could be a major problem. First, there could be a brain drain, because the people who get through the Gurkha test and training are Nepal's best people, and they would be leaving the country to come here. That would clearly have an impact on their society, both socially and economically. Secondly, Gurkhas' pensions are currently paid in Nepal, but they would be paid here following such a decision. That would result in a significant loss of income in Nepal, which is one of the world's poorest countries. We need to take account of that as well. It is all very well to say that we need to stick with the principle and allow people in, but such a decision would have an impact.

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Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

But are not the Government of Nepal the best people to judge that? Did not they give unchallenged evidence in the court case that they had no objection to the Gurkhas being given the right to settle here?

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Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

I am suggesting that, given the potential numbers of people who would come here, there would clearly be a major impact, and I would be surprised if such a learned and intelligent gentleman did not understand that.

The pensions that are paid to Gurkhas represent a good amount of money in Nepal. It would not be seen as a good amount of money in this country, so there would then be a campaign for pre-1997 Gurkha pensioners to get the same pension as current Gurkhas and, therefore, the rest of the British Army. That would be a significant extra cost as well. So there is another implication of which we need to take account.

The fact is that when we agreed the terms and conditions—it took a number of years, as those matters were complex and difficult, and involved a lot of time and effort at the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and elsewhere—they were widely welcomed by serving Gurkhas because there was a massive change in their circumstances. I announced the change and they were delighted that it was going to happen. We took that decision as a Labour Government, and we should not forget that this Labour Government made that massive change to Gurkha terms and conditions, which has given the best pay and pensions that the Gurkhas have ever had here.

On the immigration changes, if I have any criticism of the Home Office, it is that it has perhaps been trying to be too helpful in many ways and has tried to change things to allow more people in. As a result, it gives weight to the argument of those who want more changes to allow more people to have the opportunity to come to this country as well. There would be major implications for housing, jobs, benefits and health support if tens of thousands of people could come here and did so, although we do not know whether they would. That is a major consideration and we need to take account of it.

There are significant implications involved with changing the policy. Legally, we must go back to the point I made earlier: the advice I received was that such a change could open the door to many tens of thousands of other people coming to this country and we could not hold the line just for the Gurkhas, however much we may want to do so. In fairness, anyone who has fought for this country would have the same legal right as the Gurkhas. The fact that someone might have fought in the second world war and had in the past a chance to apply to come to this country would not cut much ice because the legal precedent would have been set. That is the key part of this debate.

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Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

No, I am sorry. Time is nearly up.

I say to the Government that obviously I have concerns about the 20-year rule. I understand what my hon. Friend the Minister said, but people might perceive that rule as disproportionately helping officers, who generally serve longer than the 15-year average. I ask him to have a look at that. It has, in one sense, come across to me from my constituents as an unfairness in what was announced last week, but I stress to the House that it was this Government who made those massive changes to Gurkha terms and conditions and introduced the immigration changes.

We have created many opportunities for more Gurkhas and their families to stay in this country, which did not happen under the previous Government. While I understand the Liberal Democrats' point of view, they are too simplistic in terms of what they want and it does not take account of the implications for the Government, the country as a whole, our social institutions, our jobs and the economy.

I say to the Government, of course review the situation, but be aware of the many complications within this issue, which is not straightforward.

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Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:37 pm, 29th April 2009

During my brief and much curtailed comments, I shall highlight several real-life cases in the knowledge that the Minister will have to hear what is the real plight faced by those very brave Gurkhas.

I start by mentioning a true story of real heroism. Bhim Prasad Gurung, who lives in my constituency, was posted to Brunei with the 6th Queen Elizabeth's Own Gurkha Rifles in 1964. During a jungle operation, Mr. Gurung and a small group of his comrades were ambushed by Indonesian guerrillas. They did not have their weapons, as they had been locked away for the night in a store.

During the fierce and one-sided firefight that ensued, seven Gurkha soldiers were killed and the same number severely wounded. Mr. Gurung and the survivors somehow regained their rifles and took the fight to the enemy, but unfortunately they ran out of ammunition. Their wireless radio was destroyed and they could not call for help or support. Alone in the jungle, out of ammunition and surrounded by their dead and wounded comrades, they never gave up hope.

Mr. Gurung and his comrades roared out the famous Gurkha war cry, "Ayo Gorkhali!", which means, "The Gurkhas are coming!" Through their shouts of defiance, they terrified the enemy so much that, despite Mr. Gurung and his brothers in arms being outnumbered and without ammunition, their enemy retreated.

That is just one example of heroism displayed by those brave Gurkha soldiers. It is truly a disgrace, then, when they are forced to come to this country and live in destitution after their retirement from the Army.

Many of the brave Gurkhas who have settled in Reading have found themselves living in abject poverty. Former Gurkha Ash Bahadur Gurung served in the 6th Queen Elizabeth's Own Gurkha Rifles for 16 years. He lives with his wife and their 12-year-old daughter in a small, rented house paid for out of the basic salary of his son, who is in the British Army. He struggles to make his Gurkha pension of £25.67 last the week. He says that the main problem he faces is getting his daughter—she goes to Reading girls' school—to school, which costs £3 a day on the bus. That is a lot of money out of a £25 pension. Mr. Gurung's wife is not entitled to use the NHS, so she had to buy a pair of crutches and a wheelchair from the Red Cross after one of her legs was amputated after having cancer.

To treat anyone in such a way is dreadful, but to do it to the brave Gurkhas is a national disgrace. The Home Office criteria that were put out recently are immoral. I could not have put it better than Joanna Lumley, who said that she is ashamed of this Government. Today, the whole nation is ashamed of them.

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G

Well done for speaking up for these men - I hope someone is helping the family with the daughter at Reading Girls school ?

Submitted by Gaynor Smith

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 3:41 pm, 29th April 2009

We have had a good and lively debate this afternoon. My hon. Friend Chris Huhne started it off by reminding the House that we owe a debt of honour, which we are repaying with the penny-pinching mentality of an accountant, as the Government try to get away with the least that they think they can under the terms of the law court ruling. I do not know whether it will prove that they have done enough today, but I am perfectly clear that they have approached the task with as mean a spirit as they could. In the bandying of numbers between my hon. Friend and the Minister, we saw the absurdity of the Government's case.

I do not assert that the 1,350 whose cases are currently at the Home Office would be the end of the matter, but it is nonsensical for the Government to total up the maximum number and then bandy it about as representing those who are likely to wish to take advantage of such a right. We do not devise our immigration policies with any other part of the world, the free movement of citizens within the EU, or the policies that we adopt for Commonwealth countries, on the basis that every person who could avail themselves of them is likely to do so. It is a completely illogical approach to the issue.

I regret hearing Ministers do that, as they have the right to pat themselves on the back for what they did in 2004, and for their improvements to the conditions of Gurkhas, to which Derek Twigg referred. By doing what they did in 2004, and creating the entitlement for those who have served since 1997, they have crossed the line in principle. They have done the big thing, and are being dragged kicking and screaming on the smaller issue of who served before 1997. By creating mythological numbers, they are putting a stain on that for which they deserve congratulation.

I do not accept the logic of the 1997 threshold as those on the Conservative and Labour Front Benches seem to accept. The fact that the Gurkhas were garrisoned in Hong Kong until 1997 is of no real significance. The Government seem almost to have looked for something that happened in 1997—they might as well have asked who won the FA cup in that year, and hung everything around that. The point is of no significance. The Gurkhas were members of the British armed forces, and were sent to serve in different parts of the world, and it is of no consequence whatever that they happened to be garrisoned in Hong Kong. They cannot settle in Hong Kong—their service was not to Hong Kong or China, but to Britain. That gives them the moral entitlement to settle in the UK, and that is what we are debating this afternoon.

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Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I will not; I will come to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment.

A variety of Members who have Nepalese and Gurkhas living in their constituencies have rightly paid tribute to their contribution to civic society and the community. My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Menzies Campbell said that we should consider more broadly the role played by immigrants, and be more welcoming and open-minded towards the contribution that the Gurkhas could make if more of them came here in the future.

I listened with interest to Mr. Howarth, who at the outset of his remarks set down a yardstick that he wanted the Government to clear. He said that in addition to their processing the 1,350 cases by a date in June, he wanted the review of those cases, which might lead to some amendment of the criteria that the Government have laid down, to be concluded by the summer recess. He seems to have been bought off rather easily with a letter from the Home Secretary, which, as has been mentioned, is a strange device in and of itself. The letter says nothing more than that the Government will begin the process by the summer recess; no indication is given as to how long it might take or when they might conclude the work.

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Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I think that the hon. Gentleman has misread the letter. What my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary says is that the Government will examine the implications of those 1,350 decisions straight away and will make a statement in the House about what the implications are for the guidance. There will then be, as he rightly says, another review, which will commence before the end of the summer. The implications of those 1,350 decisions will be analysed and brought to the House immediately, and we will understand better what they are.

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Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

The rest of us have not had the advantage of seeing this letter, but Mr. Howard made the point that ours is a debt of honour and we must judge the Government on their deeds, not their words. I very much agree with him that the most objectionable of the criteria that have been laid down is the one relating to the 20 years of service, for exactly the reason to which many hon. Members have alluded.

The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, Keith Vaz, reminded us of the excellent letter that the Committee sent, which was signed by all of its members, from across the parties. He rightly urges us to take with "a pinch of salt" a letter from the Home Secretary that has been catapulted into this debate at this stage. He was also right to say that the suggestion that we should conduct an impact assessment on the effect in Nepal is bizarre. I say that because surely it was when the Government allowed those who have served since 1997 the right of settlement that those who would have the most direct impact on the Nepalese economy were allowed to come to this country. The young ones coming to this country with many years of wage earning ahead of them will have far more impact than a relatively small number of those whose service took place long ago.

The hon. Member for Halton asked why should we now open the doors to those who served in world war two. My father served throughout that war and he is now 90. The number of 90-year-olds across the world who are likely to wish to migrate to this country need not trouble or detain us for very long. That is a completely ludicrous way of examining the issue.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife says, it was a shabby decision to respond to the court ruling in quite this mean and minimalist way. I agree very much with what Andrew Mackinlay said in his interventions. It is perfectly clear to me that the public in this country are of the overwhelming view that we owe a debt of honour to the Gurkhas. When I see on the Order Paper the range of names of hon. Members who have signed the various amendments, it is perfectly clear to me that opinion in this House across the board is also that we owe a debt of honour to the Gurkhas.

The hon. Member for Thurrock was right when he said that sooner or later the Government will end up losing this argument, having to give more ground and be seen to have done so with appalling bad grace, having been dragged kicking and screaming every inch of the way despite having had this opportunity to recognise the obligation and to do something in the spirit in which we owe. People who are prepared to fight and die for the United Kingdom deserve the right to settle and live in this country, and the sooner we recognise the debt of honour and repay it honourably, the sooner we will acknowledge these brave Gurkhas and everything that they have done for this country over 200 years. I commend the motion to the House.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans) 3:49 pm, 29th April 2009

I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to today's debate. Unfortunately, while some have been well informed, some have been less well informed. We are deeply grateful to Gurkhas for their service in Iraq and Afghanistan—I have met some of them—and in previous conflicts. I will not disparage or decry those people who are campaigning for Gurkha rights, including the actress Joanna Lumley, who does so with conviction. I disagree with some of the things that she says, but I do not question her integrity.

As the Minister responsible for veterans, it is my privilege to take responsibility for Gurkha welfare. Two weeks ago I visited Nepal, where I met Gurkhas and the various organisations that support their welfare there. The impression given in the last week that Gurkhas are living in abject poverty and being ignored in Nepal is not the case. It is important that we consider the various types of pension. The service pensioners, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration said, receive a pension that can be accrued after only 15 years service, so people can retire at 33 on a full pension. For privates, that means £173 a month. That is equivalent to the wage of a skilled technician. For an NCO, the payment is £240 a month, and Government Ministers in Nepal earn £234 a month.

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Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Shadow Minister (International Development)

Given the inconsistent approach that the Government of Nepal have taken to the recruitment of Gurkhas—it was an election promise by the Maoists not to allow Britain to recruit Gurkhas—and following his discussions in Nepal last week, can the Minister update the House on the current position in the light of the ruling?

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

I will come to that point in a moment.

There are 26,000 Gurkha pensioners in Nepal. My right hon. Friend Keith Vaz asked how we know how many there are; we know because we are paying them pensions. Some £54 million is therefore going into the Nepalese economy. The DFID budget is only £56 million. Some have suggested that taking that money out of the Nepalese economy will have no effect, but that is definitely not the case. It is important to recognise that the service pensioners whom I met last week would not claim that they did not have a good standard of living.

I am sad that lawyers representing the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organisation, which is involved in the campaign, failed to turn up for the meeting that I had arranged with them. They later issued a press release condemning me for not meeting them. The House should be careful when it comes to some of the tactics being used in this debate.

I asked some of the service pensioners whether they would want to come here, and most said, "No, but our families and children would." For those service pensioners, this Government have a proud record. The increase in their pensions over the past 10 years has been some 500 per cent., and we cannot just ignore the financial contribution that that makes to the economy of Nepal.

The second group of pensioners is the welfare pensioners, who did not accrue the service pension—like many who serve in the British Army—because they did not serve for long enough. In this country, they get no pension at all, but in Nepal they are paid the equivalent of £30 a month through the Gurkha Welfare Trust, which the MOD supports through a grant of more than £1 million a year and through administrative support. Then there is the medical care. According to some of the commentators, the Gurkhas want to come here because they lack medical care in Nepal, but that is not the case. Service pensioners and welfare pensioners get free primary health care, and their secondary health care is supported by the trust. Service pensioners, who already get a good income, also get a percentage of the cost of their care paid.

On the subject of the Gurkha Welfare Trust, may I put on the record our thanks to those people? They are doing a first-rate job and since my visit I have given a commitment that I will review MOD support and see what else we can do to help. Those people are truly inspirational, not just because of their help for Gurkhas but because of their charity work in villages and helping the wider community in Nepal.

May I address some of the points that were made in the debate. Quite clearly, the main Opposition party has a problem with this issue. Over the past few days, I have been trying to work out what its policies would be. For example, on Monday The Sun declared that Mr. Cameron is now supporting the Gurkha campaign. Anyone can defy me if, after reading the article, they can say what conclusion he comes to. Today, we have heard a very clear policy. Under the regulations, there would be new criteria that allowed anyone who had served in Her Majesty's armed forces to settle in the UK. That would include personnel from India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Burma, Singapore, Kenya and Rhodesia, to name but a few.

My hon. Friend Mr. Mullin made a very good point about the Tory track record. When the Tories had the opportunity to reward servicemen and women, they did not. In the draw-down from Hong Kong, only one in seven of the Crown officers and able personnel was allowed in. We are seeing crocodile tears, I think. The Conservatives' policy would have an immense cost and would drive a coach and horses through the immigration policy of this country. I am glad that they have clarified that policy.

Let me clear up another point about the 20 years. The idea that only officers who served would qualify is not true. They all started as privates and 55 per cent. of the people who will qualify will not be officers.

The other issue that we need to clarify, which was raised by Mr. Howard, concerns the position of the Government of Nepal and the court case. The Nepalese official who gave evidence to the court case did so in a private capacity. There was nobody there from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Nepalese Government have not given a view about whether they support Gurkha welfare or not.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

I am sorry, but I cannot—I have only three minutes left.

When I was in Nepal, I raised that point with the Nepalese Government. As Mr. Lancaster said—he speaks with authority, and I wish that his Front Benchers would listen to him more on the subject of the Gurkhas—it is quite clear that the Nepalese Government had a position of opposing Gurkha recruitment. There is some silence on that point now. Have they expressed any opinion on the court case? No, they have not. I met senior members of the Government, including the Prime Minister.

May I address the issues raised by Mr. Wilson. I am very concerned about the case that he raises. If he has a Gurkha constituent whose wife is not entitled to NHS help, I want to see that evidence so that we can take up that case and see what can be done to help. The hon. Gentleman also raised a good point. If people are to retire here on a Gurkha service pension, that small amount will not go very far in supporting them. There is a danger that the next position will be that we should offer retrospection on pensions to increase them to the post-1997 level. That would be a huge additional cost to the taxpayer that we must take into account when recognising that point.

There has been a lot of coverage over the past few days of the way in which the Government have treated Gurkhas. May I say that I think that we have done a lot for Gurkhas and their families, and that we are continuing to do that? We should be proud of that, as it is something that no other Government have ever done. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said, this is the first time ever that settlement rights have been given to Gurkhas. Before 1997, only five had been allowed to settle. That shows our commitment. However, I advise people who debate this issue to put any motion to one side and look at the facts. Over the next few days, we need to look at the detailed work that the Gurkha Welfare Trust and other bodies are doing in Nepal to support Gurkhas. We are not talking about people living in abject poverty.

We have had a good debate today. Everyone in the House supports the Gurkhas and appreciates the bravery that they have demonstrated in previous wars and still show today. This Government are committed to the Gurkhas and, as the Minister responsible, I am committed to doing my utmost both for Gurkhas serving now and for those who served before.

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Question put (Standing Order No.31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.

The House divided: Ayes 267, Noes 246.

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Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House regrets the Government's recent statement outlining the eligibility criteria for Gurkhas to reside in the United Kingdom; recognises the contribution the Gurkhas have made to the safety and freedom of the United Kingdom for the past 200 years; notes that more Gurkhas have laid down their lives for the United Kingdom than are estimated to want to live here; believes that Gurkhas who retired before 1997 should be treated fairly and in the same way as those who have retired since; is concerned that the Government's new guidelines will permit only a small minority of Gurkhas and their families to settle whilst preventing the vast majority; further believes that people who are prepared to fight and die for the United Kingdom should be entitled to live in the country; and calls upon the Government to withdraw its new guidelines immediately and bring forward revised proposals that extend an equal right of residence to all Gurkhas.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the wake of that devastating vote for the Government, have you had any indication that Ministers intend to come to the House and make an immediate statement about how they propose to change their policy, as the House has now spoken clearly?

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is an historic defeat for the Government. It would be in order for a Minister to make a statement this very evening to explain how the Government propose to enact the clear will of the House to allow Gurkhas residence in this country.

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

I am sure the House will understand that as the matter was decided only a few seconds ago, it is unlikely that I would have had any notice of any proposals by the Government. This is obviously an extremely serious matter and a very serious decision. I am sure all the occupants of the Treasury Bench— as well as the House of Commons—have heard what has happened today, and no doubt the Government will take whatever steps they feel are necessary.

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