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My Lords, I should like first to express the Government's—and I think I can say the House's—continued appreciation of the soldiers of the Gurkha Brigade. They serve this country with integrity, loyalty and supreme dedication.
Following discharge in Nepal, Gurkhas, like any other non-European Economic Area nationals, can apply for entry clearance to come to the United Kingdom. For that to be approved they would have to demonstrate that they qualify for entry under the Immigration Rules. For those wanting to take employment, that would generally mean that an employer has obtained a work permit for them.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that I held a heavy goods vehicle licence for 45 years? Is he aware also that the freight industry is suffering from a severe shortage of drivers? Surely, would it not be better if the industry were able to employ ex-members of the Gurkha Brigade, who speak English and have driven on the left-hand side of the road, rather than Europeans, who often do not speak very good English and drive on the right?
My Lords, I spent quite a bit of time reading up on the noble Baroness, if only to try to spot what her supplementary question might entail, but I certainly did not expect that question. As I said in my initial reply, the United Kingdom has a very successful work permit system. This year, it has enabled some 200,000 people with specialist knowledge to enter the country, which is almost double the number who entered last year. It is also an employer-operated system, although we are considering other systems to manage migration. Although I am sure that specialist, heavy goods vehicle drivers would qualify under the current scheme, it is, as I said, an employer-based scheme. It is for the employer to make an application.
My Lords, I declare an interest as one who had the honour of serving in the Brigade of Gurkhas. I should like to press the Minister on the point. We owe an extraordinary debt of obligation to the men who have served in the brigade over the years which has by no means been discharged by the rather limited pay and pensions that we have paid them. I ask the Minister to treat this not as an ordinary work permit issue, but as a debt of obligation for the country as a whole.
My Lords, I am trying to give a targeted answer to the targeted Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples. The answer is in no way attempting to undermine or diminish the debt that we owe the Gurkhas. However, as the noble Lord will know better than I, the whole system is based on a tripartite agreement between the Nepalese Government, the Indian Government and the British Government. The system has worked extremely successfully over the years. From my own constituency experience of knowing people who served with the Gurkhas, I understand the arguments on pay and pensions, but I shall not deal with the details of those issues now. There are both advantages and disadvantages to the system. As I said, the system is bound by a tripartite agreement between the three governments.
My Lords, even with that agreement, will the Minister confirm that—given the enormous service that they have performed for this country, to which he has rightly paid tribute—the Gurkhas will receive at least equal if not favourable treatment in relation to others entering the country or seeking permits to work here?
My Lords, that is absolutely the case. They will be treated in exactly the same way as other applicants. Depending on the nature of the work, some applicants will have better skills and qualifications than others. In her example, the noble Baroness pointed to two aspects in which there is a clear advantage to a particular employer. We have a very successful operation. I have been amazed at the relevant figures. We take on some 220 Gurkhas a year and there are some 20,000 applications each year for those places. They are much sought after, for reasons that we all understand.
My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister about the Fijians that we employ in the Army. About two years ago, we employed about 316 Fijians; maybe the figure is higher by now. When they are decommissioned, will they be able to take up normal employment in this country or will they have to obtain work permits?
My Lords, all credit to the noble Lord; I have to say that I have not got a clue. I do not know the basis on which those Fijians are employed in the Army. As of about now, I am probably the expert on Gurkhas—just for a few minutes! I suspect that the arrangements for the Fijians will more or less mirror those for the Gurkhas. They will probably have to be discharged in Fiji, not in this country, and will be able to apply, like other people. But I do not know. Obviously, I shall find out and write to the noble Lord.