Gurkhas: Anniversary — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:04 pm on 10 June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 8:04, 10 June 2015

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, on securing this debate, which is an exceptionally well-timed initiative, if I may say so, given that this is the 200th anniversary of the first Gurkha units being recruited by the East India Company and there is the appalling coincidence of the dreadful earthquake from which people in Nepal are suffering so much at present.

I speak both as a former Defence Minister and as someone who knows and loves Nepal, as evidently the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, does. Of course, I was not a Minister for the Armed Forces—I was Minister for Defence Procurement—but no one can be associated with the British Armed Forces without being enormously conscious of the tremendous contribution that the Gurkhas have made to the defence of this country and our people, and to the defence of world peace over the time when Gurkha units have been with the British Army.

I add to the very fine tribute, which the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, has just paid to the Gurkhas’ extraordinary bravery and gallantry and which was not exaggerated in any way, the fact that, to my knowledge, they have never actually participated in an operation which they have not concluded not merely honourably but with the greatest distinction. They are an enormous asset. I do not think that I need to expand on that too much, because I note that two noble Lords are going to contribute to this debate—the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham —who probably have direct experience of fighting alongside Gurkhas or perhaps commanding formations, including Gurkha units, which I of course do not have. I think there is a very wide recognition in this country of the great debt that we owe the Gurkhas, which was demonstrated very visibly, and I think quite movingly, by the success of Joanna Lumley’s campaign. I hope that it moved people in Nepal, too. I think that it did.

Nepal is a country that I know personally. I spent several weeks of my life on different occasions walking in Nepal, both in the east of Nepal, going up to the Everest base camp, the Cho La glacier and elsewhere, and in the west of Nepal, going up to Annapurna base camp and so forth. Anybody who does that is entirely dependent for his security and safety on the good judgment and conscientiousness of his guide. On several occasions, I could understand some of the great confidence that British soldiers have always had in having Gurkhas alongside them—confidence in their courage and confidence in their reliability, judgment and great personal loyalty.

What is happening at the present time is a terrible tragedy. The whole world has responded. The Indians and Chinese have particular political as well as geopolitical reasons, but I am sure that they also have very strong humanitarian reasons, for getting involved in helping Nepal. We have a deep and personal historic obligation to do that, as well as a moral one. The Government have responded to that, and I commend DfID for what it has done so far, but I want to ask the Minister a few questions which I think it would be useful to the public interest to have answered in public this afternoon.

First, one hears in the media that the problem is not so much lack of money, because quite a lot of money has been raised from different sources; the problem is one of logistics and co-ordination of the different government departments in Nepal. Could the noble Earl, Lord Howe, say whether that is a correct perception of the present situation? It would also be very valuable if he could give us an update on what the contribution has been from this country. I also wonder to what extent British military personnel have been involved. When I was in the MoD, one thing that I did was to order 22 Chinooks, 10 of which were cancelled by the incoming Government in 2010. We still have 60 in inventory, and just half a dozen of those would be a wonderful asset, particularly in supplying those very narrow valleys, which are otherwise inaccessible. Everything has to be carried in on the back of a man or a yak, often after a trek of days. Chinooks would be wonderful in getting heavier building materials up into those valleys in time to repair or rebuild houses before the winter comes.

On the heritage sites in Nepal that have been so badly damaged, we have all been appalled to see pictures of Durbar Square, which has been almost completely obliterated. As anybody knows who has been to Kathmandu, it is the most extraordinary collection of the most exotic and astonishing Nepalese architecture, going back over 400 years. There are other great sites of the same kind—at Bagan, for example. What is the situation with regard to repairing those, and to what extent are the Government involved in initiatives with UNESCO or otherwise to make sure that something is done to repair them? Somebody has already mentioned the very fine museum in Pokhara, which is both a brigade and a regimental museum. I would be very interested to know whether that has survived unscathed, and if not what is being done to repair it.

Finally, perhaps I could ask a question that is also a suggestion. Has there been a ministerial visit to Nepal since this disaster took place? If not, is one contemplated? If one is not, could one please be contemplated as urgently as possible? For the reasons I have already mentioned, I think it would be particularly effective if it could be a Defence Minister who goes to Nepal, who could show directly by his or her presence there our solidarity with the Nepalese people and would be able to form a personal judgment on the progress of the great international relief effort and come back and be able in a well-informed fashion to take any measures that might be needed in the present circumstances to improve things and make sure that we do not have any further tragedies of people dying because, for example, they cannot repair their houses before the weather deteriorates in the autumn.