Gurkhas: Anniversary — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:29 pm on 10th June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Flather Baroness Flather Crossbench 8:29 pm, 10th June 2015

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for getting this debate. I appreciate this opportunity to say something from my own point of view.

First of all, we have spoken about the earthquake, but it is a real tragedy for Nepal and for Gurkhas, and we have not taken it as seriously as we should have because of our connection with the Gurkhas. I hope noble Lords know that Gurkhas are only a part of Nepal; not all Nepalis are Gurkhas—they are from a section of that country. I cannot say that I have ever served with any Gurkhas or been in the Army, as noble Lords can imagine. However, I will start by telling noble Lords something about the history of the Gurkhas before they came to serve with the British and with the Indians—that was the same thing at that time.

Groups of Gurkhas used to come to a place called Lahore. Anyone who has read Kim will know that Lahore was the crossroads for many parts of that world at the time, and people used to congregate there for all sorts of reasons—and not always very good ones. They used to come in groups of 10, 20, 40 or 50 to be hired by any warlords who needed somebody to fight for them. Therefore, in a funny sort of way they were doing that long before the British started having Gurkhas in their Armed Forces. A very clever British person must have seen the opportunity at that time to get all the Gurkhas together and to get them into the East India Company’s sepoys. Therefore, there is an interesting history. Originally they were known as “Lahures”—from Lahore. As I come from Lahore, I feel very proud of that.

That is how they started, but how have they gone on? They have gone on to serve Britain, and now Britain and India. I was very upset at the time when there were reductions in general in the British Army. More Gurkhas were laid off in proportion than the indigenous soldiers—British soldiers—which was upsetting in itself. Nepal is a very poor country. Nepalis need their soldiers to earn money and send it back, and as a country it is very dependent on the people who serve in the Indian army, in the British Army, and we should never forget that. They do not serve just out of niceness—“Oh, we like the British”. They need the money—they need to be fighting for the British—and they need us as much as we need them. However, we are not standing by them. They are being reduced in numbers, and there are some wicked rumours going round that the intention is to reduce their numbers further. We should take a step back and think about what they have done for the British Empire and decide whether that is fair—not just what they did for the empire but after; even after India and Pakistan.

But Nepal was never a colony, and that was a problem for us with regard to the memorial gates. Originally I had not intended to include Nepal, because it seemed wrong to have a non-colony along with the colonies. However, then somebody suggested, “Why don’t you put ‘Kingdom of Nepal’?”, so we did that. When the kingdom fell some clever ambassador said, “You have to take that off now!”, as if you can rub off something that has been engraved into stone. Therefore it reads “Kingdom of Nepal”, and it will always be like that on the memorial gates. The other thing is that when you look at the names of the Victoria Cross and George Cross recipients in the pavilion next to the memorial, you see how many names of Gurkhas are there. People who have shown such bravery and commitment should be treated with much more respect—although it is about not only respect but consideration, with regard to keeping them on and how their lives are.

We have heard that they can settle in this country—one or two noble Lords said that. Do those noble Lords know what the criteria are? They are so strict and difficult that the campaigners have decided that probably only 100 Gurkhas will meet them and be able to settle in this country. That is quite upsetting after all the lives they gave and all the fighting they did. I will quote the criteria, because noble Lords will probably not know them. The first one is:

“Close family in the UK”.

That seems very unlikely, does it not? The second is:

“A bravery award of level one to three”.

That may be possible. The third is “Service of 20 years”—yes; or, finally, “Chronic or long-term” illness. Are they really likely to have close family ties here? I would have thought that very unlikely. Therefore, there are issues that still need to be looked at.

Some years ago, I think at the end of the 1990s, there was a big discussion about pensions, and we were told then that it was a tripartite agreement—the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, mentioned that—and nothing could be changed. However, I say, “Then negotiate with the third party as well”. You cannot just say, “We can’t do it”. I do not believe in “we can’t do it”. When I started on the rather foolish journey towards the memorial, almost everybody said to me, “You can’t do it”. Well, it is there and I have had a lot of help. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, was a trustee; my noble friend Lord Bilimoria was chairman of the council for several years; and my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham represents somebody—I hope I will be forgiven for forgetting who it is—at the ceremony. So it is there and I hope that it will stay as a reminder of all the people who have been instrumental in helping this country. Indeed, in the Second World War, it was crucial that the colonies were able to support Britain in its hour of need, as one might call it.

The key things now are, first, to decide whether the Gurkhas mean enough to keep them on and not reduce their numbers any further and, secondly, to do whatever we can to help them following the earthquake. It is unbelievable that there have been not one but several earthquakes, and the terrain is difficult. I hope that the noble Earl will tell us that the Government are going to do more and that somebody senior will visit Nepal. That would mean a lot for morale. I have been to the two camps—the British and the Indian—in Nepal. We were able to spend time at both camps and it was very interesting.

That is about all that I can tell your Lordships about my connection with the Gurkhas, but I finish with a short iconic story, although I am sure it is untrue. Somebody said that the Gurkhas were asked to jump into a pool of water. They could not swim but when they jumped into the water they swam. I do not believe it but it is a nice story.