Gurkhas: Anniversary — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:39 pm on 10 June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 8:39, 10 June 2015

I, like other noble Lords who have spoken, extend my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, on securing this very timely debate. He spoke with the passion and fervour that we have come to associate with him. I regret that my contribution cannot contain personal experiences and recollections but this debate gives an opportunity to draw attention to the major contribution made by the Gurkhas to the British Army and to talk about some current-day issues relating to the Gurkhas, including Gurkha veterans.

As we all know, this year marks 200 years since Gurkhas were first enlisted into the armies of the British Crown in the wake of the Anglo-Nepalese war at that time. Ever since then, the Gurkhas have made a major and widely admired and respected contribution to the British Army, and many have made the ultimate sacrifice and given their lives. Thirteen Gurkha soldiers have won the Victoria Cross.

As the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, said, during the First World War more than 90,000 Gurkhas served the British Crown, of whom more than 20,000 were killed, wounded or missing in action. Gurkha regiments earned hundreds of gallantry awards throughout that war. In the Second World War more than 137,000 Gurkhas served the British Crown, with more than 23,000 being killed, wounded or missing in action and more than 2,500 awards for bravery being made.

More recently, the Gurkhas have served in the Falklands, Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq. Today the Brigade of Gurkhas has spread between the British garrison in Brunei and the UK, and they continue to play a full part in the Army’s operational and peacetime commitments.

The Gurkha soldier, it has been said, defines the close relationship between the Republic of Nepal and the United Kingdom—a relationship that has developed in many different and perhaps surprising ways. Aldershot Town Football Club, whose ground is close to Aldershot Garrison, sent a team to play in Nepal earlier this year and has established a fund to aid the Nepal earthquake relief programme. Last year it was adopted as the official football club of Rushmoor’s Nepalese community, and last month the Nepalese organisation, Sahara UK, purchased £10,000-worth of the football club’s shares. Yesterday evening there was an anniversary pageant for the Gurkhas at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, attended by the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and other members of the Royal Family, and, as I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria.

The wording of our debate makes reference to the recent earthquakes in Nepal, the first of which was on 25 April, when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck an area between Kathmandu and Pokhara in Nepal, and right in the centre of one of the Gurkhas’ recruiting areas, in which a not inconsiderable number of retired soldiers would have been living. Some of the villages occupied by the Gurungs, the clan which provides the backbone of the Gurkha regiments, were largely destroyed. Clearly the magnitude of the disaster in Nepal has thrown something of a shadow over the events and activities celebrating the 200th anniversary.

Needless to say, though, the Gurkhas have been playing a significant part in the relief effort, and not least through the work of Army Gurkha engineers. Points have already been made and questions asked in this debate about the Government’s approach and contribution to the relief effort in Nepal, to which no doubt the Minister will be responding. It is of course not only in Nepal that the Gurkhas provide humanitarian relief; they were also sent to Sierra Leone to help contain Ebola.

Competition to become a British Gurkha recruit is strong and the tests involved are very challenging. Typically some 6,000 men, now from across Nepal, will apply to be one of the 200 to 300 recruits chosen each year. Those selected become, after a year’s induction training, soldiers in the Brigade of Gurkhas, which comprises about 3% of the British Army.

An agreement signed between the UK and Nepal in 1947 provided the basis for the service of the Gurkhas in the British Army, who previously had been part of the British Indian Army before Indian independence in 1947. The Gurkha pension scheme had its origins in this 1947 agreement. The agreement committed the British Government to treat Gurkhas fairly but did mean that, before April 2007, Gurkhas served on different terms and conditions of service from those in other parts of the Army. These differences have been the cause of grievances held by members of the Gurkha veterans’ community, mainly but not exclusively in respect of perceived pension inequalities, and were the subject of a recent inquiry by the All-Party Group on Gurkha Welfare.

Many former Gurkhas now work with charities, including the Gurkha Welfare Trust. The Gurkha Welfare Trust was founded in 1969 with the aim of relieving poverty and distress among ex-Gurkha soldiers and their dependants, though today, from a network of centres across the country, it also delivers community aid such as water supply systems, schools, medical camps and welfare, not least to some of the poorest, most inaccessible parts of Nepal. The trust pays pensions from a charitable fund to which the British public contribute generously. Over 6,500 veterans or their widows depend on the welfare pension to enable them to live with dignity.

Modern terms of service for Gurkhas are now identical to British ones. Since April 2007, any Gurkha joining the British Army receives the same pay and pension benefits as their counterparts in the wider British Army. They serve on the same basis as the remainder of the Army, with some limited exceptions designed to meet the wishes of the Government of Nepal. In 2009, retired Gurkhas were given the right to settle in Britain with British citizenship, although I note the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, on that issue. The Government provide financial support to the Gurkha Welfare Trust through an annual grant in aid. However, welfare payments to needy veterans are funded by public donations.

Following the recent report by the all-party group into grievances held by members of the Gurkha veterans’ community, the Government agreed to set up a fund to compensate those who had had to leave the Gurkhas as a direct result of marrying a non-Nepalese. Over the next five years, £5 million will also be made available from LIBOR fines to support Gurkha Welfare Trust projects in Nepal or the UK, and just under £1 million has been found from the LIBOR-funded veterans’ accommodation fund to provide 32 homes in the UK for up to 64 Gurkha veterans and their spouses or partners. These moves by the Government will not fully address the grievances of members of the Gurkha veterans’ community, which successive Governments have faced, but they do represent further steps following the significant decisions by the then Government in 2007 and 2009 in respect of pay and pension benefits and settling in Britain with British citizenship.

In February this year, I asked the then Government if they agreed that the best way to mark the 200th anniversary would be to ensure a clear and continuing role for the Gurkhas in Army 2020 and inquired whether that was the Government’s objective and what that role might be. Now that we have a new Government, I, like the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, ask the question again. I hope that the Minister will provide a clear and positive answer when he responds. In particular, will he confirm that the Prime Minister’s pledge to maintain the current size of the Regular Army applies also to the Gurkhas? It would, after all, seem rather odd for us to be rightly praising the tremendous and courageous contribution of the Gurkhas tonight—I am assuming that the Minister will also be doing just that very shortly—if earlier in the day, metaphorically speaking, Ministers in the Ministry of Defence had been considering making defence cuts at the expense of the Gurkhas, as part of the somewhat secretive current strategic defence and security review.