Gurkhas: Anniversary — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:48 pm on 10 June 2015.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 8:48, 10 June 2015

My Lords, like so many people across the country and on all sides of this House, I have a huge admiration and respect for the Gurkhas. As has been said by all speakers, for 200 years Gurkhas have fought loyally for this country and they rightly deserve their reputation as being among the bravest and most fearless of soldiers. Gurkhas hold a special place in the heart of the British people, and evidence of this can be seen in the generous support given by the British public following the recent devastating earthquake in Nepal.

Before I speak about that disaster, I would like to emphasise the Gurkhas’ primary role, that of soldiers. The Brigade of Gurkhas remains a vital part of the British Army’s military capability. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, summarised very well their role in our history. Both battalions of the Royal Gurkha Rifles and subunits of the three main corps units all deployed on operations in Afghanistan under Operation Herrick, where they have demonstrated their outstanding war-fighting skills and cultural adaptability. I am proud to have two Queen’s Gurkha orderly officers with me here this evening.

Moving on to recent events in Nepal, the major earthquake tragically led to significant loss of life and destruction to property, and our thoughts are with the people and Government of Nepal at this difficult time. The United Kingdom’s disaster relief response has been led by the Department for International Development, which has provided over £33 million in direct and indirect aid, as was rightly pointed out by my noble friend Lord Sheikh. This aid included the provision of search and rescue teams, trauma medics and logistic supplies. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, that the Ministry of Defence supported these efforts with an airlift and by deploying over 100 additional Gurkha personnel. We offered the services of our Chinooks, but the Government of Nepal did not consider that they were necessary. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development has visited to inspect and assess the damage and speak to those delivering aid.

The additional Gurkha personnel went into Nepal under the auspices of British Gurkhas Nepal, which is the unit based in Nepal looking after recruitment and welfare matters for the brigade. British Gurkhas Nepal and the Gurkha welfare scheme, which is the field arm of the Gurkha Welfare Trust, are working together to ensure that our pensioners and families are looked after alongside all needy persons in villages affected by the earthquake. It is important to state that we are not discriminating as to who gets the help. Instead, we are providing to the neediest first with the aim of everyone being under cover with access to water before the monsoon rains arrive.

Reconstruction efforts are to focus in the short term on protecting isolated Gurkha communities through the approaching monsoon season. This will include the construction of temporary shelters, the provision of clean water supplies and basic sanitation, and the delivery of aid and basic medical supplies. A squadron from the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers is currently deployed on this task. Subject to Government of Nepal approval, work priorities will primarily be driven by humanitarian need within the Gurkha communities, rather than uniquely supporting the families of serving Gurkhas and Gurkha veterans. To answer the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, we believe that the museum at Pokhara was not badly damaged.

The Gurkha Welfare Trust is the principal Gurkha charity and it maintains through its field arm, the Gurkha Welfare Scheme, a network of welfare centres in Nepal to look after Gurkha veterans in need. The Government provide financial support to the Gurkha Welfare Trust by means of an annual grant in aid of over £1.5 million which pays for the majority of the costs of the Gurkha Welfare Scheme in Nepal. In addition, the Government announced in January that they were giving the trust £5 million from the LIBOR fines to assist its work in Nepal, so I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, that this is a clear statement of the commitment to and recognition of the work done by the trust in support of Gurkha veterans.

This year we celebrate 200 years of Gurkha service to the Crown. This milestone is a further opportunity to thank the Gurkhas for all that they have done to preserve our freedom and security in many conflicts around the world, most recently in Afghanistan. To celebrate the Gurkhas’ unique service, there are over 100 events of varying size taking place, both in the United Kingdom and around the world, reflecting the brigade’s previous service. These events are being conducted by the serving brigade, the Gurkha Brigade Association and the Gurkha Welfare Trust.

Major events have already taken place. In late March, a gathering of over 3,000 people attended a celebration in Kathmandu, before the earthquake struck. On 30 April, contingents from the four major Gurkha units, with the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas and the Queen’s

Truncheon, marched from Wellington Barracks down the Mall to the Gurkha statue outside the Ministry of Defence. This was followed by a short service to commemorate those from the brigade who have given their lives in the service of the Crown.

Most recently, throughout May, each of the four major Gurkha units has conducted public duties, providing the guards at Buckingham Palace, St James’ Palace and the Tower of London. And as we have heard, a major event, the Gurkha 200 pageant, took place last night at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in aid of the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Her Majesty the Queen attended, along with other members of the Royal Family. I am delighted to note that at least two noble Lords here this evening were able to attend.

I shall answer a few of the questions that were put to me. I turn first to the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, who asked whether the Gurkha battalion would remain in Brunei. The answer to that is yes, because a new agreement was recently signed with the Sultan. He also talked about jungle warfare training. As he knows, this is carried out in Brunei by the Gurkha battalion and other British Army units. In addition, the British Army Jungle Warfare Training School is based in Brunei and is supported by the Gurkhas.

Questions were asked by the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, and others about recruitment. No decisions have been taken about increasing the number of Gurkhas at present, but equally no decisions at all have been taken about reducing their numbers. I can say to the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, that the Brigade of Gurkhas has been wholehearted in its support for its kith and kin in Nepal. Its members are all very keen to deploy in order to support and assist if they can. The brigade has been incredibly active in fundraising and has generated in excess of £300,000 to help the relief effort, which is a commendable achievement.

I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for raising this important subject for debate. I will write to noble Lords on questions that I have not been able to cover this evening, but I am pleased to have had the opportunity to explain the Government’s position on both the support we are providing for the Gurkha Welfare Trust in Nepal following the tragic events of the earthquake and the celebrations behind 200 years of Gurkha service to the Crown.