[Frank Cook in the Chair] — Gurkhas

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 7th June 2006.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence) 9:30 am, 7th June 2006

I congratulate the United British Gurkhas Ex-Servicemen's Association, which is based in Nepal, on the excellent campaign that it has conducted, with others, to get a better deal—a fair and just deal—and recognition and appreciation from Britain, the country which hundreds of thousands of brave citizens from Nepal have served with such courage and distinction over many decades, for those Gurkha veterans who have not been treated as they should have been after giving up active service. Having praised the association's campaign, I would also like to thank its members for providing so much background information in order to justify a successful conclusion.

The participation of other Members in this debate is welcome, but I trust that ample time will be left to enable the Minister to respond—hopefully with encouraging news for the Gurkha veterans.

G

And it should not be forgotten that they also served with distinction in Malaya/Borneo - one of their number being awarded the VC. They qualify for the Pingat Jasa Malaysia, which has been approved by HMG for acceptance, but which cannot be worn. Once again we hear the words of commendation but they are not backed up by action.

Submitted by Gerald Law

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I am happy to call him that, but by convention I should refer to him as the hon. Gentleman. He mentions the campaign. He and I have met good numbers of Gurkhas here in the Palace of Westminster today. Does he agree that the fact that the campaign has been quiet, restrained and dignified has, to an extent, led to protracted negotiations, when the situation might have been resolved rather earlier? Unfortunately, the meek do not always inherit the earth. Nevertheless, people have been very effective.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I appreciate that contribution. It is fair to say that the Gurkha veterans have been dignified in the extreme in their campaign. It is a tribute to them that they have been able to maintain that attitude. I hope that their courage and due diligence will pay dividends.

A review of the general issues has been carried out, and its publication by the Ministry of Defence is eagerly anticipated. Perhaps today's debate is pushing at an unlocked door, but how far will the Government open it? Shortly after coming into office, the Labour Government rightly took action towards putting serving Gurkha soldiers on an equal footing with the rest of the British Army, which is to be both welcomed and applauded. However, I seek the Minister's assurance that the 3,000 Gurkhas currently serving in the British Army have equal terms and conditions of service, in all respects, to their British counterparts.

Today's debate relates to veterans who retired before July 1997. It will no doubt be claimed that it is not possible to make amends for the unfair way in which serving Gurkhas were treated by successive Governments prior to then, but I trust that no one will defend the continued unfairness that Gurkha veterans who retired prior to that date have experienced over many decades. That shameful legacy tarnishes British military history and must be ended without further delay. Those veterans were short-changed when they served in the British Army, and they and their families must not be short-changed in retirement.

I declare a personal interest. I once served with the 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles. Admittedly it was while I was on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and it was for only four days, but those days on a live exercise in difficult terrain in Kenya are ones that I shall never forget, and I have the T-shirt to prove it.

Two weeks ago I had the honour of welcoming about 50 members of the Nepal-based United British Gurkhas Ex-Servicemen's Association to the House of Commons, after which I accompanied them to the Gurkha memorial off Whitehall where wreaths and tribute ribbons were laid, and the last post and reveille were played. We then went to Downing street, where a detailed appeal was handed in calling on the Government to put right the many years of wrong, and to treat Gurkha veterans in the same way as others who have served in Her Majesty's and, in some cases, His Majesty's armed forces. The oldest veteran there had served in Burma in the second world war. Another was the holder of the Victoria cross from a conflict 40 years ago. That medal was one of 13 Victoria crosses to be awarded to Gurkhas among more than 6,500 decorations for bravery.

Gurkhas have frequently been portrayed as the bravest of the brave. They are renowned for their valour on the battlefields and for being exceptional soldiers who are loyal to those they serve. Their tenacity, strength, fearlessness, courage and ferocity are without equal. To Britain's shame, however, there is a parallel history of discrimination in the 190 years in which successive generations of Gurkha soldiers have served the Crown.

The United British Gurkhas Ex-Servicemen's Association, which was formed in Nepal in 2003, is an umbrella group of six different Gurkha ex-servicemen's associations in Nepal. It is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the welfare of Gurkha veterans and to highlighting the problems faced by them and their families. That unifying organisation has been lobbying both the British and Nepalese Governments for equal rights for Gurkhas in relation to pay, pension and other facilities. The association's background briefing tells me:

"That the Ministry of Defence has discriminated against the ex-Gurkhas is a fact, which needs no further elaboration. There is no need to further justify this grave injustice perpetrated 'to a friend by a friend'."

The briefing goes on:

"The Gurkhas have fought with utmost bravery and loyalty for the British Crown and its citizens for the last 200 years. They have made enormous contributions towards the British colonial expansion and have safeguarded the British Empire across the Globe. They fought in both World Wars. They have continued to serve British interests in subsequent conflicts. They have proved to be the most trusted and loyal friends of the British in the most difficult of times...As a reward the Gurkhas are left destitute today. They live a life of misery and shame back home. They are forced to sell their medals of bravery to make their ends meet and many have been forced to beg on the streets of their own villages."

How can we ignore such a situation? Something must be done. I trust that the Minister will say that urgent action will be taken to answer this cry for help. We should collectively hang our heads in shame.

The Minister might suggest that the tripartite agreement between the Governments of the United Kingdom, India and Nepal, which was signed in 1947, or thereabouts, prevents Britain from improving the lot of Gurkha veterans, but I am advised that the Indian Government have written to the association refuting that, and saying:

"This is an issue between the UK and Nepal."

The pension is arguably the most important and contentious issue, and needs to be resolved immediately. Pensions paid to Gurkha veterans need to be brought into line with those paid to British veterans—proportionate to years of service. The same should be done for the pensions paid to widows of Gurkha veterans. There is no social welfare policy in Nepal, and the widows of Gurkha veterans often suffer extreme financial difficulties. Gurkhas who were discharged without any pension should be considered for a preserved pension, like British soldiers.

The medical expenses of retired Gurkhas should be borne by the Ministry of Defence in full. The current system, in which the Gurkha Welfare Trust coughs up funds for veterans' medical expenses, is totally unacceptable. The GWT is a charitable trust and the moneys in it were raised by the Gurkhas themselves or were donated. Rather than allow the current situation to continue, the MOD should bear the full costs of ex-servicemen's medical treatment.

Compensation is another important issue which needs to be addressed. I have been given details of the discrimination in relation to the pay and conditions of Gurkha soldiers while serving in the British Army. I invite the Minister to respond positively to the following point put strongly to me on behalf of the veterans:

"It is only logical that the post-1947 Gurkhas are awarded compensation for the loss in pay and allowances during their entire service."

Another issue of great importance that, because of time, I shall address briefly is that of discrimination against Gurkha veterans who left the British Army before July 1997 regarding the granting of indefinite leave to remain in the UK. The Minister need not necessarily respond today; he could do so in writing later. I am advised that veterans who retire after that date are granted leave, and I agree with the association that

"It is morally and legally important that the British Government allow all Gurkha Ex-Servicemen and their families, regardless of when they retired, to enter, work and live in the UK with dignity."

Does the Minister agree? If not, why not?

Another issue that needs to be resolved is the citizenship status of children born to mothers who accompany their Gurkha soldier husbands who serve in the British Army, whether in the UK or overseas. Why cannot they have British citizenship?

In conclusion, I shall quote from the heartfelt appeal made last month by the association when it sent a special delegation from Nepal to London:

"As Gurkhas, we feel that the current Review is a wonderful opportunity to address and solve all the aforementioned problems affecting the retired Gurkhas in a just and fair manner, with all sincerity for once and all, acceptable to both the Gurkhas and British Government, thus ensuring that the state of dissent and conflict that now exists between them is resolved forever. It would also ensure that the Ministry of Defence position would be beyond reproach, both legally and morally. Additionally, we feel this will enhance, even more, the warm and friendly relation between the two countries."

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:40 am, 7th June 2006

First, I should apologise to hon. Members and to you, Mr. Cook, because I may have to leave the debate later to attend to other parliamentary duties.

It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend Bob Russell for the work that he has done on behalf of Gurkha veterans, and to other hon. Members in that regard. In his speech, my hon. Friend displayed his depth of knowledge and his commitment to putting right many of the difficulties that afflict Gurkha veterans after they finish their service with the British Army.

Nobody can doubt the loyalty and bravery with which the Gurkhas have served this nation. I, too, have experienced service with the Gurkhas, in the jungle in Brunei, albeit for only two days. It was an experience that I shall never forget. Although my jungle warfare skills were not of the highest order, they said that after those two days I was "improving".

I have a particular interest in the Gurkhas in relation to Derring Lines, where company and platoon commanders of the infantry in the British Army are trained, and Sennybridge ranges, which is another infantry training facility. Probably every infantryman in the British Army has experienced it. A Gurkha captain told me that although the Arctic is cold, it is dry, and although the jungle is wet, it is at least warm, but Sennybridge is cold and wet and the highest level of personal organisation is needed to survive there, so it is a test for people wanting to serve in the British Army.

Before I talk about the veterans, I must say that things are improving for currently serving Gurkhas. I pay tribute to the fact that accompanied service for married Gurkhas has now been extended from the minimum three-year period of service. They now have the same conditions as apply to other members of the British armed forces, as long as they have served three years. It is fairly traditional for Gurkhas to get married after their second period of Nepal leave, which is probably after six years. In Brecon, the number of Gurkha soldiers who have their family with them has increased from about 27 to approximately 34. Those Gurkhas serve with the Mandalay company, which is a demonstration company of Gurkhas that helps with the training of platoon and company commanders in the Brecon area. Their contribution to that training is second to none.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

The hon. Gentleman is describing the welcome improvements that have been made in recent years. As the hon. Member for Colchester said, there is a serious problem in relation to the 1997 cut-off date, and we must not lose sight of that. Some 32,000 Gurkhas in Nepal are adversely affected by the failure thus far to address the problems that he referred to in his opening speech. That is the key issue of this debate, is it not?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I agree, but I was hoping to make the point that things are improving for some Gurkhas who will retire from the British Army in future. Their conditions will have been addressed, but the circumstances of Gurkhas who left the Army before 1997 will not be dealt with until the Government take action. We understand those issues, which were well set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester. Gurkhas who are currently serving, as well as those who left the Army before 1997, are still concerned about nationality and indefinite leave to remain.

Although conditions in Nepal have improved to a certain extent and the commitment to democracy which is now emerging will enhance living conditions in that country, the Government must address the fact that Gurkhas who have retired to Nepal do not have sufficient pensions to enjoy their retirement and to ensure that their families are maintained so as to give them security and peace of mind in their remaining years.

My contribution this morning has been relatively short, but my involvement with the Gurkha troops is an ongoing concern. The Minister was kind enough to arrange a visit to Derring Lines, where the Gurkhas are based, so that I could talk to their commanding officer and to some of the soldiers. They have concerns about the people who retired before 1997, some of whom they served with, because they know that the retired soldiers will not have the same conditions and the same enhancements as they will enjoy.

We look forward to the Minister being able to announce at some stage, if not today, that Britain will at last repay the great debt that the nation owes to the Gurkha soldiers, who have made such a huge contribution not only to the defence of the country, but to promoting British interests abroad.

Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development 9:47 am, 7th June 2006

Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr. Cook. I had no intention of taking part, but I am happy to say a few words.

First, I congratulate Bob Russell on securing the debate. The topic is an important one, and I am sorry that some hon. Members are otherwise engaged. Had I not been delayed on the way here, I would have heard all of his speech, but I caught some of it, and I agree with the spirit of his remarks.

I have followed the subject from a distance, always listening and watching what was going on. Over the years, our Government have made an immense effort to tackle discrimination wherever it exists. We have made a start, and although there is still a long way to go, I praise my Government for their record in that respect.

I must say to the Minister that the treatment of the Gurkhas is an issue of discrimination. I welcome him to his new post. I am sure that he will take the issue up as one of his causes in his Department and he may become renowned for dealing with it. I agree with what was said earlier about the contribution that the Gurkhas have made as part of the British armed forces; I have never heard a single person say anything different: people recognise the bravery of the Gurkhas and the contribution that they have made.

Discrimination interests me. For the Gurkhas, the important issue is their pensions and how they compare with the pensions given to British soldiers. There is no quick fix or immediate answer, but we must work towards a solution. The Government are carrying out pensions reform elsewhere, so we can take up the matter as part of the reform process if we want to do so. That represents an opportunity for us, although we might be looking a few years down the line. Nevertheless, an acknowledgement by the Minister that there is discrimination in that respect would be a step forward.

I agree with the spirit of what the hon. Member for Colchester said. We have had many debates on the topic in the House, and it is important that it be kept alive. As long as discrimination and problems relating to nationality, citizenship and so on exist, it is important that the Labour Government—I hope that people will endorse the Government at the next election—work to eliminate them. I know that we cannot do everything at once, but we must at least take steps to remedy the situation. I have always championed all that my party has done to tackle discrimination and injustice. I joined the Labour party because it gave hope to young Asians like me. The Labour party cares and fights against injustice and discrimination. The great Governments of Harold Wilson, Callaghan and others introduced race legislation and I see this debate in the same light.

The heroism of the Gurkhas is well documented. Given the contribution that they have made, the injustice must be put right. I believe that in the Government and among Labour Members, there is the spirit to do that. I have known the Minister for almost a decade, since before he entered the House. He gave me a lot of support when I was trying to be elected for my constituency in the north-east and I know that he cares passionately about alleviating injustice. The Gurkhas' situation must be put right.

I am sure that the Minister will tell us all that we have achieved, but I would like him to go a step further and to offer a few words of hope, because hope is important. I am sure that there will be all-party agreement among Front-Bench Members, but we as a Labour Government are in a position to do something and to build on the progress that we have made.

I reiterate the importance of the debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester again on securing it. I know that he has been interested in the subject for a long time. At various times in the voting Lobby, often with him walking on one side and I on the other, we have discussed various topics, including the Gurkhas. It is a great credit to the hon. Gentleman and the passionate way in which he has argued this important case that we are discussing it today. As someone who cares that the Labour Government does something about it, I look forward to the day when a debate such as this is not needed.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Shadow Minister, Defence 9:54 am, 7th June 2006

I, too, offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend Bob Russell who has set out his case in his usual passionate, humorous, colourful and casual manner. He is a great asset to the Liberal Democrat Benches and I am sure that all hon. Members agree that he has made a great contribution to today's debate. I am sure that the Gurkhas are delighted to have him on their side.

Fairness and justice; recognition; dignified; equality; destitution; short-changed; begging and discrimination. These are words that have been used in the Chamber this morning and I think that they sum up the debate.

As we have heard, the Gurkhas have served the Crown since 1815. In 1947, the tripartite agreement set out their terms and conditions of service. While their numbers have decreased over the years, the Gurkhas still play an important role, having been deployed in Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Afghanistan and many other conflicts throughout the world. In nine years, the Gurkhas will have served this country for two centuries—200 years of dedication, protecting a country that is neither their birthplace nor their nation.

One of the key principles of the tripartite agreement was that soldiers in both armies should serve under broadly the same terms and conditions of service. That is an important principle and was an enlightened one at the time. I repeat that soldiers in both armies should serve under broadly the same terms and conditions of service; that is a principle to which I shall return, because it is important.

I like to give credit where credit it is due, and the Government deserve some credit on this issue. Since they came to power, there have been three important developments, which are rooted in the principles of the tripartite agreement. First, in 2000, the increase in death gratuity to rates comparable with those for British soldiers was a welcome step. Secondly, the introduction in 1997 of married accompanied service for Gurkhas serving in the UK is worthy of praise. Two months ago, all married Gurkhas with three years' service became entitled to married accompanied service. They are also entitled to accommodation for their families, which is charged at the same level as for British servicemen.

Finally, until recently, Gurkhas could not get indefinite leave to remain in the UK when they were discharged from service. In 2004, the then Liberal Democrat defence spokesperson, my hon. Friend Mr. Keetch, said:

"Citizenship should not be something that former Gurkhas should have to apply for. It should be given as a right."

That plea was backed by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Menzies Campbell, the leader of my party. Shortly after, our call to allow Gurkhas to have British citizenship was finally granted by the Government, albeit upon completion of four years' service and only on application. However, those new rules apply only to those discharged on or after 1 July 1997—the date on which the Brigade of Gurkhas moved its headquarters from Hong Kong back to the UK following the handover to China. It was a step in the right direction, but the situation today is unacceptable and is still discriminatory.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I know that the hon. Gentleman is new to his post and that he is probably on as bewildering a parliamentary journey as I am, so I do not want to put him too much on the spot, but can he confirm that it is Liberal Democrat policy to agree to the demand of Bob Russell for retrospective pensions for Gurkhas?

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Shadow Minister, Defence

My understanding is that we are pressing for full citizenship for Gurkhas, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester.

Many Gurkha veterans and their families are still affected by discrimination in relation to citizenship. About 400 Gurkhas are resident in the UK, of whom 100 are not eligible under the new rules, and there are thousands—32,000, we have heard today—back in Nepal. I urge the Minister to consider changes in this area.

I also urge the Minister to re-examine the pensions issue. We continue to hear worrying reports from Nepal about Gurkhas living in poverty because they fail to receive sufficient pension payments. I would welcome a report from the Minister detailing his knowledge of the problem, with estimates of its scale. I would also welcome an estimate of the cost of introducing pensions equality between British soldiers and Gurkhas. Unless we have an idea of the real cost, it is difficult to get an exact handle on the situation.

A further review of Gurkha terms and conditions of service was announced in January 2005, but it has not yet reported back. A considerable period has elapsed—sufficient to allow an effective and professional review. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about progress to date. I urge him to use the opportunity to institute changes to the rules of citizenship and to introduce the necessary changes to the pension arrangements.

To sum up, this has been a short but good debate. It has allowed Members to reflect on the contribution that the Gurkhas have made to the security of our country and our interests abroad, to praise the Government for the improvements to the Gurkhas' situation that have rightly been made—even if they are long overdue—and to encourage the Minister to take another step along the Gurkhas' road to equality in citizenship and in pensions. It is the least that they deserve for 200 years of service to our country.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence) 10:00 am, 7th June 2006

I, too, congratulate Bob Russell on securing this debate and on the way in which he presented his case. Noting the ever-decreasing length of hon. Members' service with the Brigade of Gurkhas, with the hon. Gentleman having undertaken four days and Mr. Williams two, I have to say that having been in my post for only a short period, I have yet to do any.

I should like to pick up on a point that David Taylor made about the dignified way in which the Gurkhas have presented their case. He questioned whether it has been to their detriment compared with those who present their case loudly. Speaking for myself and for other hon. Members, I respect those who make a well argued and logical case, and I tend to pay more attention to people who make their case in that way than to those who shout from the rooftops, and I hope that the Gurkhas, who have campaigned in the former way, have not disadvantaged themselves. As far as my party and I are concerned, they have not, and I urge all who campaign for change in policy to do so in that way, so that we can engage in a logical and sensible debate, rather than yell at each other.

I, too, pay tribute to the service that the Gurkhas have provided to the Crown since 1815 and in the British Army since 1947. The British public understand and respect that service. That is why the Gurkhas are held in high esteem, and one of the reasons why the subject has been raised in the House on numerous occasions.

When thinking about the history of this issue, it is worth thinking also about the way in which we approach it and from which end of the telescope we look at it. If we consider it in the context of today's circumstances and conditions, we can understand why people use such terms as "discrimination" and "injustice". However, if one considers how the current arrangements were arrived at, when the British Army took in some Gurkha regiments, the Indian army took in others and the tripartite agreement was signed in 1947 in a different world and in different conditions, one can see why the arrangements were made in the way that they were.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, Willie Rennie, drew attention to the tripartite agreement and the fact that it set down that Gurkhas serving in the British Army should serve under broadly comparable terms and conditions to those under which Gurkhas serve in the Indian army. It is one of the principles that was established at the beginning. The tripartite agreement has not been revised since 1947, although it is true that when British Governments have made changes, they have made them in accordance with its original principles.

It is worth welcoming the several changes that the present Government have made since they came to power in 1997, but it might be sensible also to recognise that piecemeal change might not be the way forward. That is why in January 2005 we welcomed the then Secretary of State's announcement of a comprehensive review of Gurkhas' terms and conditions of service. That is probably a better approach than making changes incrementally and without thinking through the whole package. We welcome a comprehensive review. It is disappointing that it has taken a good deal of time, but I know that the Minister will say more about it today. I understand that he hopes to complete the review and make an announcement later this year.

Frustrating though the delay might be, having considered other issues during my time in my present post, I have concluded that it is greatly to be preferred to take the time to get the review right and investigate all complexities at this stage, so that when the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box later this year to announce the results of the terms and conditions review, it is comprehensive, well thought through and results in a change that endures. It should not be rushed, so that we end up returning to the matter every year to put right issues that were not thought through properly. One has to spend only a brief period considering the issues and the complexities that might arise to understand that. I welcome the review, and I am glad that the Minister is taking the time to undertake it properly.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Provided that the hon. Gentleman and I consider that the proposed recommendations are right, does he agree that they should be applied retrospectively and not only from the date when the decisions are put before the House?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence)

Tempting though that invitation is, the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment without having considered the review. I intend to read what the Minister says, and I do not know what he is going to say.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence)

The Minister says that he does not know either.

When the Minister comes to the House later this year with the results of the review, we will consider the review in detail, and if we consider it wise to give it our full support, we will. With the work not having been done yet and without having seen the review, however, I do not want to commit us in advance to whatever it may propose.

As part of the review, it would be wise to ensure that we discuss with the Government of Nepal the review's implications and any impact that it may have on the situation in Nepal. It would be useful if the Minister could confirm whether that will happen. I am conscious that we must consider the impact of our changes on those areas of Nepal from which Gurkhas have traditionally been recruited. In making changes in Britain, we must ensure that there are no unfortunate effects in Nepal. Despite what hon. Members have said about the terms and conditions of service under which Gurkhas serve, and notwithstanding the questions that the hon. Member for Colchester has raised, if we consider the number of Nepalese who apply to join the Brigade of Gurkhas, which is about 100 for each available place, it seems that in their assessment, serving the Crown and serving in the British Army is attractive and rewarding. We should take the review forward in consultation with the Government of Nepal.

Without wishing to broaden the review, I ask that when the Minister is undertaking it, he considers this final point. There are more than 7,000 other foreign nationals serving in the British Army, and it may be worth him considering whether any changes need to be made in relation to them. The last thing that we want to do is change the terms and conditions of service for the Brigade of Gurkhas, and then find that a significant number of other issues arise.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

The figure that the hon. Gentleman gave for the number of foreign nationals serving in the British Army is, I think, somewhat greater than the figure in reality. However, the big difference is that the Gurkhas serve in their own units and regiments, whereas other foreign nationals who join Her Majesty's armed forces serve in British Army regiments, battalions and other units. In terms of pay and conditions and, as far as I am concerned, all other respects, they are immediately treated as though they were British. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the significance is that the Gurkhas serve not in British Army units but in their own regiments?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I have the latest figures, and there are just over 7,000 foreign nationals serving in the armed forces, most of them in the British Army. I am simply saying that if the comprehensive review considers indefinite leave to remain and the appropriate qualification for British citizenship, and the Minister makes decisions on Gurkhas in those areas, another set of questions will be raised about what expectations those serving in the British Army should have in relation to indefinite leave to remain and becoming a British citizen. It would be sensible to think about that while resolving one set of issues, so that we do not create another set of issues and end up coming back to this place to debate them. I am conscious that if we do not think about the overall position, we could make changes that, although welcome in themselves, create a whole set of other perceived unfairnesses. I urge the Minister to think about that.

In drawing my remarks to a close, I reiterate my congratulations to the hon. Member for Colchester and to those who participated in the debate. I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 10:10 am, 7th June 2006

I commend Bob Russell for securing the debate. He had kind words for me on my first run-out in the Chamber a few weeks ago, but I suspect that he will not be as happy with my response this morning. However, I hope that I can give him some reassurances on the points that he raised. He will know that although I am new to this job, I am not new to Gurkha policy; he and I have often sat in on Adjournment debates on the issue just for the fun of it, not least those in which Miss Widdecombe made contributions in 2003 and 2004.

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's service of four days in the Gurkha battalion. I can just about beat my hon. Friend Dr. Kumar, in that I managed to spectate—but not serve—for two hours in Catterick last week, when I saw the Gurkhas training. After those two hours, I was not unapprised of their worldwide, fearsome reputation. I hope to spend more time with them in future.

On a serious point, my hon. Friend David Taylor talked about the quiet, restrained and dignified way in which many of the Gurkha ex-servicemen's groups make their point. The United British Gurkhas Ex-servicemen's Association is one of many Gurkha ex-servicemen's groups that put their point to Government day in, day out, and the hon. Member for Colchester has been a powerful advocate for them this morning.

What amazes me about Gurkhas is the journey that they take as individuals. The brigade starts with 15,000 potential recruits in the hills of Nepal. Rigorous pre-selection training narrows it down to 200 recruits, who make a journey from Kathmandu to Manchester and then on to Catterick, where they undergo 39 weeks of training. I have been lucky enough to witness that training. We have all been impressed by their quality and the commitment with which they take up service in the Army.

One thing that I would like to talk about this morning is the journey that the Government have taken since the tripartite agreement in 1947 to try to target and change policy to fit the changed circumstances of Gurkhas, in the military context. I have a number of detailed points to make in answer to issues raised by the hon. Member for Colchester. He will have read the report, "The Gurkhas: The Forgotten Veterans", as have I, and I am considering it at the moment. I will respond formally when I have the opportunity to do so thoroughly. However, I want to honour the commitment made by my predecessor, my hon. Friend Mr. Touhig, to meet the authors of that report. I am trying to ensure that I see them as soon as possible. Also, I am meeting the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald to talk about her concerns about the terms and conditions that apply to our Gurkhas; the hon. Gentleman will know that she has made a large and lasting contribution on the subject.

Let me give some reassurances about the current terms and conditions of Gurkhas, and then I shall try to explain the veterans' situation. We believe that successive British Governments have treated Gurkhas fairly, in the context of the time in which they served, and we have already introduced significant improvements to their terms and conditions, as has been acknowledged by Members of all parties today. The review of their terms and conditions of service that is in hand will definitely lead to an even better deal for modern Gurkhas. The Government deeply appreciate the contribution that Gurkhas have made over more than two centuries to our Army and, in more recent years, to the life of this country as their presence here has increased. As part of the British Indian Army, they served in numerous campaigns, culminating in the two world wars, in which thousands of Gurkhas participated.

The British Brigade of Gurkhas is an important element of our defence capability and now numbers some 3,300 men. It includes two battalions of infantry, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, and specialists in signals, military engineering and logistics. They are stationed in 14 locations across England, Wales and Scotland. A battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles is stationed in Brunei under our defence agreement with the Government of that country, and over the past 12 months, Gurkhas have been deployed in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq, where they served—as ever—with great distinction.

We have not forgotten Gurkha veterans or the debt that we owe them. We pay more than 26,000 Gurkha service pensions to retired soldiers and their dependants, and last year that amounted to some £33 million. Even a retired Gurkha private soldier's pension is comparable to workers' salaries in Nepal and is almost 10 times the national per capita income. On that point, I shall try to answer some of the questions raised by Willie Rennie later.

Nepal is a developing country, recently torn by internal strife, which we fervently hope is coming to an end. Retired Gurkhas living there are Nepalese citizens living in their own country, and it is not surprising that some heart-rending instances of hardship can be found there. The Government and the British public support the valuable work of the Gurkha Welfare Trust, which aims to ensure that no such case goes unaided. The hon. Member for Colchester mentioned medical costs; we doubled Gurkha service pensions in 1997 so that retired Gurkhas could use some element of their pension to pay for their medical costs.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Not off the top of my head, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and will go through the figures with him, if that is okay.

As I said, we support the aims of the Gurkha Welfare Trust, and in addition the Department for International Development will pay £30 million in aid to Nepal. We pay tribute to the Gurkhas' courage and commitment on operations, and their hard work as valued members of our community in peace. In return, over the years, British Army service has afforded many benefits to thousands of Nepalese citizens—to Gurkha soldiers and to their families. In modern times, that mutually beneficial relationship has been possible only because of the unique status of the Gurkhas, in terms of their role in the British Army. Nepal has never been a member of the British empire or the Commonwealth, and Gurkha service to the British Crown has been enabled only by a succession of agreements with the Government of a sovereign and independent Nepal. That remains the case, and those agreements, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, date back to 1815.

After the Gurkhas' distinguished record of service in the Army of the former British Indian empire, at the time of Indian independence in 1947, an unparalleled arrangement between the British, Nepalese and Indian Governments allowed Gurkhas to continue their service to the British Crown while remaining Nepalese citizens. On 1 January 1948, the predecessors of our current Brigade of Gurkhas transferred to the British Army on terms based on that agreement, which is the tripartite agreement that we have talked about.

The unique status of those who transferred means that they joined the British Army, served, and then retired as Nepalese citizens. As my predecessor said in an Adjournment debate secured by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald—which I think the hon. Member for Colchester and I both sat in on—it would have been irrational if Gurkha terms and conditions of service had not taken account of that. We were committed to discharging Gurkhas in Nepal where, with pensions that were very substantial by local standards, and often with valuable skills, they settled in retirement and made an important contribution to the economy of one of the world's poorest countries. We employed the Gurkhas on the same terms on which they came to us: those of the Indian army of the day. Therefore, many of the terms and conditions were different from those of the wider British Army—for example, pay, pensions, soldiers' terms of engagement and the officers commissioning rules.

Originally, many of these differences came about because the Indian Government, who continue to employ many Gurkhas, wanted equality between their Gurkhas and ours. In those days the Gurkhas were one of a number of forces serving under the British Crown but enlisted and based overseas, whose terms and conditions of service reflected this. British Gurkhas continued to serve as they had in the old Indian army: in formed Gurkha units consisting entirely of Nepalese soldiers and officers, except for a few British officers and specialists. That has always been considered essential to maintaining the Gurkhas' formidable fighting spirit.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Does the Minister know what the position is of those Gurkhas—whole companies on occasion—who serve in British units? A few years ago in Colchester, the Royal Scots were about 180 short and the gap was plugged with Gurkhas. Would those Gurkhas be treated as Nepalese volunteers or British soldiers in terms of pay, conditions and subsequent pensions?

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I think I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's question as I continue my speech. If I do not, he can pull me up on it again.

The Nepalese Government were, and remain, rightly sensitive to any suggestion that British Gurkhas were mercenaries, as has been said in other areas of this discussion. They saw exclusively Gurkha units serving in the British Army with their Nepalese identity preserved as reflecting on honour and prestige on the reputation of Nepal. Even now, Gurkhas usually serve as members of formed Gurkha battalions, squadrons or companies within the Brigade of Gurkhas, although there are notable exceptions. Although the working language of the Brigade is English, the structure enables the Nepali language to be spoken, and provides religious and cultural support to every Gurkha family.

There have been improvements in the intervening years. For example, in 1972, Gurkhas serving in the UK received a cost of living allowance that, added to their Indian army rate of pay, gave them broadly comparable take-home pay to that of their British counterparts, and when they served in Hong Kong they were paid an allowance that reflected prices there. Over time there has been a constant review of and improvement to support and services for Gurkhas.

However, the presumption has always been that Gurkhas would retire in Nepal, and their terms and conditions, particularly their pension arrangements, continued to reflect that understanding. When the time approached for the UK to hand over Hong Kong, through a gradual process, the Gurkhas were withdrawn from that country. The hon. Gentleman will know that that process ended on 1 July 1997, when what had hitherto been a force enlisted and based overseas was now predominantly based in the UK. It was only natural at that point that Gurkhas and their families would increasingly regard the UK as an alternative home to Nepal, and that their expectations and aspirations would develop accordingly.

In my view, it was inevitable that the terms and conditions appropriate to a force based in the far east would have to adapt to that change in circumstances. In evolving these terms and conditions, we have always sought to protect the unique identity of the Gurkhas and their relationship with their homeland, which the hon. Gentleman has talked about, and the presumption of their retirement in Nepal has remained.

Worldwide parity of take-home pay was brought in as part of a package of changes introduced in that great year of 1997. It included a new universal addition, which brought a Gurkha's take-home pay—wherever he was serving—up to the same level as that of his counterpart in the wider British Army. Gurkhas were allowed to be accompanied by their families in UK, as was already the case in overseas stations such as Brunei, although under the tripartite agreement, that was limited to 25 per cent. of all personnel. At the same time, Gurkhas retained some privileges not available to other members of the Army, such as the traditional "Nepal long leave" of five months every three years at the public expense.

Some differences stemming from the original Indian army terms and conditions were retained because they were seen as more suitable for the Gurkha's unique status as a Nepalese citizen. The Gurkha soldier was virtually guaranteed 15 years of service, which earned him a pension for life immediately on discharge—often at the age of 32, 33 or 34—and after that for his dependants. The Gurkha pension scheme provided pensions that are modest by UK standards but represent a substantial income, annually updated for inflation, in Nepal. Such an early payment of pension is not available to other members of the British armed forces. Over 80 per cent. of ex-Gurkhas, if they had been members of the armed forces pension scheme, would have returned to Nepal with only a preserved pension payable at age 60.

The Gurkha's expectation of service depends on his progress through the ranks. A corporal would have to retire after 15 years, whereas a warrant officer class 1 would serve for 22 years. The 22-year notice of engagement in use for all ranks in the wider Army is only manageable because in recent years British junior ranks have tended to leave voluntarily if not promoted, sometimes after four or five years. Traditionally, Gurkhas serve for as long as they can, and it would not have been possible to offer them all 22 years' service because that would have resulted in a stagnant, unmanageable manpower structure in the brigade's exclusively Gurkha units, and it would have denied to many Nepalese citizens any opportunity of British Army service.

I believe our predecessors tried hard to get the balance right between the maintenance of traditional Nepal-facing terms and conditions and their assimilation, where appropriate, into those of the wider Army. However, since the move of the Gurkhas' base to the UK and the progressive alignment of their roles with those of their counterparts in the wider Army, the differences between their respective terms and conditions of service have increasingly come under scrutiny, as they have today. The Government have responded to that in order to ensure that fairness is at the heart of how we treat the modern Brigade of Gurkhas.

Improved arrangements for Gurkha married accompanied service were announced in August. In 2003, seven Gurkha veterans had challenged many of the differences in their terms and conditions of service, particularly their different pension arrangements, by way of judicial review. The judges accepted that the differences were still justified because of the Gurkhas' unique status, and that a full like-with-like comparison with the wider Army could not be made. The courts dismissed all complaints and subsequent appeals, although they did, exceptionally, warn that the 25 per cent. limit on married accompanied service should be reviewed. We have done that, and from 1 April this year, all Gurkhas with at least three years' service will have the same entitlement to be accompanied by their families at their duty station as soldiers in the wider Army.

The immigration rules were changed in 2004 to make it easier for Gurkhas to return to this country on discharge from the Army. Successive Governments have maintained the policy that British citizenship is not automatically given in return for military service, but granted on grounds of residence, towards which such service might count.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I appreciate that this is not a matter for the Minister's Department, but for the Home Office, and I had discussions with his predecessor about it, but will he assure me that the Ministry of Defence is of the view that service to the Crown should count as residence, even when the soldier is serving overseas?

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I think I can. If I cannot, I will clarify that by letter. I do not want to give the hon. Gentleman an assurance on behalf of another Department, particularly the Home Office, dare I say.

Both Gurkhas and Commonwealth citizens usually serve in our armed forces while maintaining their own nationality. Although the presumption of retirement in Nepal has been accepted by the courts as part of the unique arrangements for Gurkha service, ex-Gurkhas had always been able to apply to return to this country under normal immigration rules, such as under the work permit scheme. I think that that answers the hon. Gentleman's point.

In 2004, we accepted that from the time the Gurkhas became based in the UK in 1997 they should be able to apply for settlement here in the same way as Commonwealth citizens leaving our Armed Forces. On discharge, they could count four years of their military service towards the residential qualification for indefinite leave to enter the United Kingdom and, subject to entry clearance, could settle here with their families. They could subsequently apply for British citizenship, if they wished to do so, under normal rules.

The Prime Minister announced the new Her Majesty's forces immigration rule on 30 September 2004. We understand that virtually all Gurkhas discharged since the rule took effect have applied for visas to enter the UK. Those discharged since 1 July 1997 have until October of this year to apply. It became clear that more serving and retired Gurkhas and their families would be living in the UK than ever before, and the Government determined that the remaining differences in their terms and conditions of service, especially the Nepal-facing ones, should be reviewed. That is what we are doing now.

Mr. Harper made a point about the remit of the review. I shall give a bit of the context. A former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr. Hoon, asked in January last year for a comprehensive review of Gurkha terms and conditions. It is by far the widest-reaching review since 1948 and is examining every remaining difference between Gurkha and UK terms and conditions. Much of what I have said, inasmuch as it refers to Gurkhas' current terms and conditions, may be affected by the review.

We have consulted serving Gurkhas through surveys and focus groups, and we are in close touch at official level with the Nepalese Government. We have tried to be as inclusive as possible and have invited other interested parties, including groups representing Gurkha veterans, to express their views. The complexity of the review has proved even greater than we expected, and I welcome the support that we have had in ensuring that we have time to ensure that the review is comprehensive and wide-reaching. I hope to be able to report back to the House with the outcome of the review as soon as I can, and I take the matter very seriously. I want to be able to give good news to the House that will satisfy some of the aspirations that have been expressed today.

Meanwhile, I am pleased to say that we have been able to introduce some improvements in advance of the review's final report. In addition to the immigration concession and improved facilities for married accompanied service, which were the two main concerns that were raised by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, as everyone knows, the Gurkhas have been included in the national insurance scheme so that they can qualify for national insurance benefits, including the state retirement pension and the state second pension. From April this year, collective settlement of their income tax and national insurance contribution liability by the Ministry of Defence and the provision of free food and accommodation, offset by corresponding abatements of their universal addition, ceased, and Gurkhas will now see full details of their pay, tax and charges and be eligible for rebates of food and accommodation charges when appropriate in the same way as any soldier in the wider Army. Those improvements were widely welcomed by serving Gurkhas and the groups that represent them.

I have to emphasise that the review is focused on the terms and conditions of service for serving and future Gurkhas.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am getting a bit alarmed. Did the Minister say that the review is not historical and applies only to current and future Gurkhas? If it is not historical, the campaign that is being waged will have to be reinvigorated.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I ask the hon. Gentleman to hear me out and let me make my point. If he is not satisfied, he should come back to me again.

As part of the review, the Department is looking again at the pension position of Gurkhas back to 1 July 1997, when the Gurkhas first became a UK-based force. We remain of the view that the position of Gurkha veterans discharged prior to 1 July 1997 remains exactly as it was when the judicial review reached its conclusions. We maintain that their terms and conditions may have been different, but that they were not discriminatory. On the issue of veterans' pensions, I remind the Chamber that it has been the long-held policy of successive Governments not to make retrospective improvements to public sector pension schemes.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife asked whether we had estimated the cost of adding a retrospective element to the scheme for the time before 1997, back to the tripartite agreement of 1947. It would cost many billions of pounds if we were to do that, even before we accept that it would have repercussions in terms of precedent for other pension schemes in the public sector. There are good reasons for our not making retrospective changes for those who have already left under earlier pension rules, as that would make future improvements unaffordable. To depart from that rule for one group would inevitably cause others to demand the same treatment.

I recognise that that will disappoint the hon. Member for Colchester and those who retired before 1 July 1997, particularly those distinguished former Gurkhas who handed in a petition to Downing street on 22 May. I acknowledge the strength of feeling that this subject and other veterans' issues generate among certain Gurkha ex-servicemen's groups, although we have tried hard to explain the situation to them, including by sending MOD officials to hold briefings in Nepal.

I hope that I have provided some reassurances that the Department continues to treat Gurkhas with the significant respect that they earn and deserve. To reflect on the more recent period, in 1997 the brigade became a UK force, in 2003 we reviewed the responsibilities for Gurkha families and later in 2004 we changed their immigration status. I hope to align their terms and conditions further with those of the British Army. We are on a journey with their terms and conditions and I hope that it is a positive one.

I know the hon. Gentleman will be disappointed with my last point. There will always be people who think that we should do more and that we can do more, but I believe that our treatment of Gurkhas, Gurkha veterans and their dependants has been and remains both fair and reasonable under the circumstances.

Sitting suspended.