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Volume 508: debated on Thursday 8 April 2010

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence (1) how often the cross-departmental Gurkha working group has met; and what Government departments are represented on the group; (325684)

(2) what (a) written and (b) other information is provided to Gurkha veterans seeking advice at his Department's resettlement office in Kathmandu, Nepal;

(3) what steps his Department is taking to inform the Gurkha veteran population in Nepal of their rights of settlement in the United Kingdom;

(4) how much funding is available for his Department's resettlement office in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2010-11.

The Cross-Departmental Working Group was set up in June 2009 and has met formally on three occasions, twice in 2009 and once so far this year. As well as the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the UK Border Agency (UKBA), the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Department for Communities and Local Government, (DCLG), the Department of Health, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Cabinet Office, the Foreign Office and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs are members of the Working Group.

The Working Group has also consulted with a wide range of welfare organisations in the course of its work, including the main Service charities: the Gurkha Welfare Trust; the Royal British Legion; ABF The Soldiers' Charity; the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association; and Veterans Aid.

The Gurkha Settlement Office in Kathmandu opened in October 2009 and to date has had nearly 5,000 visits from ex-Gurkhas and their families. The Government of Nepal and all ex-service organisations were briefed by MOD about the role of the office which is to provide free help and assistance with the settlement process. This includes information and education about life in the UK in order for the ex-Gurkhas to make an informed choice about settlement, and if they decide to apply for a visa help and advice filling out the visa form, help with finding and completing supporting documentation and a fast tracking system for issuing National Insurance numbers which facilitates claiming benefits in the UK. DCLG are setting up a housing advice centre in the UK to help find appropriate housing and will offer a bond to landlords in lieu of the required rental deposit. The UKBA have also introduced a new stamp on the visa which allows DWP to identify ex-Gurkhas who do not need to satisfy the Habitual Residence Test before benefits can be paid.

In November 2009 and January this year several hundred ex-Gurkha representatives in Nepal were briefed by a joint MOD/UKBA team about the benefits of using the Kathmandu settlement office. A further communications exercise and additional consultation and briefings are planned in April. It is also intended to forward base some of the settlement office staff from Kathmandu to the east and west of Nepal to try and reach those who might not be able to travel to Kathmandu.

A booklet in English and Nepali that explains the cost of living in the UK has been produced at the request of the ex-service organisations, and an updated and more comprehensive book about life in the UK will be issued in Nepal in April. The book, developed in association with ex-servicemen, the service charities and local authorities contains a wealth of information about living in the UK.

To date, the cost of setting up and staffing the Settlement Office is some £20,000 and a similar budget has been earmarked for 2010-11.