Monday 22 November 2021
[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking, in accordance with NHS guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate—there is a test centre where you can do that, or you can do it at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 594155, relating to Gurkha pensions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I will start by thanking Roy Brinkley, who himself is a veteran of the Grenadier Guards, for creating this petition. In total, it has attracted more than 107,000 signatures from all over the country, including 99 from Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, enabling us today to discuss the important issues underlying the petition. I also thank Roy and his friend Jack for taking the time to talk to my office earlier today about the petition and what it means to them. I apologise for not being able to meet them in person; sadly, unexpected parliamentary business meant that I had to ask my staff to take the meeting on my behalf. Roy is here in the Public Gallery, and many Gurkhas have turned up in Westminster today to show their support for the campaign. Sadly, we are likely to be disrupted by votes, but I hope that Roy and everyone outside will feel that we have done their campaign justice this evening.
When preparing for today’s debate, I realised that I have not yet spoken on the Gurkhas in this place. I approach this topic as someone who holds all members of our armed forces in the highest possible regard. As a bit of family history, my great-great-uncle, Allan Gullis—who still lives today—fought on D-day; my grandfather and hero, Terrence Gullis, served in the Royal Marines during the Suez crisis; and my maternal grandfather, William Beacham, served in the Royal Air Force. There is also a strong veterans community in my area of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. We are proud to be the home of the Staffordshire Regiment. In Kidsgrove, the Royal British Legion has created a beautiful and touching war memorial garden, which is maintained and used all year round, and in Smallthorne, we have the fantastic veterans breakfast club at the Green Star pub, run by Martyn Hunt and Paul Horton. This family background, and the strong ties to the armed services that we have in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, were key motivations behind the Desecration of War Memorials Bill, which I tabled in June last year with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) to secure better protection for memorials to our glorious dead.
On top of that, today’s debate comes at a poignant time, following on so soon from Remembrance Sunday. Every year, we hold poignant services across north Staffordshire and our United Kingdom in memory of our glorious dead, and this year, it was a real privilege to be able to attend the memorial service at Tunstall memorial gardens and to lay wreaths and pay respects at memorials across my constituency. This year, it has also been very moving to be able to plant a cross in Parliament’s inaugural remembrance garden on behalf of the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke in memory of heroes such as Gunner Zak Cusack from Smallthorne and so many other brave men and women who served Queen and country. As such, I speak today as someone who knows just how amazing all our veterans are, and I hope I will do this subject the justice it deserves.
First of all, let me say that I know how highly regarded the Gurkhas are and have been for over 200 years. Their service to the British Crown, both here and overseas, has been marked by excellence and sacrifice. As Roy said to my team earlier, they are some of the most loyal soldiers this country has ever had, and have served on the frontlines of every war that the UK has fought in for the past 200 years. Prince Harry famously served alongside them during his 2007-08 tour of Afghanistan, and commented that
“when you know you are with the Gurkhas…there’s no safer place to be”.
That record of excellence and heroism goes somewhat under the radar, so I thank Joanna Lumley and campaigners like her for bringing the Gurkhas into the limelight. Like many people, I became aware of the problem Gurkhas have been facing, because of Joanna’s tireless efforts and all she has done to get this issue on our political agenda. More recently, we have had our attention refocused by the hunger strike outside Downing Street—indeed, I understand that Roy knows one of the hunger strikers personally. Having spoken to colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and other colleagues in this place before today’s debate, I know that the Gurkhas’ service is incredibly highly valued and respected. Their distinguished service is a source of immense pride in both the UK and Nepal.
From engaging with Roy, I understand that the crux of the issue is the pension scheme, and the concerns of many Gurkhas relate to the historic Gurkha pension scheme that ran from 1948 to 2007. Roy is seeking equal pension rights pre-1997, including back pay. The scheme differed from the arrangements for the rest of the British armed forces, being based on the Indian army model, because the Brigade of Gurkhas was based in Nepal until 1 July 1997. Despite that, I understand that for most Gurkha veterans the 1948 Gurkha pension scheme provides a pension at least as good as, and in many cases better than, that given to their British counterparts with identical periods of service. Under the Gurkha pension scheme all Gurkhas who retired before 1 July 1997 also qualified for an immediate pension after only 15 years of service. This meant that, typically, they would qualify for a pension in their 30s. By contrast, before 1975 British soldiers had to serve at least 22 years before they could receive a pension. That meant Gurkhas were receiving pension payments for over 25 years before most British soldiers of the same rank and length of service qualified for any payments.
Following the change in the home base for the Brigade of Gurkhas in 1997, and a review of their terms and conditions of service in 2007, came a change to their pensions. Following this review, it was decided that the difference between the terms and conditions of service of the Gurkhas and those of their British counterparts would be eliminated. For Gurkhas currently serving, and those with service on or after 1 July 1997, there would be an offer to transfer to the armed forces pension scheme. The reason for this cut-off was that that was when the UK became the home base for the Brigade of Gurkhas and changes in immigration rules, backdated to 1 July 1997, meant there was an increased likelihood of retired Gurkhas settling in the UK on discharge. This change, to better reflect the changed circumstances of the Brigade of Gurkhas, who were no longer based in Nepal, was most welcome. However, it clearly has not solved all the outstanding issues.
It is welcome that there has been ongoing engagement between the UK Government, Nepali embassy officials and Gurkha veteran groups. The former Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), met repeatedly with Nepali Ministers and veterans groups to discuss the outstanding issues. This led to the production of the technical report, with the Gurkha veterans’ grievances, together with the UK Government’s responses, set out in one document. This engagement has led to improvements in the Gurkha pension scheme, and in March 2019 a new package of measures was announced, including an increase to pensions under the Gurkha pension scheme of between 10% and 34% above annual inflation. There was also a new £25 million investment in medical and healthcare facilities in Nepal for Gurkha veterans.
The Government have since agreed to reconsider the decision on the increase to pensions made in 2019, with a public consultation earlier this year that sought views on how changes should be implemented to the Gurkha pension scheme. That consultation closed earlier this year, and after considering responses Ministers will make a fresh decision on the size of the uplift. The Ministry of Defence has also agreed to start a bilateral committee in December to discuss all Gurkha veteran welfare issues. This move is very welcome, but I understand from what Roy has said that, as yet, there is no certainty over the timings of this important committee. If it is possible, I would very much appreciate the Minister sharing more details of these plans in his response.
Another key issue that Roy raised with me was the ability of Gurkhas and their families to settle in the United Kingdom, to be granted citizenship and to have the right to vote. Non-UK service personnel, including Gurkhas, can also apply for settlement in the UK on discharge if they have served a minimum of four years and meet the requirements of the immigration rules. Settlement gives people the right to live, work and study here for as long as they like and to apply for benefits if they are eligible; they can use it to apply for British citizenship. However, I recognise that although there is a straightforward route to settlement the current system places a financial liability on those personnel and their families, costing £2,389 per person. I am therefore delighted that the MOD and the Home Office are currently analysing the responses received to a draft policy proposal to waive fees for non-UK service personnel if they apply to settle in the UK at the end of their military service, provided certain criteria are met.
I am pleased that the hon. Member raises the issue of immigration fees. Does he not think that the Home Office is fleecing Gurkhas and other ex-service personnel by charging £2,000 per person for a process that costs only £200 to administer?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention. She probably will not be shocked that I will not use the word “fleecing”. However, I was going on to say that I wholeheartedly support the idea of waiving this fee. The Gurkhas have served our country—their country—and they have kept me, my daughter and the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke safe. It is only right and fair that people who are willing to put their lives on the line for the United Kingdom’s safety get the respect that they deserve. I therefore implore the Minister and the Home Office, which I am sure will be watching the debate, to do the right thing and waive the fees for non-UK armed forces personnel who have served their country and who meet the requirements. We have a fantastic Gurkhas veterans community across the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member is making a powerful speech, and I wholeheartedly support his call to reduce the fees. I also want to mention the right to vote, which Gurkhas have raised with me. I want to ask a brief question about the hunger strike this year, which was raised with me by the mayor of Hounslow, Bishnu Gurung, who was a British Gurkha staff sergeant himself. Does the hon. Member agree that we should never again see our Gurkhas going on hunger strike to try to get attention because they feel there is not an ongoing dialogue that will resolve these issues effectively, and that it is incredibly important that we have a commitment from the Minister today on his call for a clear process that has the confidence of the Gurkhas?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I completely concur: no one wants to see any veteran—whether they are Gurkhas or members of the British armed forces who were born and bred in the United Kingdom—having to go to extreme lengths to get their voices heard. I have had some really great meetings with the Minister, who is in his place, in advance of today’s debate. I know how seriously he takes this issue and how much the Gurkhas mean to him and the people of Aldershot, which he represents. I therefore have absolutely no doubt that he will always be a strong and doughty champion of the Gurkha community and that he will ensure they have someone they know they can go to and hear from directly. They are blessed that he is the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, because they can lobby the Minister directly—they do not even have to go through him to get to the relevant individual, which is a great situation.
I note that the Parliamentary Private Secretary sitting behind the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), is a former colonel who served in the armed forces for many years. He therefore brings his years of experience to the Department as well to ensure that we get this right. The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) is correct that we should never have to see such scenes, which is why it is important that the Minister outlines the detail for the December committee, so that Roy can spread the word back to the Gurkhas about what is going to happen and they can have full faith and confidence in the system.
The fact that we set up the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is a really positive step forward, because veterans’ affairs are starting to be front and centre. Our colleagues from Northern Ireland, the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), have joined us today, and they obviously have a strong and emotive case, and rightly so, around the legacy of claims made against those who served in the British forces. It is also important that we can draw a line in the sand over the troubles to move the Northern Irish community onwards, which I know the civic community is keen to see, so I appreciate that this is an important issue for us all. Having spoken to many a Northern Irish MP, I know that Northern Ireland is a very open and welcoming country and that its citizens are proud to have people from across the United Kingdom who have served in the armed forces, whether Gurkhas or others, living there and being part of their fantastic country.
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate. On the widespread support that there obviously is across the United Kingdom, does he agree that it is time for this nation and this Government to defend those who defended us and to do that right across the board, so that people who stand by the United Kingdom do so in the expectation that, in the future, the United Kingdom will stand with them?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I could not agree more. We have to ensure that if someone is willing to put their life on the line, they are protected and respected. Ultimately, they are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice; potentially, these are fathers and mothers willing to never see their children and loved ones again. I cannot imagine the bravery that that takes. Sadly, I never had the chance to serve, due to a hearing deficiency, which meant that I could not pass the medical despite the fact that I tried to blag it.
I have spoken about my grandfather’s story, and I spoke to my great-great-uncle about what he saw on D-Day. Ultimately, these people are heroes. We watched the documentary about the lives of Gurkhas and their contribution to our United Kingdom’s armed forces. The Duke of Sussex also did his exposé about his time in Afghanistan and shared his stories with the newspapers about what it was like to be on the frontline. As someone in my early 20s, that really opened my eyes to what the Gurkhas are. They are always on the frontline, always the first in and, in many cases, always the last out. That shows what a tremendous group of individuals they are and what they are willing to do.
Finally, I will touch on one more point Roy made about the support that is available to Gurkhas more generally. Over the coronavirus pandemic, the UK has stood shoulder to shoulder with Nepal, making available support to help Gurkhas and their families in Nepal. We were one of the first countries to send life-saving medical equipment to Nepal, including 260 ventilators and thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment, to help the country’s fight against covid-19.
The UK is one of the leading donors to COVAX, having committed £548 million to the scheme, and COVAX has allocated 2 million vaccine doses to Nepal. UK aid to the Gurkha Welfare Trust has ensured access to life-saving support and supplies to Gurkha veterans and their communities throughout the pandemic. Gurkhas who have gained settlement are able to apply for and receive benefits, and as I said earlier I am pleased that the Government are looking at how to make settlement rights easier to obtain for non-UK service personnel, including Gurkhas.
I thank Roy again for creating the petition and for taking the time to share his concerns with me and my staff. I thank all those who have served Queen and country. On the issues that affect our veterans, it is important that we get it right. The Gurkhas are a special case, even among that group of heroes. I am pleased that there has been movement on the Gurkha pension scheme, with the important change that came in 2007.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his eloquent introduction to the debate. As a rule, I do not like retrospection in our legislation, but the Government at the time and this Parliament decided to give rights to Gurkhas to come and live in our country and have a path to citizenship. Is it not therefore the case that retrospection could also apply to issues such as pensions? The one perhaps follows the other.
To some extent, I suppose retrospection has already happened. As I said earlier, there has been the uplift, the consultation and the £25 million that has gone in, so I suspect that we will see more movement. I do understand that it is very complicated pre-1997 and that that may cause some MOD technical difficulties, but I understand that the MOD is fully aware of the issues.
I take the point that my hon. Friend makes. The Government have made large steps to come to a settlement on almost all the outstanding issues, but I was referring to those Gurkhas who retired in or before 1997. I am thinking particularly of Major Chitra Rana, my constituent in Woking. He has lived in Goldsworth Park in my constituency for many years now, as have many other Gurkhas. We need to look at the pre-1997 retirees.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I totally hear his case. I am unfortunate not to have an individual in my constituency who can share their story. My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for his constituents. I am sure that the Minister has taken note of that and will take it away. Having spoken with the Minister, I have confidence that there will be a very fair settlement coming down the road. It may not be full retrospection, as some would want, but I think it will be a suitable and adequate arrival point, which will mean that everyone can start to look forward rather than backward.
Clearly, however, the issue has not been resolved, and some Gurkha veterans still have concerns, so I am pleased that the Government have been willing to engage and keep dialogue going. I very much look forward to seeing the response on the public consultation on waiving fees for non-UK service personnel, which I feel could be very significant, as well as to the outcome of the bilateral committee on Gurkha veteran welfare. I look forward to hearing what hon. Members and the Minister have to say on this important issue.
Thank you, Dr Huq; it is an honour to speak under your chairship for the first time. Hopefully I will not take as long as five minutes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on his excellent speech. I also thank him for the interventions he took, which was very generous of him.
As the Member representing half of the borough of Hounslow, with my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) representing the other half, I know that we speak for our local community when we say how proud we are of Hounslow’s large Gurkha community. We are proud not only of their loyal service to our country, including in the fight against fascism in world war two, but of their years of service locally in civic life, through their work with charities and through the many small businesses that play a huge role in our local economy. As my hon. Friend said, the mayor of Hounslow for 2021-22, Councillor Bishnu Gurung, served as a staff sergeant with the Gurkhas. He retired in 1995 after 19 years of service, having received both a long service medal and a good conduct award. After completing his service and settling in Hounslow, he works full time as a London bus driver and is chairman of the Gurkha Nepalese Community Hounslow. He is such a good reminder that a Gurkha’s service does not end when they retire.
It was heartbreaking to see a group of Gurkhas on hunger strike back in August. The fact that they were pushed to such lengths shows how ignored they felt. I welcome the fact that they have since met Defence Ministers and that talks are ongoing about a number of issues. We have already touched on immigration fees.
My hon. Friend talks about the Gurkhas’ ongoing service, describing the journey of our mayor in Hounslow and others. Does she agree that it is indicative that he has chosen SSAFA as his mayor’s charity this year, drawing into all he does the story of the veteran community and their engagement in our public life?
My hon. Friend and I were at the mayor’s fundraising event just three weeks ago, where there was a wonderful presentation from SSAFA. We congratulate the Gurkha community and Councillor Gurung on his fundraising, support and time spent volunteering for SSAFA.
I will not repeat the points already made about immigration fees. I am concerned about an issue that has not yet been raised. Many Gurkhas living on low incomes because of the pension problem will have been impacted by the decision to cut £1,000 a year—£20 a week—from universal credit. With more than 30,000 families claiming universal credit in Hounslow alone, that cut will affect a number of Gurkha families. The issue was raised as part of the hunger strike. Surely, given their service to this country and communities across the land, Gurkhas deserve better than being forced to survive on the edge of poverty. I hope the Minister will make clear just what our Government are doing for all those Gurkhas who gave up so much in service to our nation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I thank the Petitions Committee for making time for the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for eloquently leading it. I agree with many of the things he said. For time’s sake, I will not repeat most of them, but I particularly agree on making sure that our relationship with Nepal, as well as the Gurkhas, is as strong as it can be. He underlined our support for them around the covid pandemic.
Gurkhas have made an outstanding contribution to the UK over many years of dedicated service, and they are rightly held in high esteem by the British Army and the British public. I have had the honour of meeting many Gurkha veterans in my constituency, because we have one of the larger Nepalese communities in the UK, being just down the road from Aldershot, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans. I also had the opportunity to meet Gurkha soldiers during my time in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Although I do not have the years under my belt of some esteemed Members here who served in the armed forces, having met some of those soldiers at first hand in conflict zones, I understand their tenacity and resilience, which was writ large.
My constituency is proud of its large Nepalese community; many are Gurkha veterans who served our country bravely and whose families decided to make the UK their home. Gurkha veterans and their wider families play a central role in Basingstoke, including at civic events like Remembrance Sunday very recently, demonstrating the importance of remembering the contribution of people across the globe to protecting our way of life on these shores.
More than 700 people in Basingstoke signed the petition for today’s debate. I thank the Petitions Committee for the opportunity to underline the importance of fairness in how we support every member and former member of the British armed forces. Fairness in pensions and in the way we treat Gurkhas at the end of their military career has been central to the many conversations and meetings I have had with my constituents who have Nepalese heritage over a number of years.
On fairness, does the right hon. Lady agree that, when we are talking about the need for pension parity, we are talking about not just Gurkha veterans themselves, but widows and other family members, who number in their many thousands, including in south east London? When looking at welfare in the round and at what the bilateral committee might look into, widows in receipt of the GPS must be at the forefront of the Government’s mind.
The hon. Member has pointed out the complexities of the discussions that will take place in the coming weeks. I am sure the Minister heard his remark and perhaps he will pick up on it later on. The welfare of all veterans, including Gurkhas, could not be more important, and welfare is, of course, at the heart of the armed forces covenant, brought in by this Government to ensure the best support for those who have done so much for our country.
My right hon. Friend mentions the importance of veterans. Does she agree that Wales being the only country not to have a veterans commissioner at the moment is a misstep? Will she join me in urging the Welsh Government to create such a position?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Of course, I join her in that call. I have seen at first hand the importance of the covenant in the way it has driven this Government’s commitment to veterans, as well as serving the armed forces and their families. It is really a tried and tested approach. The covenant is a pledge that acknowledges the bravery of those who served our country and their families, too, and that they should be treated with fairness and respect in our communities, economy and society.
I know the pension schemes in place for Gurkha veterans have been scrutinised by the courts on a number of occasions, and that the basis for the way Gurkha pensions are set out has been upheld in no less than three judicial reviews since 2003, including a European Court of Human Rights case. However, it is right to always keep these matters under review, and I am sure the Minister will update us on how he is doing that.
I am absolutely delighted that it is my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans who is replying to today’s debate. He and the Secretary of State have already made it clear that they have met a wide range of Gurkha representative groups, as well as the Nepalese ambassador, and have committed to further talks, including at a bilateral committee, to discuss these issues in the coming weeks. It will be important to hear more details of that work. That is obviously in addition to other measures that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North has already gone through, which I will not repeat.
Many of the representations I have had from my constituents also refer to the issue of fees for non-UK service personal applying to settle in the UK at the end of their military service. It will be important to hear more from the Minister about the work that the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence are doing to analyse the responses to a consultation on that specific issue. We need a system that is clearly fair for everybody involved.
The Nepalese community in my constituency are an incredible asset to the town in so many ways that time does not allow for me go into them now. However, I pay particular tribute to Mr Om Gurung, chair of the Basingstoke Nepalese Community, Mrs Poonam Gurung, the former head of the Non-Resident Nepali Association UK, Gurkhas such as Captain Pancha Rai, who fought in the Falklands and is one of seven people who opened our Gurkha Grocery Shop in the centre of town, and the many who have campaigned on the issue of pensions, including Dhan Gurung.
Like so many who have spoken today, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans will be able to give us more details of the plans to work with Gurkha representatives to resolve the issues around pensions and immigration fees. I know that, like us, he wants to see a fair way forward for everybody involved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on starting us off this afternoon.
This is a very important debate. We have always considered the Gurkhas’ service to be loyal, courageous and skilful. Gurkhas are synonymous with the very best of the British armed forces. During the world wars, more than 43,000 Gurkhas lost their lives in battle, and since then they have served in just about every theatre of war, including the Falklands, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Ultimately, it is a question of value. How do we consider these individuals? Do we consider them as equal and do we properly value them, or are they simply a convenient source of personnel?
It took until 2009 for Gurkhas to secure the right to settle in the UK. Together with enshrining that in law, at that point it would have been sensible of the UK Government to adjust pension allowances for all Gurkhas—including those who retired before 1997—to account for new living costs. It was distressing to see Gurkhas, including the widow of one Gurkha soldier, having to go on hunger strike in August. One individual stated that he receives approximately £350 a month from his pension, while similar service veterans receive approximately £1,200 a month. We can argue about the legalities, the rights and wrongs and whether it has been through court, but the bottom line is that £350 a month is not enough to live on. We need to look at that. The drastic step of hunger strikes is always the last resort; it is never the first thing people try. It is a testament to the amount of work that has gone on in the Gurkha community for many years to try to get the issue sorted.
About the protests, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said that they
“greatly value the contribution that Gurkhas make and do not wish to see veterans undertaking such protests unnecessarily”,
which is good until the word “unnecessarily”. They were not unnecessary protests, and that is not the sort of rhetoric we should be hearing from the Ministry of Defence. I hope that the Minister here today can take that message back to those at the Ministry and talk to them about the use of language, because language is important. I come back to the word “value”. It matters.
The hunger strike ended after 13 days, with the Government committing to “extensive consultation” and the establishment of a bilateral committee on Gurkha welfare issues, but we have not yet seen any change. Talks are not enough. This has to be sorted: Gurkha veterans, including those who served pre-1997, must be paid an equal pension.
Of course, as others have mentioned, it is part of a wider issue. Fair status is not granted to personnel from overseas. An individual with a wife and two children would have to pay £10,000 to try to bring their partner and children here. There are also instances of individuals being refused NHS treatment. It is high time that the UK Government treated non-UK-born veterans and those born in the UK the same way. We must respect and honour their service. If the Government are serious about their commitment to veterans—all veterans, regardless of their place of birth—we must see pension equality, a waiver of immigration fees and a serious approach to veterans’ affairs. That is literally a no-brainer. I am sure that the Minister is already on the case because he is a champion of veterans, and I know that he will be working away, but let us not have the same debate in a year’s time.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dr Huq. I declare an interest in that my partner is a serving member of the armed forces, although not a Gurkha. I thank the Petitions Committee for introducing the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for a typically energetic opening contribution.
The Gurkha community is a treasured and valued part of my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire, so I am not surprised that 253 constituents signed the petition. We share a long history with the Gurkhas who, as we know, have played a critical role in aiding our British Army for the last 200 years. I was struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) about the Commonwealth history of our soldiers, which is not well understood. Perhaps we need to do more on that.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak once again about my support for the Gurkhas, having described my strong affection for them in my maiden speech. The debate is in good hands, as I know that the Minister for Defence People and Veterans very much values the Gurkha community whom he represents. I thank him for his consistent engagement with the Gurkha community nationally. The hunger strike earlier this year was extremely difficult to watch but drew national attention to this important issue. There is no doubt that all in this place are extremely sympathetic to the Gurkhas’ campaign, and I know that the Minister will later give reassurance that he is doing all that he can.
Brecon is not only home to hundreds of Gurkha families but twinned with the beautiful village of Dhampus in northern Nepal.
Does my hon. Friend agree that places with high proportions of Gurkha veterans, such as my Bridgend constituency in Wales, should be incredibly proud of that, and that removing the financial liabilities on Gurkha veterans who want to resettle in the UK—especially in Wales—is the right thing to do, provided, of course, that they meet the criteria?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree and will talk about that later in my speech. The Gurkha soldiers I have met in my constituency tell me that they love living in Wales, that they have a strong connection and that it very much reminds them of life back at home in Nepal. Those in my constituency are valued members of the community, with many volunteering with the Brecon Beacons national park and many heavily involved in hospitality. I think of Khusiman Gurung who runs the New Gurkha Inn in Talgarth—I highly recommend its curry. Many are also active soldiers who work at the Infantry Battle School in Brecon.
As we have heard, pensions rights are an extremely emotive issue, but Britain has a strong history of protecting its soldiers and veterans. I will always campaign for us to do more, and I refer again to my campaign for the Welsh Government to create a veterans commissioner in Wales so that veterans across the UK can count on consistent support from all their Governments. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) and very much support the recent proposal to waive settlement fees for non-UK service personnel. I hope that the Minister will say more about that.
I cannot support the accusation made in the debate that the Gurkha pension scheme is less satisfactory than the armed forces pension scheme. The majority of Gurkhas residing in the UK who qualified for the GPS received an immediate pension after 15 years’ service. That is different from British soldiers on the armed forces pension scheme, who mostly do not serve the 22 years necessary to qualify for an immediate pension; instead, they have a preserved pension payable at the age of 60. Gurkha veterans are quite rightly well looked after in line with their years of dedicated service to the British armed forces.
I was delighted that, in 2019, the previous Minister for the Armed Forces—now in the other place—provided a £15 million increase to the Gurkha pension scheme, increasing pensions by upwards of 34%. That was a welcome and deserved increase. The Government have met and, I believe, protected cultural norms by ensuring that in the event of the death of a Gurkha pensioner, the surviving spouse, children, parents and dependent siblings are eligible for that benefit. It is very difficult to introduce improvements to public service pensions retrospectively, so I hesitate to call for amendments to the Gurkha pension as it stands. The large majority of Gurkhas in the UK qualify for the 1997 threshold and therefore are, most critically, eligible for the armed forces pension scheme, in addition to qualifying for the full range of welfare benefits, including pension credit.
To conclude—with just a few seconds remaining to me—I believe this to be a fair and just scheme that protects our most valued Gurkha veterans, ensuring that they enjoy a well-deserved retirement, but I urge the Minister to continue his engagement with Gurkha veterans and, above all, veterans right across the UK.
Thank you, Dr Huq. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, and I am grateful to speak in this very important debate. In the time available to me, I would like to make three points: to add my support to the points made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) to pay tribute to the Gurkhas and their service to this country over nearly two centuries; to point out the high level of local support in Reading and Woodley for this community and their valued service; and to call on the Minister, to whose speech I am looking forward, to respond in detail to the issues raised.
First, I would like to spend a few moments paying tribute to the Gurkhas. They have given long and loyal service to this country, and it is worth mentioning some of the military history in a brief form. They were vital in world war one. That is less well known than their service in world war two, in which they played a crucial role in the defence of India. And they have taken part in many recent conflicts, defending this country and our interests overseas. Those include, obviously, the Falklands, Afghanistan and many others in between. We owe a debt of honour to these brave soldiers, and I hope that the Minister, who I obviously know is a gallant gentleman, will respond in an appropriate way.
I would like to point out, as colleagues have, the very high level of support in my community and to dwell on some examples of its support for the Gurkhas. I want to add that I was privileged some years ago to visit Nepal, where I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the local people and the wonderful support that they give to foreign visitors to their beautiful country.
Reading has a population of nearly 3,000 Gurkha and Nepalese people. As the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) mentioned, that is common in our part of southern England, close to Aldershot. Many are retired Gurkhas, although not all; we have some highly skilled migrants from Nepal as well. Many of them live on relatively modest incomes. We have a number of pre-1997 pensioners, living on very modest incomes in what is a high-cost area in the south-east of England. Many work in crucial local public services—as colleagues have said—such as in the NHS at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, for Reading Buses, where many serve as bus drivers, and in many other forms of public service, and indeed in local businesses. We are proud to have many small local businesses linked to the Gurkha community.
I would like to pay a very special tribute to one particular former soldier, Warrant Officer Gyanraj Rai, who has played a crucial part in this campaign, as colleagues will have mentioned; indeed, many colleagues here today will have met Gyanraj Rai because he has been on hunger strike not once but twice in the last 10 years. I first met him in 2013, when I was the Labour parliamentary candidate for the Reading East constituency, and I have to say that he is the most gallant gentleman. I pay tribute to him and all the other local people who have taken part in this campaign. Our hearts are with them and we wish them well in their endeavours. Gyanraj Rai has conducted himself with the utmost gallantry and dignity in this very difficult period. I should add that that obviously includes the recent hunger strike, when he was outside No. 10 Downing Street for a number of days, suffering greatly, as were the other hunger strikers.
I hope that the Government will now hear this plea and do what local communities, in their own way, have done to support our British Gurkhas. In Reading, we have excellent support from Reading Borough Council: it has given veterans priority in the council house waiting list. We have had other support from charities and from the community. There has been a wide range of forms of help, such as helping elderly veterans and particularly their families to learn English; there have been a number of other forms of support. There is huge support and appetite for continuing that and helping people to integrate into society in this country. I hope the Minister will reflect on that when he speaks later.
In conclusion, I want to ask the Minister to address these difficult issues. I appreciate the matter is hugely difficult and technical, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned, but it is high time the Government investigate further and begin a dialogue with the Nepalese Government, and continue and deepen their dialogue with the veterans. I look forward to the Minister’s speech.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Dr Huq. I was keen to participate. I thank the Backbench Committee for allowing the petition to be debated and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for introducing it in such a well-rehearsed fashion.
No Member of this House, as others have said, is under any illusion as to the debt owed to the Gurkhas. The pension is an issue that I have raised in the House since 2011, as have others on many occasions. To put it simply, the historic treatment that the Gurkhas have received during the 200 years for which they have proudly served this nation has been disgraceful and must come to an end.
Gurkhas have served in the British Army around the world since 1947, and even before then 43,000 Gurkhas gave their lives fighting in the first and second world wars. Their bravery is the stuff of legend. Every one of us will have had some contact with the Gurkhas over the years. When I did the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I had the opportunity to meet some of the guys. We were introduced to them. I will never forget it; I was greatly humbled to be in their presence. I say that honestly, because I was. The Gurkhas might be men of small stature, but they have tremendous courage and bravery that surpasses and equals that of many others across this great nation.
Many years ago I also had the opportunity to see the Gurkhas at Mount Stewart in my constituency of Strangford, where they were the special attraction for the beating of the retreat. It was idyllic and will remain in my memory for all my life. My wife and I were both invited. It was a few years ago, on it was a lovely sunny summer’s evening. At the Mount Stewart house, which is run by the National Trust, the beating of the retreat was done by the Gurkhas and it was unforgettable. To the day I die I will always remember it.
It has been more than three years since the joint technical report on the British Gurkha case was exchanged between two Governments on 22 March 2018 at Whitehall in London, which was the basis for a dialogue to address the main concerns of the British Gurkhas—the very thing that every person in the Chamber has said today. To date the silence has been deafening and it is time we stepped up and stepped in, just as the Gurkhas have done for us. In his intervention, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) referred to the bravery of the Gurkhas and how they deserved equal treatment simply because they fought in the same theatres of war alongside those who have got the full pension, which the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) referred to, that the Gurkhas do not have.
People have made clear their opinion in signing the petition—as clear as a bell and as clear as it can be. There can be no doubt whatsoever that they do not believe we are doing the right thing, so the issue for us and the Minister, for whom I have the utmost respect, is that we are not doing the right thing, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said. I am sure that those who have already spoken and the shadow spokespersons who will speak afterwards do not believe that we are doing the right thing.
At what stage will we decide to do the right thing by those brave men and their families? It is not just about the soldiers; it is about their families as well. They deserve the pension. They have honoured us. They have delivered and they deserve to have it. How many petitions will it take? How many protests? How many demonstrations? How many hunger strikes? There have already been too many.
The Minister must help us with a response that outlines the steps that will be taken to ensure that parity is restored with the other arms of our armed forces. I read in an article in The Daily Express that one of the Gurkhas who took part in the hunger strike said that he received just £47 a month after he retired, while his British counterparts got £600—a sixteenfold difference.
Normally, it is the hon. Member who intervenes on me, so it is a great honour to intervene on him. He makes an important point about the huge difference in payments received. Does he agree that one of the reasons behind that inequality was the assumption that many would go back to Nepal who did not do so, and that we need to understand and address the reality of their lives, not the assumption that was made many decades ago?
The hon. Lady is right: it is not about the assumption. The debate is about the reality for the Gurkha soldiers and where they are. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West referred to the fact that today such a soldier receives £350 a month compared with £1,200 for former British soldiers—an £850 difference. Is that parity? Is that equality? Is that right? No, it is not, and therefore it is clear to me that we have to try to do something.
When the Gurkhas fight, no one can accuse them of being second-class warriors. Their courage is equal, if not better, on some occasions. They are in a class of their own, yet they demand only parity, equity and fairness. They fought alongside other regiments, more often than not at the forefront in battle, and deserve the same benefits, pensions and welfare as their colleagues have received. How many right-thinking persons could argue that this is not a debt that is owed, and that we have a role to play in ensuring the payment of that debt? I certainly cannot, and therefore I am proud to stand, along with others, with the Gurkhas, as they have stood for freedom and democracy under the banner of our monarchy, and of our Queen, and before that our King.
I understand, of course, that talks are set to begin between the UK and Nepal in the form of a bilateral committee to discuss all Gurkha veteran welfare issues. However, I put on the record that there is a concern, which appears valid to me, that that talking shop will deliver the same results as previous attempts: nothing of consequence. I ask the veterans Minister whether he can tell us, and state for the record in Hansard, what he expects the bilateral talks to deliver for the Gurkhas. That is what we want: delivery for the Gurkhas.
The hon. Member talks eloquently about Gurkha welfare. One issue that Gurkhas living in my constituency of Woking have brought to me is that when they are settled here, particularly when they have become British citizens, travel abroad to family who are still in Nepal can be difficult, bureaucratic and sometimes expensive. Would he welcome the Minister spending a couple of moments to explain what we are doing in dialogue with Nepal to try to resolve some of those issues?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that valid point. I would certainly look to the Minister to respond to that. I am sure that he is already getting the answer that we wish to hear from his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland). If other soldiers can get the rights of travel, I suggest that we should do the same for the Gurkhas.
Gurkhas and their families still live in poverty, despite believing that fighting for our Government, our country and our Queen would mean security for their families. What we deliver for the Gurkha soldiers, we must also deliver for the families. They deserve nothing less. The message from this place, as we have all said, must be that we will settle for nothing less on their behalf. We want for the Gurkhas what other soldiers have—nothing less, nothing more.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I am conscious that the Minister in the House appears to have been talking for over half an hour, so I fully expect the Division bell to ring some way through my speech. Perhaps Members will be glad of a break from me.
I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for opening this important debate and setting the scene so eloquently, and I pay tribute to the 87 signatories in Glasgow East who signed the petition. In responding to the debate on behalf of the Scottish National party, I acknowledge the 12 speeches from Back Benchers, all of whom made a passionate case, which I am sure the Minister will reflect on. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), who made an excellent speech and is a frequent campaigner on this topic. She said that it was important to pay tribute to the 33,000 Gurkhas who lost their lives over the course of the world wars. For far too long, the contributions of service personnel from across the Commonwealth have been undervalued and overlooked.
Many Members have been engaged in the all-party parliamentary group on frozen British pensions for some time now. It remains a massive stain on global Britain’s brand that so many pensioners, particularly those who served this country, languish in pension poverty oversees. For 50 years, Gurkhas have served the British Army, fighting in two world wars and conflicts across the globe. We should commemorate the contribution of all Commonwealth service personnel, including the Gurkhas who have served in the armed forces.
I firmly believe that we all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the people who have chosen to serve and sacrifice so much. However, instead of recognising the importance of service personnel from across the Commonwealth, the British Government are set on undermining and dismissing the sacrifice that many have made. This Government have continually been unable—perhaps even unwilling—to recognise the complications that stemmed from the deeply unfair terms of employment for Gurkhas, which last changed in 1997. As such, there has been a long history of the UK military refusing to pay Gurkhas the same wages and pensions as UK personnel, despite the fact that Gurkhas and UK personnel served alongside one another, made the same sacrifices and certainly took the same risks.
Despite their service, the Gurkhas were shamefully treated as “other” by the British Government and the Ministry of Defence. Instead of being given UK service personnel pensions, the Gurkhas were given conditions that roughly matched those of the Indian army. That pension is significantly lower than the UK pension, which I would argue is not particularly generous. As such, it gave many Gurkhas a lower standard of living and led to their falling into extreme poverty. It also meant that the Gurkhas were intentionally not integrated into the main British Army, thus putting them at a disadvantage in comparison to UK-born peers.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I am sorry to rudely interrupt the hon. Gentleman again. I apologise to you as well, Dr Huq. This is a fleeting visit; I am trying to be here and in the main Chamber at the same time, but I have not quite mastered that yet.
Before I left, the hon. Gentleman raised the key issue for me and my constituents: the poverty Gurkhas have been thrust into as a result of, to be frank, an act of gross discrimination over years. Does he agree that, because of the length of service and the commitment Gurkhas have shown, including through the human sacrifices made, we should never allow this group of people to live in the level of poverty that he described earlier, and that we need redress as rapidly as possible?
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman was able make it to the debate and put that on the record for his constituents, who are lucky to have him; I know his constituency has a big Gurkha community. I absolutely agree with him on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West highlighted that many Gurkhas who come to this country are separated from their families, only to be hit with exorbitant visa fees. I highlight and pay tribute to the immense bravery of the three hunger-striking Gurkha veterans who refused food for 13 days until the British Government agreed to further talks. One striker, Mr Dhan Gurung, explained that in 1994 his pension was £20 a month, and that he and his family lived in poverty because of the British Government’s “penny pinching”. That, I am afraid, is the crux of the issue.
Far too many Gurkhas now find themselves and their families in poverty due to their not being eligible for the UK armed forces pension. I am glad to hear that the UK Government have since met Gurkha advocacy groups, representatives from the Nepali embassy and, indeed, the ambassador. Further to those discussions, the announcement of the bilateral committee to discuss all Gurkha veteran welfare issues is certainly a positive step forward. However, the measure of progress on that will not be words, but action. I concur with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that it cannot be a talking shop. I am sure the Minister will reflect on that.
The Ministry of Defence said in a statement that it is
“committed to ensuring that the Gurkha pension scheme is sustainable and fair alongside other UK public sector pensions.”
I pose a question to the House. It is one thing to compare pensions alongside each other, but we are not comparing the fact that Gurkhas served in the exact same way alongside British forces. If we can compare and recognise equality in theatre, surely the same should be true of pensions. I urge the Government to uphold that commitment to the Gurkhas and ensure that they are treated equally.
The Gurkhas have the support of many comrades that they served alongside and several veterans’ groups in the UK. Service personnel born in the UK recognise the sacrifice and contribution of those in the Commonwealth, and it is time that the British Government do the same. The Government should resolve this issue and ensure parity by simply matching the terms of Gurkha veterans, personnel and recruits with those serving in the armed forces from the UK. The Government’s lack of full recognition of Gurkhas in service of the UK, as well as those from the wider Commonwealth, is a fundamental failure to right a transparent and, I would argue, historic wrong. Moreover, it is an enormous stain on the so-called and much-vaunted global Britain strategy that the Government trumpet.
Even if the terms are changed retrospectively, the Government have a moral duty to treat those who risked their lives in the UK armed forces with the same respect as those serving who come from these islands. Myself and my SNP colleagues will certainly continue to work cross party to ensure that there is proper recognition of people from the Commonwealth and beyond who have served in the armed forces. To be quite blunt, it is time that the British Government give the Gurkhas that recognition and respect. Anything less would be shameful.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dr Huq.
I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for his comprehensive and compassionate introduction to this subject. At its heart, the issue is about how we treat those who have served our country. It is a long-running, complex and fraught issue, with understandably strong feelings among the armed forces communities and the British public at large. In the debate today, I hope that we make some progress—I look forward to the Minister’s summing up—for the sake of those who face the day-to-day reality of the challenges to this community.
We heard from a great range of speakers from all parts of the House, making powerful speeches and useful contributions, all of which recognised the distinction with which Gurkhas serve our country and armed forces and the fact that many continue to contribute significantly after leaving Her Majesty’s armed forces. We heard from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North about the details of the bilateral talks and how important those will be next month. On the important Commonwealth visa issues, it is worth pointing out that the Government proposals, which are out for consultation, will benefit only one in 10 veterans. He stressed the importance of waiving fees and said that he looks forward to the proposals.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) about the impact of universal credit on those already on low incomes. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who is not in her place, spoke passionately about the contribution of the Nepalese community in Basingstoke—an area I know well, being a former chief executive of Basingstoke Voluntary Action. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) made a number of points about the injustice that is faced by the community and about the day-to-day impact of that on their lives.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) is an active campaigner on this issue. I was privileged to meet him and a number of Gurkhas from his constituency this weekend. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who always contributes to these important debates, put it powerfully when he said that it is time to step up and step in to help Gurkhas, and he spoke of the debt we owe them. I thank hon. Members for making those points.
To set the debate in its proper context, I will remind the Chamber of the contribution that Gurkhas have made to the British armed forces. Gurkhas have served in Her Majesty’s armed forces for more than 200 years, from the earliest recruits to the East India Company through two world wars, during which more than 238,000 enlisted in the brigade, to the Falklands, the Gulf wars and multiple tours of Afghanistan. They have made an outstanding contribution to the UK through centuries of service and sacrifice. They are rightly held in high esteem by the British Army itself and by the wider British public.
Recently, I had the great privilege to spend time with a Gurkha regiment, as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, on a visit to Folkestone. I saw their unique skills and professionalism at first hand. We owe each and every one of them a debt of gratitude and of admiration, as we do all members of our armed forces. The Gurkhas’ contribution to our national security is no greater or lesser than that of anyone else who has served our country. That basic point—the issue of fairness—is what much of the debate hinges on.
The campaign for Gurkha pension equality has been a long-standing one. In 2007, it was the Labour Government who last sought to grasp the nettle of this difficult issue. The Gurkha offer to transfer was a landmark settlement at the time, and a bid for lasting equality for those who bravely served our country. Yet since then, it is easy to see that the situation has changed. The legacy of the Gurkha pension scheme, the GPS, was designed to provide a good standard of living for those who retired to Nepal, but many retired Gurkhas still live in the UK following their service, in particular since the 2009 changes to the immigration rules. Inevitably, that posed cost-of-living challenges and presented an issue of fundamental inequality.
The fact is, a pre-1997 veteran will receive up to £5,000 per year less through the Gurkha pension scheme than someone will through the armed forces pension service, to which those serving after 1997 transferred. However, it is important to point out that a direct comparison between annual payments does not take account of differences in structure and pay, or of the fact that the GPS begins to pay pensions earlier.
Nevertheless, I remain deeply concerned about ongoing reports of Gurkha veterans living in the UK on low incomes and in receipt of universal credit, as we have heard powerfully this evening. That will surely only have been exacerbated by the Government’s recent tax rises and the soaring cost of fuel this winter, with the resulting inflation. It can only be right that measures be considered to ensure that all Gurkha veterans have the opportunity to live securely in retirement, with the support and gratitude of the British Government if necessary.
As I heard in Reading at the weekend when meeting the veteran community, it is worth saying briefly that pension inequality is sadly not the only issue compounding the cost of living crisis for Gurkhas, and indeed all non-UK personnel. Labour has made efforts to end the shameful scandal of the eye-watering visa fees faced by non-UK personnel, including many Gurkhas. Sadly, the Government voted against our amendment to the Armed Forces Bill that would have waived extortionate costs for those who have served more than four years. Ministers cynically cite their own plans as proof of progress on this disgraceful injustice, but those plans would help just one in 10 of the non-UK veterans who left the armed forces last year. The truth is that Ministers are content to make those personnel pay twice to stay in the country that they have fought for. This is yet another instance of the Government’s promises to our veterans being broken.
When veterans come up against these issues, their local councillors and the voluntary sector often end up as the first line of defence. It would be remiss of me to not mention the work of councillors across the country who have provided pastoral support and a political voice to those affected by this issue. I pay particular tribute to Rushmoor Labour councillors Alex Crawford and Nadia Martin for their work on this issue, and for their engagement with service communities more broadly. I also take this opportunity to mention the UK-Nepal Friendship Society and the Gurkha Equal Rights group, which continue to highlight these issues and have kindly helped my engagement with them over the summer. The strength of feeling on this important issue is summarised neatly by the more than 100,000 people who have signed this petition. Fittingly, the constituency with the largest number of signatories is that of the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty). I know that he has engaged with this issue, and I hope this petition serves to once again highlight its significance to his constituents and the wider British public.
As I mentioned earlier, this issue was given renewed urgency by events this summer. On 7 August, a group of three pre-1997 Gurkha veterans were forced to hunger strike outside Downing Street following the Government’s failure to engage with their concerns. No one, particularly not veterans of the British Army, should have to resort to a hunger strike in order to be heard. I went to visit them outside Downing Street to hear campaigners’ views directly, and what struck me most was their desire to be listened to: they just wanted to be heard by the country they had fought for. I visited on day four of their 13-day hunger strike, and had lobbied the Defence Secretary about this issue the previous day. At that time, Ministers were refusing to engage and hoping the issue would go away, but the dignified determination of the Gurkhas would not be denied, and 13 days later the Government committed to further talks.
I remain astonished by the stubbornness of Ministers on this issue, which is first and foremost one of health and safety. Although I do not condone the form of protest, and I am very pleased that the health of those protesting was not seriously affected, I cannot believe that a Government who claim to be so passionately supportive of the armed forces let this happen. It took years of talks and 13 days of hunger striking before a comprehensive response was received. It is the same arrogance we have seen too often from this Government in recent weeks, and those who serve our country deserve so much better.
That brings us to the present day, and my asks of the Minister. The Government have two important opportunities to make progress on this issue. First, I am pleased that the Governments of the UK and of Nepal will soon convene a bilateral committee to discuss Gurkha welfare issues. I would be grateful if the Minister would set out the Government’s approach to those talks, including what he hopes to achieve on pensions. Secondly, as I speak, the Government are yet to respond to their own consultation on whether the Gurkha pension scheme should receive a further uplift. That consultation closed eight months ago, and I would like to think that the Minister is in a position today to finally give us a sense of the direction of travel. Will he commit to publishing the Government’s response before the start of the bilateral talks?
Labour Members understand that this is a complex issue without an easy answer. We understand and appreciate the significant costs involved in any remedy, but we cannot continue to ignore the fundamental lack of equity in this situation, or sweep it under a rug because it is not convenient. Labour has offered to help reach a cross-party agreement on a way forward, and I reiterate that offer today to the Minister. I hope that he will provide long-overdue leadership and accountability on this issue. That is exactly what the service of Gurkhas to our country demands.
I am grateful for the shadow Minister’s remarks. I want to begin by putting on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for leading this debate. I would like to reiterate the thanks that he expressed to Roy Brinkley, whom I have met more than once. I thank him for his service in the Grenadier Guards and for his continued interest in this issue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North for making reference to his own family’s record of service and the work of the veterans breakfast club at the Green Star pub in Smallthorne, which is run by Martyn Hunt and Paul Horton. I am grateful that he is interested in that sort of activity in his constituency, and I commend his efforts to look after our veterans.
I would like to kick off with the theme of parity. It is clear that the Government value highly the service of all members of the armed forces, particularly Gurkhas, with their magnificent long and distinguished record of service. For the purpose of this debate, we need to be clear that since 2007 Gurkhas have served on the same basis as the remainder of the British Army. Under consideration today are those who enlisted and served prior to 1997.
Figures show that there are 20,681 Gurkha veterans receiving the 1948 Gurkha pension scheme. That number comprises 13,289 former service personnel and 7,382 widows. That is important because widows normally receive over 60% of the pension of their former partner. That figure of some 20,000 pensions describes the scale of the issue. It also shows the magnificent scale of the record of service of the Gurkhas. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North referred to their 200 magnificent years of service. Some 13 Victoria Crosses were won by native Gurkhas.
I am very proud of the deep local connection that I have with the Brigade of Gurkhas in my borough of Aldershot. We are very pleased to be the home of the Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment. Many thousands of Gurkhas have settled and now make their home in Aldershot, Farnborough and the borough of Rushmoor, following 2009 changes in status of settlement. This represents a hugely successful integration and settlement.
I want to put on record my thanks to three Nepalese Gurkha councillors in the borough of Rushmoor—Jib Belbase, Nem Thapa and Prabesh KC—who, under the sponsorship and encouragement of the leader of Rushmoor Borough Council, the brilliant Councillor David Clifford, show amazing levels of tenacity, civic pride and energy. This was beautifully illustrated by the recent unveiling of the bronze of the Gurkha Victoria Cross winner, Kulbir Thapa Magar. I was honoured to attend that event in Rushmoor very recently. We are fiercely proud of our Gurkha community in the borough of Rushmoor.
The heart of the matter is parity. Given the complexity and the fact that members of the 1948 Gurkha pension scheme qualify for and receive their pension earlier, it is instructive to reflect on the lifetime benefit of the 1948 Gurkha pension scheme compared to the armed forces pension scheme 1975, which the majority of British service personnel and veterans receive. If we compare a private soldier with 15 years’ service retiring in 1998 on the 1948 Gurkha pension scheme to a British private retiring after 15 years’ service, the lifetime value of the member of the Gurkha pension scheme’s pension will be £179,000, whereas the British service person’s would be £114,000. That reflects the fact that the Gurkha recipient will be receiving the pension at an earlier stage. That work has been done by the Government Actuary’s Department.
If we consider the value to a corporal—let us take a corporal retiring in 1995 after 15 years of service—the lifetime value for the Gurkha corporal will be £158,000, compared with £150,000 for a British corporal retiring after 15 years’ service on the armed forces pension scheme 1975. That is £158,000 for the Gurkha and £150,000 for the non-Gurkha, which describes the complexity therein and reflects the fact that Gurkhas have traditionally been in receipt of these pensions earlier.
I should also point out that, of course, the vast majority of these pensions are drawn in Nepal—out of 20,000, only 150 are not drawn in Nepal—and do not incur tax, which reflects the fact that the 1948 pension scheme was designed to support the vast majority of Gurkhas who were retiring in Nepal at that point.
I have already mentioned that widows generally receive 60% of the value of their partner’s service pension, which costs Her Majesty’s Government £90 million per annum. We are very proud of that, because it is right that we should be investing in our Nepalese veterans. Of course, we do not apply retrospection to pensions, but we have had uplifts. Since 1999, the Central Pay Commission, which meets every 10 years, has provided more than a 1,000% uplift in the value of Gurkha pensions to those receiving them, which counters the effect of the cost of living in Nepal. That is something we should note. The recent Central Pay Commission recommended an uplift of between 10% and 34%, and an investment of £25 million in healthcare. We have clearly had the conclusion of the consultation, and I look forward to the Government’s final decision being announced in due course.
I regret that I do not have time to give way, as I have two minutes.
Of course we listen, and my door is always open to Gurkha veterans. I was very pleased to meet the Nepalese ambassador and the Defence Secretary in September to agree to a welfare dialogue to ensure that all welfare issues relevant to Gurkhas are discussed bilaterally, and I look forward to that commencing in due course. The Defence Secretary was very pleased to see the Nepalese Prime Minister in Glasgow during COP26, and I look forward to being at the heart of that future dialogue.
Several hon. Members mentioned paying to have indefinite leave to remain, which is subject to the consultation. I look forward to the Government announcing the outcome of that review in due course, but I am confident we will make provision that honours the magnificent record of loyal service and sacrifice exemplified by our magnificent Gurkhas.
I thank all those who took part in this debate. Dr Huq, I do not know whether it is customary, but am I allowed to take an intervention while summing up? I noticed that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland) was keen to intervene.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for allowing me to intervene. I have the honour of representing the Gurkha community in Swindon, and I have wrestled with these issues for many years. Does he, like me, take some encouragement from the Minister’s hard work, particularly on the uplift and the negotiations he has been conducting with the intercession of the Nepalese embassy since September?
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that the Minister has been exemplary in his tireless work. I thank the Minister for all the kindness he showed me in preparation for today’s debate, and I thank my right hon. and learned Friend, who was very kind to offer his words of encouragement and knowledge on this issue. This has been a fantastic debate, and it is clear that we all respect the Gurkhas and want to see them well looked after. I look forward to hearing the outcome of the consultation and the Government’s announcement in, hopefully, a few weeks’ time.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 594155, relating to Gurkha pensions.