My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
I am most appreciative of the opportunity to introduce this Bill today. In essence, the purpose of the Bill is to amend the Immigration Rules in connection with the requirements for indefinite leave to enter and remain in the United Kingdom as a Gurkha discharged from the British Army.
In 2004, the Government changed the Immigration Rules to allow Gurkhas with at least four years of service to remain in the UK after their discharge from the British Army. Prior to that change in the rules, Gurkhas could not be granted indefinite leave to remain after their discharge. However, the new rules apply only to Gurkhas discharged from the British Army on or after 1 July 1997. The Bill would enable Gurkhas who left service prior to 1997 to be granted indefinite leave to enter and remain in the United Kingdom.
For almost 200 years, Nepalese Gurkha soldiers have been part of the British Army, although the Gurkha brigade itself was formed only following the partition of India in 1947. More than 200,000 Gurkhas fought in the Allied cause in two world wars and 43,000 gave their lives. They have been deployed over the years in Malaysia, Borneo, the Falklands, the first Gulf War, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Bosnia and currently in Afghanistan. With their motto, “Better to die than be a coward”, they have won 26 Victoria Crosses. Currently, there are 3,400 Gurkhas in the United Kingdom forces, 700 of whom are at present in Brunei. Given that record of service to our country, their bravery, dedication and unswerving loyalty, they ask only two things: a decent, fair pension and a right of settlement in the United Kingdom, which is the purpose of the Bill. Surely those are not unreasonable requests.
The Bill marks yet another attempt to get the Government to do the right thing. Over the years in both Houses, politicians of all political persuasions have pressed the Gurkhas’ cause, with Questions and Early Day Motions. A number of parliamentarians have served with them. In your Lordships’ House today, we hope to hear from the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, who served with the Gurkhas and who has a fine family history of service with the Gurkhas, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, who also served with the Gurkhas, and my noble friend Lord Burnett. I believe that the father of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, served with the Gurkhas; no doubt many Gurkhas are customers of his at present, as am I. I hope that those noble Lords will all speak proudly in today’s debate. We remember with affection our former colleague Richard Holme, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, who served as a lieutenant in the 10th Gurkha Rifles in Malaya in the 1950s. He would surely have participated today had he lived.
My fellow Liberal Democrat, Bob Russell, introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill in the other place as recently as May, which was designed to draw attention to the cause that I am pursuing today. He concluded as follows:
“A few weeks ago, outside Parliament, I and some other Members witnessed 50 retired Gurkhas handing in their long service and good conduct medals in protest at the way in which they are being treated. There was extensive coverage of the event in newspapers and on television. The sight of such loyal, brave and dignified people being pushed to such a desperate act filled me with shame”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/5/08; col. 720.]
Philip Johnston, writing in the Daily Telegraph, said:
“There are times when the routine irritation we all feel with the idiocies that take place daily in government is supplanted by splenetic anger caused by something truly outlandish. The sight of Gurkha ex-servicemen gathered in front of the Palace of Westminster to return the medals they had received for fighting with the British Army was just such a moment”.
I turn now to the right of settlement. Prior to 1997, the Gurkhas had no right of settlement; each application was treated on its merits on a case-by-case basis. Following the handover of Hong Kong to China on 1 July 1997, the Gurkhas then based in Hong Kong were redeployed to the United Kingdom, apart from those who were deployed and based in Brunei. In 2004, it was announced that those Gurkhas leaving the Armed Forces after 1997 would have a right of settlement in the United Kingdom. However, there was a window between October 2004 and October 2006 when any Gurkha could apply for settlement. During that window, 3,000 were granted settlement. The Government’s logic in the 1997 demarcation, as I understand it—no doubt we will hear from the Minister a little bit later—is apparently that, post-1997, Gurkhas had a real tie to Britain, whereas before 1997 they did not, despite all their service to this country over so many years.
The current position for them is no right of settlement but applications on a case-by-case basis, with applicants having to fulfil one of four criteria: three years’ physical service in the United Kingdom; strong medical grounds of a chronic or long-term health condition that cannot be treated in Nepal; satisfactory evidence that one or more of the applicant’s children is currently receiving full-time education in the United Kingdom; or most of the applicant’s living, close family resident in the United Kingdom.
It is estimated by the British Gurkha welfare association—I spoke to its chairman at 9 am to check my figures and assumptions—that 25,000 Gurkhas might have retired before 1997 who would be eligible for settlement in the United Kingdom were the Bill to be approved, of whom perhaps 10,000 would wish to come. Given the overall number who settle in our country each year from all over the globe, that would hardly appear a significant figure. They could easily be absorbed and many would bring skills to this country that we clearly have considerable need of. Today the Government have yet another opportunity to right a wrong—to do the right thing. I pray for a positive response.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Lee of Trafford.)
My Lords, I speak in a personal capacity in support of the Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, on bringing it to the House. As he said, I have had some experience of working and serving with those wonderful people. I picked up the Bill only a few days ago but was amazed at some of the figures that I found and that he just told us about.
The situation is an insult to the Gurkhas who are unable to come to this country voluntarily and straightforwardly—those who retired before 1997. I see no logic in it whatever. In fact, there is no logic in it. It is just a straight insult to a group of probably the most loyal, worthy and brave people who have ever served this nation. They have many VCs and, as the noble Lord said, have served for over 200 years all over the world; indeed, now they are serving in Afghanistan. They have not given us up, so why are we giving them up in this rather unpleasant and unnecessary way?
When we look at the numbers concerned, the situation is extraordinary. As a percentage of total immigration figures or anything you like—choose any number from the national budget—what is the cost of accommodating 10,000 Gurkha families? Because they retired before 1997, it has to be a diminishing figure. That is the way life is; we get old and die and cost nothing when we are dead, pretty well. I simply do not follow the logic of the Government sticking with their position. I strongly support the amendments that the Bill will achieve to the 2004 provisions.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, for bringing the matter to your Lordships’ attention. As he said, I had the privilege and honour of serving with Gurkhas, as did my father. As a small boy I was brought up as a Gurkha, really, until I was commissioned into the family regiment.
We have to make certain that the Gurkhas in the British Army are kept within the military covenant. I said in a defence debate in your Lordships’ House some time ago that I felt that the covenant had been broken. The Minister—the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor—refuted that, but I have felt for some time, although it might be getting a little better now, that all parliamentarians had rather ignored the military covenant and that it had been broken. I have yet to be satisfied that I was wrong. The Gurkhas’ welfare within the covenant has to be looked after; Gurkhas have to be treated like any other soldiers in the British Army. Other nuances have to be noted in the context of Gurkhas within the British Army. Their pensions still have to be looked at once more and resolved.
As the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, said, the Government’s view is that Gurkhas in the old days never looked at living in Great Britain. They simply were not allowed to—it was not even countenanced—so that is a remarkably weak argument on the arbitrary date.
Governments can change rulings and law. The right honourable Mr Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister, bucked and changed the law on proper remuneration for those who had been Far East prisoners of war—some 10,000, rather like the number that we are talking about today. I cannot believe that the cost of that would be much different from the cost anticipated now. I always view with slight concern figures put out by the Government about costs these days. A pinch of salt is sometimes required to approach them; they seem maximised unnecessarily.
People underestimate the value of the Gurkha as a citizen—he has much to offer. To start with, he is a man of integrity, compared with the immigrants whom we have allowed in from all sorts of places off the streets—the terrorists, the criminals and the mafia groups that have emerged in our country. We seem to like to have them, but we would be much happier if we had some loyal Gurkhas among us. Their skills are many. They are good farmers in harsh conditions. They are good at transportation. They are engineers. They are also entrepreneurs; some good little Gurkha businesses have been set up in this country, which are doing no harm at all—as opposed to some of the other people who have been let into our country.
We should have a good look at the issue. I hope that we will no longer hear from the Minister’s department that we cannot accept the Gurkha because he is not sufficiently British-inclined or knowledgeable about Britain. I consider that a complete insult. If a Gurkha is prepared to die for the people of this nation, he must know quite a lot about them. That argument is a bad move on the part of the immigration department. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, and others might consider the odd amendment in Committee, because this case may have the backing of the whole of your Lordships’ House and I believe that it would support such amendments.
I hope that the Minister will not think that everything that I have said is bad news for him. Great strides have been made by the Government in the overall move to bring the Gurkha regiments of our Army into and within the military covenant. There have been great advances for Gurkhas, but this has not yet ended. I hope that the Minister might even go back and think again, so that perhaps he will have a different story when we reach Committee.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, for introducing the Bill. The House needs to treat this Bill with an appropriate level of respect, for it raises an important subject which warrants very careful consideration. There is strong public sympathy for the first-class service offered by Gurkha soldiers to the causes for which we have fought in military conflicts for nearly 200 years. I have always admired the Gurkhas; I have read about them and met them.
The Gurkhas have discharged highly praiseworthy service in the British Army since 1815 and are the only aliens to have been allowed to serve in our Army. As Nepal has never been a part of the Commonwealth, the Gurkhas’ status has been unique. One measure of their contribution to our military cause is the number of Victoria Crosses they have won in that period. Gurkhas represent one of only three categories of non-United Kingdom nationals who have performed regular service in the British Army alongside citizens of the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland. Their service to our Armed Forces commenced after the conclusion of the Anglo-Nepali war when, under the terms of the peace settlement, large numbers of Gurkhas were permitted to volunteer for service in the British East India Company’s army. The first Gurkha regiments were created from these volunteers.
At the outbreak of the First World War, the whole of the Nepalese army was made available to the British Crown and around 1,000 Gurkhas enlisted in a number of locations. Some 40 battalions of Gurkhas served during the Second World War, amounting to around 112,000 men. Over the course of this 200-year history, around 300,000 Gurkhas have fought alongside British troops in military conflicts and earned the widest possible respect and honour from the British people. Nearly 45,000 have given their lives or been wounded in the discharge of these efforts. All of that gives a boost to their claim for settlement or citizenship in this country.
Before 1947, Gurkha soldiers were enlisted only into the British Indian Army. In that year, a tripartite agreement between the United Kingdom, India and Nepal established the raw principles under which Gurkhas would serve. Under that agreement Gurkhas were recruited as Nepalese citizens, served as Nepalese citizens, and, at the completion of their duties, resettled as Nepalese citizens. The spirit of their service is demonstrated in their motto: “Better to die than live a coward”. I have no hesitation in saluting their tremendous dedication and commitment to providing some of the best soldiers to have existed on the planet. There remains stiff competition for admission to the Brigade of Gurkhas, with around 23,000 applications for the 230 places available each year.
Before the transfer of the headquarters of the Brigade of Gurkhas from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom on 1 July 1997, very few Gurkhas were present in this country. Before that, Gurkhas had no right to settle in the United Kingdom and it was assumed that they would retire in Nepal with a Gurkha pension. From 25 October 2004, the Immigration Rules were changed, and the Gurkhas who retired on or after 1 July 1997 were granted the right to apply to settle in the United Kingdom. That change meant that those who served post-1997 would be able upon discharge to settle in the United Kingdom provided they had completed four years of service. They would also be able to obtain citizenship after a further year. Those who do not meet those conditions can settle at the discretion of the Secretary of State for Home Affairs.
There are around 22,000 pre-1997 Gurkha veterans, and a further 6,277 are serving or have served since 1997. There are currently 3,870 Gurkhas serving in the United Kingdom Armed Forces. I understand that only around 100 pre-1997 Gurkhas are estimated to be resident in the United Kingdom. As of March this year, there were only 61 applications for naturalisation outstanding from people who cited Nepal as their place of birth. The Government appear unable to provide further clarity about the precise number of Gurkhas among those applications without analysing each individual file.
In 1997, the pay and pension arrangements for Gurkhas were improved and brought into line with those for the remainder of the British Army. There is understandable pressure to bring Gurkha pensions into parity with the remainder of the Army. We need to be cautious about how to address these claims. First, there is a strong convention that retrospective pension changes are not made within the public sector. Secondly, the pension arrangements for Gurkhas mirror those for the Indian Army, in accordance with the terms of the tripartite agreement, when it was presumed that Gurkhas would retire in Nepal under terms that were clear and explicit when these Gurkhas signed up for military service. The issue of retrospective parity for Gurkha pensions relating to service before 1997 has been considered and a judgment against the principle of retrospection has been delivered. A High Court ruling was made this week when a test case filed against the Government by three Gurkhas was lost.
The terms of the Bill are limited to the Immigration Rules, although the issue of pay, conditions and pension rights are fundamental to the considerations. The noble Lord who introduced the Bill should provide greater clarity about how these issues are to be addressed; otherwise what will be the practical consequence for Gurkhas who are serving or have served under pay rates and pension rights that have been determined according to a Nepalese economic evaluation? Gurkhas were eligible for an index-linked pension after 15 years of service, so that it was possible for a Gurkha to receive a pension from the age of 33 and retain the ability to work. The standard qualification for a British soldier is 22 years—seven years more.
The Government’s changes to the pay and conditions for Gurkhas in March 2007 afforded Gurkhas the opportunity to transfer to other parts of the British Armed Forces and to transfer their pension arrangements from the existing Gurkha pension scheme to the principal Armed Forces pension scheme. That was a positive step.
In the past few years we have witnessed a major change in the status and situation of Gurkhas. Transformed from a light infantry force based in Hong Kong, they are now based in this country and have been increasingly integrated into the military commitments of the wider British Army. We owe them a great debt of gratitude. They have a legitimate claim that the rules governing their immigration status in this country have not been appropriate.
I am persuaded that there should be a review to determine whether the 1997 cut-off for citizenship established by the current Government is appropriate. However, there is some danger in identifying political groups and affording them treatment that is, by definition, denied to others. I hope the Government will be prepared to examine how we as a society might be more generous to all servicemen who are not United Kingdom citizens. Although I would like to see a proper review, my instinctive view is that Gurkhas should be able to apply for settlement in this country irrespective of the current cut-off date. I believe that they should be able to make these applications while serving and should not have to wait until discharge from the Brigade of Gurkhas. Equally, all those who are rewarded and decorated for gallantry in the course of military service should be treated on the basis of a presumption that settlement will be granted irrespective of length of service.
This is a crucial issue that deserves to be considered in an atmosphere that is devoid of party political opportunism. In that regard, I believe that this House should reflect suitably on the issue, including the wider concerns about pension rights for Gurkhas and how the Immigration Rules apply to other non-UK nationals serving in the Armed Forces. These brave soldiers deserve nothing less.
My Lords, on the Friday before Remembrance Sunday every year, there is a ceremony at the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill. The ceremony is to remember, honour and show our gratitude to the 5 million individuals from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Africa and the Caribbean who served in both world wars. These gates exist thanks to the perseverance and tenacity of my noble friend Lady Flather, assisted by so many of my noble friends here, including my noble friend Lord Slim and the noble and gallant Lord—and field marshal—Lord Inge.
I am proud to be the chairman of the commemoration committee of the Memorial Gates. Last year's ceremony was perhaps the most moving. We had Private Johnson Beharry VC there, the youngest VC holder. During the wreath-laying ceremony, the last person, at the end of the line of high commissioners and dignitaries, to lay his wreath was Tul Bahadur Pun VC, aged 87, one of the oldest living Victoria Cross holders. He got up but at the time he could barely see as he attempted to lay the wreath; however, two Queen's Gurkha orderlies who were smartly standing to attention rushed over and escorted this living legend and hero to lay his wreath. I do not think there was anyone present who was not moved. And there were many tears—tears of joy, tears of gratitude and tears of appreciation.
On Remembrance Sunday, I was on duty as Her Majesty's representative Deputy Lieutenant for the London Borough of Hounslow. At that afternoon's wreath-laying ceremony, standing next to me, was Tul Bahadur Pun VC Sahib. Hounslow is the borough that he is based in. When I later heard that this individual—the bravest of the brave—had handed in many of his medals at Downing Street, including his MBE, as part of a demonstration to promote the rights of Gurkhas to stay in Britain, I was saddened and appalled. His protest came only days after he was refused treatment for a heart condition at an NHS hospital. He was told that he owed the hospital thousands of pounds in unpaid medical bills. Pun Sahib—one of only 10 Victoria Cross holders in the UK—was close to tears after he was humiliated at the cardiology ward at West Middlesex Hospital. He was originally refused entry to the UK by British officials in Nepal because he was thought not to have enough ties to the UK. Not enough ties to the UK, my Lords?
I was privileged to have been born into the Gurkha family, as my father, the late Lieutenant-General Faridoon Bilimoria, was commissioned into the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles, Frontier Force. I believe that when news of my birth reached my father, who was serving away from home, a holder of the Victoria Cross, Gaje Ghale VC, who was still serving at that time, was by my father's side. The story goes that when he heard the news of my birth—when the telegram arrived—he jumped for joy at the news, and the ground shook because he was such a large man.
When my father later had the privilege of commanding the battalion, his subedar-major was none other than Agansing Rai VC. I was privileged to be brought up with these living legends. There was a third Victoria Cross holder—it was awarded posthumously—in my father’s battalion in the Second World War, Netra Bahadur Thapa. In fact, my father's battalion was known as the VC battalion because it had won three Victoria Crosses in the Second World War. Two of the VCs were won within 24 hours of each other.
When my father, before he retired, was General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Central Indian Army, he was also president of the Gurkha Brigade in India, and colonel of the 5th Gurkhas. I remember that in his office of the Central Army Command Headquarters, in Lucknow, there were two flags behind his desk: one the Central Army flag and, next to it, the 5th Gurkha regimental flag. I know which meant more to him.
In India today, the Gurkha regiments that were left behind with the Indian army at independence have flourished; in fact, there are close to 100,000 Gurkhas serving in the Indian army. As the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, said, there are, sadly, just over 3,000 here in the UK, and the historic Gurkha regiments here have been merged into the Royal Gurkha Rifles.
In India, the Gurkhas receive the same pensions as their fellow Indian army colleagues. In India, many Gurkhas, after retiring, have settled in India instead of retiring home to Nepal and are allowed to do so. Here, sadly—after a huge struggle—Gurkhas receive a pension but it is not equivalent to that of their fellow British soldiers. As we know, Gurkhas who retired before 1997 are not allowed to stay in the UK should they wish to do so.
My noble and gallant friend Lord Walker, the former Chief of the Defence Staff and now the governor of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where I am proud to be a commissioner, spoke in his maiden speech of the covenant that exists between the British people and the Armed Forces, as did my noble friend Lord Slim. Where is this covenant when it comes to the Gurkhas?
Many people do not appreciate that the Armed Forces are referred to as “the services” because those who serve in them are serving their country—they are performing a service. In fact, the motto of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is, “Serve to lead”. Where is the leadership in our treatment of the Gurkhas who have served our country with valour and dignity, when 43,000 young men lost their lives in both world wars, as the noble Lord, Lord Lee, said? Where is the leadership when the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt—a thoroughly decent and respected soldier, whom I have the privilege to know—highlighted the fact that a traffic warden gets paid more than a soldier? This is a chief of the Army staff who has the guts to speak up for his troops.
Where is the leadership when our defence forces are stretched beyond all limits on a budget which, as a proportion of GDP, is half what it was 26 years ago, at the time of the Falklands conflict? Where is the leadership when the defence forces are humiliated and insulted by having a part-time Secretary of State for Defence, who also has the role of Secretary of State for Scotland?
The covenant between the Government and our Armed Forces has been broken, and is shamefully broken every single day as our brave troops serve us loyally thousands of miles away. Where is this covenant with our Gurkhas, who have served this country for almost 200 years?
When Bhanubhakta Gurung VC passed away earlier this year, I read his obituary and citation to my children and said to them, “This is not a story; this is not a movie script—this is bravery beyond compare”. It is this bravery that has earned the Gurkhas their reputation worldwide as the finest, toughest and bravest soldiers, revered and respected in every corner of this earth. It is this bravery that has inspired us all.
I commend the Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lee, on correcting the injustice that exists. If someone who works for a corporation in the UK can stay for four years and then have the right to permanent residency, and thereafter the possibility of citizenship, there is no way that the brave Gurkhas who have served the country with unquestioning loyalty for four years, regardless of whether that service was abroad or here, should be prevented from remaining in this country, should they choose to do so.
I am confident that if the opinion of the British people were sought, their famous sense of fair play and justice would show an overwhelming wish for these brave and noble soldiers to be allowed to live in this country. I challenge the Government to conduct such a survey, act on its results and enact this Bill.
At the 150th anniversary of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles, Frontier Force, at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst last month, as a proud member of the regimental association, I heard a prayer written by the Reverend Guy Cornwall-Jones, whose father served in the 5th Gurkhas:
“Oh God, who in the Gurkhas has given us a people exceptional in courage and devotion, resplendent in their cheerfulness, we who owe them so much ask your special blessing on them, their families and their land. Grant us thy grace to be faithful to them as they have been faithful to others”.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford and thank him for introducing this excellent Bill, which I—and I am sure most, if not all—noble Lords will wholeheartedly support.
Our military ties with the Gurkhas go back centuries, and during that time Gurkha troops have shown the greatest courage and loyalty to this country. It is interesting to remember how interwoven the Gurkha regiments are in the fabric of our British military history and culture. The moving speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, is testament to that.
In 1995, I was canvassing in the small village of South Tawton, near Okehampton, in what was my constituency. I knocked at an attractive house and a very smart couple came to the door. I recognised the man and noticed through the corner of my eye various Gurkha—or should I say “Goorkha”?—photographs and memorabilia. I was privileged to be calling on the late Colonel Nick Neill and his charming wife, Margaret. Incidentally, I found out recently that he is a close relation of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen.
I was part of the advance party of 42 Commando Royal Marines and we took over the Lundu area of Borneo from Colonel Neill’s battalion, the 2/2 King Edward VII’s Own Gurkha Rifles, or Sirmoor Rifles, sometimes known as God’s own Gurkhas. It was my privilege to have him as my commanding officer, albeit for only about two or three weeks. Margaret Neill’s father and two of her brothers were 6th Gurkhas. Colonel Neill’s career is a reminder—if one is needed—of the wonderful, brave and courageous service that the Gurkhas have given during and since World War II. He won a Military Cross in 1944 and in 1945 he was a company commander at Arakan during some of the fiercest fighting in the Burma campaign. One of his company, Bhanubhakta Gurung, who died recently and to whom the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, referred, won, I believe, the last Gurkha Victoria Cross awarded in World War II. The House will recall that Rambahadur Limbu, a 10th Gurkha, won the Victoria Cross in Borneo in the mid-1960s.
Colonel Neill spent 10 years with his battalion jungle-fighting in the Malay emergency and commanded his battalion on a series of tours during the confrontation in Borneo. He then went on to command the Gurkha Depot at Sungei Patani. The Malay emergency and the Borneo confrontation even today serve as textbook examples as to how successfully to prosecute these wars. General Petraeus, the eminent United States commander in Iraq, has been a keen student of both those campaigns. The Gurkhas were indispensable in both of them. They effectively ran the Jungle Warfare School; I was reminiscing with the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, about our respective times as students at that establishment. The Gurkhas have continued to give gallant and committed service. They have fought in the Falklands; they are now in the Middle East; they fought in Sierra Leone; and they provide enormous strength to our foreign policy in the Far East in the work that they do in Brunei.
The Bill gives rights of residence in the United Kingdom to Gurkhas who retired before 1997, and I strongly support it. The Government, to their credit, have done much to improve the terms and conditions of service for Gurkhas. I am proud that my right honourable friend in the other place, Mr Nick Clegg, raised this matter at Prime Minister’s Questions on 25 June. I believe that both Houses recognise that we owe the Gurkhas a debt of honour which we can never repay. The Bill, if passed, will go some way towards honouring that debt.
My Lords, from the strength of the speeches that we have heard today, there can be no doubt that there is warm support for the Bill in this House. The noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, is making a brave attempt to bring a conclusion to the ongoing battle to ensure that virtually all members of the Gurkha regiment who have fought with and served in the British Army since 1815 are able legally, if they wish, to remain in this country on their retirement from the Army.
We have heard from speakers who have had intimate relationships with the Gurkhas and know them well. They know their loyalty to the Army and their fighting powers. We, too, acknowledge the enormous contribution that they and other non-UK nationals who have served in the British Armed Forces make, and have made, to this country. We acknowledge, too, that the relationship between the Gurkhas and the British Army is very special, and there is enormous loyalty from one side to the other.
As other noble Lords have pointed out, the genesis of the Gurkhas’ involvement with the British Army goes back to Victorian times, as it was from then that the Army had the right to enlist Nepalese soldiers into its ranks. Following the partition of India in 1947, four Gurkha regiments were transferred to the British Army. Some say “Gurkha” and some pronounce it “Goorkha” but I expect it is those who know them who say “Goorkha”, so perhaps it would be impolite of me to do so. During the Second World War—I know that there had been more during other battles—more than 120,000 Gurkhas served with bravery, and their VCs are a testament to that. As has been mentioned, there was also severe loss of life among them. As other noble Lords have said, they now number about 3,500 in the British Army and their headquarters has been moved from Hong Kong to Kent.
Since 1815, Gurkhas have largely been recruited from Nepal and have retained their Nepalese citizenship. As has been said by other noble Lords, that changed only in 2004 with the amendments made to the Immigration Rules to enable, from 1 July 1997, any discharged Gurkha to apply for indefinite leave to enter the UK if he had completed four years’ service as a Gurkha with the British Army and was discharged from the British Army in Nepal on completion of service. However, in effect a seven-year backdating was built into the 2004 rules.
Through the Bill, the noble Lord is seeking to enable any Gurkha to apply for leave to remain. We now hear that a very small number did not apply by the 1997 deadline. The only restriction is that they must have had four years’ service in the Army and hold a valid United Kingdom entry clearance in this capacity.
We welcome the recent improvements that have been made to the terms and conditions of Gurkhas and their eligibility for settlement. We note also the judgment made the day before yesterday about pensions. The changes that have been made are relatively recent. We believe that more time is required to assess their impact. There are, of course, others who are not UK citizens who have served in our forces. Perhaps we need to see whether we might be more generous to them.
My party is committed, once back in office, to conduct a review to determine whether the 1997 cut-off is appropriate. That is as far as I can go today. It is not wholehearted support for the Bill, but it underlines the sentiments that we all feel for the Gurkhas in this country.
My Lords, I have the difficult job of responding to the Second Reading debate of the Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lee, on a subject which, it is fair to reflect, has generated understandable emotion and passion and a central plea to the Government to review their current position.
I have been tremendously impressed by all who have contributed to the debate. They know much more about the Gurkhas than I do. Most of them have an association of some longevity with the military prowess of the Gurkhas and all of them have spoken with compassion, understanding and some considerable knowledge of the history of the Gurkha regiments and their loyal commitment to the armed service of our nation.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I recognise the sensitivity of the issues that it raises and I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss them. I shall make it plain at the outset, as has the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that this is not a Bill which the Government can support. That is not to say that I and the Government do not value the tremendous commitment, loyalty, bravery and courage of the Gurkhas who have served our nation over some 200 years.
Immigration is one of the most important issues raised by the British public. The public want to see an immigration system which is effective and above all fair: attracting the right legal migrants to help our economy; taking tough action against those who come or stay illegally; and setting out a clear contract of rights and responsibilities for all. That is how people wish us to conduct our immigration system. As stated in the Home Office strategy, we want to ensure that migration benefits the United Kingdom. In doing so, we will take account of the economic benefits and the impact on services and communities. I am sure that the House would expect us to do no less. We, as a Government, will also ensure that we continue to act with compassion to control migration and settlement with sensitivity for particular individuals or groups of individuals where it is right to do so. That reflection frames our approach to this subject.
The Government’s position on Gurkhas has generated considerable debate and media interest—there is no doubt of that—and that debate has continued for some time. The public wish to know that the Gurkhas, after having served in the British Army for many years, are being treated fairly and honourably by our country. During the Indian rebellion of 1857, Gurkhas fought on the British side, and became part of the British Indian Army on its formation. A number of noble Lords have referred to that important time. Gurkhas saw active service in many theatres of conflict between 1857 and 1914. They fought on the British side in both the First and the Second World Wars. There is no doubt therefore that the Gurkhas have contributed significantly to the security of the United Kingdom and we should acknowledge and reward, and continue to do so, their loyal service in the British Army in an appropriate and fair manner.
From the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, in particular, we have had a very moving address to the House on the history of loyalty and commitment from the Gurkha regiments to the British Army and the British people. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for the way in which he set out his arguments and brought to your Lordships’ House his intimate knowledge, understanding and involvement from a family perspective of the Gurkha regiments.
I return to the issue of fairness. I believe that the current arrangements are fair and that the Government have been reasonable in their treatment of former Gurkhas. They have kept faith with the terms on which they were engaged prior to July 1997. A number of noble Lords have congratulated the Government on their moves since that date.
The noble Lord’s Bill seeks to amend the immigration rule which relates to former Gurkhas who apply to settle here on the basis of their past service of at least four years in the British Army. Specifically, the noble Lord seeks to remove the requirement for a former Gurkha to have been discharged from service on or after 1 July 1997 in order for him to be eligible for settlement in the United Kingdom. The noble Lord also seeks to remove the requirement for the discharge to have occurred within the two years of the date of settlement application by a Gurkha.
The Government entirely understand the noble Lord’s wish to do the best for the Gurkhas, but it is essential that the House understands that the 1 July 1997 cut-off is not an arbitrary date in the settlement rules for former Gurkhas. I also ask the House to understand the need to put the Gurkha issue into the context of our wider immigration policy, as I have argued.
From 1947 to 30 June 1997, Gurkhas serving in the Army were based and served almost exclusively in the Far East. They were invariably recruited in Nepal, served in the Far East and retired in Nepal. Their headquarters was in Malaya and then in Hong Kong, which was then a British dependent territory. They were discharged in Nepal after completing that service, with the expectation that they would resume their lives there. Those who completed their full engagement received an immediate entitlement to a pension there, usually when they were around 32 to 35 years old. That gave them a good standard of life compared with other Nepalese citizens.
It is important to add that Gurkhas have always served in distinct units, with their own command structure and use of their native language. That was so that they could retain their Nepalese links and return to Nepal after discharge to utilise the skills they had acquired in the Army. That has never been so for other foreign and Commonwealth soldiers, who in addition were recruited and discharged in the United Kingdom and always served alongside British soldiers.
From 1971, Gurkhas began to spend tours of duty in the United Kingdom of up to two years. Then, on 1 July 1997, the Brigade of Gurkhas became UK-based, with headquarters here, following the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from Hong Kong. This is extremely significant as it is only from this time that membership of the Brigade of Gurkhas would be likely to lead to an extended period of residence in the United Kingdom or to the development of the type of close physical or family ties to the UK which would normally justify a grant of settlement to applicants under the relevant Immigration Rules.
On the Immigration Rules and immigration policy in general, the grant of settlement in the United Kingdom is normally linked to an extended period of residence here or to the presence of a close family tie. In October 2004, following a very detailed Home Office and Ministry of Defence policy review, the Immigration Rules were amended. That change meant that, from 25 October that year, Gurkhas who had completed at least four years’ service in the British Army and who had been discharged in Nepal on or after 1 July 1997 have been able to apply for settlement here within two years of the date of discharge. Since April 2007, Gurkhas have had the option of discharge in Nepal or in the United Kingdom; their dependants are also able to apply for settlement in line with them.
Those arrangements recognise that the pattern of service in the British Army for Gurkhas has changed over the past decade. In addition, Gurkhas who retired before 1 July 1997 can apply for settlement under discretionary arrangements where there are strong reasons why settlement here is appropriate, such as a significant period of residence in this country or the presence of a close family tie.
Following the rule change, there was, as noble Lords have acknowledged today, a two-year transition period, which extended the policy to those Gurkhas who had arrived in the UK after discharge and had remained without permission. Those arrangements have enabled many former Gurkhas to regularise their position in the UK and discretion may continue to be exercised in granting settlement to former Gurkhas on a case-by-case basis.
I should add, to further inform the House, that a consolidated appeal is due to be heard before the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal on 21 July relating to the issues underlying the Bill. A number of Gurkhas have appealed against refusals of entry clearance or indefinite leave to enter or remain and settle in the UK. A number of judicial reviews are outstanding. We argue that those cases will provide an opportunity for the fairness of the policy to be tested and it seems to us eminently reasonable and sensible to await the outcomes of those landmark cases.
Noble Lords made a number of points in the debate and it is right that I should try to respond to some of them. The noble Lord, Lord Lee, questioned the issue of the insufficiency of ties to the United Kingdom and he argued that perhaps only 10,000 of the 25,000 Gurkhas might wish to settle here. The Government fully recognise the service contributed by former members of the Gurkha regiments, but the terms of their service and their pension entitlement have, we argue, been fully honoured by us. We think that the 1997 cut-off is reasonable and fair—noble Lords have credited us for that improvement on former government policy. We believe that it provides consistency with wider immigration policy where, as I have argued throughout, the settlement is normally linked to a period of extended residence in the UK under the Immigration Rules or to the presence of family ties. Any decision to do away with the 1997 cut-off would have to take into account the impact across government departments of the arrival of potentially as many as 40,000 former Gurkhas and their dependants, not least the extensive implications for our already stretched housing sector.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, referred to a particular case relating to Ministry of Defence pensions. He acknowledged that, earlier this week in the High Court, Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that the Government’s application of the July 1997 cut-off date to pension enhancements for service in the Gurkhas after July 1997, after which there had been an expectation of retiring in the United Kingdom, was reasonable, rational and lawful. That is the approach that the Government want to proceed with. We think that Gurkhas, past and present, have benefited from decent terms and conditions, something that is perhaps evidenced by the intense competition that traditionally accompanies annual recruitment for the brigade. It is not uncommon to have 20,000 applicants competing for approximately 200 places. We think that we have the balance about right.
I also want to respond to the important point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, about putting at risk the military covenant, an issue also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. We regard the maintenance of the covenant between the Government, the Armed Forces and the British public as essential not only to those who serve but to the future health and integrity of our Armed Forces. No one should question that important commitment made by the British Government. I cannot accept that the Government’s position on Gurkha pensions or settlement rights suggests in any way that the covenant is being compromised or jeopardised, as may have been suggested this morning.
As has been acknowledged during the debate, there have been substantial improvements to the pay, conditions and pension entitlements of serving Gurkhas, bringing them into line with their Commonwealth and British counterparts in the Armed Forces generally. We have rightly been congratulated on that. As I explained, the July 1997 cut-off applied to those seeking settlement within the Immigration Rules. We believe that it is fair and rational. As we have made plain, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, recognised, there is scope for those Gurkhas who retired prior to 1 July 1997 to apply for settlement in the United Kingdom under the discretionary arrangements. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, gave us some details on numbers for that. However, it must be an evidence-based application.
I am grateful to everyone who has contributed to the debate. As I explained at the outset, the Government are not minded to support the Bill. We owe the Gurkhas a debt of gratitude. We believe that they have been treated fairly in the application of the 1 July 1997 cut-off. No doubt the issue will continue to be raised and to exercise legislators. It is not an easy one to resolve—the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, reflected on that, as did the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh. It is not simple or straightforward. We must retain the integrity and consistency of our application of immigration policy.
I have a great deal of respect for the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, who argued his case well, and for all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate with understandable passion and commitment and with a sense of reverence for the Gurkhas. The Government do not demur from any of that. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed and for the opportunity to set out the Government’s case but, all those things being said, I have to oppose the Bill.
My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have participated in today’s debate. We have had five deeply sincere Back-Bench speeches from all quarters of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, rightly talked about the diminishing number of Gurkhas. I say to the Minister that the 40,000 figure is a red herring and nonsense. We heard the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, with his great reputation and stature, talking about the military covenant and the Gurkhas’ value as citizens.
We had the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, with his considerable admiration for the Gurkhas. He talked with his deep professional knowledge of the pensions issue, which I was not focusing on today, although it is important. I acknowledge some of the improvements that the Government have made in the pensions situation of some. We then had the most moving speech from the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, with his deep family involvement with the Gurkhas, questioning where the military covenant is when it comes to the Gurkhas. There was also, of course, the contribution of my friend and colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, who served with the Gurkhas in Burma—
I am sorry, in Borneo; he is still a youthful man. He talked about the Gurkhas as running the jungle warfare school there and the debt of honour that we owe them. At least the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, speaking for the Official Opposition, promised us a review if the Conservative Party comes to power at the next election. That is some progress, and we are grateful for that.
The Minister’s contribution was somewhat disappointing. He could not have particularly enjoyed his role today. His speech was negative and defensive and had no support at all from any of his colleagues on the Back Benches. However, as he acknowledged, we will return to this issue again. It will not go away. We owe so much to the Gurkhas.
In conclusion, I hope that the Bill will be considered again.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.