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Volume 710: debated on Thursday 21 May 2009


Namaste, my Lords. With the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on new settlement rights for former Gurkhas and their families.

As the House will know, all Gurkhas who retired after July 1997, when the brigade was relocated to the United Kingdom from Hong Kong, are already eligible to settle here under current Immigration Rules. Since 2004, more than 6,000 Gurkhas and their families have done so.

On 29 April, honourable Members on all sides of the House made clear their view that the Government should reconsider plans to increase by 10,000 the number of Gurkhas and family members who could come to the United Kingdom to live.

As my honourable friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth set out in his Statement to this House that evening, we undertook to respect the will of the House and to come forward with revised proposals. I am most grateful to my honourable friend for the work he has led to deliver this commitment. I am also grateful to members of the Home Affairs Select Committee and to the Gurkhas’ representatives, who have helped us to establish the basis for these proposals. Our policy will be put into effect through guidance, which we will publish shortly, having first shared it in advance with the Select Committee and Gurkha representatives to seek their views.

Our new guidance will reflect the will of the House, while remaining affordable and consistent with our broader immigration policy. All former Gurkhas who retired before 1997, and who have served for more than four years, will now be eligible to apply for settlement in the United Kingdom. Gurkha representatives have indicated that it will take time for former Gurkhas and their families to make their applications. I welcome the willingness of the representatives to set up a form of resettlement board to assist the process of their integration into British life.

On the basis of the figure of 10,000 to 15,000 main applicants that has been suggested by Gurkha representatives, I expect to be able to welcome these applicants and their families over the course of the next two years. I am making resources available within the UK Border Agency to do this, and I am making it clear that there should be no time limit on these applications.

The Select Committee has recommended that former Gurkhas should be entitled to bring with them their spouses and dependent children under the age of 18, and I am pleased to accept this recommendation. The 1,400 or so outstanding applications for settlement that are now being considered by the UK Border Agency will be processed on the basis of the policy I am announcing today. I have instructed the UK Border Agency to process all of these cases as a matter of urgency by 11 June of this year.

This guidance recognises the unique nature of the service given to the United Kingdom by the brigade of Gurkhas. It is offered to them on an exceptional basis. I hope that the House will understand the importance of maintaining the distinction upheld by the High Court between Gurkhas who served before and after 1997. That is why I welcome the agreement of all parties to our discussions that there is no direct read-across between settlement and pension rights. As the chairman of the Select Committee wrote in his letter to the Prime Minister on Tuesday this week, the question of equalising Gurkha pensions should not and need not be conflated with the debate about settlement.

On the basis of the measures I have set out today, I am proud now to be able to offer this country’s welcome to all who have served in the brigade of Gurkhas and who wish to apply to settle here. I am sure that all who do come here will make the most of the opportunities of living and working in the United Kingdom, and I am delighted that we have now been able to agree—across government, across the House and with the Gurkhas’ representatives—new settlement rights that all those who have served us so well so highly deserve. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord West, for repeating the Statement and making early copies of it available to the House. This Statement is most welcome, most of all to the Gurkhas, some of whom are outside the House now. This has been a great victory for a well-run campaign that has publicly embarrassed Ministers. It has also reminded all of us of the role that the Gurkhas have played in helping to defend this country over the centuries.

This case was about basic decency. Many people from around the world have come to live in this country in the past decade. There never was a justification to deny that right to a group of people who have long lived in the nation’s affections and who have risked, and often given, their lives for its protection. We have always been very clear that those who risk their lives for this country should have the right to come and live in this country. It is just a shame that the Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the courts, and then through the crowds of Gurkhas outside this place, before they finally accepted the inevitable. It is also a tribute to the very determined and effective campaign by Joanna Lumley to persuade Ministers to change their minds. Do the Government finally accept that it was a massive mistake not to listen when we told them to accept the court ruling and not to fight it?

Will the Minister provide the House with more detail about the cost of all this? A few weeks ago the Prime Minister was putting forward almost doomsday financial forecasts about the cost to the British taxpayer of allowing the Gurkhas to settle here. Will the Minister now confirm that those figures were wrong, and will he tell us what the latest forecast is?

What impact will today’s announcement have on former members of the Armed Forces who come from other Commonwealth countries, and indeed from non-Commonwealth countries? What rights do the Government intend to offer them in the future?

The Gurkhas and their many supporters have won a great victory over the Government. I echo my honourable friend in another place, who has this morning reiterated our party’s commitment to honour this agreement, should there be a Conservative Government after the next election. We will make sure that Gurkhas who want to come here are treated as honoured veterans of our Armed Forces and not as an unwelcome addition to the pressures on our immigration system.

My Lords, like the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, I very much welcome the Statement.

During the Second Reading of my Immigration (Discharged Gurkhas) Bill last July, I argued for full settlement rights for all Gurkhas who had served in our forces. All noble Lords who spoke supported me—including the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, who is in his place today—with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, who was speaking for the Government. He said:

“We think that the 1997 cut-off is reasonable and fair”.—[Official Report, 4 July 2008; col. 503.]

Well, thanks to sustained pressure from parliamentarians in both Houses, the court and the campaign so enthusiastically and skilfully led by Joanna Lumley, involving the media and overwhelming majority of the general public, the Government have finally thrown in the towel and effectively accepted defeat. Why they resisted for so long, only they know. Indeed, the sooner the Home Secretary, and this whole Government, follow the Speaker in the other place, the better.

I should be grateful if the Minister would answer three specific questions. On the one hand, the Statement uses the phrase:

“All former Gurkhas who retired before 1997, and who have served for more than four years, will now be eligible”.

But the Statement later says:

“I am proud now to be able to offer this country’s welcome to all who have served in the brigade of Gurkhas and wish to apply to settle here”.

What is the difference? Where does the four years come in?

Secondly, the Statement says:

“Our new guidance will reflect the will of the House, while remaining affordable and consistent with our broader immigration policy”.

What lies behind that phrase?

Thirdly, why are the Government now appearing to accept our figure of 10,000 to 15,000 main applicants, whereas last July they were talking of 40,000? What has changed? Perhaps, once again, it has been proven that accountancy is not this Government’s strong point.

In conclusion, I hope that Joanna Lumley continues her public campaigning. Perhaps she should consider standing as a future Mayor of London. She certainly has the intelligence of the present incumbent and is certainly far better looking.

My Lords, I am glad that the Statement has been welcomed. There is no doubt at all that it is very good news; it is a very good news day. The Gurkhas have served this nation very honourably, very loyally and very well over many years—I think that all of us would agree on that. Indeed, perhaps I may take the opportunity to congratulate all our servicemen on the service they give. On a personal note, perhaps I may also remember my 22 boys who died 27 years ago today when my ship was sunk. I remember them as well. I have pride in all these people.

The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, talked of the court order, as did the noble Lord, Lord Lee. The court decision clearly said that the 1997 cut-off date was not discriminatory. So, I think that one needs to look quite carefully at the court decision and everything that was said in there.

The noble Viscount asked about the total cost, which we think will be between £300 million and £400 million per annum. The noble Lord, Lord Lee, asked whether it would be affordable and would fit in with immigration rules. When you are a group pushing a particular agenda or when one is in Opposition it is very easy, but when you are the Government you have to look at the full impact of these things. For example, what does it mean in terms of the links with immigration and the other people who might have served for us over the years? What does it mean in terms of cost? How much will it cost? What will be the impact of those costs on education and health within the areas where these people will move to? Where in the country will they go? What will be the focus?

All that work has been done. We have paid very close attention, as is absolutely correct, to the will of Parliament and, on this occasion, to the will of the British people. I think that both things reflect on each other. Sometimes on issues such as capital punishment they do not, but on this they did. We have paid attention to that and we have acted on that basis. We had prolonged debates—I congratulate my colleagues in the other place on this—with the Gurkha pressure groups and the Home Affairs Select Committee. During that debate we ground down the numbers from the total number of those eligible, which is 36,000. Adding on their dependents, we were talking in the region of probably 80,000 to 85,000, but we were assured by the Gurkha veterans lobby and the Home Affairs Select Committee that only 10,000 to 15,000 Gurkhas would want to come here. There was a long debate about this and we came to that conclusion.

We also had to look very carefully at pensions. As has been said very clearly in the Statement, these two things are not conflated. If we had to pay pensions to all those who served before 1997, we are talking about £1.5 billion, which would come out of the defence budget. We are sure that that will not happen. I am sure that it will go through the judicial process again and again, and we are clear that the two issues are very separate. But we had to take all that into account. At the moment, things like the defence budget are under huge pressure. That is why it is not always easy, but very easy sometimes to put on this pressure. We are delighted with what we have done today, which is absolutely appropriate.

Basically, Gurkhas will have to have served four years if they retired before 1997. It is extremely unusual for any Gurkha to serve less than four years. I think that there will be special circumstances, for example, for anyone who might have lost a leg or won a Victoria Cross or something like that.

I have covered the point on numbers and I hope that I have covered the point on pensions. But this is a good news announcement and I am delighted that it has happened. I, as have a lot of people in this Chamber, have served with the Gurkhas over the years. They are a fantastic bunch. I am very pleased that we have achieved this outcome.

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, was he stating that if a Gurkha lost a leg before he had done four years—

My Lords, it is not quite proper to catch the Minister before he sits down. The noble Baroness should make her contribution or ask her question.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place and I welcome its contents on behalf of all retired Gurkhas who served for longer than four years and who still want to live in this country. It is always good to see old Gurkha comrades-in-arms over here. They deserve unique consideration. They undoubtedly make loyal, co-operative and amenable citizens, and I hope that the Government and the general public will now build on the manifest support and sentiment they have expressed, and go out of their way not only warmly to welcome any new arrivals but to provide appropriate advice on integration, not forgetting housing, and gainful employment, without which some may find themselves in somewhat reduced circumstances.

As someone with the whole Gurkha operation very much at heart, perhaps I may ask the Minister three questions. First, have these concessions really been made with the long-term interests of the Gurkhas as a whole very much in mind or merely because the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister had been put in a highly embarrassing, if not impossible, situation politically, as he undoubtedly was, largely as a result of a remarkably well staged private campaign and the media interest in it?

Secondly, as the new concessions now go back to 1948, how do they, or how are they seen to, break the spirit and the letter of the tripartite agreement between Britain, India and Nepal, and how are they likely to affect relations with Nepal and its tolerance and support of the Gurkha operation as a whole? Finally—this has already been mentioned—will the Minister give reassurance that in the future these new concessions on top of many other generous concessions, will not generate significant extra costs and expenditure, such as perhaps retrospective enhancement in sterling of Gurkha pensions, even if there is further pressure for that? The Minister knows as well as I that that would fall on the totally inadequate defence budget in a way which, together with any disenchantment in Nepal, could rebound adversely on the sustainability of the whole Gurkha operation so rightly valued by the British Army and the country as a whole. This is my one concern. Perhaps the Minister can give me some reassurance about those points.

My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord for his points. It is interesting to think that the first time we ever served together he was commanding all the British forces in Hong Kong and I was a very young officer about to command a small patrol craft. I know that the noble and gallant Lord has great knowledge of the Gurkhas over many years, as well as his other involvement. First, appropriate advice absolutely will be provided. As well as welfare groups to look after those coming to this country, they will be given advice and be helped to assimilate. These things will be done. Like many other immigrants who come to this country, they will add a lot to our great nation and they will be looked after.

On the noble and gallant Lord’s first question, we have done this really because it is the right thing to do. It was not done in terms of thinking, “Well, will this help their addition to the Army over many years and decades into the future?”. Parliament had given its clear view of what should happen and the nation felt the same way. There is no doubt whatever that the advocacy given by the Gurkha lobby and the divine Joanna Lumley—with whom, sadly, I have had no negotiations, but I am sure I would have folded immediately and given way on anything almost—helped. I repeat that it was the right thing to do, which I am sure everyone can see now.

On the tripartite agreement, we have had quite detailed discussions with the Nepalese. They have not indicated any concerns. We were worried because there is no doubt that the Gurkha pension is a significant amount of money in Nepal. For example, for a corporal and below, the money is about the same as that of a qualified engineer in Nepal. For a sergeant and above, it equates with a Member of Parliament, although I am a bit wary of talking about money relating to Members of Parliament. It is a significant amount of money, which therefore would have some impact on the local economy. We were very concerned about, and we did not suddenly want, an outflow of all these people with a huge impact. The Nepalese Government did not raise that as an issue, but we discussed it with them. I understand that we have talked to the Indians. There is nothing here in terms of settlement that will cause a problem. Effectively, the Nepal-India border is a free border in terms of settling. As far as I am aware, I can say to the noble and gallant Lord that it is not an issue as regards the tripartite agreement.

I have touched already on the future cost to the MoD. I agree entirely with the noble and gallant Lord that defence is under huge pressure and I am on record as saying that I would like more money for defence, but as always a balance has to be struck across government on where money should be spent. There is concern about trying to conflate what we have done with the pensions argument because the £1.5 billion would have to come out of MoD money over 20 years. It is clear from the findings of the Home Affairs Committee and from our dialogue with Gurkha groups that they are not conflated and for the moment I am content with that. However, the noble and gallant Lord was right to observe that that was one of the concerns that caused us to pause and look at this very carefully.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement. It might be of some small interest to the Minister that my father, Miss Lumley’s father and I all served and lived in the same Gurkha regiment. I know that if my father were alive today, and I think I can speak for Miss Lumley and her father, they would definitely believe, like us, that this is a deserving cause and that for once the Government have done the right thing. I also wish to thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, for the interest that he has taken in this subject. Like the Minister, but in 1945 so some years before, I served with him out in the east and I know the sincere love he has for the Gurkha soldier and the trouble and care he took in his role.

We have not yet read the small print that will come out of all this, but I hope that the Government will keep their word. June 11 is close upon us and I hope that the Statement as it has been put makes it clear that the 1,400 immediate cases will be properly resolved by that date. For the rest, we can argue about how many Gurkhas will even wish to come but, given the state of our nation today, perhaps some of us might like to decamp to Nepal for a bit. I wonder if the figures cited will come to pass over the years. In Nepal the nature of family relationships means that children look after elderly parents and we have set, quite rightly, an age limit of 18 for sons and daughters. I am not sure that there will be the immediate rush that the Government were originally worried about.

I also echo the Minister’s statement about the expense. I should have thought that it was time the Home Office took a little more interest in the issue and financially carried some of the burden. In certain areas it would not be right for the MoD to pick up the full cost. We need not worry. Gurkhas understand the verb “to work” and they are very industrious. As the noble and gallant Lord has said, if enlightened arrangements are made to look after the Gurkha pensioner when he comes over with his family, we need not worry that hard work and success in many areas will be the lot of the British Gurkha. Throughout, we must remember that our Gurkhas are British Gurkhas and therefore our responsibility is great.

I thank the Minister for the Statement. Everything has turned out right and I suggest that the emotions that have been stirred up on this issue are now allowed to cool down. It is not edifying to see a unique and great body of men parading outside, albeit with good heart and discipline. The uniqueness of the Gurkha soldier must be retained, and I believe that everyone should now quietly go about their business. I know that the Gurkha soldier will continue to prove his greatness in battle and in all aspects of Army life.

My Lords, the noble Viscount spoke of serving with the noble and gallant Lord in 1945, and the noble Viscount’s father was a man of huge stature. I have great admiration for him as probably one of the best wartime military leaders. It is wonderful to see how these connections carry on. The noble Viscount is absolutely right to say that the Gurkhas are unique and flexible. I remember how once in the Far East we had to pick up some Gurkhas who had become cut off and had not eaten for three days. All we had on board my ship was steak and kidney pudding, but Gurkhas are Hindus and do not eat beef. The Gurkha officer came up to me and said, “Sahib, if you tell them it is lamb, everything will be all right”. I had to cross my fingers and say that the pies were lamb, and sure enough the soldiers ate them and felt a lot better.

The noble Viscount has been a little unfair because the Government absolutely intend to and will keep their word. This will be done by 11 June. As regards the state of the nation and going to live elsewhere, I should say that everything that crosses my desk in the Home Office shows that people want to come to this country. Indeed, as the man responsible for extradition and sometimes trying to get rid of some rather unsavoury people who say that they hate our society and our nation, getting rid of them to any other country in the world is almost impossible. I do not think that it can be too bad here.

I am delighted that the noble Viscount agrees that this is a good Statement.

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister because I forgot that this is a Statement rather than an ordinary Question. I am sure he did not mean to imply that if a Gurkha loses his leg or wins the Victoria Cross within four years of entering service, he would not be allowed to settle here. I want to try to get him to correct the record.

I echo the question put by my noble friend Lord Bridgeman about other British Commonwealth soldiers. Will this open the floodgates and has this been thought through? I do not say for a moment that we should change the arrangements made for the Gurkhas, but has another assessment been done into what might happen if pressure is applied by other Commonwealth soldiers?

My Lords, I do not say that such Gurkhas should not be able to come, but if they have not served for a period of four years there may be special circumstances that we will look into. These things will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, as will some of the issues regarding widows. We have looked specifically at each case to ensure that it can be done.

On the point about British Commonwealth soldiers, it is important to note the difference. We have soldiers from, for example, Fiji, which explains why the Army tends to beat the Royal Navy at rugby—it has so many Fijians—and from many other countries. They come to this country to serve in one of our regiments, in the Navy or in the Royal Air Force. However, the Brigade of Gurkhas is separate and Gurkha soldiers join that brigade; it is different. Without giving a long-winded answer, we have looked at these things in detail, and that is part of the reason that the situation is so complex. It takes time to consider all the ramifications. It is easy to be emotive about things, but as a Government we have to act responsibly on behalf of these very different cases.