My Lords, this year we mark the bicentenary of Gurkha service to the British Crown. Gurkhas hold a special place in the hearts of the British people and we will be celebrating our close and enduring relationship. The Brigade of Gurkhas will be holding many events over the year, including a parade and a memorial service in Whitehall in April, and Gurkha units will conduct public duties in London during May.
Does the Minister agree that the 200th anniversary of Gurkha service to this country provides an opportunity to mark the unique relationship forged in battle across the world by the Gurkha soldier and his British comrade? Is not the bicentenary of the Gurkha Brigade a reminder to us all that religious differences and diverse ethnic origins are no barrier to shared values and lasting friendships?
I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness and I pay tribute to her work as an ambassador for the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Gurkhas within the British Army are proof that different religious and ethnic groups can work together in defence of a set of common values based on the mutual trust and respect that has grown over the last 200 years and I am immensely proud to have served alongside Gurkhas in Malaysia and Hong Kong.
We on this side also recognise the unique contribution made by the Gurkhas over the last 200 years. Do the Government agree that the best way to mark the 200th anniversary would be to ensure a clear and continuing role for the Gurkhas in Army 2020? Can the Minister say whether that is the Government’s objective and what that role might be?
Is my noble friend aware that when we were conducting the Options for Change exercise and there was great competition among infantry regiments as to which should continue and which should disband, there was a suggestion that the Gurkhas should be stood down? Does my noble friend agree that one of the best decisions we took was not to listen to that advice and to ensure that the Gurkhas continued their service? Is not all the evidence that has emerged since from Afghanistan, Iraq and the various fields of activity in which the Gurkhas have been involved further tribute to the wonderful way in which they have served this nation over so many years?
My Lords, the Gurkhas have served our country with the greatest loyalty and bravery. I had the honour to serve, only for a few weeks, with the 2nd Goorkha Rifles. They spelt their name a different way from the other regiments and they were known as God’s own Gurkhas. They were, as always, fantastic fighting men and I hope my noble friend will agree that we owe the Gurkhas a debt of honour which we can never repay.
I endorse absolutely the decision of the Government in this respect. Will my noble friend take account of the fact that on my visit to Pakistan about 25 years ago—the first visit from a Secretary of State of this country—I was welcomed by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan who told me that I should be able to find that country peopled with the noble ghosts of Britain’s past.
My Lords, I agree with all that has been said about the valour of the Gurkhas, but can my noble friend the Minister answer a question that is put by many people? Many veteran Gurkhas who have retired to this country live in poverty and receive only one-third of the standard pension of military pensioners. Have Her Majesty’s Government considered how, in the 200-year celebrations and commemorations, we should treat these valiant men? It should not be by paying them a pittance so that they need to go to food banks.
My Lords, Gurkhas of working age who have been discharged since the 1990s and who are resident in the UK have integrated well and contribute to society. On the question of pensions, since 1 April 2007, any Gurkha joining the British Army receives the same pay and pension benefits as their counterparts in the wider Army. Gurkhas serve on the same basis as the remainder of the Army, with some very small exceptions designed to satisfy the Government of Nepal.
My Lords, the Minister may be wondering why I am involved with the Gurkhas but does he have any plans to involve Joanna Lumley in the activities? She did a magnificent job with her Gurkha Justice Campaign, which was ably funded and supported by a person for whom I worked for 45 years, Sir Jack Hayward, who, sadly, died in January. I am sure that her involvement would be greatly appreciated by all Gurkhas and would be a tribute to the memory of Sir Jack Hayward.