Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what activities have taken place relating to the 200th anniversary of the Gurkhas’ service to the Crown and the Government’s support of the Gurkha Welfare Trust, particularly in the light of the recent earthquakes in Nepal.
My Lords, yesterday I was privileged to attend the Gurkha pageant held at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where I was proud to be a commissioner for six years.
Throughout the pageant, my eyes welled up with childhood memories of being brought up among the Gurkhas—it all came flooding back. My late father, Lieutenant-General Faridoon Bilimoria, was commissioned into the 2/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles, Frontier Force, and commanded his battalion in the 1971 war for the liberation of Bangladesh. His battalion suffered heavy losses and casualties, including officers I had known and grown up with as a child. How ironic that a couple of decades later I would found a brand, Cobra beer, which we supply to thousands of Indian restaurants in the UK, the vast majority of them run and owned by Bangladeshis.
I am on the commemoration committee of the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill and was chairman of the committee for six years. These gates exist because of the amazing tenacity of one individual, my noble friend Lady Flather. The Memorial Gates commemorate the contribution of the 5 million volunteers from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean. Inscribed on the ceiling of the pavilion next to the gates are the names of the Victoria Cross and George Cross holders, three of whom were from my father’s battalion, the 2/5th Gurkhas—one posthumous.
Gaje Ghale VC and Agansing Rai VC were living legends, who I was fortunate to have grown up with and have been inspired by for the rest of my life. Agansing Rai VC was subedar-major when my father was commanding his battalion. Legend has it that when my father, as a young captain in a remote area in north-east India, received the telegram of my birth, Gaje Ghale was next to him and jumped for joy. The ground shook, because he was such a large man.
What I learned about the Gurkhas really quickly is that they are the kindest, most caring and most gentle people. For example, when I took my South African possible future wife on her first visit to India, my father’s retired driver, Bombahadur, who continued to serve with my father at retirement, took me aside and said, “Baba, you should marry her!”. My father’s beloved Gurkha had given his approval, and of course then there was no question but that I was marrying Heather.
However, these kind gentle people in peacetime are the fiercest warriors mankind has known. Just reading the citations of the Gurkha VCs makes your jaw drop with feats that are, quite frankly, superhuman. Sir Ralph Turner, a former officer of the 3rd Gurkhas, had written:
“Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you”.
We are celebrating the Battle of Waterloo and the 200th anniversary of the Gurkhas’ service in the same year. I visited the site of the Battle of Waterloo earlier this year. If the Duke of Wellington had had Gurkhas among his troops, the Battle of Waterloo would not have been won on the playing fields of Eton or because Blücher came to the rescue; it would have been won because Napoleon’s troops, including his beloved Imperial Guard, would have been running in fear back towards Paris, fleeing from the fierce Gurkhas, just as the Argentinians did in the Falklands.
It was disheartening when I first spoke about the Gurkhas in this House in 2008 to start the fight for the Gurkhas who had served in Britain for four years to have the right to stay on in the UK if they wished to do so. It seems so unfair that a person could work for a company for four years and have the right to stay indefinitely, and yet someone who was willing to commit the ultimate sacrifice was not, at that time, allowed to. After that debate—I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lee, who initiated the Bill—Joanna Lumley, whose father had served in the 6th Gurkhas, came to the fore and spearheaded a public battle that generated an outcry among the British public, who were overwhelmingly appalled at this injustice and unfairness. I will never forget in one television interview how Joanna Lumley humiliated the then Home Office Minister, Phil Woolas. Of course, we won the day and justice was delivered.
We should never take for granted what these amazing men have done in the past 200 years for Britain and India. I have been very outspoken in my criticism of the SDSR in 2010, when cuts were made to the Army that I believe were negligent, cutting the number of Army troops to 80,000—not even enough to fill Wembley Stadium. Today, there are barely 3,000 Gurkhas in the British Army, with the Gurkha regiments amalgamated into one, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, with just two battalions, and some in the Queen’s Gurkha Signals, the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers and the Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment.
However, in India, the Gurkha regiments left with the Indian army after India’s independence have flourished, with six battalions per regiment, an additional regiment formed—the 11th Gurkhas—and Gurkhas serving in all other arms of the army as well. There are approaching 100,000 Gurkhas serving in the Indian army, recruited from Nepal and India, who, after they retire, settle in both India and Nepal. They are a vital backbone of the Indian army. Will the Minister agree that the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Gurkhas are for the British and for India? It was a privilege today to show General Dalbir Singh Suhag, Chief of the Army Staff of the Indian army, around Parliament—all the more for me because he is also from the 5th Gurkhas. When my father was commander-in-chief of the central Indian army, an army of 350,000 strong, I always felt it meant more to him to be president of the Brigade of Gurkhas and colonel of his regiment.
Could the Minister commit, where the Prime Minister is unwilling to in this dangerous world that we live in, to the NATO commitment of 2% of GDP spent on defence? Could the Minister also reassure us and confirm that there will be no further cuts to the Gurkhas? I look forward to the forthcoming SDSR report and hope that this time it is not about means before ends but about looking carefully at the needs first. It is our duty to look after the veterans, and I commend the work of the Gurkha Welfare Trust and all that it does for Gurkhas to live out their lives with dignity. Can the Minister confirm the commitment for future support of the Gurkha Welfare Trust to continue the wonderful work that it does? Will the Government reassure us?
His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who was present at the pageant, said:
“The Brigade of Gurkhas is more than just a fighting force, it is also—in every sense of the word—a family”.
Particularly at this time, with the devastating earthquakes by which so many Gurkhas have been affected so tragically, does the noble Earl feel that we are doing enough to support the Gurkhas in Nepal? Will the Minister confirm that? Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected in the two disastrous, tragic earthquakes. Major-General Ashok Mehta, my father’s second-in-command, said:
“Two hundred years of distinguished soldiering have put a halo around the Gorkha in the hall of fame. In this hour of national calamity it is the Gorkha-ness of the Nepalis that will be the greatest enabler to confront the monumental tragedy”.
In my own company, Cobra Beer, I sent out 200 letters to our Nepalese restaurant customers straight after the first earthquake to offer our support to raise funds, and I am delighted to say the restaurants have raised almost £200,000. That is the wonderful spirit of giving in our country.
A fellow Zoroastrian Parsee, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw—popularly nicknamed by the Gurkhas as “Sam Bahadur”—said:
“If a man says he is not afraid of dying he is either lying or is a Gurkha”.
Prince Harry, who was also present at the pageant yesterday, said that,
“there was no safer place than by the side of a Gurkha”.
This is the Ayo Gorkhali, or “Here come the Gurkhas”, the cry of the Gurkhas—the finest fighting force the world has ever known. The Gurkha motto is:
“It is better to die than be a coward”.
On the 150th anniversary of the regiment of the 5th Gurkhas in 2008, which took place at Sandhurst—I am proud to be a member of the regimental association— I heard a prayer written by the Reverend Guy Cornwall-Jones, whose father served in the 5th Gurkhas. That prayer said:
“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”.
As a nation, we can never thank the Gurkhas enough. We will be eternally grateful to them.
My Lords, I am pleased to participate in this important debate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for bringing it before your Lordships’ House.
I have always been a strong supporter of the Gurkhas. I have an extremely high regard for their loyalty and dedication to the British Army. I also hold a great fondness for the Gurkhas’ original home, Nepal. I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Britain-Nepal Group and in fact met the acting high commissioner for Nepal last Friday. I have visited Nepal twice, first as part of a parliamentary delegation and secondly to set up a school of excellence for business students in Kathmandu. The parliamentary delegation visited Pokhara, the centre of recruitment for Gurkhas. We also visited the historic Gurkha Memorial Museum there. I was privileged to meet members of the Nepalese royal family with the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. We were treated to a most enjoyable evening. I was also presented with a real Gurkha kukri. I have previously worked with Nepal’s ambassador to the UK to support a trade delegation to the country.
Each time I visited Nepal, I found the people to be extremely friendly and hospitable. For me, the integrity of Nepalese culture and that of its Gurkha soldiers go hand in hand. The Gurkhas have been part of the British Army for 200 years. They fought loyally for our country all over the world and still continue to do so. They served alongside us in places such as Burma, Malaysia, Cyprus, the Falklands and China. More recently they played key roles in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. They made significant contributions during both the First and Second World Wars. Some 43,000 Gurkhas lost their lives during these two wars. They are noted and respected for their courage and valour in battle, having won 13 Victoria Crosses. The spirit of their service is demonstrated in the motto,
“better to die than live a coward”—
a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. When Prince Harry returned from his tour of Afghanistan, he said that there was,
“no safer place than by the side of a Gurkha”.
Today, they are still an integral and invaluable part of the British Army. Gurkhas within the British Army are proof that different religious and ethnic groups can work together. I find this very pleasing as I am actively involved in encouraging the BME communities, particularly Muslims, to join the Armed Forces. Admission to the Brigade of Gurkhas is highly competitive. There are often more than 20,000 applications for the 230 places available each year. The brigade is 3,640 strong.
Of course, the Gurkhas’ loyalty and integrity of service is not constrained to warfare. They also command respect away from the battlefield, undertaking wider military duties with the same discipline and vigour. We need look only at the recent invaluable contributions made by the Gurkhas following the Nepalese earthquake. The devastation caused by this disaster required enormous support from the international community. The United Kingdom’s humanitarian response has been most impressive. I commend both the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development for their financial commitments and for spearheading much of the wider relief effort. A large number of British Army Gurkha engineers were deployed to provide direct welfare support to serving Gurkhas, their families and veterans who were affected. They are constructing shelters and assisting in the repair of infrastructure.
In the long term, it is of course not only emergency help that will be required; also there will be the necessity to build communities and businesses. It is estimated that the Nepalese economy has suffered dramatically. Initial estimates put the cost of damage to property and infrastructure at $6 billion to $8 billion. Combined with an inevitable wider economic downturn, the total cost of the earthquake could be up to $10 billion. This is more than half of the country’s GDP last year.
Last week, I said in your Lordships’ House that Muslim charities are undertaking sterling humanitarian work in different parts of the world. I would like to mention that I am connected with the Al-Khair Foundation, which was founded by Imam Qasim. It has worked tirelessly in Nepal to help the earthquake victims, raising nearly £1 million from donors in the UK and securing over £5 million of medicines from its supporters in the United States. The Muslim community has responded positively to render help to all the people of Nepal. DfID has now pledged an additional £10 million to rebuild health services. Our total commitment of £33 million makes us the largest donor to the relief operation. I hope that we can continue to commit this level of support.
It is clear that Gurkhas hold a special place in the hearts of the British people. It is therefore important that we appropriately honour and celebrate their contributions on this anniversary. I am pleased to see that such an extensive series of events have taken place and are going to take place, not least the magnificent Gurkha 200 pageant that took place yesterday at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. It is so good to see a string of concerts, exhibitions, sporting events and even physical challenges organised as part of the commemorations.
Commemorating the past sacrifices of Gurkhas is one thing. It is also of paramount importance that we treat the Gurkha soldiers and veterans of today with the respect they deserve. At the very least, we must afford them parity with other British soldiers. Many Gurkhas are now based here in the United Kingdom and settled here following completion of service. I believe this must be taken into account when considering matters such as pension entitlements. I am glad that the right to settle in Britain has now been extended to all Gurkhas, irrespective of when they retired. I spoke on that matter when it was discussed in your Lordships’ House several years ago. I commend the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gurkha Welfare for its tireless work on behalf of Gurkha veterans. Its inquiry last year ensured that veterans’ grievances were given appropriate attention.
I finish my remarks by expressing my own gratitude to the Gurkhas, and I am sure that that feeling is shared across the House and the country.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, on securing this debate, which is an exceptionally well-timed initiative, if I may say so, given that this is the 200th anniversary of the first Gurkha units being recruited by the East India Company and there is the appalling coincidence of the dreadful earthquake from which people in Nepal are suffering so much at present.
I speak both as a former Defence Minister and as someone who knows and loves Nepal, as evidently the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, does. Of course, I was not a Minister for the Armed Forces—I was Minister for Defence Procurement—but no one can be associated with the British Armed Forces without being enormously conscious of the tremendous contribution that the Gurkhas have made to the defence of this country and our people, and to the defence of world peace over the time when Gurkha units have been with the British Army.
I add to the very fine tribute, which the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, has just paid to the Gurkhas’ extraordinary bravery and gallantry and which was not exaggerated in any way, the fact that, to my knowledge, they have never actually participated in an operation which they have not concluded not merely honourably but with the greatest distinction. They are an enormous asset. I do not think that I need to expand on that too much, because I note that two noble Lords are going to contribute to this debate—the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham —who probably have direct experience of fighting alongside Gurkhas or perhaps commanding formations, including Gurkha units, which I of course do not have. I think there is a very wide recognition in this country of the great debt that we owe the Gurkhas, which was demonstrated very visibly, and I think quite movingly, by the success of Joanna Lumley’s campaign. I hope that it moved people in Nepal, too. I think that it did.
Nepal is a country that I know personally. I spent several weeks of my life on different occasions walking in Nepal, both in the east of Nepal, going up to the Everest base camp, the Cho La glacier and elsewhere, and in the west of Nepal, going up to Annapurna base camp and so forth. Anybody who does that is entirely dependent for his security and safety on the good judgment and conscientiousness of his guide. On several occasions, I could understand some of the great confidence that British soldiers have always had in having Gurkhas alongside them—confidence in their courage and confidence in their reliability, judgment and great personal loyalty.
What is happening at the present time is a terrible tragedy. The whole world has responded. The Indians and Chinese have particular political as well as geopolitical reasons, but I am sure that they also have very strong humanitarian reasons, for getting involved in helping Nepal. We have a deep and personal historic obligation to do that, as well as a moral one. The Government have responded to that, and I commend DfID for what it has done so far, but I want to ask the Minister a few questions which I think it would be useful to the public interest to have answered in public this afternoon.
First, one hears in the media that the problem is not so much lack of money, because quite a lot of money has been raised from different sources; the problem is one of logistics and co-ordination of the different government departments in Nepal. Could the noble Earl, Lord Howe, say whether that is a correct perception of the present situation? It would also be very valuable if he could give us an update on what the contribution has been from this country. I also wonder to what extent British military personnel have been involved. When I was in the MoD, one thing that I did was to order 22 Chinooks, 10 of which were cancelled by the incoming Government in 2010. We still have 60 in inventory, and just half a dozen of those would be a wonderful asset, particularly in supplying those very narrow valleys, which are otherwise inaccessible. Everything has to be carried in on the back of a man or a yak, often after a trek of days. Chinooks would be wonderful in getting heavier building materials up into those valleys in time to repair or rebuild houses before the winter comes.
On the heritage sites in Nepal that have been so badly damaged, we have all been appalled to see pictures of Durbar Square, which has been almost completely obliterated. As anybody knows who has been to Kathmandu, it is the most extraordinary collection of the most exotic and astonishing Nepalese architecture, going back over 400 years. There are other great sites of the same kind—at Bagan, for example. What is the situation with regard to repairing those, and to what extent are the Government involved in initiatives with UNESCO or otherwise to make sure that something is done to repair them? Somebody has already mentioned the very fine museum in Pokhara, which is both a brigade and a regimental museum. I would be very interested to know whether that has survived unscathed, and if not what is being done to repair it.
Finally, perhaps I could ask a question that is also a suggestion. Has there been a ministerial visit to Nepal since this disaster took place? If not, is one contemplated? If one is not, could one please be contemplated as urgently as possible? For the reasons I have already mentioned, I think it would be particularly effective if it could be a Defence Minister who goes to Nepal, who could show directly by his or her presence there our solidarity with the Nepalese people and would be able to form a personal judgment on the progress of the great international relief effort and come back and be able in a well-informed fashion to take any measures that might be needed in the present circumstances to improve things and make sure that we do not have any further tragedies of people dying because, for example, they cannot repair their houses before the weather deteriorates in the autumn.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, on securing this debate. It is a privilege to speak in it and pay tribute to the Gurkhas and their families who have served this country with such dignity, loyalty, courage and steadfastness for 200 years. I first came across the Gurkhas professionally in 1965. My first draft after completing commando training was to 42 Commando Royal Marines, which was stationed in the Far East. On arrival, and before deployment on operations, my commanding officer sent me to do the jungle warfare course at Kota Tinggi in Malaya. The jungle warfare school was effectively run by the Gurkhas. The commanding officer and many of the directing staff were Gurkhas. The demonstration company was drawn from a Gurkha battalion. The course was excellent and I had many opportunities to see at first hand the expertise of the Gurkhas in warfare and, in particular, in jungle warfare. I also served with the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Goorkhas for a few weeks in the advanced party of my unit when we took over the Lundu area of Borneo from them. That also gave me a first-hand opportunity to see Gurkha fighting men in action. Their expertise has been acquired over centuries during which Gurkhas have fought with the greatest bravery, skill and stamina.
I understand that there is now a Gurkha battalion stationed in Brunei. Will the Minister confirm that that Gurkha battalion will be staying there and explain to the House the vital role the Gurkhas still play in training other branches of the Armed Forces in jungle warfare? Jungle warfare is a difficult skill, and it is crucial that the United Kingdom Armed Forces retain it.
During the jungle warfare course, we were given a lecture on the glorious history of the Gurkhas: 25 Victoria Crosses have been awarded to Gurkhas. Lance Corporal Rambahadur Limbu had not yet won his Victoria Cross. I believe he won it in action in Borneo on 21 November 1965 for utmost bravery.
From an excellent article by Hew Strachan in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, I learnt that 90,000 Gurkhas served this country in the First World War and that 138,000 Gurkhas served this country in the Second World War. I understand that service in the British Army is popular with Gurkhas. There is a considerable shortage of recruits coming forward within the United Kingdom to join the Army at present. Now is not the time to go into the considerable shortcomings in army recruiting, but will the Minister explain to the House whether the Government are considering recruiting more Gurkha battalions?
The recent earthquakes in Nepal have had tragic consequences for that country. It is fortunate that we were able to deploy Gurkhas to assist and support their own people. The Armed Forces in this country, which include the Gurkhas, have to be flexible. They have to be ready and able to conduct all varieties of operations: from all-out warfare to humanitarian operations. Our Armed Forces are, and always have been, our greatest ambassadors. They are the most effective providers of humanitarian aid. Nevertheless, the commitment to spend 2% of our gross domestic product on defence should stand alone and not be diluted with the budget of any other department of state.
The fighting ability and bravery of the Gurkhas are legendary. They will always hasten to the battle and prevail. They are fearsome in close-quarter combat, they are loyal and they are true. We owe the Gurkhas loyalty in return. I hope that the Minister will be able to convince this House tonight that the Government understand this and will always support and stand by our Gurkha brothers-in-arms, their families and the people of Nepal.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for the chance of a debate about Nepal and the Gurkhas. He mentioned that he particularly wished to raise the issue of the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Noble Lords have done that. One thing should be known at the start, which is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been extremely good to a number of military charities, and the Gurkha Brigade has done well by them.
The amount of money required to put Nepal straight is very great. One or two noble Lords have said that the Government must tell us exactly what is happening. I am rather sad that there has not been a general call within the country to get volunteers from the many Gurkhas who live here. Apparently there are a lot of unemployed Gurkhas around Aldershot and other places, and I would have thought they could be got together to volunteer for some form of pioneer company to go out to Nepal and do some work to help put the place straight.
Politically, we want to be very careful. China is not being pleasant to the Tibetans, and I have a feeling that Nepal is in their sights, long term, as well. As the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, said, it is about time some of the British Government got out to Nepal to assess the situation and make some firm judgments about how we can stand by Nepal and help it.
Noble Lords have heard about the Gurkhas’ courage. I speak as one who was a Gurkha. I had to work very hard to have the same courage. The Gurkha is also very generous about other people who are brave. In the great old Indian Army, it was not just Gurkhas. The great martial tribes of India, which still join its Army, be they Rajputs, Punjabi Musulmans or Maratha —you can go on—all have great histories of courage. The Gurkha is generous. He is even generous to a brave enemy. We all hated the Japanese, who were not a pleasant enemy, but no one is rude about the courage—the vicious courage—of a Japanese solider. The Gurkha would pay due tribute to his enemy.
I feel that the Government are not doing sufficient at the moment to really get to grips with the situation. Like the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, I was very suspicious over that Chinook incident. There was something funny about it—maybe the Maoist Government and the Russians. A number of people I have spoken to who have been bravely rescued said that it was by Russian helicopters and Russian pilots.
I think something is going on in Nepal. It is not well administered. After this awful earthquake, people have been putting their hands in their pockets and giving money that should go towards relief and that sort of thing. The trust also has its problems: veterans’ houses destroyed while medical centres, hospitals and old people’s homes put up by the trust have all disappeared. The British Government should take some interest in this.
Not only is the Gurkha brave but he is very flexible, inquisitive and not stupid. If I may just tell noble Lords a lovely little story from before World War II, some recruits had come down from the hills and, as their training and induction took place, they started to be educated. For the first time in their lives, they were suddenly shown a thing called a book and told, “If you read one of these, you will learn many things”. A recruit picked one up, looked at it and twisted it around. He said to the instructor, “I don’t quite understand about this book but you tell me one day I’m going to do this thing—‘read’ it. I’ve opened it and I want to know, do I read the white or the black?”. I call that rather intelligent questioning, when you look at the situation.
There is none better to be with than a Gurkha. Training and fighting is a pretty serious business but, take it from me, it is fun being with the Gurkhas. Please also take it from my father who, at a place called Sari Bair in Gallipoli, first met the Indian Army—a brigade of three or four Gurkha regiments and King George’s Own Sikhs, with Punjabi, Musulman and Sikh gunners all fighting as one. They got higher up the ridge—they could see over it at one point—than any other British, Australian, New Zealand or French unit. They were decimated. In my father’s own platoon of the Warwickshire Regiment, of about 40 men, 27 were killed and everyone else wounded except for two. He himself was severely wounded but he always said, “If I can get through this, I want to transfer to the Indian Army and be a Gurkha”. I can tell noble Lords that his son felt much the same in World War II.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, has said, it is a great privilege to take part in this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for obtaining it on this important anniversary.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, I completed a jungle warfare course in Kota Tinggi in 1965. I was fortunate to have the 6th Gurkhas beside me in Borneo. We used to keep Gurkha rations there so that platoons could come along the border ridge and into our base, and we could go to theirs. I shall always remember seeing a platoon going out of my base. The Gurkha sergeant in charge tapped his pack and said, “Gurkha rations”. Then he patted the magazine of his rifle and said, “Indonesian rations”, and with a grin he went out of the gate.
My own regiment, The Rifles, has been very close to the Gurkhas throughout its history. Indeed, it is a great pleasure to us that the Gurkhas wear the green and black buttons of The Rifles. For years, until the Royal Gurkha Rifles itself was formed, the two Queen’s Gurkha orderly officers who become her ADCs for a year used to be based with us at Winchester. That was a great link. It is very important to remember that this relationship with the Gurkhas carries many links with many regiments over many years.
I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, also mentioned the Indian connection. When I was adjutant-general I was privileged to go out to Nepal to do, among other things, something that has remained in my memory for ever: I took the attestation parade early in the morning in Pokhara. With the Himalayas behind them, these young Gurkhas came forward, put their hands on a Union Jack on a table and looked me in the eye as they took the oath. That was something tremendous; it has stayed with them and with me.
At that time we were concerned because we had closed our British military hospital in Dharan. I was therefore trying to negotiate with the Indians that our Gurkhas, on retirement to Nepal, could qualify to get medical support from the Indian Army, which had arrangements in Nepal; it meant buying into an insurance policy. The whole question of the employment of the Nepalese soldier, the Gurkha, was a tripartite agreement between Nepal, India and this country, and woe betide us if we ever forget that there are three employers of these wonderful people. All three benefit from them and have done so for a long time.
I am very glad that there was the event yesterday, which I did not attend. At least it gave the public an opportunity to recognise the support and help that the Gurkhas have given us. It reminded me of an experience during the Falklands War, when the Gurkhas came back from there, having had a miserable journey in the “Queen Elizabeth”—they did not like being on the sea. They were picked up and taken by train to Aldershot, and then they got out and marched to their barracks at Crookham. The streets were lined with people cheering them. Suddenly these people, who had been looking rather sad and down in the mouth, started beaming. Immediately there was good will and good spirit, and it lifted them. The British public ought to be given opportunities to show something back to the Gurkhas.
I am very glad that the contribution to aid in Nepal has been given but I for one have questioned why, immediately after the earthquake happened, the whole of the Brigade of Gurkhas was not flown out at once to Nepal, with all its troops, signallers, engineers and logistics people. That should have been the instant reaction in return for all the wonderful help that the Gurkhas have given to this country over so long. Anything less than full commitment to them is less than generous in return for what we have had.
Yes, I am pleased that the Gurkha Welfare Trust is remembered at the same time, and I am pleased that we should go on thinking about the future of the Gurkhas who retire here, but let us never forget that for 200 years we have had marvellous, brave, loyal and selfless service from some wonderful people, and we should be eternally grateful for what we have had.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for getting this debate. I appreciate this opportunity to say something from my own point of view.
First of all, we have spoken about the earthquake, but it is a real tragedy for Nepal and for Gurkhas, and we have not taken it as seriously as we should have because of our connection with the Gurkhas. I hope noble Lords know that Gurkhas are only a part of Nepal; not all Nepalis are Gurkhas—they are from a section of that country. I cannot say that I have ever served with any Gurkhas or been in the Army, as noble Lords can imagine. However, I will start by telling noble Lords something about the history of the Gurkhas before they came to serve with the British and with the Indians—that was the same thing at that time.
Groups of Gurkhas used to come to a place called Lahore. Anyone who has read Kim will know that Lahore was the crossroads for many parts of that world at the time, and people used to congregate there for all sorts of reasons—and not always very good ones. They used to come in groups of 10, 20, 40 or 50 to be hired by any warlords who needed somebody to fight for them. Therefore, in a funny sort of way they were doing that long before the British started having Gurkhas in their Armed Forces. A very clever British person must have seen the opportunity at that time to get all the Gurkhas together and to get them into the East India Company’s sepoys. Therefore, there is an interesting history. Originally they were known as “Lahures”—from Lahore. As I come from Lahore, I feel very proud of that.
That is how they started, but how have they gone on? They have gone on to serve Britain, and now Britain and India. I was very upset at the time when there were reductions in general in the British Army. More Gurkhas were laid off in proportion than the indigenous soldiers—British soldiers—which was upsetting in itself. Nepal is a very poor country. Nepalis need their soldiers to earn money and send it back, and as a country it is very dependent on the people who serve in the Indian army, in the British Army, and we should never forget that. They do not serve just out of niceness—“Oh, we like the British”. They need the money—they need to be fighting for the British—and they need us as much as we need them. However, we are not standing by them. They are being reduced in numbers, and there are some wicked rumours going round that the intention is to reduce their numbers further. We should take a step back and think about what they have done for the British Empire and decide whether that is fair—not just what they did for the empire but after; even after India and Pakistan.
But Nepal was never a colony, and that was a problem for us with regard to the memorial gates. Originally I had not intended to include Nepal, because it seemed wrong to have a non-colony along with the colonies. However, then somebody suggested, “Why don’t you put ‘Kingdom of Nepal’?”, so we did that. When the kingdom fell some clever ambassador said, “You have to take that off now!”, as if you can rub off something that has been engraved into stone. Therefore it reads “Kingdom of Nepal”, and it will always be like that on the memorial gates. The other thing is that when you look at the names of the Victoria Cross and George Cross recipients in the pavilion next to the memorial, you see how many names of Gurkhas are there. People who have shown such bravery and commitment should be treated with much more respect—although it is about not only respect but consideration, with regard to keeping them on and how their lives are.
We have heard that they can settle in this country—one or two noble Lords said that. Do those noble Lords know what the criteria are? They are so strict and difficult that the campaigners have decided that probably only 100 Gurkhas will meet them and be able to settle in this country. That is quite upsetting after all the lives they gave and all the fighting they did. I will quote the criteria, because noble Lords will probably not know them. The first one is:
“Close family in the UK”.
That seems very unlikely, does it not? The second is:
“A bravery award of level one to three”.
That may be possible. The third is “Service of 20 years”—yes; or, finally, “Chronic or long-term” illness. Are they really likely to have close family ties here? I would have thought that very unlikely. Therefore, there are issues that still need to be looked at.
Some years ago, I think at the end of the 1990s, there was a big discussion about pensions, and we were told then that it was a tripartite agreement—the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, mentioned that—and nothing could be changed. However, I say, “Then negotiate with the third party as well”. You cannot just say, “We can’t do it”. I do not believe in “we can’t do it”. When I started on the rather foolish journey towards the memorial, almost everybody said to me, “You can’t do it”. Well, it is there and I have had a lot of help. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, was a trustee; my noble friend Lord Bilimoria was chairman of the council for several years; and my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham represents somebody—I hope I will be forgiven for forgetting who it is—at the ceremony. So it is there and I hope that it will stay as a reminder of all the people who have been instrumental in helping this country. Indeed, in the Second World War, it was crucial that the colonies were able to support Britain in its hour of need, as one might call it.
The key things now are, first, to decide whether the Gurkhas mean enough to keep them on and not reduce their numbers any further and, secondly, to do whatever we can to help them following the earthquake. It is unbelievable that there have been not one but several earthquakes, and the terrain is difficult. I hope that the noble Earl will tell us that the Government are going to do more and that somebody senior will visit Nepal. That would mean a lot for morale. I have been to the two camps—the British and the Indian—in Nepal. We were able to spend time at both camps and it was very interesting.
That is about all that I can tell your Lordships about my connection with the Gurkhas, but I finish with a short iconic story, although I am sure it is untrue. Somebody said that the Gurkhas were asked to jump into a pool of water. They could not swim but when they jumped into the water they swam. I do not believe it but it is a nice story.
I, like other noble Lords who have spoken, extend my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, on securing this very timely debate. He spoke with the passion and fervour that we have come to associate with him. I regret that my contribution cannot contain personal experiences and recollections but this debate gives an opportunity to draw attention to the major contribution made by the Gurkhas to the British Army and to talk about some current-day issues relating to the Gurkhas, including Gurkha veterans.
As we all know, this year marks 200 years since Gurkhas were first enlisted into the armies of the British Crown in the wake of the Anglo-Nepalese war at that time. Ever since then, the Gurkhas have made a major and widely admired and respected contribution to the British Army, and many have made the ultimate sacrifice and given their lives. Thirteen Gurkha soldiers have won the Victoria Cross.
As the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, said, during the First World War more than 90,000 Gurkhas served the British Crown, of whom more than 20,000 were killed, wounded or missing in action. Gurkha regiments earned hundreds of gallantry awards throughout that war. In the Second World War more than 137,000 Gurkhas served the British Crown, with more than 23,000 being killed, wounded or missing in action and more than 2,500 awards for bravery being made.
More recently, the Gurkhas have served in the Falklands, Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq. Today the Brigade of Gurkhas has spread between the British garrison in Brunei and the UK, and they continue to play a full part in the Army’s operational and peacetime commitments.
The Gurkha soldier, it has been said, defines the close relationship between the Republic of Nepal and the United Kingdom—a relationship that has developed in many different and perhaps surprising ways. Aldershot Town Football Club, whose ground is close to Aldershot Garrison, sent a team to play in Nepal earlier this year and has established a fund to aid the Nepal earthquake relief programme. Last year it was adopted as the official football club of Rushmoor’s Nepalese community, and last month the Nepalese organisation, Sahara UK, purchased £10,000-worth of the football club’s shares. Yesterday evening there was an anniversary pageant for the Gurkhas at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, attended by the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and other members of the Royal Family, and, as I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria.
The wording of our debate makes reference to the recent earthquakes in Nepal, the first of which was on 25 April, when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck an area between Kathmandu and Pokhara in Nepal, and right in the centre of one of the Gurkhas’ recruiting areas, in which a not inconsiderable number of retired soldiers would have been living. Some of the villages occupied by the Gurungs, the clan which provides the backbone of the Gurkha regiments, were largely destroyed. Clearly the magnitude of the disaster in Nepal has thrown something of a shadow over the events and activities celebrating the 200th anniversary.
Needless to say, though, the Gurkhas have been playing a significant part in the relief effort, and not least through the work of Army Gurkha engineers. Points have already been made and questions asked in this debate about the Government’s approach and contribution to the relief effort in Nepal, to which no doubt the Minister will be responding. It is of course not only in Nepal that the Gurkhas provide humanitarian relief; they were also sent to Sierra Leone to help contain Ebola.
Competition to become a British Gurkha recruit is strong and the tests involved are very challenging. Typically some 6,000 men, now from across Nepal, will apply to be one of the 200 to 300 recruits chosen each year. Those selected become, after a year’s induction training, soldiers in the Brigade of Gurkhas, which comprises about 3% of the British Army.
An agreement signed between the UK and Nepal in 1947 provided the basis for the service of the Gurkhas in the British Army, who previously had been part of the British Indian Army before Indian independence in 1947. The Gurkha pension scheme had its origins in this 1947 agreement. The agreement committed the British Government to treat Gurkhas fairly but did mean that, before April 2007, Gurkhas served on different terms and conditions of service from those in other parts of the Army. These differences have been the cause of grievances held by members of the Gurkha veterans’ community, mainly but not exclusively in respect of perceived pension inequalities, and were the subject of a recent inquiry by the All-Party Group on Gurkha Welfare.
Many former Gurkhas now work with charities, including the Gurkha Welfare Trust. The Gurkha Welfare Trust was founded in 1969 with the aim of relieving poverty and distress among ex-Gurkha soldiers and their dependants, though today, from a network of centres across the country, it also delivers community aid such as water supply systems, schools, medical camps and welfare, not least to some of the poorest, most inaccessible parts of Nepal. The trust pays pensions from a charitable fund to which the British public contribute generously. Over 6,500 veterans or their widows depend on the welfare pension to enable them to live with dignity.
Modern terms of service for Gurkhas are now identical to British ones. Since April 2007, any Gurkha joining the British Army receives the same pay and pension benefits as their counterparts in the wider British Army. They serve on the same basis as the remainder of the Army, with some limited exceptions designed to meet the wishes of the Government of Nepal. In 2009, retired Gurkhas were given the right to settle in Britain with British citizenship, although I note the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, on that issue. The Government provide financial support to the Gurkha Welfare Trust through an annual grant in aid. However, welfare payments to needy veterans are funded by public donations.
Following the recent report by the all-party group into grievances held by members of the Gurkha veterans’ community, the Government agreed to set up a fund to compensate those who had had to leave the Gurkhas as a direct result of marrying a non-Nepalese. Over the next five years, £5 million will also be made available from LIBOR fines to support Gurkha Welfare Trust projects in Nepal or the UK, and just under £1 million has been found from the LIBOR-funded veterans’ accommodation fund to provide 32 homes in the UK for up to 64 Gurkha veterans and their spouses or partners. These moves by the Government will not fully address the grievances of members of the Gurkha veterans’ community, which successive Governments have faced, but they do represent further steps following the significant decisions by the then Government in 2007 and 2009 in respect of pay and pension benefits and settling in Britain with British citizenship.
In February this year, I asked the then Government if they agreed that the best way to mark the 200th anniversary would be to ensure a clear and continuing role for the Gurkhas in Army 2020 and inquired whether that was the Government’s objective and what that role might be. Now that we have a new Government, I, like the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, ask the question again. I hope that the Minister will provide a clear and positive answer when he responds. In particular, will he confirm that the Prime Minister’s pledge to maintain the current size of the Regular Army applies also to the Gurkhas? It would, after all, seem rather odd for us to be rightly praising the tremendous and courageous contribution of the Gurkhas tonight—I am assuming that the Minister will also be doing just that very shortly—if earlier in the day, metaphorically speaking, Ministers in the Ministry of Defence had been considering making defence cuts at the expense of the Gurkhas, as part of the somewhat secretive current strategic defence and security review.
My Lords, like so many people across the country and on all sides of this House, I have a huge admiration and respect for the Gurkhas. As has been said by all speakers, for 200 years Gurkhas have fought loyally for this country and they rightly deserve their reputation as being among the bravest and most fearless of soldiers. Gurkhas hold a special place in the heart of the British people, and evidence of this can be seen in the generous support given by the British public following the recent devastating earthquake in Nepal.
Before I speak about that disaster, I would like to emphasise the Gurkhas’ primary role, that of soldiers. The Brigade of Gurkhas remains a vital part of the British Army’s military capability. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, summarised very well their role in our history. Both battalions of the Royal Gurkha Rifles and subunits of the three main corps units all deployed on operations in Afghanistan under Operation Herrick, where they have demonstrated their outstanding war-fighting skills and cultural adaptability. I am proud to have two Queen’s Gurkha orderly officers with me here this evening.
Moving on to recent events in Nepal, the major earthquake tragically led to significant loss of life and destruction to property, and our thoughts are with the people and Government of Nepal at this difficult time. The United Kingdom’s disaster relief response has been led by the Department for International Development, which has provided over £33 million in direct and indirect aid, as was rightly pointed out by my noble friend Lord Sheikh. This aid included the provision of search and rescue teams, trauma medics and logistic supplies. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, that the Ministry of Defence supported these efforts with an airlift and by deploying over 100 additional Gurkha personnel. We offered the services of our Chinooks, but the Government of Nepal did not consider that they were necessary. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development has visited to inspect and assess the damage and speak to those delivering aid.
The additional Gurkha personnel went into Nepal under the auspices of British Gurkhas Nepal, which is the unit based in Nepal looking after recruitment and welfare matters for the brigade. British Gurkhas Nepal and the Gurkha welfare scheme, which is the field arm of the Gurkha Welfare Trust, are working together to ensure that our pensioners and families are looked after alongside all needy persons in villages affected by the earthquake. It is important to state that we are not discriminating as to who gets the help. Instead, we are providing to the neediest first with the aim of everyone being under cover with access to water before the monsoon rains arrive.
Reconstruction efforts are to focus in the short term on protecting isolated Gurkha communities through the approaching monsoon season. This will include the construction of temporary shelters, the provision of clean water supplies and basic sanitation, and the delivery of aid and basic medical supplies. A squadron from the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers is currently deployed on this task. Subject to Government of Nepal approval, work priorities will primarily be driven by humanitarian need within the Gurkha communities, rather than uniquely supporting the families of serving Gurkhas and Gurkha veterans. To answer the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, we believe that the museum at Pokhara was not badly damaged.
The Gurkha Welfare Trust is the principal Gurkha charity and it maintains through its field arm, the Gurkha Welfare Scheme, a network of welfare centres in Nepal to look after Gurkha veterans in need. The Government provide financial support to the Gurkha Welfare Trust by means of an annual grant in aid of over £1.5 million which pays for the majority of the costs of the Gurkha Welfare Scheme in Nepal. In addition, the Government announced in January that they were giving the trust £5 million from the LIBOR fines to assist its work in Nepal, so I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, that this is a clear statement of the commitment to and recognition of the work done by the trust in support of Gurkha veterans.
This year we celebrate 200 years of Gurkha service to the Crown. This milestone is a further opportunity to thank the Gurkhas for all that they have done to preserve our freedom and security in many conflicts around the world, most recently in Afghanistan. To celebrate the Gurkhas’ unique service, there are over 100 events of varying size taking place, both in the United Kingdom and around the world, reflecting the brigade’s previous service. These events are being conducted by the serving brigade, the Gurkha Brigade Association and the Gurkha Welfare Trust.
Major events have already taken place. In late March, a gathering of over 3,000 people attended a celebration in Kathmandu, before the earthquake struck. On 30 April, contingents from the four major Gurkha units, with the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas and the Queen’s Truncheon, marched from Wellington Barracks down the Mall to the Gurkha statue outside the Ministry of Defence. This was followed by a short service to commemorate those from the brigade who have given their lives in the service of the Crown.
Most recently, throughout May, each of the four major Gurkha units has conducted public duties, providing the guards at Buckingham Palace, St James’ Palace and the Tower of London. And as we have heard, a major event, the Gurkha 200 pageant, took place last night at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in aid of the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Her Majesty the Queen attended, along with other members of the Royal Family. I am delighted to note that at least two noble Lords here this evening were able to attend.
I shall answer a few of the questions that were put to me. I turn first to the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, who asked whether the Gurkha battalion would remain in Brunei. The answer to that is yes, because a new agreement was recently signed with the Sultan. He also talked about jungle warfare training. As he knows, this is carried out in Brunei by the Gurkha battalion and other British Army units. In addition, the British Army Jungle Warfare Training School is based in Brunei and is supported by the Gurkhas.
Questions were asked by the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, and others about recruitment. No decisions have been taken about increasing the number of Gurkhas at present, but equally no decisions at all have been taken about reducing their numbers. I can say to the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, that the Brigade of Gurkhas has been wholehearted in its support for its kith and kin in Nepal. Its members are all very keen to deploy in order to support and assist if they can. The brigade has been incredibly active in fundraising and has generated in excess of £300,000 to help the relief effort, which is a commendable achievement.
I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for raising this important subject for debate. I will write to noble Lords on questions that I have not been able to cover this evening, but I am pleased to have had the opportunity to explain the Government’s position on both the support we are providing for the Gurkha Welfare Trust in Nepal following the tragic events of the earthquake and the celebrations behind 200 years of Gurkha service to the Crown.
I thank the noble Earl for his response, but there was one very specific question: can the Government assure us that there will be no further cuts to the Gurkhas, regardless of the SDSR?
My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord knows that I cannot separate the Gurkhas out from the SDSR. It would be as impossible to do that for the Gurkhas as for any other part of the British Army. However, I note the strength of feeling that the noble Lord has expressed, and I am sure that that will be conveyed back to those who are in the throes of preparing the initial stages of the SDSR.
My Lords, I understand that a commitment has been given by the Prime Minister that there will be no further cuts in our Regular Army. Why is there any doubt that there will be any cuts so far as the Gurkhas are concerned? Are they not covered by the pledge that was given by the Prime Minister?
My Lords, the noble Lord will know that the commitment given by the Prime Minister related to the total number of the Regular British Army so, as much as I would like to, I cannot give a commitment about a specific segment of the Army.
My Lords, I will not take a moment. I have been very impressed by all the contributions to the debate. If Gurkha veterans living in the United Kingdom in their advancing years need to do so, will they get access to the hospital charities such as Erskine in Scotland, along with the other military hospitals?
I should say to the noble Lord that this is a Question for Short Debate with a speakers’ list. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will be able to write to the noble Lord.
House adjourned at 8.59 pm.