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.