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.