HC Deb 07 December 1966 vol 737 cc1355-60

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

84. Mr. BOSTON

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will now make a statement about the future of the Gurkha Brigade.


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the future of the Gurkha Brigade.

86. Sir J. EDEN

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will now make a statement about the future strength of the Brigade of Gurkhas.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Denis Healey)

With permission, I will now answer Questions Nos. 84, 85, and 86.

With the ending of Indonesian confrontation and the need to achieve economies throughout the Armed Forces, Her Majesty's Government are making early reductions in force levels in the Far East theatre. As part of these reductions, it is proposed to implement the rundown of the Brigade of Gurkhas to a strength of 10,000 as originally announced in 1963. It is expected that this reduction will be completed during 1969. Changing circumstances, including the outcome of a detailed examination now taking place on the future structure of the Army, may make it necessary at some future date to reduce the Brigade of Gurkhas below that strength.

It is the present intention of Her Majesty's Government to retain a substantial force of Gurkhas until the future becomes clearer, but a final decision cannot yet be taken. No further reductions will be implemented without discussion with the Government of Nepal.

Fair compensation will be given, based on the following principles. All soldiers leaving the service during the redundancy period will be entitled to a basic gratuity. Those declared redundant will be entitled to additional gratuities varying according to rank and service. In addition, specially calculated pensions will be payable to redundant soldiers who have completed 10 years of service.

I will, with permission, arrange for examples of compensation payments to be published in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Mr. Boston

Can my right hon. Friend say how the compensation terms which he has just mentioned compare with those envisaged when the reduction to 10,000 men was under consideration, in 1963? Can he say whether they are more or less favourable? Can he also say whether these proposals have the concurrence of the Nepalese Government and whether, by tacit agreement, the figure of men might be allowed to go higher, if need be, as it has been up to now?

Mr. Healey

On the first part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question, I think that I am right in saying that no final decision was taken by the previous Government—particularly by the Treasury of the previous Conservative Government—as to what the terms should be, but the terms that we have now decided are much more favourable in money terms and a little more favourable in real terms, than the terms requested by the Services when the last run-down was under consideration.

On the question of consultation with the Government of Nepal, my hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for the Army met the King of Nepal yesterday and informed him of our proposals.

Mr. Allason

In view of a possible further reduction below 10,000, will the eight traditional infantry battalions remain in being, or is there any possibility of a reduction in that number? Will the Minister now withdraw the contemptuous reference that he made to the previous Government's plans on 15th February, 1965?

Mr. Healey

On the latter part of the supplementary question, "No, Sir".

On the first part, it is intended, in order to implement the reduction to 10,000, to reduce the number of battalions from eight to six, which means that two regiments—the Tenth Gurkha Rifles and the Sixth Gurkha Rifles—will each have their two battalions amalgamated into one.

Sir J. Eden

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that no fighting force has given more loyal or gallant service to the Crown than the Gurkhas? Will he do his best to ensure that no damage is done to the trust and confidence which exists between the people of this country and the Gurkhas?

Mr. Healey

Yes, Sir. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that. I think that all of us who know anything of the Gurkhas in action, or have read anything of them in action in recent years will know that they are unsurpassed as jungle fighters. They have done the country great service not only in the confrontation campaign of the last three years, but for 150 years past, and nothing should be allowed to dim the gratitude and respect that we owe them. This was taken into account when we decided on the compensation terms which are to be offered.

Mr. Powell

I associate myself entirely with the last sentiments which the right hon. Gentleman has expressed, but can he state whether, in carrying out this reduction to the number envisaged under the standing agreement with Nepal, he will have regard to the principles which we announced in 1963, and in particular to the desirability of carrying out the reduction by way of wastage?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the necessity—which was not thought to be a necessity three years ago—of reducing the number of battalions from eight to six?

Mr. Healey

On the latter question, we have very carefully considered the situation, but we think it very important that the battalions should be up to fighting strength. It would not be possible to maintain eight battalions up to fighting strength with a total force of 10,000 men. This stands to reason. If we are reducing a force by a third, there must be a reduction in the number of units concerned.

We have considered the question of wastage very carefully. The reason why we have spread the rundown of 5,000 over a two-and-a-half year period is to ensure as far as possible that it is effected by wastage, and that on no account should the release of Gurkhas into the normal economy and society of Nepal be greater than that society and economy can absorb.

Mr. Paget

Has my right hon. Friend discussed this matter with the Governor or Government of Hong Kong? Is there any reason why, if there are surplus Gurkhas, Hong Kong should not employ them at its own expense, in order to release British troops.

Mr. Healey

This aspect of the problem has been fully considered. Discussions are taking place at this moment—I believe—between my right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary and the Government of Hong Kong on this and related matters.

Mr. Barnett

Can my right hon. Friend tell us what is the effect of his statement on the reduction of £100 million in total defence costs east of Suez, referred to by the Prime Minister in his statement on 20th July?

Mr. Healey

I can assure my hon. Friend that the effect will be a healthy one.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what his reason is for believing that the future will ever become clear?

Mr. Healey

I hope that I did not suggest that the future would ever be clear—but as time proceeds, and with the natural evolution of events, it may be a little clearer that it is today.

Sir H. Harrison

Has the right hon. Gentleman made any representations to the Governments of Australia or New Zealand, who now take great responsibilities in this area, to the effect that these Gurkhas might be of help to them?

Mr. Healey

With respect, that is not a matter for us to raise with the Governments of Australia and New Zealand. If this were to be raised it would be a matter for the Government of Nepal.

Mr. Dalyell

None of us who have visited the Gurkhas in Borneo can doubt their effective service or their loyalty to this country, but are not there better ways of helping to solve the economic problems of Nepal, such as relating British economic co-operation with Nepal to under-used industrial capacity in Britain?

Mr. Healey

There are some aspects of that question which are not for me. I can assure my hon. Friend that, given the very generous resettlement grants which these Gurkhas will take back with them, the economy of Nepal will gain rather than suffer as a result of the action that we are taking.

Following are some typical examples of the compensation payments for which redundant Gurkhas will qualify:

Gratuity Pension
£ £ per annum
Rifleman 3 years' service 87 NIL
6 years' service 237 NIL
9 years' service 360 NIL
11 years' service 200 19 12 5
16 years' service 50 22 10 0
Sergeant 6 years' service 425 NIL
9 years' service 600 NIL
11 years' service 350 27 0 0
16 years' service 200 36 0 0
W.O. II 11 years' service 415 35 2 0
16 years' service 415 39 12 0

Sir Harmar Nicholls

On a point of order, which is more a point of information, Sir. When a Minister receives permission to answer three Questions like this, it becomes tantamount to a Ministerial statement. Under these circumstances, does the Opposition Front Bench get an advance copy of what is to be said, so that pre-consideration can be given to it by my right hon. Friends?

Mr. Speaker

This is not a question for me, but a question between the two Front Benches.