HC Deb 02 December 1968 vol 774 cc1204-14

11.43 p.m.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. loan L. Evans.]

11.43 p.m.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing (Hendon, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity in a short debate to raise the question of the future rundown of the Gurkhas, and I am glad to see the Minister of Defence for Administration in his place.

I understand that the present plans are that the Gurkhas should be run down from 14,000, their strength in October, 1967, to 10,000 by 1st April, 1969, and to 6,000 by 1970–71, a run-down of 2,000 a year. I ask the Government to reconsider this run-down.

I understand that the Minister is shortly to visit Nepal and Singapore. I have just come back from an all-party tour of Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, admirably arranged by the Ministry of Defence. I followed this with a brief personal tour of Australia to discuss defence matters. In each of these four areas I was very struck, as were my colleagues, by the reputation and effectiveness of the Gurkhas.

Since 1946, British troops have been engaged in operations on 66 different occasions. Some of these have been serious and others have, perhaps, been trivial. But on most occasions the infantry has been the important element of any force. It is shortage of troops on the ground that we shall suffer in the years ahead. Whether they are fighting communism or nationalism with a communist element, it is the subversive tactics which generally spreads turmoil, causes us anxiety and creates the need to defend our interests and alliances. The Gurkhas are absolutely unique in their ability to counter subversive tactics.

It seems, therefore, that when we are finding it difficult to recruit the numbers of people that we want for our own Army and when the cost effectiveness of these Gurkha troops is so outstanding, it is time to reconsider whether we are right to throw away the great assets which the, Gurkha troops provide to this country and its alliances.

The Minister of Defence himself has said in answer to a Parliamentary Question that the cost of the Gurkhas is about half the cost of a similar British battalion. We were told on our tour that it was about one third of the cost. The Government have always claimed that they are dedicated to cost effectiveness. If they are really to be loyal to this principle, here is an element which is far less costly— it is about half or a third of the cost—and is as effective as, and in certain cases more effective than, the equivalent British troops.

I hope that when the Minister of Defence goes to Singapore he will take the message and perhaps reconsider whether a policy which may have been right a little while ago is right today. He is going to Singapore to give away, as I understand from a Treasury Minute laid before the House, the Singapore dockyard, estimated to be worth £16.1 million. In addition, the Government have offered Singapore £50 million of defence aid during the next five years. These two alone—and there is more to come—total about £66 million to be given away to Singapore.

In answer to another Parliamentary Question the Minister has said that a British battalion costs about £1.4 million a year. On the basis that I have outlined, a battalion of Gurkhas would cost between £0.5 million and £0.7 million a year. On this basis, therefore, the £66 million which he is to give in aid to Singapore next week and in the next five years would pay for one extra Gurkha battalion for another 100 years. I wonder whether it is a sensible judgment to give away these vast sums of money at a time when we say we are short of foreign exchange, and to run down some of the most effective, loyal, dedicated and well trained troops that this country has ever seen.

The argument has been put forward that the Gurkhas are of limited use, that there are certain areas in the world where they cannot be used. Here I turn to what was said by the present Minister of Defence in 1963 in a debate in the House. Addressing Mr. Thorneycroft, the then Minister of Defence, the right hon. Gentleman said: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Gurkha troops have proved themselves ex- ceptionally suitable for the rôle which British forces have to perform in the Far East …? In his reply Mr. Thorneycroft said: … and I emphasise that the role of the Gurkhas is world-wide."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th December, 1963; Vol. 686, c. 369.] While I was out there I talked to the Gurkhas who had served in Salisbury Plain in some inclement weather. They had enjoyed it. I was surprised, but they said that in every way they greatly enjoyed serving in this country. I think that we should be wrong to suppose that they can serve only in tropical climates. After all, Nepal is high, cold and snowbound for many months of the year. The Gurkhas are born in high territory, of rugged disposition, and can serve with great distinction in tropical forests as well. It is a versatility we should not lightly throw away, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider seriously whether this is the moment to do so.

It is argued, also, that, in 1947, we made an agreement that the Gurkhas should not be used against people of similar religion, that is Hindu. But, again, I wonder whether this is appropriate today. India has recruited no fewer than 80,000 Gurkha troops. I believe that she has over 53 battalions of them—almost as many battalions of them as the British Army has as a whole. India used them in the Congo operations, where they were extremely effective and won praise on all sides. She has used them in Kashmir. I wonder whether the argument that they cannot be used in other territories is as valid as the Government argue.

In every place they have been used, the Gurkhas have gained a great reputation. I had an opportunity to discuss this matter with the Minister of Defence of Australia and with other defence officials. One of the clear messages I brought back was, "Why are you giving away this great asset at a time when you are desperately in need of cost-effective troops?"

The popularity of the Gurkhas wherever they have served is outstanding. Those of us who have visited them have noted their dedication, their loyalty to this country, their intense discipline. In face of all these facts, I ask the right hon. Gentleman, because I know that, in his heart, he is on the side of those who wish to see not only this country but our alliances defended, to consider, when he goes to Nepal and the Far East to keep an open mind, to keep the options open, and not to throw away the most loyal and effective troops ever to serve our country.

11.57 p.m.

Mr. John Peel (Leicester, South-East)

There is one aspect of this deplorable reduction of the Gurkha force which worries me a great deal. This is the effect on a vital part of South-East Asia, the State of Brunei.

Brunei, with which we have been in treaty relationship for a long time, with which we have had extremely close and friendly relations and which is still an extremely valuable part of the world to Britain and to the West, is, at the moment, covered by our defence arrangements and particularly by a Gurkha battalion for which it pays all the expenses. Not a penny burden falls upon the British taxpayer.

What worries me, in the depressing scuttle by the Government out of South-East Asia in 1971, is what will happen to the defence of Brunei. It is willing to pay for its defence with the help of the Gurkhas, who have proved admirable troops for that part of the world, which is jungle terrain. Yet I understand that, with the cutting down of the Gurkha force this is unlikely to be possible. What Brunei wants is a little help from Britain to enable her to keep these wonderful troops, for which she herself will pay.

I hope that, if not tonight then some time, the Government will be able to reassure us that we are not neglecting our vital interests here and the vital interests of a very loyal and valuable friend to Britain.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove)

I, too, am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Sir Ian Orr-Ewing) for raising this subject tonight. On 13th November, I put a Question to the Secretary of State for Defence asking how many infantry battalions were below establishment. The reply was 43 out of 59. I went on to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he did not think it lunacy to run down the Gurkha battalions which there was competition to join, far from there being any difficulty about recruiting. I am sure that my hon. Friends will agree that there is great competition to join Gurkha battalions serving with the British Army.

I saw the Gurkhas in action. I had the great privilege and honour of serving alongside the 43rd Gurkha Brigade in Italy, on the Coriano Ridge. We were fighting in tanks at the time and every evening when we went into laager for replenishment and maintenance we were shelled by some very unpleasant weapons Called Nebelwefer, German multi-barrelled mortars. These things used to land on us and cause many casualties and they made maintenance virtually impossible.

This went on for several days until a platoon of the Gurkhas was sent up the ridge—silently—and the shelling stopped. In other words, the O.P., which was bringing this gunfire down upon us, was stopped. I shall never forget that and I can never be more grateful to soldiers than to that platoon of the 43rd Gurkha Brigade in Italy in 1944.

The years went on and I saw the Gurkhas in an entirely different rôle, a peacekeeping rôle. Last September, I saw, I think it was, the 51st Brigade, on the borders between Hong Kong, the New Territories, and China. There I saw these first-class disciplined troops doing a magnificent job. Anybody who has any knowledge of this sort of peacekeeping border job will realise how well disciplined these troops have to be. If someone has a bullet up the spout and eases the spring by mistake and there is a bang, a major incident can occur. But one never felt that that sort of incident was likely while these Gurkha troops were there. They are absolutely first-class; they are loyal and they are reasonably priced. We were told that they cost about a third of the cost of an ordinary infantry battalion.

I beseech the right hon. Gentleman seriously to consider the views which we are putting forward. Here we have first-class troops who are loyal to this country and cheap to maintain and who have proved themselves to be brilliant in war and, more than that, steady in peacekeeping. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider any rundown of this magnificent outfit, the Gurkhas.

12 m.

The Minister of Defence for Administration (Mr. G. W. Reynolds)

I am glad that we are to have this short debate. Far from disagreeing with what has been said, I want to say that I agree with all that has been said about the loyalty, good-humour and bravery of the Gurkha battalions which have formed an integral part of the British Army since India became independent, and which have served the Crown for over 150 years, since the Nepal war of 1815. It is sometimes forgotten that during the First World War there were 200,000 of them, with 20,000 casualties, and in the Second World War there were 175,000, with 23,655 casualties.

Since the end of the Second World War they have seen action in a large area of the Far East, particularly during the Malayan emergency and more recently in confrontation, when they added to the 13 V.C.s which the units have won over the years of loyal service to the Crown. Most of the Gurkha soldiers are long-service soldiers and hope to serve until they have completed at least 15 years' service in order to earn a pension.

On 14th March, 1963, about the time of the debate in which, as hon. Gentlemen have commented, I made a remark, at that time it was announced by the then Secretary of State for War, Mr. Profumo, that the then Government intended to reduce the Gurkha Brigade from 14,600 to 10,000 over a period of three years. This, as we know, was postponed because of confrontation, and the Gurkha battalions, together with battalions from the U.K. successfully concluded that operation over a period of about two and a half to three years. When confrontation came to an end, we had to look at the position. The announcement of the rundown to 10,000 had already been made by the previous Conservative Administration.

I visited Nepal in December, 1966 and informed His Majesty's Government of the intentions of the Government to carry out the plan announced by the previous Administration. We arrange for the men to be returned to Nepal at an average rate of about 2,000 a year. I again visited Nepal in December, 1967, and in January, 1968, the Prime Minister announced in the House that we intended to continue the rundown at the rate of 2,000 a year, until a figure for the brigade of 6,000 was reached, by the end of 1971.

One of the reasons we fixed the rate at 2,000 a year was that we felt that this was about the number that would be convenient for the economy of Nepal to reintegrate. More important, it was because it was the maximum number we could give anything like a proper period of rehabilitation and training before they returned to the villages after their period of service with the Crown. I hope tomorrow week to be in Nepal again. I must, having recounted what happened after my previous visits, make it perfectly clear, and this perhaps answers the main point of the debate, that I do not go to Nepal on this occasion with any proposals whatsoever to change the present rundown plans.

Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)

Will the Minister please take the advice of my hon. Friend to keep an open mind? If he is not to change the Government's plans, will he give the people of Nepal a message, from this side of the House, that when we have the opportunity we will restore that position?

Mr. Reynolds

I repeat, I am not going to Nepal on this occasion with any proposals for changing the rundown plans announced, to 6,000 by the end of 1971. I shall be visiting the Gurkha transit camp at Barrackpore, not in a particularly good condition, and the Eastern Gurkha depot at Dharan to see how the resettlement courses are proceeding, and then I shall visit Katmandu, to renew contacts with Nepalese Ministers.

Comparative costs of Gurkha battalions as compared with United Kingdom recruited battalions have been quoted. The figures given are only half the story. Gurkha soldiers in the Far East cost, man for man, about one-third as much as United Kingdom soldiers. That is just the cost of the men. One has to look a bit further than that. A Gurkha battalion has considerably more men than a British battalion. Man for man it is about one-third, but there are considerably more men. [Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman will perhaps learn a little more about this subject as he spends longer on that Front Bench dealing with defence.

There are more men because it is not possible for a Gurkha man to go home on a fortnight's leave. He has to have a period of many months off in order to go home on leave. Therefore, there have to be considerably more men in the battalion to ensure there are the same number of riflemen as there are in a United Kingdom battalion at any one time.

Mr. Dance

Would he not agree that that may be so, but that when the time comes, when they have to go into action, those people can be recalled and they will have a really up-to-strength battalion, which, goodness knows, we have not got now?

Mr. Reynolds

The battalions are up to strength. Roughly one-quarter of the men are on leave at any one time. That is why there are more men in a Gurkha battalion than in a United Kingdom battalion.

We have to have a separate training organisation for them, which duplicates facilities that are available in the United Kingdom, but we will certainly not bring them all the way to the United Kingdom and then back to Hong Kong. In 1971, when we will have 6,000 men, that training organisation will cost £1.3 million a year. The hon. Member quoted a figure of £1.4 million as the cost for a British battalion. That is the cost in pay, etc., but many other things come into the true cost of a battalion.

While we have Gurkha battalions, we need a Gurkha training organisation, which costs £1.3 million a year. A Gurkha battalion fulfilling a similar role has exactly the same costs as a United Kingdom battalion for officers and equipment. With Gurkha troops, the head of that organisation and most of the supporting arms and services are largely United Kingdom-manned.

The figures which I have been able to work out, as accurately as possible, show that in 1971, when we plan to have 6,000 Gurkhas serving in Hong Kong, the cost will be about 61 per cent. of the cost of an equivalent United Kingdom unit stationed in Hong Kong, or nearly two-thirds when looked at overall. If they were stationed in the United Kingdom, my information, which has been fairly carefully worked out, shows that a Gurkha battalion would cost slightly more than for a United Kingdom-recruited battalion stationed in this country. The hon. Member for Hendon, North (Sir Ian Orr-Ewing) shakes his head, but he has asked for figures and I am giving them. Whatever pledges his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) makes, he cannot give a pledge to alter those figures, because they are the costs.

I have no intention tonight of getting into an argument as between the effectiveness of individual Gurkha or other battalions in the British Army recruited in the United Kingdom. I made my comments on the matter—the right hon. and learned Member has quoted them—in the debate in 1962/63, and I see no reason to change them. We must, however, face the fact that the announcement then made was that we required a total of 190,000 soldiers in the Army, including 10.000 Gurkhas, to meet our then commitments. By 1971, the commitments will have been considerably reduced. We shall be out of Singapore, we are out of Aden and we shall be out of the Gulf. Commitments have been reduced and we are planning a total of 158,000 men, including 6,000 Gurkhas. United Kingdom-recruited battalions are, therefore, also being cut as well as the Gurkha infantry battalions.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

That presupposes that we can recruit that number, but 43 of our 59 battalions are under strength and we are not able to recruit the numbers of men we desire to recruit. The Minister is assuming that we shall be able to recruit them. If we cannot recruit in this country, surely we should stop the run-down of the Gurkhas, since this has happened since the recent decision was taken to reduce to 6,000.

Mr. Reynolds

I accept that recruiting in this country is not satisfactory. Thinking back, however, the hon. Member will realise that battalions in the United Kingdom were considerably more under strength in 1963, when the original announcement was made. There is no doubt about that.

As regards use, I can only quote what was said in the previous debate, when the then Secretary of State pointed out that there might be circumstances when the use of Gurkhas could be restricted or their recruitment terminated. There are parts of the world where, for social or religious reasons, we would wish to use United Kingdom rather than Gurkha-recruited troops in certain circumstances.

The hon. Member raised the question of the use of Gurkhas by other countries arid he mentioned Brunei. We were, of course, planning to withdraw the first battalion of the Second Gurkha Rifles from Brunei this year, but it has been decided that they will stay there until further notice. We are, of course, coming out of the Far East generally, as already announced, by the end of 1971. The question of other countries making use of Gurkha troops when we have left an area is not one I can comment on. It is a matter which will have to be dealt with directly by the Government of that country and His Majesty the King of Nepal's Government.

We recruit Gurkha soldiers into the British Army. If anyone else wants to recruit Gurkhas, for any purpose whatever, military or police purposes, that is not a matter with which Her Majesty's Government here are concerned.

Mr. Peel

I understand that the trouble, at the moment at any rate, is that it is not possible for Brunei, even later on in 1971, to negotiate directly with Nepal for these troops. It would have to be done with the assistance of Britain.

Mr. Reynolds

I am not responsible for what negotiations the Government of Brunei may or may not have with the Government of Nepal. It is not something for which I can answer. I am only saying that, if any country wants Gurkha soldiers, that is not a matter for which Ministers in this House are responsible. That is something they would have to discuss themselves.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

We have an obligation to Brunei. We cannot just tear it up. We have done that sort of thing already in Aden. We are doing it in the Persian Gulf and threatening to do with Malaysia. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to stand by his word and the word of the Government, and, on behalf of the Government, to recognise, on this occa- sion, that we have a defence obligation to Brunei. Brunei is asking us to help so that Gurkhas can continue to serve in that part of the world. Would not the right hon. Gentleman help carry out our word and obligation in this sphere?

Mr. Reynolds

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are discussions going on at present in and around South-East Asia between Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and ourselves to decide what the position will be when we have withdrawn our military forces from that area. These negotiations have been going on, and will continue to go on for some time.

There is only one final point on which I must comment. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Hendon, North said that I was going to Singapore to begin to hand over something like £66 million worth of assets. I think that that was the figure he mentioned. I have not checked it. I will accept it, giving £ 1 million either way. He said that this was taxpayers' money and that it could be used for other purposes.

Of course, money can always be used for some other purpose if one is prepared to sacrifice what it is at the moment being spent on. But the dockyard I shall be handing over is not money: it is a fixed asset which cannot be moved. If the hon. Gentleman is to start criticising the amount of assets we have left behind, then I would say that £66 million is not anything like the worth of the stores and munitions that we left in Suez, when we pulled out of there.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

In this instance, they want us to stay. This did not apply to other places from which we have pulled out since the end of the war. In Malaysia, Singapore—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.