HC Deb 22 May 1989 vol 153 cc683-90 3.51 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas.

We have been considering the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas after the United Kingdom withdraws from Hong Kong in 1997. We recognise the concerns of the Gurkhas about their future, but there are many uncertainties inherent in trying to look this far ahead. The international scene is currently in a period of change with welcome improvements in east-west relations and correspondingly better prospects for progress in conventional arms control. Domestically, as a result of demographic factors, the number of young people from whom the Army must recruit is now well below the level of recent years and will continue to be so into the 21st century. Inevitably, recruiting into the British Army will become more difficult as a result.

It is not possible therefore to be definitive at this stage about the future for the Gurkhas after 1997. Major changes in circumstances in the interim, particularly in the size of the British Army as a whole—or developments in the future manning situation—may require us to reconsider. However, on the basis of the information available at present, I have decided that, although the Hong Kong commitment will have ceased, we should plan on a future for the Gurkhas after 1997 based on a viable brigade structure. At present, we see this force being a balance of four Gurkha infantry battalions, squadrons of the Queen's Gurkha Engineers, the Queen's Gurkha Signals and the Gurkha Transport Regiment, together with the necessary infrastructure. It would comprise about 4,000 personnel. I would expect the future Gurkha force to have roles that lie within the main stream of the Army's defence commitments, including, as now, a substantial Gurkha presence in the United Kingdom.

There will be a progressive restructuring towards the new force over several years. The timing of these changes will depend on both the commitments and circumstances facing the entire British Army at the time, and, in particular, on the extent to which it is possible to recruit and retain British soldiers within the Army in the face of the demographic difficulties. These difficulties may also lead us to increase the number of Gurkhas to be retained. If necessary this can be considered at a later stage. The present arrangements with the Government of Nepal, whereby Gurkhas are recruited and discharged in Nepal and remain Nepalese citizens at all times, will continue.

No change in the current deployments of Gurkhas is envisaged until withdrawal of a battalion from Hong Kong takes place, which would not be before 1992. No major decisions are needed on the future of this battalion until next year, when we shall have a clearer picture of the impact of demographic trends on army manning.

The House will wish to know that the Government of Nepal have been informed, in advance, of our plans.

Finally, I should like to emphasise that the Gurkhas have served the Crown with distinction since 1815. They have fought alongside British troops in many theatres, including two world wars and the Malayan emergency; and most recently they served in the Falklands campaign. This announcement contains the elements necessary to demonstrate to the Gurkhas that we are planning for them to have a worthwhile and viable future in the British Army after our withdrawal from Hong Kong. As such, it will, I am sure, be welcomed by them, by this House and by the country at large.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

Despite what the Secretary of State would have us believe, we view with great dismay a real cut in the number of Gurkhas serving in the British Army. There will be a cut of 50 per cent. from 8,071 personnel serving in the Gurkha brigade to 4,000. That is a substantial cut in anyone's terms.

The Secretary of State has presented us with a mess of words and he has not come up with many answers. The number of Gurkha battalions is to be reduced from five to four, and we want to know how he will account for the 4,000 personnel. Are all the Gurkha battalions to consist of three companies rather than four? If so, to what use will the remaining companies be put? Are we to understand that the engineer, signal and transport regiments are to be reduced to mere squadrons? How many personnel are to be lost from these units?

As the Secretary of State has said, from the point of view of tradition and history the Gurkhas have served us well for about 174 years. They served mainly on the Indian subcontinent during the previous century but in this century their battle honours reflect brave service in Europe, the middle east and, more recently, in the Falklands.

Their 13 Victoria crosses, which they have won since 1914, are ample testimony to the loyalty, courage and steadfastness of these great soldiers.

The enlistment of Gurkhas in the British Army has been vital to the economy of their native country of Nepal. It is stated in the admirable report of the Select Committee on Defence on the future of the Gurkha brigade, which was published earlier this year, that the value to Nepal of the British Gurkhas is about £30 million annually. As the report states, that is two and a half times the United Kingdom's overseas aid to Nepal. What proposals do the Government have to replace that? Are there to be further discussions on aid? Rather than inform the Nepalese Government, may we have an assurance from the Secretary of State that the Government will have serious discussions with the Nepalese on the imposition of a 50 per cent. cut in the income that they derive from the British Gurkhas?

What will be the future of the British military hospital in Katmandu? We know that it is to be handed over to the Nepalese in 1990, but will the Government carry out their promises of aid and support in the handover period?

The Secretary of State suggested that he was making a "nothing" statement. He seemed to suggest that he could pick things up in future. He seemed to be saying in a rather insulting way to the Nepalese, "You can have your soldiers back home now but when we want to pick them up again in future, we shall do so." I think that it is a shabby statement.

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) for his tribute to the Gurkhas arid the remarkable service which they have given. I was rather surprised by his reaction to my statement and I think that the Gurkhas will be surprised as well. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Gurkhas' present role is to reinforce security in Hong Kong. We are talking about a position after 1997 when, by definition, there will be no such role. The maintenance of a Brigade of Gurkhas is a real gesture of our appreciation of what the Gurkhas have done and what they can do in future. It is an enhancement of what is available to the British Army. The statement will be more widely welcomed than the hon. Gentleman seems to think.

I can confirm to the hon. Member that the companies in the battalions which will continue will probably number three instead of four. That will mean that they can match up more easily with the role of the other battalions which they will work alongside in the British Army, which will have three companies.

The squadrons will be reduced from regimental size to independent squadron size although, as I made clear in my statement, the expected figure of 4,000 can and perhaps will be increased when the effect of the demographic factors is considered. I appreciate what the hon. Member for Rhondda said about the economy of Nepal. We are very conscious of that factor because we value our relationship with the Government of Nepal on this matter. We will continue discussion with the Nepalese Government. We have already told the Nepalese Government that the hospital at Dharan—not Katmandu, as the hon. Member for Rhondda said—will be handed over to the Nepalese Government. The Nepalese have welcomed that. As that hospital deals almost entirely with Nepalese civilian patients, that move seems appropriate. We shall help the Nepalese Government to manage the transition and to pay for the handover business. We shall continue discussions with them.

I also welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the report of the Select Committee on Defence. The report was immensely helpful and very well researched. I join the hon. Member for Rhondda in thanking all the members of the Select Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), the Chairman of the Select Committee, for all their work.

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, while his general announcement about the future of the Gurkhas is welcome, the almost total lack of any detail after such a long delay is difficult to understand? This will still leave much uncertainty and anxiety in the many places that members of the Select Committee on Defence visited during the course of our inquiry where Gurkhas are to be found.

In particular, will my right hon. Friend confirm what I inferred from his reply to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers)—that the figure of 4,000 is very much the worst case figure which he thought he should set? Even the detail of reducing from five to four battalions and reducing the companies to three per battalion does not add up if my right hon. Friend says that all the infrastructure—the infantry and supporting arms and services—are to be retained in some form. In that context, is it planned to have a Ghurkha brigade or to merge the Ghurkha troops with British brigades, which would help my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State because there would be less infrastructure? How is that to work out?

If more Gurkha soldiers and their families are to be stationed in this country I can state that, from experience of the Gurkha battalion in my constituency, they will be most welcome. Over the past few years they have been outstanding members of the community and they are extremely welcome wherever they go. I am sure that their brothers who follow from Hong Kong will be just as welcome in this country.

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments and for the work that he and the Select Committee on Defence put into this matter. I appreciate what he says about the detail, which cannot be included in the statement. However, I hope that that will not lead to any feeling of uncertainty among the Gurkhas. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, the figure that I announced today of a brigade strength Gurkha regiment with four battalions and a minimum number of 4,000 men is the figure which we definitely expect to be required after 1997. As I made clear in my statement, it may be necessary in due course, if other recruitment falls, to have a rather higher figure. I can confirm that we believe that the minimum viable number is about 4,000, as I have said. We certainly envisage that the battle order of this brigade and the strength of 4,000 allows for three infantry company battalions at full strength with the independent squadrons.

With regard to the brigade structure, there will be a Brigade of Gurkhas with a brigade headquarters for administration. However, the operation of the Gurkha units will be tied in with that of the rest of the British Army according to where the particular units are serving.

With regard to the future and the uncertainty to which my hon. Friend referred, I must state that we are talking about providing in 1989 for a situation which will occur after 1997. With the best will in the world and long-term planning, that is a long time in the future. The fact that we have been able to give this element of assurance—the statement involves a rock-bottom level of assurance—should reassure all those who are concerned about the Gurkhas that we consider that their very valuable service should continue in future.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

The Secretary of State paid tribute to the Select Committee on Defence and to its First Report on the future of the Gurkhas. Does he accept that his announcement today in reality rejects the Select Committee's conclusions? In particular, on what basis has he rejected the Select Committee's conclusion that The evidence of the Ministry of Defence gives us no grounds for concluding that a cut in the number of Gurkha infantry battalions is justified"? Similarly, on what grounds did he reject the Select Committee's recommendation that there is good reason to suppose that the British Army will need them, in something like their present numbers, well into the 21st century"? Do the proposals for redeployment involve consideration of a role in the British Army of the Rhine? Are the Gurkhas to be confined to the United Kingdom mainland or will they be available for service throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Younger

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his comments. However, I do not agree that the statement amounts to any rejection of the report of the Select Committee on Defence. If we had decided to keep the Brigade of Gurkhas at its present full strength of about 8,000 after 1997 when the Hong Kong commitment, which takes up so much of their strength now, had gone, that would have been an enormous enhancement to the forces available to the British Army. I hope that everyone, including my colleagues on the Select Committee on Defence, will accept that that would have been a very exceptional step to take. We have given a clear signal. Our minimum viable level for the Gurkhas ties in well with the view expressed by the Select Committee.

The roles which the Gurkhas can carry out in future will be broadly similar to those of other battalions in the British Army. However, there are some roles for which the Gurkhas are perhaps not so suitable as other British battalions; in particular, for service in infantry battalions in Northern Ireland where language problems would make them less suitable. However, there are many other roles in the British Army which the Gurkhas fulfil just as well as other battalions and we hope to weld them in there.

There is nothing new with Gurkhas being stationed in the United Kingdom. We aim to continue their present terms and conditions of service as closely as we can.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

Will my right hon. Friend accept the congratulations of the majority of the House on his firm commitment to a minimum level of 4,000? However, that figure begs a number of questions. What is the future of the long home leave system? Can we be sure that 15 to 20 per cent. of a Nepalese battalion will still be able to go on long leave, which is essential to maintain their cultural and home ties? Is the present plan likely to affect the arrangement whereby the Ghurkhas carry their own reserves? That is one of the main reasons why the Gurkhas have four companies instead of three. Does he expect that they will be tied into the Territorial Army in some way or to some other organisation?

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has a long and deep interest in the Gurkhas, for his congratulations on the general tenor of the statement. I confirm that we shall keep the long leave system and that the battalions' future strength and obligations will allow sufficient scope for the existing leave system to be continued. The main reason for having the fourth company in Gurkha battalions is their enormously manpower-intensive role on the Hong Kong border. When that role ends, three companies—as in other British battalions—will be more appropriate. The strength of the Gurkha battalions will allow for that three-company set-up still to provide for the essential long leave system that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

The Secretary of State should not believe that churlishness causes right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to think that his statement has some of the charactistics of a colander. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman must take into account the variables that can arise between now and 1997, and that it makes sense for him to be canny. I do not blame him for that. Perhaps I can plug just one hole in the colander. The Secretary of State will recall that at the time of press speculation and comment when the Select Committee was considering the Gurkhas' future, one school of thought of questionable origin was that the Gurkhas may be suitable for one type of warfare but not for another. I refer not to Northern Ireland but to their role in high tech, modern rapid response situations. The suggestion made in the media was that perhaps the Gurkhas do not think quickly enough. Will the right hon. Gentleman put that argument to bed once and for all and counter it, here and now?

Mr. Younger

Yes, certainly. I am glad to respond to the hon. Gentleman by countering that suggestion completely. The Gurkhas are not only extremely good soldiers who fought extremely well in many different conditions and theatres, but are clearly very adaptable. I have no doubt that they can cope with any task that they are given.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I warmly congratulate him on making the long-term decision that he has, not just for reasons of recruitment but because—and this is the important factor—it maintains our honourable link with the Gurkhas over a great many years? Looking to the future, will my right hon. Friend give consideration not only to the Gurkhas' roles out of area but to roles that need extra support within NATO itself?

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. It is a long-term decision in the sense that it secures a long-term future for the Gurkhas when their present major role disappears. That is the good side of the long-term decision. The less good side is that it is not possible this far in advance to make detailed pronouncements about precisely where each part of the Gurkhas will serve. I take my hon. Friend's point about the Gurkhas' future roles. They will be available for most general duties throughout the British Army —the same as other infantry battalions.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will the Secretary of State reflect that Nepal needs help here and now? Without going into the merits of the country's very unfortunate dispute with India, is it not a fact that Nepal's forests are being cut down to provide fuel because that has been denied to the country, and that it is currently in a terrible economic situation? As a token of gratitude for much service, ought not the British Government to do something here and now? Will the right hon. Gentleman at least undertake to read my Adjournment debate tomorrow night, on the problems of tropical rain forests when I will describe the ways in which Nepal can be helped, and then discuss it with his hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development?

Mr. Younger

I shall certainly read the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate with great interest and —although I am sure that this will not be necessary—I shall draw it to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development. By making further use of the Gurkhas' excellent military skills, we indirectly make a contribution to the Nepalese economy, and we are glad to do so. However, overall responsibility for aiding the Nepalese economy is a matter for my hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas development, and I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are drawn to his attention.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

All those like yourself, Mr. Speaker, who served in the incomparable Indian Army in the second world war will know of the Gurkhas' legendary qualities, including their steadfastness and their courage. This country owes them a great deal of gratitude. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that one cannot separate soldiers from the society that breeds them? Nepal is basically a very poor country and has a need for economic aid. While we warmly welcome the promise made about the hospital at Dharan, it is not enough. Can my right hon. Friend say whether continued economic support will be given to Nepal, not in the 1990s but from now on?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate my right hon. Friend's remarks about the enormous respect and gratitude that we all have for the Gurkhas, for what they have done, are doing and will continue to do in helping the British Army in their incomparable way. We want to do all that we can to help our friends in Nepal, in any way that we can. However, as my right hon. Friend will appreciate, my role as Secretary of State for Defence is limited to ensuring that the Gurkha element is well organised and properly run. I hope that my statement is reassuring about that aspect. Nevertheless, I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend's remarks also are drawn to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development.

Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is to be congratulated on ending a period of uncertainty? Nothing is more debilitating than uncertainty. Can my right hon. Friend say more about the future of the Gurkhas, not only in the context of their connection with the United Kingdom but their role in other countries, such as Brunei? Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that tributes have been paid by right hon and hon. Members in all parts of the House to the wonderful work that the Gurkhas have done and will continue to do, thank God—and I do not mean that irreverently—in helping us all to maintain a free world? It is gratifying that the whole House unites in paying great tribute to the Gurkhas for that. The truncation of the association is sad, but it is joyful that the link will be continued, albeit on not such a substantial scale as in the past.

Mr. Younger

I strongly agree with my hon. and learned Friend that the ending of uncertainty is important, and something for which all concerned with the Gurkhas have hoped over a considerable period of time. My feeling is that my statement today will do just that. I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for reminding the House of the remarkable role that the Gurkha battalion plays in Brunei. The Sultan of Brunei has been informed of the situation, and I am grateful for the hospitality that he extends to the Gurkha battalion in Brunei. It plays a useful role there, and one that we welcome.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

Together with four other hon. Members and a Member of another place, I was privileged to be in Nepal in January, but under different auspices than the Defence Select Committee. We saw at first hand the significant economic and environmental problems that confront Nepal. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) they are not helped by India's present blockade. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be a welcome not only in Nepal but in our constituencies—which attach importance to the Gurkhas' past service—for the care he has taken hitherto and for his close consideration of the points raised today? Is he aware also of the importance that the people of Nepal attach to the hospital at Dharan, and can he give further details about how the British Government will assist its transfer?

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and take very seriously the points that he and others have made about the economy of Nepal. To allay some of their anxiety, it is worth repeating that there will be no reduction in the present strength of the Gurkhas until at least 1992, and that the economic benefits of the current set-up will continue until and even after 1997.

Although the hospital has been dealing with military personnel, the overwhelming majority of patients have been civilian, and the Nepalese Government welcome the proposal that it should become a civilian responsibility. British assistance in the running of the hospital will, however, continue for some time, and discussions are in progress about how that should be done.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

Having served in the army for a short time, let me join those who have paid tribute to the Gurkhas, and those who have welcomed the good news contained in the statement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a lesson to be learned from the spirit of the Gurkhas? After all, the loyalty and success of a regiment depends on its local connections and origins. When considering recruitment, will the British Army think of restoring the local links—perhaps even of restoring the county regiments?

Mr. Younger

I sympathise with much of what my hon. Friend has said, but—as I am sure he will understand—because the matter affects regiments other than the Gurkhas, it will need to be considered much more carefully on another occasion.