HC Deb 18 July 1991 vol 195 cc633-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Nicholas Baker.]

11.24 pm
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

It is symptomatic of our treatment of defence matters in this place that the future of some of the finest soldiers ever to serve the British Crown should be debated late at night when all but a handful of hon. Members have gone home. However, the hour and the manner of the debate belie the real concern of right hon. and hon. Members of whom no fewer than 153 have signed early-day motion 921 about the future of the brigade of Gurkhas. It states: That this House believes that the Gurkhas have a unique record of service in the British Army and loyalty to the British Crown, that their qualities of adaptability and devotion to duty will still be required in the defence of Britain's interests in an uncertain world in the future; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to confirm that the Gurkha Brigade will continue to have a worthwhile and viable future in the British Army as previously declared by the Right honourable Member for Ayr, the former Secretary of State for Defence on 22nd May 1989. At least three more hon. Members signed that early-day motion today, but their names will not be printed to the motion until next Thursday after my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is expected to have made his statement to the House on the reorganisation of regimental structure in the Army.

The Government would be wrong to underestimate the strong feelings in the House that the Royal Brigade of Gurkhas should be retained within the British Army and that assurances about the brigade's future given as recently as May 1989 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), the former Secretary of State for Defence, should be honoured.

During the Ministry of Defence's current review of the size and shape of the British Army no unit other than the Gurkhas has inspired an early-day motion in its name. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) has argued the case for the Parachute Regiment, and rightly so. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen) has argued the case for the Household Division and for the Army as a whole, and rightly so; and the former Army Minister, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart, in debate and on paper has warned of the serious potential for overstretch, particularly of infantry, if the proposed reductions in battalions go ahead. He has emphasised the key potential role of the Gurkhas especially for international peace-keeping outside the NATO area.

Since Sir John Nott and Sir James Scott-Hopkins left this place, I know of no Member who has served in a Gurkha battalion. I participated in a parachute course with the Gurkhas 30 years ago at Abingdon. The impression that they made on me then has never left me and it was renewed when I went with the Select Committee on Defence to visit them in Nepal in 1989.

The Gurkhas have no constituency Members—unlike the Royal Hampshire Regiment and the Green Howards. However, it is noteworthy that the simplistic argument that each Gurkha battalion retained means one additional British battalion disbanded has, from the evidence of the amendment to that effect to early-day motion 921, few adherents. There are but four names in support of those three amendments and there are good reasons for that.

The Gurkhas uniquely derive their status in the British Army by international treaty. Gurkhas were first recruited to the service of the British East India Company by virtue of the treaty of Segauli, which ended the British-Nepalese war in 1816 and which also declared perpetual friendship between Britain and Nepal. Following the partition of the subcontinent on Indian and Pakistani independence on 15 August 1947, a tripartite agreement was signed between the Governments of India, Nepal and the United Kingdom whereby six Gurkha regiments were incorporated in the Indian army and four transferred to the British army. Paragraph 4(6) of the agreement stated: The Government of Nepal have agreed that Her Majesty's Government in the UK may employ Gurkha officers and soldiers up to the number required to maintain eight battalions or their equivalent at peacetime strength, on mutually satisfactory terms and conditions of service. The two Governments will consult together on the question of recruiting Gurkha troops in excess of this strength. The then Secretary of State for Defence, in his statement on the tripartite agreement to this House on 1 December 1947, concluded: For our part … we have no doubt that, as between friends, its provisions will be loyally observed and can be smoothly carried into effect."—[Official Report,1 December 1947; Vol. 445, c. 36.] In other words, unlike other regiments in the British Army which, if disbanded, can be reformed at the will of the British Government, if the Gurkhas are disbanded, the Government of Nepal might feel that a solemn agreement between friends had been abrogated and that Gurkha loyalty had been repaid with British indifference and then, possibly in some future emergency or war, British pleas for the recruitment of Gurkha troops to serve our Crown once more could fall on deaf ears in Kathmandu.

In world war one, 200,000 Gurkhas served on Britain's behalf, and in world war two, a quarter of a million. There is hardly any corner of a foreign field of battle where British troops have been engaged these past 176 years which has not also been watered by Gurkha blood. Although eligible for the Victoria Cross only since the first world war, 13 Gurkha soldiers and 13 officers attached to the Gurkhas have won VCs. The most recent award was in 1965 during the Indonesian confrontation. Field Marshal Lord Slim memorably summarised their qualities. He said: The Almighty created in the Gurkha an ideal rifleman, brave, tough, patient, adaptable, skilled in field craft, intensely proud of his military record and unswerving loyalty. Add to that his honesty in word and deed, his parade perfection, and his unquenchable cheerfulness, then service with Gurkhas is for any soldier an immense satisfaction. The Gurkhas will be the last to wish to retain their place in the British Army on grounds of sentiment or emotion. Gratitude alone carries few arguments in Whitehall. Although the traditions born of personal example, loyalty and devotion to duty inspire excellence in the profession of arms, the duller dross of the ledger book and the weighing of human worth according to administrative convenience and cost effectiveness will be the order of the day when decisions on regiments' futures are made.

On that mundane balance sheet, the Gurkhas have irrefutable advantages, even for the most drily dispassionate Ministry of Defence official. Three of the five Gurkha infantry battalions are currently in Hong Kong, where they serve unaccompanied tours with an extra rifle company per battalion over the normal complement for United Kingdom battalions. That is because of their role on anti-illegal immigration duties.

The "Options for Change" regimental amalgamations and disbandments are to be completed by mid-1995. However, the People's Republic of China is not due to assume control of Hong Kong until two years later, on 1 July 1997. It is possible that, as that dreadful date approaches, security in the colony will become very difficult indeed. Other milestones along the long recessional of British power and sovereignty around the globe—partition in India in 1947 and the withdrawal from Aden in 1967—have been marked with bloodshed and strife. It would be wise to retain the full complement of experienced Gurkha troops in place in Hong Kong, with their supporting engineer, signals and transport elements, until the Union Jack goes down.

A Gurkha battalion in Brunei is stationed in the Sultanate under an agreement with the Sultan, which was renewed for five years by Her Majesty's Government in 1988, whereby the sultan bears the full cost of the battalion. The British-run jungle warfare school at Seria provides invaluable training, and it is hard to foresee its perpetuation if the British Gurkha battalion left Brunei.

Finally, the battalion that is stationed in the United Kingdom is part of 5 Airborne brigade, which has just the kind of highly mobile and flexible role that Her Majesty's Government are trying to promote in the British Army in the future. Gurkhas take to parachuting like ducks to water. The battalion that is based in the United Kingdom is also available for unaccompanied tours in the Falklands and Belize, thus reducing the overstretch imposed on United Kingdom-recruited battalions.

In short, Her Majesty's Government should unequivocally confirm the statement made to the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr when he was Secretary of State for Defence on 22 May 1989. He said: 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."—[Official Report,22 May 1989; Vol. 153, c. 683.] It is noteworthy that, in their official response, Cm. 700, to the Select Committee on Defence's admirably scholarly 1989 report on the future of the Gurkhas, Her Majesty's Government endorsed the Committee's recommendations virtually in their entirety, the most noteworthy endorsement being that any future for the Gurkhas has to be based on a viable Brigade structure. Thus the Government's plans for a future Gurkha force envisage a balance of infantry battalions, squadrons of The Queen's Gurkha Engineers, Queen's Gurkha Signals and Gurkha Transport Regiment. There is also a minimum size of force below which it is difficult to operate practicable manning arrangements; provide a base which is sufficiently broad to support the range of skills and trades required; and obtain a cost-effective return on the investment in the infrastructure needed to support the Gurkhas and the lines of communication in Nepal … The Government agrees with the Defence Committee that the Gurkhas represent good value for money and the Government's plans for a viable future Brigade structure will ensure that they continue to do so. If Her Majesty's Government's existing publicly announced decisions for the future of the Gurkhas are maintained, let no one say that the Gurkhas will not be bearing their full share of the cuts. Their strength is now just over 8,000; if Her Majesty's Government's existing plans are implemented, their number will be halved within six or seven years.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr said about the infantry in the Army debate on I July, It is vital that the 36 battalions—or whatever the new number will be—are at full strength. The only way to achieve that is to go for the areas that, year in, year out, have the best recruitment and retention levels. I could defend that position anywhere".—[Official Report, 1 July 1991; Vol. 194, c. 74.] As it happens, the Gurkhas have the best recruitment and retention record of the whole British Army. In recent years, they have always been fully recruited. Gurkhas serve on average for at least 15 years, whereas British soldiers serve on average for only five years. As the establishment of a Gurkha battalion is 927, against 630 for a British battalion—if it is fully recruited—the cost per man per year is about one third less for a Gurkha battalion.

Furthermore, Gurkha pay and pensions are on Indian army scales under the tripartite agreement. In 1989, the annual cost of Gurkha pensions was about £5.6 million a year for 20,000 pensioners, or £280 per annum per pensioner. The annual cost of British Army pensions was about £500 million a year for about 135,000 pensioners—on average £3,700 per annum per pensioner. The remittances from serving soldiers and Gurkha pensions amount to about two and a half times the official annual aid of Her Majesty's Government to Nepal. The skills, training and personal qualities which British Gurkha soldiers bring to their home villages and beautiful native land is an incomparable asset to one of the poorest countries in the world, a nation which has a treaty of friendship in perpetuity with Britain and whose people merit our loyal adherence to public assurances already given, the most important of which is that the British Brigade of Gurkhas should have a worth while and viable future in the British Army.

11.39 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on securing this debate. I know that the future of the Gurkhas is a subject of keen interest at the present time to a number of right hon and hon. Members of this House and, indeed, to many members of the general public. My hon. Friend has previously shown commendable interest in the future of the Gurkhas, most notably as a member of the Select Committee on Defence when he, as he said, took evidence on the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas in 1988–89. He recalled the statement in May 1989 by the then Secretary of State for Defence announcing the proposal to retain 4,000 Gurkhas after 1997. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) did, however, make clear the uncertainties inherent in looking that far ahead, and in particular cited changes in the international scene and the size of the Army as a whole. It is, of course, improvements in east-west relations that have led to the "Options for Change" exercise and the need to review the size and structure of the future Army.

Interest is particularly high at present, as the future of the Gurkhas cannot be divorced from that of the Army as a whole. It is worth emphasising that the Gurkhas are an integral part of the British Army. Although the majority of the soldiers and some of the officers in the brigade are foreign nationals, they take an oath of allegiance to the Queen and serve alongside their British counterparts.

My hon. Friend will recognise that the period of change and uncertainty represents a particularly difficult time for the Army. As I have said previously in the House, no area of the Army is exempt from consideration under "Options for Change". As my hon. Friend will be aware, consultations within the Army are now taking place and proposals are being put to Ministers. I am aware that there has been a certain amount of speculation in the media and in the House about the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas. I do not intend to use my speech today to add to that speculation. No final decisions have been made about the future of individual units and, as my hon. Friend will know and appreciate, there is little that I can say in advance of the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hopes to make next week.

With regard to the origins of Gurkha service, the Gurka takes his name from the small principality of Gorkha whose king in the mid-eighteenth century conquered most of what is now known as Nepal. The king and his successors grew so powerful that they overran the whole of the hill country from the Kashmir border to east of Bhutan. Finally, the many deep incursions into the territories of the Honourable East India Company were halted by the declaration of war by the Governor-General in 1814. The war was fought using irregular local forces against the Nepalese until we reached a settlement in 1816 which allowed the Nepalese soldiers to enter British service, and thus the first three regiments of Gurkhas were raised. For more than 100 years the Gurkhas were an integral part of the British Indian Army. At that stage, the Indian Army contained a large number of regiments renowned for their fighting abilities, such as the Sikhs and Pathans, and the Gurkhas were not singled out for any special status until relatively recent times.

The loyalty of the Gurkha troops, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is renowned. During the Indian mutiny of 1857 the Gurkhas remained constant in their allegiance, even when the majority of the Bengal army in which they were serving rebelled. The first Victoria Cross awarded to the Gurkhas was during that campaign, and was awarded in 1858 to a British officer serving in what became the First Gurkha Rifles.

Until the first world war, the Gurkhas served in almost all the campaigns in India and on its frontiers. The first world war brought the first change to that situation, with the contingents of Gurkhas despatched to fight in many theatres of war. The main campaigns in which they fought were in the middle east—Palestine and Mesopotamia—where they won a number of battle honours, but they also won battle honours for Suvla Bay and Gallipoli, and fought on the western front in 1914 and 1915. It is difficult for us to imagine how the appalling conditions in the trenches must have affected hill tribesmen from the remote and underdeveloped mountainous country of Nepal. The battle honours of the 2nd King Edward VII Own Gurkha Rifles include La Bass&e 1914, Festubert 1914–15, Givenchy 1914, and Loos.

The contribution of the Indian Army during those years was enormous. Some 33 battalions of Gurkhas were raised, and 200,000 Nepalese men served in the Indian Army, suffering about 20,000 casualties. That was the first period during which the Gurkhas came to wide notice for their exploits outside India and its environs.

Between the wars, the Gurkhas reverted to 10 regiments, serving in India and fighting many actions on the frontiers. Again, the Gurkhas have to be seen in the context of their role as a part of the armies in India, rather than in the context of the British Army in which they perform so well today.

The second world war again saw a major expansion of the Gurkhas. More than 175,000 men served in more than 40 battalions, and suffered some 24,000 casualties. They fought with distinction in all the main theatres of war, and acquired battle honours including Tobruk, El Alamein and Tunis during the North African campaign and for the Gothic Line and Cassino in Italy.

The Gurkhas will be mainly remembered, however, for their contributions in Burma. Their battle honours for those campaigns include all the actions which are most vividly remembered—Imphal, Mandalay, Rangoon Road and with the Chindits. The Gurkhas earned 12 Victoria Crosses during the second world war.

The partition of India in 1947 led to the break-up of the armies which had been stationed there under the Raj. It was decided to retain four regiments of Gurkhas, who would become part of the British Army, and the six remaining Gurkha regiments would become part of the independent Indian Army; individuals were given the choice of force with which they wished to remain. It was thus that, in 1948, the Gurkhas for the first time became fully part of the British Army.

The four British regiments have remained the same ever since—the 2nd, 6th, 7th and 10th Gurkha Rifles. The 2nd Gurkha Rifles has, since 1902. been known as King Edward VII Own. In 1949 the 10th Gurkha Rifles became the Princess Mary's Own, and in 1959 the 6th and 7th became Queen Elizabeth's Own and the Duke of Edinburgh's Own. In 1977, during the Queen's silver jubilee year, Her Majesty honoured three units of the Brigade of Gurkhas. The Gurkha Engineers and Gurkha Signals received royal titles and Prince Charles was appointed colonel-in-chief of the 2nd King Edward VII Own Gurkha Rifles. The adoption of those titles reflected both the incorporation of the Gurkhas in the British Army and the high regard in which they were rightly held by the British public.

The 1950s saw the Gurkhas take on roles other than their traditional infantry role. They formed the Queen's Gurkha Engineers, the Queen's Gurkha Signals, the Gurkha Army Service Corps—the forerunners of the Gurkha Transport Regiment—and, temporarily, the Gurkha Military Police. There is currently one regiment of each of those specialisms, other than the Military Police, and a total of five battalions of infantry. Thus, the present organisation of the Gurkhas largely reflects the roles established in the 1950s, at which time their numbers reached a post-war peak of some 15,000.

To bring this brief resume of the history of the Gurkhas up to date, I must mention their gallant service in Malaya and Borneo. It was in Borneo that the Gurkhas were awarded the most recent of their 26 Victoria Crosses—to Lance Corporal Rambahadur Limba, later commissioned as a Queen's Gurkha officer. The 7th Duke of Edinburgh's Own saw service in the Falkland Islands in 1982 and, most recently, the Gurkha Transport Regiment provided drivers for an ambulance unit in the Gulf.

The current deployment of the Gurkhas remains concentrated in the Far East, with three battalions stationed in Hong Kong and one, by agreement with the Sultan, in Brunei. In October, 7 Gurkha Rifles will undertake a six-month roulement tour in Belize, and they have in the past provided elements of the garrison in the Falkland Islands.

What is less often appreciated is the extent to which Gurkhas serve in Britain. One battalion, currently the 7th Duke of Edinburgh's Own Gurkha Rifles, is based at Queen Elizabeth barracks in Church Crookham, Hampshire, and is a part of 5 Airborne Brigade. From time to time, this battalion has been called upon to undertake ceremonial duties at Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London. In addition, the Gurkhas provide demonstration companies for the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and at Brecon for the School of Infantry. A Queen's Gurkha Signal Squadron forms part of a signal regiment at Blandford in Dorset, and an independent squadron of the Queen's Gurkha Engineers is based at Chatham.

This is a welcome opportunity for me to inform the House that a squadron of the Gurkha Transport Regiment deployed earlier this month to the British contingent of the United Nations force in Cyprus.

It can therefore be seen that Gurkhas now serve in a wide range of roles and in a number of locations, and that highlights the Army's confidence in the abilities of the Gurkhas. But that should not be taken to mean that the differences between Gurkhas and British troops can be glossed over.

From the start, the very system of recruitment sets the Gurkhas apart, with "recruiters" going round the valleys to gather potential recruits for selection. Soldiers of the Brigade of Gurkhas are recruited from areas that cover only a small fraction of the country and lie, in the main, between 5,000 and 8,000 ft above sea level. Recruits into the Army come from four main areas. Those from the west are Gurungs and Magars, and those from the east are Limbus and Rais. The section of the population from which the Brigade of Gurkhas recruits forms only around 6 per cent. of the total population of Nepal—19 million. British officers on posting to the Brigade of Gurkhas learn to speak Nepali—or Gurkhali, as the Army refers to it.

Recruiting for the brigade takes place once a year when ex-servicemen appointed for each area bring a predetermined number of potential recruits to the central points in the hills where ex-Ghurkha officers carry out the final selection.

Competition to be selected is enormous and there are up to 300 applicants for each recruitment vacancy. The 2nd and 6th Gurkha Rifles recruit in the west among the Magars and Gurungs, the 7th and 10th Gurkha Rifles recruit in the east among the Limbus and Rais, and Engineers, Signals and Transporters come from both sides. Those selected are then sent to the training depot at Sek Kong in Hong Kong for training. That training takes some nine months, three times as long as for a British recruit. During that time, the emphasis is on weapon training, shooting, drill, physical training and the rudimentaries of tactics and fieldcraft. They are also taught arithmetics and map reading, and a key component of their training is the learning of English, a subject that continues throughout the soldier's career. But Nepalese recruits also have to learn about a whole panoply of elements of life in a modern industrialised society.

Almost without exception, those selected to serve in the Gurkhas are committed to making a full career in the Army, where many British infantry soldiers will serve only three or four years. Traditionally, the Gurkha expects to be able to serve for 15 years so as to leave the Army with a pension. Since 1989, we have made it clear that that expectation cannot be guaranteed, although it remains an aspiration. That has not deterred applicants, who continue to flock to join the British Army Gurkha regiments, as they similarly join the Gurkha regiments within the Indian army.

The pattern of service that has prevailed in recent years has meant that a Gurkha would be expected to serve mainly in Hong Kong, but with tours in Brunei and the United Kingdom, and possibly shorter tours elsewhere. That pattern is set to change. We expect to reduce the garrison in Hong Kong over the years until the United Kingdom's final withdrawal in 1997, and current planning assumes that the Hong Kong garrison will reduce by one battalion in 1992. I hope that we shall be in a position to announce the future of that battalion next week.

I should like to close this Adjournment debate by assuring all those who have taken such a keen interest in the future of the Gurkhas that we have taken into account all the concerns that have been expressed to us. Those include the long and devoted history of service by the Gurkhas to the British Crown, the ready availability of recruits and the contribution that serving and retired Gurkhas can make to the economy of Nepal, as well as the more problematic points that I reviewed a few minutes ago.

Decisions about the Gurkhas will be taken within the framework of the Army as a whole. Such decisions are never easy to make, whether they affect British or Gurkha units, and I am sure that when the announcement is made hon. Members will give equally careful consideration to its content as have the Army and the Ministry of Defence in its preparation.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Twelve o'clock.