HL Deb 22 May 1989 vol 508 cc23-8

3.56 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, with the leave of the House, it may be convenient if I repeat a Statement about the future of the Gurkhas which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows:

"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 mainstream 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 deployment 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."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4 p.m.

Lord Irving of Dartford

My Lords, may I say to the Leader of the House how warmly we on this side of the House welcome this Statement which has put an end to the uncertainty of the past three or four years? We have not had time carefully to study the Statement but it appears that it accepts the main recommendations of the Defence Committee of another place, particularly in regard to the maintenance of a viable brigade structure and, indeed, that the future Gurkha force will have a role that lies within the mainstream of the Army's defence commitments, including, as now, a substantial Gurkha presence in the United Kingdom.

Will the noble Lord say whether there are any major recommendations of the Defence Committee that the Government have not been able to accept, and why? We also understand that there will be a progressive restructuring of the new force over several years and we hope that the noble Lord will keep the House informed of those changes. Our own difficulties may be assisted by the further recruitment of Gurkhas in numbers equivalent to our own shortage in recruitment and retention.

There is no doubt that the Statement will be welcomed in Nepal but it will also be welcomed throughout the country because people will be pleased to know that the loyal, courageous and distinguished service that the Gurkhas have given since 1815 to the British Crown will be continued and will be assured for the future.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, from these Benches we also warmly welcome the Government's Statement, despite the element of uncertainty that it contains about the longer term future. Will the noble Lord accept that I can speak, from the testimony of nearly 60 years with Gurkha soldiers, of their exceptional qualities of loyalty, courage and fighting skills, both in peace and in war? There is an extraordinary desire among the tribal people in Nepal, from whom we have traditionally recruited Gurkha soldiers, to continue that service with the British Army.

Is the noble Lord aware that the presence of Gurkhas in the British Army is a most important asset for the Government of Nepal and that Gurkha soldiers are a considerable asset when they retire and return to their villages with all their experience? Will the noble Lord bear in mind these matters in any future longer term decisions that are made?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their response to my right honourable friend's Statement. The noble Lord, Lord Irving, was, if I may say so, absolutely right that much of what the House of Commons Defence Committee recommended is picked up and fulfilled in the Statement which I have just repeated. The noble Lord asked whether there were any points which the Government are not accepting. There are recommendations in the House of Commons Defence Committee report about the Dharan base in Nepal and the British hospital there.

Perhaps I may make two comments in that respect. First, the key point about Dharan is that it is not connected with the future of the Gurkhas. As the House of Commons Defence Committee acknowledged, Dharan as it is now is a no longer required for current defence purposes. These arguments are set out in full in a response to the Defence Committee of another place which is being published simultaneously with the announcement of this Statement today.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for his response. He asked whether the Government are aware of the importance of the Gurkhas and of their influence in their own home country. Yes, I take to heart what the noble Lord said. It is particularly because of the first point made by the noble Lord that one of the key aspects of my right honourable friend's Statement this afternoon is that the future of the Gurkhas will be within the mainstream of the operations of the British Army in the future.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, as someone who has been closely connected with the Gurkhas for a number of years I add my welcome to the announcement made by the Leader of the House on a worthwhile and viable future for the brigade after 1997. The Government have kept faith with the hill men of Nepal who have for over 170 years never failed to rally to this country's support however adverse the circumstances or gloomy the forecast and who in large numbers have laid down their lives with the utmost gallantry for our security and our future. At the same time—emotion and gratitude apart—the Government have sensibly assured a continuing supply of some of the finest infantry men in the world to reinforce and supplement our own proud regiments for the inevitably unexpected emergencies with which our history is riddled.

I particularly liked the flexibility implied in the Statement, perhaps allowing for expansion as well as contraction within viable limits as circumstances demand. Certainly in the shorter term, while we are responsible for the stability and security of Hong Kong, and with all the upheaval in China, the date mentioned as the earliest for any reduction of even one battalion in the garrison at Hong Kong is surely to be later rather than sooner. While the British Army is experiencing such difficulty in recruiting and retaining adequate manpower there can be little, if any, justification for restricting the present strengths or numbers of Gurkha units. However, the wording of the Statement gives me confidence that the Government will very much bear that point in mind.

Now that this re-investment has been confirmed, would it not be a good moment for Her Majesty's Government to use their good offices to help resolve this disastrous dispute between the kingdom of Nepal and India which is bringing such hardship to the land-locked hill kingdom of Nepal?

Baroness White

My Lords, I am sure that we all warmly welcome the Statement that has been made. May I ask the Minister to assure the House that the future pay and conditions of the Gurkha regiments will be commensurate with the praise that has been rightly bestowed upon them?

Lord Fanshawe of Richmond

My Lords, is my noble friend aware—

Lord Belstead

My Lords, perhaps I may answer the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. I am most grateful to him for his generous words about the effect of the Statement. The noble and gallant Lord particularly appreciated the flexibility in the Statement. Yes, indeed, it is the case that the Statement allows for expansion if demographic trends require it. However, I simply emphasise that the basis of this Statement is not related to demographic trends; it is made for all the reasons that the noble and gallant Lord and others have given this afternoon; namely, that these fine soldiers will be needed within the mainstream of the work of the British Army in the future.

The noble and gallant Lord also asked whether the British Government will be keeping a close eye on the Hong Kong situation. Yes, of course, we will. His other point concerned the Indo-Nepalese dispute. I would simply say that we very much regret that a dispute has arisen between two countries with which we enjoy close and friendly relations. Of course, we hope for a settlement in the future.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness, Lady White, that matters of pay, together with many other details, will obviously be considered on an on-going basis in the future but I take the point made by the noble Baroness.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend see to it that in some way or other the enthusiasm which all quarters of this House have shown on this announcement for the continuance of this magnificent unit is conveyed to the Brigade of Gurkhas itself and perhaps also to the Government of Nepal? It should be made clear to them how much opinion generally in this country values their association with British arms.

Lord Fanshawe of Richmond

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Statement will be welcomed not only in Hong Kong and this country but also in Nepal where the result of the government inquiry will be watched with close concentration and some anxiety? Will my noble friend confirm that the Government's intention is to continue to station a Gurkha battalion in Brunei until further notice? Is my noble friend aware that the Sultan of Brunei has indicated that he might be prepared to have a second battalion stationed in Brunei? Has that been given consideration?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I shall see that the views that have been expressed in your Lordships' House this afternoon are drawn to the attention of the Brigade of Gurkhas. I know that there will be widespread satisfaction in that quarter at what has been said in this House this afternoon. As regards Brunei, I can confirm that one battalion will continue there. This is an agreement with the Sultan and it is reviewed periodically. We see value in a continued presence. I shall not go further than that this afternoon.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, perhaps I may, rather boldly, add a few words to what the noble and gallant Lord has already said. The Gurkhas have one quality which is quite extraordinary and that is their social quality. They can settle down in any community with any race and they seem to be entirely at ease. I am sure that the noble and gallant Lord will agree entirely with me in that regard. They do not chase women and they do not drink. They may have a glass of beer occasionally and play a little football. They have none of those attributes which make armies of occupation utterly unacceptable. For those reasons they are a quite unique body of people.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, once again I know that that view will be drawn to the attention of those concerned.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Statement announces a major decision next year as regards the battalion to be withdrawn from Hong Kong? In view of the very positive and welcome nature of this Statement, can we assume that this is a decision about the role and function of the battalion and not about its continuance as a battalion?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, we shall have to see what the demographic trends show and what the situation is when the moment comes. The moment for the withdrawal of that battalion has not come and it will not arrive until at least 1992. Decisions will not have to be taken on that matter until some time next year.

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