HL Deb 14 January 1997 vol 577 cc98-100

2.56 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reconsider their decision not to provide accommodation for the families of Gurkha soldiers posted to the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe)

My Lords, no such decision has been made. As I made clear to the House on 1lth December, the Ministry of Defence is currently conducting a wide-ranging review of Gurkha terms and conditions of service. The question of married accompanied service for Gurkhas in the United Kingdom is one of the issues being studied. We hope to be able to announce the results of the review to Parliament shortly.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, when my noble friend says that no such decision has been reached, that means that there has been no decision to provide accommodation for the families of Gurkha soldiers. Is there any reason whatever why Gurkhas posted to this country should not receive the same treatment for their families as those who are born in this country?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his observations. As I said in our short debate last month, I believe that accompanied married service for Gurkhas is a legitimate aspiration for the brigade. However, this cannot be looked at in isolation because there are implications for healthcare, education, benefits and so forth. These matters have to be addressed in the round and the Government are doing just that. I believe that, for the sake of Gurkha families, we must get the package right.

Viscount Slim

My Lords, can the Minister give some time span when a decision, one way or the other, will come from Her Majesty's Government? Is he not aware that this problem has been around for some time? Surely Her Majesty's Government can make a decision pretty quickly on this subject, despite the need to liaise with other ministries.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Government are addressing the question with suitable urgency. As I said, a decision will be announced shortly. I expect that to be within four weeks or so. I am sure that the noble Viscount will understand that the withdrawal from Hong Kong marks an important change in the way that the Gurkhas have been posted. It is effectively a shift in the centre of gravity for the brigade from the Far East to the United Kingdom, which brings with it all kinds of important questions which have to be addressed.

Lord Harding of Petherton

My Lords, the Government seem to have taken a very long time, but when they do decide will my noble friend confirm that Gurkha soldiers will be allowed only one accompanied tour during their service engagement, as has been the case in the past, I understand, unless they are a Queen's Gurkha officer? If that is the case, does the Minister believe that this is a shabby way to treat soldiers who are serving this country alongside our own Armed Forces?

Earl Howe

My Lords, with great respect to my noble friend, he is leaping ahead a little. Once the Government make their announcement, they can be judged on the content of that announcement. Currently, Gurkhas have no entitlement to accompanied service in the UK, principally because it has never been an issue in the past. Only a small proportion of Gurkha service has been spent in the UK; the majority has been spent in the Far East, where accompanied service has been widely available. This is a new situation and I humbly suggest to my noble friend that he should await the Government's announcement and comment on that.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is not only Gurkhas and their families who appear to be getting a rather poor deal from this Government with regard to the provision of housing? Is the Minister aware that a press report during the Christmas Recess showed that the proportion of former servicemen sleeping rough because they have nowhere to live could be as high as one in four? If that is the situation, is it not disgraceful that any government should have allowed it to develop?

Earl Howe

My Lords, with great respect to the noble Lord, I think that that point falls outside the scope of the Question. There is no evidence whatsoever that there is an unduly high proportion of ex-servicemen homeless on the streets.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, when the Government eventually reach a conclusion on this matter, will the announcement be made by means of an oral Statement in this House and not by way of a Written Answer?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question. If there is a wish, expressed through the usual channels, for a Statement to be made, I am sure that that will be taken into account.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, how can the noble Earl behave as though there were any doubt about the proper course of action with regard to the Gurkhas? How can there be any such doubt when the Gurkhas have served us so well and so faithfully for so long? Everybody knows what the answer ought to be, so why cannot the Government give it now?

Earl Howe

My Lords, for the simple reason that, as I have stated, there are wide implications for a number of departments, not simply for the Ministry of Defence. The Gurkhas are an integral part of the British Army. They will remain so for the foreseeable future. Their contribution is valuable and is highly regarded. I believe that that should send the appropriate signal to your Lordships that the Government's intentions are in the right place.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I appreciate the noble Earl's point that homelessness is outside his brief, but before he repeats the statement that there is no evidence of exceptional homelessness among ex-servicemen, may I ask him to look at last year's report by Crisis on homelessness last Christmas?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I shall do so gladly and, if I have reason to correct anything that I have said, I shall, of course, write to the noble Earl.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that we welcome his statement that the Gurkhas are an integral part of the British Armed Forces and that they should therefore be treated as an integral part of the British Armed Forces and in exactly the same way as other parts of the Armed Forces? I hope that the noble Earl accepts that interpretation of his statement. Is the noble Earl further aware that when we last had an exchange on this matter he promised us the result of the review before Christmas—he was referring to last Christmas—but that Christmas has come and gone? To repeat the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, that this is a matter of urgency, will the noble Earl say that, given that there was no result before Christmas, we shall at least have something before Easter?

Earl Howe

My Lords, if the noble Earl reads the Hansard report of that previous debate, he will see that I undertook to make an announcement shortly after Christmas. I believe that we shall be able to do that and I have indicated that it should happen within four weeks.