The Government was sensationally and splendidly defeated yesterday in the House of Commons.
A Liberal Democrat motion backed by the Conservatives and 27 Labour MPs was supported by a vote of 267 to 246. It offered all Gurkhas equal right of residence, which the Government had wanted to restrict. David Cameron later commented that "Today is a historic day where Parliament took the right decision … The government now has got to come back with immediate proposals so that the Gurkhas can have an answer."
During the debate, Michael Howard made an impassioned speech:
"The 2nd Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles is based at Shorncliffe, in my constituency. In a bitter irony, soldiers from that battalion returned to Shorncliffe on Sunday 19 April, 10 days ago—just five days before the Government made their announcement—from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. It was a tour of duty in which, yet again, they demonstrated their heroism and valour, and during which they lost two of their comrades. On Tuesday 4 November, Rifleman Yubraj Rai received a gunshot wound from enemy fire. He received medical treatment at the scene but he died a short time later from his wounds. Only a few days later, on Saturday 15 November, Colour Sergeant Krishnabahadur Dura was taking part in a road move in the Musa Qala district of Helmand, when the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle in which he was travelling was struck by an explosive device.
Those Gurkha soldiers made the supreme sacrifice for our country. When they died, the Prime Minister told the House that we should never forget the sacrifice that they had made, just as he did some three hours ago in respect of the death of the Welsh Guardsman who lost his life yesterday. However, those words must be accompanied by deeds.
When the Gurkhas returned to Shorncliffe 10 days ago, they were warmly welcomed home by the rest of my constituents. The welcome home that they got from the Government was the decision that we are debating this afternoon. The Gurkhas are a most cherished part of the community that I represent in this place. To say that they are held in high regard would be a gross understatement.
We are proud to have them as members of our local community. We are not proud of the Government’s decision, which we are debating this afternoon."
Following the vote, Immigration Minister Phil Woolas came to the chamber to make a statement. His Shadow, Damian Green, spoke for the Conservatives:
"The House of Commons spoke, and spoke clearly—it told the Government that their attitude to the Gurkhas was unfair, ungenerous, and unacceptable. The Opposition parties and brave members of the Labour Party came together to speak and vote on behalf of the Gurkhas and their families. These are people to whom we owe a huge debt of honour, and it reflects well on this House that we have collectively recognised that debt.
It is also good that Ministers recognised so quickly that they needed a new policy, and I can see that the Minister could give us only a holding statement today. The test that we will now apply is whether that policy meets the needs of the Gurkhas and their supporters. Will Ministers be able to look Gurkhas in the eye and say, “We are being fair to you”? [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), says from a sedentary position that they can do that now. I suggest to him that he should remember that several hours ago the House of Commons told him that he could not do that now. Rather than adopt the arrogant approach of saying that they can do that now, he should recognise that he lost the vote, that the House of Commons spoke clearly and that he should stop trying to defy the will of the House.
This afternoon, I offered the Minister for Borders and Immigration, who throughout this has taken a more sensible view than his colleague from the Ministry of Defence, a route to a position where we could look the Gurkhas in the eye fairly and a practical way of bringing it into law quickly. I suggested introducing a new tier in the points-based system specifically for non-UK ex-service personnel, which would overwhelmingly mean giving these new rights to pre-1997 Gurkhas. I also said that the Minister could introduce this idea, or any of his own new ideas, in the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill, which is about to come to this House. If the campaigners for the Gurkhas are right and roughly 8,000 soldiers and their dependants would want to apply, the problem could be solved within a few years, and the permanent right to settle would be enshrined in that law. I once again commend that solution to the Government.
The Minister once again repeated the claim that the cost would be billions of pounds. How does he arrive at a sum of that magnitude? What age profile is he assuming for those who would want to come here? What illness profile is he assuming and, most of all, what numbers is he assuming to arrive at that very large number? Will he recognise that if he adopted our proposal, or something like it, it would lead to proper control of the cost on an annual basis, as well as meeting our obligations to the Gurkhas? If, as he says, he cannot foresee circumstances in which any Gurkha would be removed from the UK, why does he not simply say that no Gurkha will be removed from the UK?
Above all, can the Minister assure us that the next time he comes before the House there will be some real substance in his statement and a real and substantial change of policy? This has been a bad day for the Government, but much more importantly it has been a good day for the Gurkhas. We need to move on, so that not just Ministers but the whole country can look the Gurkhas in the eye and say, “We owe you a debt of honour and we are prepared to repay that debt.” Unless and until we can do that, this issue has not been resolved. We, and more importantly the Gurkhas, will need a good deal of reassurance on that point."
Yesterday was a great day. Hearty congratulations to all those politicians who were prepared to put partisanship to one side, and also to Joanna Lumley and indeed the Gurkhas for battling so hard.
The Government must now act.