It was the first time a Government has lost an Opposition Day Debate since James Callaghan was Prime Minister in January 1978. It was the first time the Liberal Democrats had won one since their formation. The Opposition get twenty legislative days scattered though each parliamentary session (each year) during which they can discuss topics they choose. The topic today was the treatment of the Gurkhas.
Some non-British readers may be unfamiliar with the Gurkhas. They are Nepalese recruits to the British army, a tradition that goes back to the 19th century. Until 1947, their officers were always subordinate to British officers. Until 1997, they received a smaller pension than other members of the British army. Actually, unless they joined up after July 1997, they still receive a smaller pension.
The worst bit is that even after fighting for the British, they have had no right to settle in the United Kingdom. This has caused great consternation not only for the Gurkhas, but also for fair-minded British people across the political spectrum. The Government decided that Gurkhas retiring after 1997 would have the right of residency, but it has been happy to deport those who fought in the Second World War or the Falklands War. The High Court ruled last September that Gurkhas that left the army before 1997 had a right to residency as well, but the Home Office did not feel particularly compelled to obey the court’s ruling and said it would review its policy.
A couple of days ago, the Home Secretary said that she would now allow a few more Gukhas to settle – those that had won one of the top four bravery medals or had health problems as a direct consequence of their service or had served at least 20 years. That meant less than 100 would be eligible, since Gurkhas are not allowed to serve more than 15 years unless they are officers. Everyone except the Government was outraged. After all, those in the armed forces from any other Commonwealth country are eligible to live in the UK after four years service.
That’s why the debate was about the Government’s treatment of the Gurkhas, and that’s why the Government lost. Of course the vote is not binding on the Government. That’s why it is commonly said that we have an elected dictatorship. But the Immigration Minister did read an emergency statement to the House of Commons tonight that this would be reviewed again before Parliament breaks up for the summer. It’s a step in the right direction.
If all the Gurkhas and their families that want to settle in the UK did so (estimates are about 6000) it could cost the Government as much as £230 million. That sounds like a lot of money the Home Office wants to save the taxpayer. It does until you put it into perspective. The Home Office spent £150 million last year just on outside consultants. Another £540 million was lost last year when it was wrongly paid to Income Support and Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants. Then there are the billions and billions spent bailing out the banks and paying bankers’ bonuses.
So let’s see. Should we spend the money on consultants? Dole overpayments? Bankers? Or should we spend it on veterans of the British Army? It’s a no-brainer for most people. Except those in the Government of course.