Gurkhas have served in Her Majesty’s armed forces for more than 200 years. They have made an outstanding contribution to our security through centuries of service and sacrifice. They are rightly held in high esteem by both the Army itself and the wider British public.
We owe them a debt of gratitude and admiration, as we do all members of our armed forces. Their contribution to our national security was no greater or lesser than anyone else who serves our country. It is this basic point of fairness that the campaign for Gurkha pension equality rests on.
The last Labour government sought to grasp the nettle on this difficult issue in 2007. The Gurkha Offer to Transfer was a landmark settlement at the time, and a bid for lasting pension equality for those who bravely served our country. Yet since then, it is easy to see that the situation has changed.
The legacy Gurkha Pension Scheme (GPS) was designed to provide a good standard of living to those who retired to Nepal. But many retired Gurkhas live in the UK following their service, particularly since 2009 changes to immigration rules. This has inevitably posed cost of living challenges, and presented an issue of fundamental inequality.
A pre-1997 veteran will receive up to £5,019 per year less through the Gurkha Pension Scheme than those serving more recently would receive through the new scheme – though this is complicated by pension pay out dates and difference in structure and pay. I remain deeply concerned by ongoing reports of Gurkha veterans living in the UK on low incomes and in receipt of Universal Credit.
As ever, it is Labour councillors speaking with, and for, our service communities. I am particularly grateful to Rushmoor Labour councillors Alex Crawford and Nadia Martin for their vital work on this issue and their engagement with service communities more broadly.
This summer, a group of three pre-1997 Gurkha veterans were forced to hunger strike outside Downing Street following the government’s failure to engage with their concerns. Nobody, and particularly not veterans of the British Army, should have to resort to a hunger strike to be heard. I went to visit them outside Downing Street to hear from them directly. What struck me most was their desire to be listened to by the country they had fought for.
I visited on day four of their 13-day hunger strike, having written to the Defence Secretary about the issue. At this time, ministers were refusing to engage and hoping this issue would go away. But the dignified determination of the Gurkhas would not be denied, and 13 days later the government committed to convene a bi-lateral UK/Nepalese committee to discuss Gurkha welfare issues.
Earlier this week, I led Labour’s response to the debate on Gurkha Pensions, prompted by a 106,000 signature public petition on this important issue. I made two fundamental asks of the veterans minister. First, the government must set out its approach to the bilateral talks, including what it hopes to achieve on pensions. Second, ministers must publish its response to the consultation on the Gurkha Pension Scheme and whether there should be an uplift prior to the start of these talks.
We understand that it is a complex issue, without an easy answer. We also understand and appreciate the huge costs involved in any remedy. But we cannot continue to ignore the fundamental lack of equity in this situation, or sweep it under the rug because it is not convenient.
Whilst it is Labour MPs speaking up on this injustice in parliament and Labour councillors taking practical action in communities up and down the country, ministers must now provide long-overdue leadership and accountability on this issue. Because that is exactly what the service of the Gurkhas to our country demands.