Blog written in a personal capacity by Anna Townsend, a Labour party and LFF member in Aldershot
This week sees the launch of a report by the Centre for Nepal Studies UK that calls for full pension equality for retired Gurkha soldiers who have served in the British Army. The threat of a hunger strike by retired Gurkhas now settled in Reading is also looming and it seems that Gurkha issues will not go away.
Whilst it is true that currently serving Gurkha soldiers now receive equal pay, pensions and employment rights as their British and Commonwealth counterparts, there are approx 28,000 retired Gurkhas including 7,000 of their widows, who were granted settlement rights in the UK under the last Labour government and who do not enjoy pension equality. Most of these Gurkhas retired prior to 1997 and believe themselves to be severely disadvantaged. The report calls for such discrepancies to be resolved and has the backing of many ex-Gurkha representative groups, some of whom are organising the hunger strike relay.
Many Gurkhas who have taken up their right to settle here and now live in the UK are dependent on our welfare system. The argument is that it would therefore be fairer to grant them pension equality so that they can have a more comfortable existence and receive the income they deem they are entitled to, having fought for the British. This decision may even encourage many of them to return to Nepal; currently they are forced to choose between a meagre pension in a third world country or living in the UK on benefits. Many therefore conclude that they are better off living here, but an equal pension may make all the difference and allow them to live in Nepal with their families, yet also give them the means of escaping Nepal if the need should arise; the country is due a major earthquake and is politically and economically unstable as it presently has no constitution.
Full pension equality has not been granted for many retired Gurkhas because the cost of doing so is considered prohibitive; currently they only receive what was once considered a ‘fair’ pension, suitable for Nepal where the cost of living is dramatically less than the UK. Research indicates that it would cost the UK Government £170million to equalise pensions for these retirees and widows. The new report contains a breakdown of the detailed costs of housing and supporting (including an estimate of £11000 for NHS costs) an elderly Nepali couple in the UK who are not currently eligible for an equal pension and who rely on welfare. It estimates these to be approximately £32,000 per annum and makes a clear case for switching this couple to a pension that may not only be less expensive for the UK Government but will also restore the pride of this imaginary couple and allow them to return to Nepal. However the report does not point out the limitations of the settlement rights given to former Gurkhas. They have been granted Indefinite Leave to Remain that remains valid so long as they are not out of the UK for a period greater than two years. Given the perilous situation Nepal is in, ILTR is a ‘get of jail free card’ for the Gurkhas and they will not easily give it up. Since travelling backwards and forwards to the UK every couple of years to keep their ILTR status valid is expensive, by default they settle in the UK. Of course many have chosen to become UK citizens, but this too is expensive and beyond the budgets for those reliant on benefits and so they are trapped.
The argument against pension equality hinges on the question of equality with whom? At the time of signing up these elderly Gurkhas did not expect to settle in the UK and knew that they would return at the end of their service to Nepal. Many have not even served in the UK and were only ever on duty in Hong Kong. On their retirement to Nepal they were a valuable resource within Nepal’s economy as they returned to set up businesses, were now literate and educated and in receipt of a pension. Compared to the average Nepali they were far better off. Its not hard to see that if granted full pension equality now they will be receiving a far better deal than the one they signed up to many years ago in the villages in Nepal; then they probably could not imagine how their lives would change both during their service and afterwards. Above all, the social benefit of giving equal pensions would be significant in terms of implementing the UK Government’s commitment to fundamental human rights.
Two of the four authors of the report recently visited Kevan Jones MP, shadow Armed Forces Minister and presented their arguments to him. Labour councillor and former Mayor of Rushmoor Alex Crawford certainly believes that the issues should be looked at again particularly as they represent unfinished business from the last Labour Government. It remains to be seen if this will happen, but if anything the hunger strike will not help their argument. Use of this extreme tactic is likely to alienate the British public from their cause and the UK Government is not known to give into such threats. A promise to look at their issues again however, should Labour win in 2015, may be sufficient however to deter them from starving themselves and bring about justice in the future.
The report ‘British Gurkha Pension Policies And Ex-Gurkha Campaigns: A Review’ can be purchased for a minimum contribution of £2 direct from CNSUK http://www.cnsuk.org.uk