For once Britain's extreme right wing "New Labour" government has brought out a policy that is humane, popular, compassionate and, one might almost say, liberal. Unfortunately it had to be dragged kicking and screaming into making the decision, including suffering an unprecedented defeat in the Commons.
After a campaign brilliantly fronted by the actress Joanna Lumley, all members of the Gurkha regiment who served in the British Army for at least 4 years will be entitled to settle in Britain.(Lumley's father had served with the Gurkhas in WWII so she had great gravitas when presenting the case.) Previously those who retired before 1997, when the regiment's base moved from Hong Kong to the UK, were denied the automatic right and, for the most part, were not allowed to settle. The decision was announced Thursday by the Home Secretary Jaqui Smith.
Smith has been caught with her snout deep in the trough in the "expensesgate" scandal. More on this, the background to the Gurkhas and further examples of the authoritarian tendencies of "New Labour" over the flip.
The Gurkha regiment is one of those strange hang-overs from empire. Their relationship with the UK dates back to 1815 when the British East India Company invaded Nepal and decided that it would be better to have the country's exceptional warriors on their side. There is intense competition for one of the roughly 200 places open each year - up to 28,000 apply. As part of the selection process, potential recruits have to run uphill for 40 minutes carrying a wicker basket containing stones weighing 70 pounds.
Since 1815 the Gurkhas have become an integral and highly respected part of the British Army. They are serving today in Afghanistan where their cultural affinity with the Afghans is a valuable asset for the coalition.
They have an awesome international reputation. One captured Argentinian major in the Falklands is quoted as saying:
Our men knew well in advance the reputation of your front line regiments like the Guards and the toughness of the Paras. But do you know who frightened our men the most? The Gurkhas, those little men from Nepal.
13 Nepalese Gurkhas (and the same number of non-Nepalese in the regiments - these would be the British officers) have been awarded the UK's highest and rarest military honor, the Victoria Cross. This is an extract from the citation for the most recently awarded "For Valour". It relates to action in 1965 in Indonesia.
... Rushing forward he hurled himself in the ground beside one of the wounded and calling for support had now come up to his fight in support he picked up to the man and carried him to safety out of the line of fire. Without hesitation he immediately returned to the top of the hill determined to complete his self-imposed task of saving those for whom he felt personally responsible. It was now clear from increase weight of fire being concentrated on the approaches to and in the immediate vicinity of the remaining casualty the enemy was doing all they could to prevent and further attempts at rescue. However, despite this, Lance Corporal Ram Bahadur Lambu again moved out into the open for his final effort. In a series of short forward rushes, once being pinned down for some minutes by the intense and accurate automatic fire which could be seen striking the ground all round him, he eventually reached the wounded man. Picking him up and unable now to seek cover he carried him back as fast as he could through the hail of enemy bullets. For all but a few seconds this young NCO has been moving alone in full view of the enemy and under the continuous aimed fire of their automatic weapons. That he was able to achieve what he did against such overwhelming odds without being hit is miraculous.
Despite his service record and his regular invitations from the Queen to attend dinners honoring holders of the Victoria Cross, Corporal Lambu had "insufficient connection with the UK" to be eligible to live here.
After the HQ move to the UK from Hong Kong, that argument was undermined and IN 2004 the Blair administration agreed to give the right to settle in the UK to those who had retired after 1997. That left those who retired before that date without the automatic right to settle and several who resided here were threatened with deportation. The decision was challenged and in September 2008 a group of Gurkhas and one widow brought a test case and won in the High Court.
The judgement could affect some 2,000 former Gurkhas who retired before 1997.
The judge, Mr Justice Blake, said the Gurkhas' long service, conspicuous acts of bravery and loyalty to the Crown all pointed to a "moral debt of honour" and gratitude felt by British people.
He ruled that instructions given by the Home Office to immigration officials were unlawful and needed urgent revision.
The Home Office under New Labour has a track record of delay in responding to adverse court rulings and then tries to only do the absolute minimum to comply with them. By January it was asking for "just a bit more time" (3 months) to review the cases of about 300 veterans who were waiting for their applications to stay in the UK to be processed. In March the Gurkhas were threatening a High Court injunction to force the Home Office to make an annoucement. That case was heard on March 26:
The Gurkhas have returned to the High Court to try to make the government act on a ruling made last September. The court said instructions given to immigration officials were unlawful.
Mr Fitzgerald told Mr Justice Blake sitting at the High Court that Home Secretary Jacqui Smith had agreed to announce the new policy within the next month, but that she wished to tell Parliament first.
She would make a statement by 24 April and reconsider the five leading Gurkha test cases under the new policy before 7 May, he said. Hundreds of other outstanding cases would be considered by 11 June, he added.
Just within that time limit, the government annouced a new set of strict entry criteria with conditions that the Gurkha Justice Campaign claimed meant that only 100 veterans and their families would be admitted. The Home Office claimed that the number could be up to 4,300 and made some rather nasty racist claims about the effects of allowing more.
On Friday (April 24), immigration Minister Phil Woolas denied on the government had "betrayed" the Gurkhas, claiming the new rules would improve their situation.
"It has never been the case that all Gurkhas pre-1997 were to be allowed to stay in the country. With their dependants you could be looking at 100,000 people," he added.
The new proposals would allow entry for those who had served over 20 years (ordinary ranks could only serve 15!) or had significant honors. That meant Corporal Lambu VC and the two other surviving holders of the Victoria Cross gained the long overdue right to settle in the UK. Sadly it was too late for Lance Vaik (Corporal) Bhanbhagta Gurung whose death was announced in March 2008.
Figures for the cost of up to £1.4 billion to admit all veterans were bandied about and the whole thing stank of New Labour wanting to be appear "tough on immigration", which is a mainstay of the neo-Nazi British National Party's platform. The BNP is a major rival to Labour in their white working class heartlands in the upcoming European Parliament and local government elections.
The Liberal Democrats decided to use one of their "supply days" when they get to chose the subject for discussion to debate the situation. On April 29 the Liberal Democrats were joined by the Conservatives and 27 Honorable Members from the Labour benches to pass a non-binding motion. This was the first government defeat on an opposition supply day motion since 1978. (You will see from my signature why I am so pleased with this)
On Thursday the Government admitted defeat and the Home Secretary announced that all Gurkhas who had served for more than 4 years, their spouses and dependants under 18 years would be offered the right to settle in the UK. A fuller statement to the Commons was made by Immigration Minister Phil Woolas detailing the new provisions.
What is needed now is recognition that they should also receive a full British Army pension as the argument that "the cost of living in Nepal is less" should no longer apply. Unfortunately they lost a High Court claim for parity with other soldiers in the British Army last year.
Prior to 1947 somebody wanting to sue the Government had to get authority from the crown on the recommendation of Jacqui Smith's predecessors using a "petition of right". If approved, the application was marked with what I always think should be the watchword for any legal system "fiat justitia". That is usually translated as "Let Right be done!". On Thursday right was done by the Gurkhas.
Sir Ralph Turner, who had served with them in WWI wrote of the Gurkhas
Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you
That generousity was displayed when, on hearing the announcement of the new rules, the Gurkhas cheered it and met with Gordon Brown to thank him, despite the disgraceful treatment his adminstration had met out.
This story has crossed the Pond so I will concentrate on the two villains of the Gurkha saga. The scandal surrounds the allowances that MPs can claim. The greatest abuses have been perpertraited by some of those entitled to claim "second home" allowances because of the distance their constituency is from Westminster. In theory it is to compensate them for having to live away from their family/constituency home and used to include the cost of accommodation and furnishing it and some food costs.
Jacqui (bloody pretentious spelling of "Jackie" by her or her parents?) Smith represents Redditch in Worcestershire where she has a family home. When she put in her claim, she declared that as her "second home" and that her main residence was a room in her sister's house in London.
Her notoriety increased when it was revealed that she had claimed the charge for cable TV alongside the internet connection from Virgin Media's cable company. That included several "on demand" videos, two of which were "adult movies" (porn) ordered by her husband.
Her minister Phil Woolas by comparison had a less outrageous expenses claims records but had been stopped overclaiming for the food allowance (£400 a month, a damn sight more that Gurkha veterans get in Nepal!) on a number of occasions. He had also submitted receipts including articles of women's clothing, diapers, nail varnish, tampons and panty liners to support these claims for "food". If he had those for dinner, I'll eat my hat!
The usual mark of an authoritarian right wing government is the number of prison spaces they fill. Yep, the UK has one of the worst records for imprisoning people in Europe and Jacqui Smith wants to build at least five new prisons.
Despite the strong probablity that the next government will cancel the project (whether that be Conservative or a minority Labour one), they are still pressing ahead with their scheme to force everybody to hold an National Identity Card. This was originally sold as "preventing terrorism" but that fell flat after the Madrid bombings when it was pointed out that the bombers there had ID cards. Now it is "to prevent somebody impersonating you and stealing your money through fraud". The latest on this is that most retailers are likely to go for the "chip and pin" option where the card is validated by punching in a four digit number on a keypay - like an ATM but with the code held on the card chip in a similar fashion to that on the magnetic stripe on cards. Without the additional cost of the link to the central database, fake cards will not be identified.
Last September the European Court of Human Rights ruled that holding the fingerprints, DNA profile and DNA samples of two applicants was illegal. Despite this, they have just put out a "consultation" where they want to hold the DNA profile and fingerprints of anybody arrested but never charged for up to 10 years. (I declare a personal interest here)
Finally, on Thursday I got the Labour Party leaflet for the June 7 European Parliament elections. Apart from not mentioning any policy within the Socialist Group in the European Parliament and concentrating on policies decided at a nation level, it further demonstrates their selling themselves as more authoritarian than the Conservatives or BNP (who they are using as a scare tactic to get out their vote). We have this gem, again only looking at purely domestic policy:
Despite Labour's tough action to make the streets of [insert local name here] safer, the LibDems have repeatedly blocked Labour's measures for tougher penalties and punishments (are they different???) for offenders.
LibDems are soft on crime. They want to:* Stop prison sentences for hard drug users * Remove the possibility of a custodial sentence for juveniles who breach Anti-Social Behaviour Orders.
Willie Horton next? Of course we all know that imprisoning drug users means they will never touch the stuff again, despite prisons probably being the place where they are more available than on the streets. Another one of their gems is to reduce welfare payments to drug users who "refuse" to stop. Since a high proportion of robberies and other crimes like prostitution are to pay for drug use, that is going to reduce crime innit?!!!