MPs hail Joanna Lumley after Gurkhas are granted new rights

May 21, 2009 at 7:23 pm Leave a comment

lumley
Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous

by Tony Grew

Jacqui Smith told MPs this afternoon that the change of policy on the settlement of Gurkha soldiers “reflects the will of the House.”

The Home Secretary referred to the government’s defeat in the Commons last month on the issue.

A campaign led by actress Joanna Lumley to allow Gurkhas, who are from Nepal, to settle in the UK, was supported by the Lib Dem and Conservative leaders.

“As the House knows, all Gurkhas who retired after July 1997, when the Brigade was relocated to the UK from Hong Kong, are already eligible to settle here under current immigration rules,” Ms Smith said.

“Since 2004, more than 6,000 Gurkhas and their families have done so.

“On 29th April, hon. Members of all parties made clear their view that the government should reconsider plans to increase by 10,000 the number of Gurkhas and family members who could come to the UK to live.

“Our policy will be put into effect through guidance, which we will publish shortly, having first shared it in advance with the Select Committee and Gurkha representatives to seek their views.

“Our new guidance will reflect the will of the House, while remaining affordable and consistent with our broader immigration policy.

“All former Gurkhas who retired before 1997 and who have served more than four years will now be eligible to apply for settlement in the UK.”

Ms Smith told MPs that Gurkha representatives have suggested there will be 10,000 to 15,000 main applicants, that there should be no time limit on applications and they will be entitled to bring their spouses and dependent children under the age of 18 with them.

Widows whose husbands died on active service will also be eligible to settle in Britain.

“The 1,400 or so outstanding applications for settlement that are now being considered by the UK Border Agency will be processed on the basis of the policy I am announcing today,” she said.

“I have instructed the UK Border Agency to process all those cases, as a matter of urgency, by 11 June.”

Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said the campaign on behalf of the Gurkhas “publicly embarrassed ministers and reminded us all of the role that the Gurkhas have played in helping to defend this country over the centuries.”

“It is also a timely reminder of what the House can achieve when it stands up to the executive and expresses its will about what should happen. We do not do that often enough,” he said.

Mr Grayling said the Gurkha’s case was about “basic decency.”

“Many people from around the world have come to live in this country in the past decade.

“There was never a justification for denying that right to a group of people who have long lived in the nation’s affections, and who have risked, and often given, their lives for its protection.

“We have always been clear that those who risk their lives for this country should have the right to come and live in our country.

“It is just a shame that the Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the courts, at great cost to the taxpayer, then through the crowds of Gurkhas outside this place, before they finally accepted the inevitable.

“The statement is also a tribute to the determined and effective campaign by Joanna Lumley to persuade Ministers to change their minds.”

He asked how much the new policy would cost, given that “few weeks ago, the Prime Minister was putting forward almost doomsday financial forecasts about the cost to the British taxpayer of allowing the Gurkhas to settle here.”

Ms Smith said the policy “builds on our record as the first government to provide settlement rights for the Gurkhas—something that was patently not done under the previous Conservative government.”

She told MPs that the Select Committee on Home Affairs esitmated that the cost will be £300 million to £400 million a year.

Labour MP Martin Salter was delighted by the change of heart by the government.

“In a month that has been appalling for the House of Commons and made many of us feel almost ashamed to be here, I want to say unequivocally that I am proud to be a Member of the House of Commons today,” he said.

“This has been a rare good day for Parliament.”

For the Liberal Democrats, Chris Huhne also welcomed the statement, but said “dither and delay” had emphasised “the gracelessness of the whole process and of the government’s decision.

“Given the simplicity of the principle involved—that the people who fight and die for this country should have the right to live in this country—surely she should reflect on whether the Government’s moral arteries have been somewhat furred in the Government’s failure to grapple with the issue.”

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said it was a “fantastic” day for MPs, who have been battered by two weeks of revelations about their expenses claims.

He said the government had ruined their good record on Gurkha rights “and managed to throw it in the gutter in the course of their prevarication.”

“We have had the invidious sight of the Minister for Borders and Immigration chasing around after Joanna Lumley—well, he can be forgiven for that; it was when he caught up with her that the damage was done; in future, perhaps he should chase after someone only if he has a good chat-up line,” he said.

He congratulated the government “on finally doing the right thing.”

“This is a great day for the House,” he said.

“In the midst of all the sleaze inquiries and everything else, this is one moment when MPs here can hold their heads up and say, ‘This is what we should’ve been doing every day of the week.'”

Labour MP Keith Vaz, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, suggested Ms Smith go to Kathmandu.

“When those visas are issued to see the joy on the faces of those to whom she has given justice today and thank Joanna Lumley for the wonderful work that she has done,” he said.

Ms Smith declined to single out Ms Lumley, instead praising the Home Affairs Committee and Mr Vaz himself.

Lembit Öpik took up the Lumley cause and namechecked his constituency in one deft question.

“Will the Home Secretary accept the gratitude of the many constituents of Montgomeryshire who have fully supported Joanna Lumley, the campaigners and the Gurkhas’ right to achieve that goal?,” he said.

Ms Smith said: “I, too, give credit to Joanna Lumley.

“I know that the Minister for Borders and Immigration was able to meet her again yesterday to talk through our proposals.

“She has played a very important role, and I am pleased that ministers across the government have been willing to listen to her and to other campaigners.”

Angus MacNeil, the Scottish Nationalist MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, said he welcomed “the surrender of the government in the face of the Gurkha-Lumley onslaught, as do many others inside and outside the House. The government have eventually done the right thing, and they must be congratulated on it.”

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