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On 7 August 2021, three members of a group representing Gurkha veterans – Gurkha Satyagraha – went on hunger strike outside Downing Street over differences in pensions between Gurkha veterans and other British veterans. On 19 August 2021, the hunger strike ended as the Government agreed to further talks and the establishment of a bilateral committee, due to start talks in December.

This briefing, which looks at the long-standing campaign for the UK Government to address Gurkha veterans’ pensions, has been updated in advance of a debate in Parliament on 22 November 2021 on a petition calling for Gurkha veterans (including pre-1997 veterans) to be “paid an equal pension to other British veterans.”

Gurkha pension scheme

The Gurkha Pension Scheme (GPS) was based on the Indian Army Model and provided an immediate pension at Indian Army rates to those with at least 15 years’ service.

In 2007, following a review of Gurkha terms and conditions of service, the Labour Government set up the Gurkha Offer to Transfer (GOTT). This allowed Gurkhas who had served after 1 July 1997 to transfer that service in the Gurkha Pension Scheme into the Armed Forces Pension Scheme (AFPS).

A year’s service after 1 July 1997, counted as a year’s service in the AFPS. However, a year’s service before that date only counted as a proportion of a year: between 23 and 36 per cent depending on rank. Those who left before 1 July 1997 were not eligible to transfer their pensions.

The significance of 1 July 1997, was that this was when the UK became the home base for the Brigade of Gurkhas and that changes in the immigration rules, backdated to 1 July 1997, meant there was an increasing likelihood of retired Gurkhas settling in the UK on discharge (GOTT leaflet, 2007, p24).

Successive governments have held the position that the treatment of service before 1997 is justified. This is because the GPS was designed to provide a fair standard of living in Nepal, as traditionally Gurkhas returned there after their service ended. Up until 1st July 1997, the Brigade of Gurkhas was based in Hong Kong, and Gurkhas returned to Nepal after discharge. An immediate pension is also paid from the GPS after 15 years’ service, compared to 22 years from the AFPS (See, for example, the December 2020 GPS consultation, and the Government’s response to APPG report in January 2015).

Gurkha veteran campaigns and legal challenges

The argument that the GPS was designed for retirement in Nepal fails to convince many of the retired Gurkhas who now live in the UK following a change to the immigration rules in 2009. This change to the rules was made following a campaign supported by actor and campaigner, Joana Lumley.

The treatment of Gurkhas’ service before 1997 has been challenged unsuccessfully in the courts. In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights, found that although Gurkha soldiers had been treated differently from other soldiers in the British Army, and that this treatment could be regarded as less favourable “any difference in treatment on grounds of nationality had been objectively and reasonably justified.”

Gurkha Welfare Inquiry

On 21 November 2013, former Gurkha, Gyanraj Rai, ended a hunger strike that had begun on 7 November, over the pension rights of those who retired before 1997. This was in response the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Gurkha Welfare announcing that it would conduct an inquiry to look at a range of issues, including pensions.

The Gurkha Welfare Inquiry conducted by the APPG in 2014 did not recommend changes to the terms of the GOTT for service before 1 July 1997. For Gurkhas who left before 1 July 1997, it recommended the Government should compare Gurkha Pension Scheme rates with those of Indian veterans “to establish whether the current rates of Gurkha pension are fair.”

The Government accepted this recommendation and reaffirmed its commitment to keep Gurkha pension rates at double those of the Indian Army.  In December 2020, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) opened a consultation on the relation between Gurkha and Indian Army pension rates. At the heart of this was whether it remained “appropriate and affordable” to double the Indian Army rate, in light of significant increases in GPS pensions since 2000. The consultation closed in March 2021 and the MoD is considering feedback.

UK-Nepal discussions

In 2016, the Governments of UK and Nepal set up a ‘dialogue process’ to consider grievances of the Gurkha veteran community, particularly in relation to pensions.

The Report of the Technical Committee on Gurkha Veterans, published in March 2018 was designed to be a baseline for the discussions. The report cited differences between the GPS and AFPS as “a major source of grievance” held by some Gurkha veterans: the low level of GPS pensions and lack of facilities in Nepal had led old and frail Gurkha veterans to migrate to the UK for better living conditions. Many were “living a life of misery even in the UK.” The report set out proposals from the veterans to address this.  The UK representative reiterated the policy of successive governments, which was against retrospective changes to public service pensions, and said the changes proposed would not necessarily benefit all Gurkhas.

Hunger strike in summer 2021

In May 2021, Gurkha Satyagraha, a group representing Gurkha veterans, wrote to the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, calling for the “formation of a committee for dialogue between Nepal and the British government to address the demands of the British ex-Gurkha veterans, particularly equal pensions:”

It has been more than 3 years since the Joint Technical Report on the British Gurkha Case was exchanged between two Governments on 22 March 2018 at Whitehall in London, which was to the basis for a Dialogue to address the main concerns of the British Gurkhas. The Ex British Gurkhas are very concerned about the silence that has prevailed so far.

It warned that if their demands were not addressed, three of the group would go on hunger strike.

On Saturday 7 August, two ex-Gurkhas, Gyanraj Rai and Dhan Gurung, and a widow of a Gurkha, Pushpa Rana Ghale, started a hunger strike outside Downing Street, saying they were “prepared to die.”  On 17 August, Dhan Gurung was taken to hospital after a suspected minor heart attack after 11 days of hunger strike. He returned to the hunger strike the following day.

In a letter to Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence, Shadow Minister for the Armed Forces, Stephen Morgan, urged the Government to meet the veterans and to “finally bring forward proposals so that we can reach a cross-party agreement on a way forward.”  According to news reports, Ben Wallace  had said on 13 August that he was “happy to meet protestors but warned that no government ‘of any colour’ had ever made retrospective changes to pensions like the ones the demonstrators are calling for.”

On 19 August, the hunger strike ended as the Government agreed to further talks. On the same day, the Ministry of Defence responded to a petition on the UK Parliament website “demanding all Gurkha veterans are paid an equal pension to other British veterans.” The MoD said that, since the publication of the report of the Technical Committee, it had announced increases in GPS pensions in March 2019. In June 2019, the matter was “discussed between the Prime Ministers of the UK and Nepal in June 2019, when it was confirmed that the pension arrangements raised in the dialogue with Gurkha veterans and the Government of Nepal would not be re-opened.” A consultation the policy on future increases in GPS pensions, to which the Government has not yet responded, was launched in December 2020.

Two campaign groups, Gurkha Satyagraha and Gurkha Equal Rights, welcomed the actions of Minister for Defence People and Veterans, Leo Docherty, on the day the hunger strike ended, but expressed concern at the MoD response to the petition, which they said clearly indicated that the Government was “not ready to engage the Gurkhas to resolve their substantive demands.”

Establishment of bilateral committee on Gurkha welfare issues

In September 2021 the governments of the UK and Nepal agreed to set up a bilateral committee to discuss all Gurkha Veteran Welfare issues, with talks starting in December.

A petition on the UK Parliament website, which got 106,783 signatures, calling on the Government to treat Gurkhas veterans fairly and pay them “the same pension as other British veterans of the same rank and service,” is to be debated in Parliament on Monday 22 November 2021.

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