Joanna Lumley: Government cannot condemn Gurkha protesters to poverty

A Gurkha veteran drinks water during a hunger strike opposite Downing Street in London Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Actress and campaigner Joanna Lumley has urged the Government to meet with the “brave and loyal” Gurkha veterans who are staging a hunger strike about their pensions outside Downing Street.

The group of Gurkha veterans outside Number 10 is calling for equal pensions for Gurkhas who retired before 1997 and are not eligible for a full UK armed forces pension.

As of Sunday, the Support Our Gurkhas protesters had reached their ninth day of not eating.

In a statement on Saturday, Absolutely Fabulous actress Lumley said the Government “cannot praise our veterans to the high heavens when it suits them, but ignore them and condemn them to poverty when it doesn’t”.

The 75-year-old, who in 2009 led a campaign to allow Gurkhas settlement rights in Britain, was born in India and moved to England as a child. Her father was a major in the Gurkha Rifles.

She said: “Seeing such brave and loyal Gurkha British Army veterans feeling they have no option but to take the drastic step of entering a hunger strike will be deeply upsetting to the vast majority of the public who understand the special place that all veterans have in our hearts, in our thoughts and the life of the nation.

“Only a deep sense of injustice could drive these brave and respectful souls to this point. At the heart of this matter is how we value those who have offered, and sometimes given, the ultimate sacrifice to protect our way of life and to keep us safe.

“I urge the Government to meet these veterans and to cut through the morass of detail surrounding the complexity of the various pension schemes and find some way to address the injustices highlighted.”

Absolutely Fabulous actress Joanna Lumley Credit: Ian West/PA

On Friday, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said he was happy to meet with protesters, but warned no government “of any colour” had ever made retrospective changes to pensions similar to the ones the demonstrators are calling for.

He told Sky News: “I am very happy to meet any Gurkha. My father fought alongside the Gurkhas in Malaya in the 1950s, it is a pretty remarkable group of people.

“The group of people currently protesting are groups affected by the change by the Labour government in 1997 to 2003. This was about people who are under a 1947 pension, it is a very small group of Gurkha pensioners, they had different advantages in their pension scheme in that old scheme.

“That scheme said that you got it after 15 years when a British soldier got it after 22, but there is a difference and they feel that difference needs to be made up.

“That is not the same as the Gurkhas of today or the Gurkhas after 2003, they get exactly the same pensions as British serving personnel, but of course no government of any colour, Labour or Conservative, or coalition, has ever retrospectively changed pensions, that has not been the case.”

A Gurkha veterans protest opposite Downing Street Credit: Hollie Adams/PA

Around 200,000 Gurkhas, recruited from Nepal, fought in both world wars, and they have also served in places such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those who served from 1948 to 2007 were members of the Gurkha Pension Scheme until the Labour government of the time eliminated the differences between Gurkhas’ terms and conditions of service and those of their British counterparts.

Serving Gurkhas, and those with service on or after July 1 1997, could then opt to transfer into the Armed Forces Pension Scheme.

The change was brought in after an amendment to immigration rules in 2007, backdated to July 1997, meant more retired Gurkhas were likely to settle in the UK on discharge, whereas the previous pension scheme had lower rates as it had assumed they would return to Nepal where the cost of living was significantly lower.