Friday, May 01, 2009

Giving the Gurkha's what they deserve

picture I took of Joanna Lumley and a Gurkha veteran campaigning outside Parliament
picture I took of Joanna Lumley campaigning for Gurkha Rights outside Parliament
I still can't quite believe that the Lib Dem motion on giving fair rights to the Gurkhas defeated the Government this week. A government defeat on an Opposition motion is big enough news whatever the issue - this is the first time this has happened since the dying days of "Sunny Jim" Callaghan's hapless Labour Government in 1978! But the issue in question is more important than the politics - if Gurkhas were prepared to die for this country, we have a moral duty to let them live here. The Government cannot ignore this clear signal and I am delighted that the Gurkhas will now be treated properly.

The issue is especially relevant in Ealing as we have a significant local Gurkha community, and at last week's Full Council meeting, councillors of all three Parties united to pass a motion, which concluded:

This Council believes that, given the exceptional service they have given to the United Kingdom, Gurkhas and their families should be given fast track eligibility for either the right to remain or citizenship.

This Council urges Ealing’s three MPs to support the campaign for Gurkha rights.

At the start of the debate, councillors gave a standing ovation for a group of local Gurkhas who were in the public gallery. This reminded me of when I was present at the Liberal Democrat Conference when a large numbers of Gurkhas attended in uniform and received a spontaneous and heartfelt standing ovation from everyone present. Fifty Gurkhas handed their medals to Nick Clegg in protest at the Government's shameful failure to extend British Citizenship to all Gurkha soldiers and their families - not just those who served in the last decade.

These are men who have risked their lives and fought bravely for our country, earning an unchallenged record of distinguised conduct. If someone is prepared to die for this country, they should have the right to live in this country.

Party politics aside, Steve Pound, the MP for Ealing North, did the decent thing by rebelling against the Government on this issue, but I sadly cannot say the same about the other two Labour MPs representing our Borough - Virendra Sharma and Andy Slaughter.

The position of Virendra Sharma is especially worrying. He has remained a Councillor despite being elected as MP for Ealing Southall in the by-election. There is nothing wrong with that. After all, I will be in the same position if elected to represent the new Ealing Central and Acton seat at the next election. But two things are wrong. One is that his Council attendence record has been dreadful since he became an MP - prior to last Tuesday he had not attended a Full Council meeting and had only avoided being kicked off the Council for non-attendence by attending occaisional meetings of an obscure sub-committee - but even more seriously, this week his stance in the Council chamber and his stance in Parliament have been diametrically opposed to one another.

Cllr Virendra Sharma, who due to the vaguries of the Council's seating plan sits in the seat next to me, spoke for the motion at the Council meeting, explained that the Government would sort this out shortly. He then voted for the Council motion above, which urges Ealing's MPs to support Ghurka rights. In my speech I specifically made reference to the fact that this included the MP sitting next to me!

A week later, Virendra Sharma MP shamefully voted against the Liberal Democrat motion supporting Ghurka rights.

Do Cllr Virendra Sharma and Virendra Sharma MP ever talk to each other? Sharma referred extensively to the Whips in his speech. Perhaps the simplest answer is that he blindly obeys the Labour Council Group whip when voting in Ealing's Council Chamber and the Labour Parliamentary whip when voting in Parliament, without giving any thought to the issue at hand. If that is the case, Ealing residents deserve better.