'Gurkhas facing axe amid budget cuts'

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The Independent Online

The Gurkha regiment could be facing the axe as part of the battle over defence spending, a Conservative MP claimed today.

Patrick Mercer, a former Army officer, said everything was "up for grabs" as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) attempts to balance the books.

He said the Gurkhas were now more expensive after winning a high-profile campaign for better rights and there had been a rise in "home-grown" recruitment.

"I think everything at the moment is up for grabs, particularly in terms of the balance between whether we cut kit or whether we cut manpower," he told GMTV.

"The great benefit that the Gurkhas had in the past was twofold - the first is that they were cheap, much cheaper than the British equivalent, and secondly they were plentiful.

"Well, now they are not so cheap and now British recruiting has never been higher."

His remarks come after it was reported that the regiment, part of the British Army for nearly 200 years, could be one of several sacrificed as a result of a Government dispute over defence funding.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox is said to be pressing the Treasury to provide more money for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to meet the £20 billion cost of replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent.

Dr Fox has warned that having to cover the cost from the MoD budget would impact on other defence capabilities but the Chancellor George Osborne has repeatedly insisted that the bill will fall to the MoD.

Trident is currently excluded from the review of the UK's security and defence requirements the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SSDR) which is due to report next month.

The reports follow a high-profile battle led by actress Joanna Lumley to improve Gurkha rights, including the right to settle in the UK.

An MoD spokesman said: "The Defence Secretary has made clear that tough decisions will need to be made but the complex process of a Strategic Defence and Security Review will be concluded in the autumn.

"Speculation at this stage about its outcome is entirely unfounded."

The British Gurkha Welfare Society (BGWS), the largest welfare organisation for Gurkhas in the UK and Nepal, called on the Government today to clarify the situation urgently.

Chairman Major Tikendra Dal Dewan said: "I sincerely hope that the recent speculation is unfounded and that the Gurkha regiments will remain an integral part of the UK's Armed Forces for many years to come.

"The Gurkhas have made a huge contribution to the British Army for nearly two centuries, during which they have established a reputation for their dedication and professionalism. To lose this resource and its history would be a sad blow to the UK.

"The timing is unfortunate as so many Gurkhas are involved in operations in Afghanistan.

"We would urge ministers to put an end to such speculation by confirming their plans as soon as possible, and to guarantee that sufficient provision will be put in place to assist the thousands of affected soldiers to move onto the next stage of their careers.

"Many of these soldiers have decades of their working lives ahead of them, but do not necessarily have the formal training and qualifications to find employment outside the Armed Forces. If their regiments are to be abolished, these men must be properly taken care of.

"Equally, we would ask that the Government confirm it will not alter the provisions for retired Gurkhas in line with any change to the status of the Gurkha regiments."