Restrictions on former Gurkhas settling in Britain have been condemned as “morally wrong and offensive” by Labour rebels, as Gordon Brown suffered a symbolic defeat on the issue.
Backbenchers including Birmingham MP Richard Burden (Lab, Northfield) and Black Country MP Bruce George (Lab, Walsall South) attacked guidelines issued by the Government in unusually strong terms.
And the House of Commons backed demands from the Liberal Democrats to scrap new residency rules announced last week, by 267 votes to 246, a majority of 21.
The defeat came just hours after Mr Brown set out the Government’s case for restricting residency rights during Prime Minister’s Questions.
Ministers last week announced new rules allowing Gurkhas who left the army before 1997 to apply for residency – but only if they met strict conditions such as three years of continuous residence in the UK; 20 or more years of service; a bravery award; a serious medical condition caused by service; or family relations already living in the UK.
Angry campaigners, including actress Joanna Lumley, denounced the measure, saying it would benefit no more than 100 of the 26,000 or so veterans involved – not the 4,000 claimed by the Government.
Labour backbenchers drew up a scathing amendment for a Commons debate.
They complained: “The new guidelines announced by the Government for the settlement of former Gurkha soldiers are restrictive, morally wrong, and offensive to Gurkhas denied the opportunity to serve for the 20-year minimum afforded to those of the rank of Warrant Officers and above.” It was signed by West Midlands MPs Mark Fisher (Lab, Stoke Central), Brian Jenkins (Lab, Tamworth), Janet Dean (Lab, Burton) and Bill Olner (Lab, Nuneaton), as well as Mr Burden and Mr George.
The MPs called on the Government to “withdraw these guidelines and bring forward new and more equitable guidelines”.
Although this was not put to a vote, many of the Labour rebels joined opposition MPs to back a Lib Dem motion demanding the Government “withdraw its new guidelines immediately”.
Their support meant the Government lost the vote. Although the result is not binding on Ministers, it places them under enormous pressure to reconsider their policy.
Mr Clegg said after the vote that it had been “a victory for fairness and decency in this country”.
Mr Cameron, standing outside the Commons alongside Ms Lumley, added: “Today is an historic day when Parliament took the right decision. The Government now have got to come back with immediate proposals.”
Earlier, the Prime Minister defended the restrictions in the Commons, as he suggested Britain could not afford the £1.4?billion bill for allowing every Gurkha to settle here.
He said: “For us to guarantee £1.4?billion would be a very big sum indeed.”
Mr Brown added that the Government would come back to the issue in the coming months.
“We are keeping this matter under review and we will review this over the course of the next few months, as the Home Secretary has already said,” he told Parliament
He insisted: “We are determined to honour the service of the Gurkhas.”
Gurkha soldiers, from Nepal, have been part of the British army for 200 years.