London, Feb. 18 (Reuters): Prime Minister Tony Blair’s barrister wife went to court today to accuse her husband’s government of racial discrimination against a group of former Nepalese soldiers from the British army’s Gurkha units.
“This case concerns what we say is systematic and institutionalised less favourable treatment of Gurkha soldiers... on the grounds of their race and nationality,” Cherie Booth told London’s High Court.
She was representing seven former members of the Gurkhas — a group which has been fighting for Britain since 1815 and currently numbers 3,517 within the UK military. They are suing London for allegedly inferior pay and conditions to UK nationals in the military.
The Gurkhas have served among British troops in recent years in the Falklands, the Gulf War, Kosovo and East Timor.
But they claim their meagre wages and pensions, set under a colonial-era 1947 agreement, do not provide them with the equivalent standard of living when they retire in Nepal as that enjoyed by retired soldiers in Britain.
“On the one hand Gurkhas are acknowledged to be brave fighters who have provided loyal service to the Crown for nearly 200 years, and even today serve in Kuwait,” Booth said.
“But on the other hand, they are treated as different and inferior in relation to other parts of the British Army on terms and conditions of service.”
The Gurkhas’ case was not the first time the Prime Minister’s wife — one of Britain’s most successful employment lawyers who shifted a few years ago into human rights law — has represented plaintiffs suing her husband’s government.
In 2000, a very pregnant Booth appeared in court to argue on behalf of trade unions that the government needed to extend new parental leave benefits retroactively, offering 13 weeks unpaid leave to parents of children under five. The government eventually settled that case.
If the Gurkhas’ succeed in their claim, the government could face a £2 billion bill to compensate past and current Gurkhas, experts say.
The government argues there has been no unlawful discrimination and says the Gurkhas have anyway waited too long to bring forward a test case. A ministry of defence spokesman said that last year there were 27,000 applicants for 230 places in the Gurkha regiments. “That figure is testimony to the enormous desire there is to join the Gurkhas because of the fantastic prestige and opportunities they have,” the spokesman said.
He acknowledged, however, that they have “different terms and conditions to UK servicemen.”