A legal firm that had campaigned alongside the actress Joanna Lumley has been dragged into an investigation into charges levied on Gurkha veterans seeking to settle in Britain.
The Defence minister Kevan Jones ordered the inquiry after it emerged that former soldiers had paid thousands of pounds to a welfare charity which referred their cases to immigration lawyers in this country.
Giving evidence to the Commons home affairs committee, Mr Jones said some of the advice given to the veterans by the charity was misleading and encouraged them to have false expectations about Britain, including their right to free homes. Large amounts of money, he said, were being claimed in legal aid by firms when the Gurkhas could, instead, receive free advice on their settlement rights from a Ministry of Defence funded office in Nepal.
The minister demanded that Ms Lumley, who led a successful and high-profile fight for Gurkhas to settle in Britain, should speak out and ensure that veterans were not being exploited. "Her deathly silence, frankly, irritates me," said Mr Jones. The legal firm in question, Howe & Co, has categorically denied "taking a single penny" from the Gurkhas and accused Mr Jones of making unsubstantiated accusations.
Ms Lumley's son, Jamie, said last night that his mother was unlikely to make any comments on the matter. However Kieran O'Rourke, a partner with Howe & Co, who visited Nepal with the actress following the landmark High Court victory and remains in contact with her, said: "I know that Joanna was given no notice that she was going to be attacked in this unfair way. She has no alternative now but to appear before the committee herself to give her side of things and the committee should call her."
Ms Lumley's campaign on behalf of the Gurkhas received widespread public and parliamentary backing, including that of rebel Labour MPs, forcing the Government into a U-turn on the settlement issue. On one highly publicised occasion she confronted the Immigration minister, Phil Woolas, to press the case for the veterans.
The Justice minister Lord Bach will be in charge of the inquiry. Mr Jones, speaking to the committee, highlighted the "relationship" between the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organisation (Gaeso) and Howe & Co.
"As I understand how the system works, you go to Gaeso, a voluntary donation is made of about £500 and you then get passed on the Howe & Co. Now, I am not sure what the relationship is between Howe & Co and Gaeso," he said. "But I think you have also got to take a step back to last year. It's about credibility and that's where people can't just walk away once the headlines die down because Howe & Co were the solicitors arguing for the campaign, along with Joanna Lumley. Gaeso, I understand, organised the victory tour for Joanna Lumley to Nepal. You have to look at this through the eyes of people in Nepal and if they see an organisation which has 'credibility' then asking them for money, you can understand why they should do that."
Mr O'Rourke said: "I do not know why Mr Jones is making these comments. If the Government has any evidence that we are taking money from the Gurkhas they should come up with evidence. We have absolutely nothing to hide from any inquiry. We did receive a claim last year that Gaeso was using our name to collect money from veterans, but we contacted Gaeso and they have categorically denied this.
"The Government want the Gurkhas to just use the office that they had set up. But we are qualified solicitors who become liable before a disciplinary body if we give the wrong advice – that is not the case with the government-run office."
British military charities have reported cases of Gurkha veterans turning up in the UK and ending up destitute on the streets, having paid substantial sums of money to private organisations in Nepal.
Glyn Strong, of the group Veterans Aid, said: "We are not in the business of blaming Joanna Lumley for this. What we are saying is that we have come across cases of Gurkhas who have ended up here totally lost. We had one elderly man who had somehow raised £9,000 which he had given to some people who promised him there would be a home waiting for him here. He was in a dishevelled state, and in some distress and had ended up living rough. He had some very bad experiences in the streets and at the end just wanted to go home, we paid for that and put him on a flight. I am afraid we may be seeing a lot more of these cases in the future."
Explainer: The allegations
*The allegations made by Kevan Jones concern what are, effectively, referral charges. It is claimed the Gurkha charity Gaeso is taking around £500 from Gurkha veterans who want to settle in the UK, and passing them on to become clients of the British law firm Howe & Co for legal advice.
This is despite the fact that the Ministry of Defence has an office in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, offering the same advice for free.
Howe & Co strenuously deny any impropriety and say they have not received "a penny" from either Gaeso or any Gurkhas. They insist the MoD office can offer only limited help and many veterans do not trust the office.