The Government was forced into an embarrassing damage limitation exercise yesterday as Joanna Lumley angrily insisted claims she had deserted the Gurkhas were lies and smears.
The actress and fellow members of the Gurkha Justice Campaign, famed for driving the Government into a U-turn over settlement rights for the Nepalese veterans, insisted they had been victims of poisonous and defamatory comments as well as a "Stasi-like" investigation.
Veterans minister Kevan Jones, who accused the actress three weeks ago of "deathly silence" over allegations that a welfare organisation was taking money from veterans for providing misleading information, was forced to apologise yesterday and the Prime Minister personally spoke to Ms Lumley.
Gordon Brown, his office said, had expressed his regret in a telephone conversation to the actress, in which he read out a statement from Mr Jones saying: "I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused to Joanna Lumley by my remarks to the Home Affairs Committee – this was not intended."
Ms Lumley and her supporters broke their silence to rebut claims that they misled Gurkha veterans, who were now turning up in the UK destitute and reliant on service charities.
At a press conference in Westminster, Ms Lumley said she regretted having to come forward to clear her name in public, challenging Mr Brown: "Today we want to call on the Prime Minister to confirm that the policy (of allowing Gurkhas to settle in the UK) is one that he completely supports, that the Ministry of Defence is behind everything they said they would be behind.
"I want to say to the people of this country, what you did was to back a just cause and we have not stopped working solidly for the Gurkhas in the quiet, as we promised the Prime Minister we would."
Last year, the campaign won equal rights for Gurkhas who retired before 1997 to settle in the UK. However, they still only receive a pension worth approximately a fifth of their British army counterparts.
Ms Lumley continued: "It has been suggested that I somehow parachuted in, took the headlines and ran off. I take that as a smear.
"It has been suggested that I somehow spread falsehoods among the Gurkha communities both here and in Nepal about what they could expect. That is a lie and therefore a smear."
Peter Carroll, of the Gurkha Justice Campaign, added: "There has been a steady drip of negativity – almost like a dripping toxin – being put into this story by what we presume to be vested interests at the MoD".
Insisting the campaign had not "gone sour", he added: "I think it is unforgivable of the MoD, and Kevan Jones in particular, to be part of something which might undermine something so splendid."
In evidence to the Commons home affairs committee earlier this month, Mr Jones claimed that the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organisation (Gaeso), which is separate from the Gurkha Justice Campaign, was giving veterans false expectations of life in Britain, taking around £500 from them when they could receive advice free from an MoD office in Nepal, and referring them on to law firm Howe & Co. He ordered an inquiry.
Yesterday, Martin Howe, senior partner in the legal firm, said it had been "absolutely exonerated" by the Legal Services Commission,.
"(Mr Jones) should be ashamed of his words. I ask him to withdraw the evidence he gave to home affairs committee and I ask him to apologise publicly," he said.
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