Gordon Brown says sorry to Joanna Lumley over Gurkhas

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Indy Politics

Prime Minister Gordon Brown told Gurkha campaigner Joanna Lumley today he was "sorry" over comments made about her by a Government minister.

Veterans minister Kevan Jones also apologised "unreservedly" to the actress for his criticism of her "deathly silence" on Gurkhas' welfare since she forced a Government climbdown last year over the Nepalese troops' right to settle in the UK in retirement.

In an impassioned press conference in Westminster, Ms Lumley made clear that she regarded Mr Jones's comments as a "smear".

And she called on Mr Brown to restate his support for the resettlement policy, which has seen around 6,000 Gurkhas apply to live in Britain.

Downing Street said the Prime Minister had a "positive" telephone conversation with Ms Lumley, in which he expressed regret over Mr Jones's comments.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said Mr Brown read Ms Lumley the statement of "unreserved apology" that was being offered by Mr Jones.

And he added: "Joanna Lumley, as you know, has had particular concerns about some of the media coverage of the campaign. The Prime Minister said he was sorry this had happened."

Giving evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee on March 9, Mr Jones voiced concern that Gurkha veterans in Nepal were being given misleading information about the benefits and support they might receive if they came to the UK.

And he claimed that the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organisation (GAESO) had been taking payments of £500 from veterans and passing their cases on to London solicitors Howe & Co, which was part of the campaign to win settlement rights.

His comments followed press reports suggesting that some Gurkhas had been encouraged to apply for visas to come to the UK when they had no means of support here.

There was an onus on Ms Lumley to spread the message that veterans did not need to pay to access advice on their rights, he said, adding that her "deathly silence, frankly, irritates me".

Ms Lumley today said she had never spoken to Mr Jones.

She and other campaigners had been asked by the Government to continue their work behind the scenes, rather than speaking out publicly.

"It has been suggested that I somehow was parachuted in, took the headlines and ran. I feel that is a smear," she said.

"It has been suggested that I somehow spread falsehoods amongst the Gurkha communities both here and in Nepal about what they could expect. That is a lie and therefore a smear.

"The people who made those accusations must know them to be untrue."

She denied that a "victory trip" to Nepal was funded by GAESO, insisting she and other campaigners funded their expenses out of their own pockets.

Ms Lumley added: "We want to call on the Prime Minister to confirm that the policy 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."

Minutes before Ms Lumley spoke, Mr Jones said in a statement: "I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused to Joanna Lumley by my remarks to the Home Affairs Committee - this was not intended."

Mr Jones said he had "the greatest of respect" for her work and accepted that neither she nor the campaign had sought to mislead Gurkhas about their prospects in the UK.

"My sole concern... is to stop unscrupulous middlemen ripping off and misleading vulnerable ex-Gurkhas who are entitled to settle in the UK when our free service already exists to help them without charge," he said.

Mr Brown's spokesman said the PM's discussion with Ms Lumley this afternoon was "relatively brief" but "very warm".

The premier "reaffirmed his complete commitment to the campaign" and the actress thanked him.

There was "no need" for any further action in relation to Mr Jones, said the spokesman.

"Kevan Jones has apologised. That is the end of it. The most important thing is that the campaign was successful, the policy has been changed, Gurkhas are being helped and supported."

Mr Carroll said that since settlement rights were won last year, there had 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".

And solicitor David Enright of Howe & Co claimed: "They are trying to roll back this policy by the back door."

The firm's senior partner Martin Howe said that Mr Jones's "extremely defamatory" comments led to an "almost Stasi-like investigation" into his company, which ended with Howe & Co being exonerated.

Some 6,000 Gurkhas have now applied for settlement rights in the UK, and 4,100 have had visas granted, of whom around 120 are understood to have experienced difficulties since arriving, he said.

Bidur Pakhrin, vice-chairman of the British Gurkha Welfare Society, said it was "incredibly important" that Gurkhas get accurate advice giving them "realistic expectations of what life in the UK is likely to be like".

And he added: "This has sadly not always been the case in recent months."

Mr Pakhrin said: "No one wants to see Gurkhas leave friends and family only to find themselves facing the same hardships and poverty in the UK that they did in Nepal.

"Hopefully, we can now move on from the events of recent weeks and focus on making sure that not only are Gurkha veterans getting the right information, but that irrespective of where they choose to live in their old age, they are able to do so in reasonable conditions and with an acceptable quality of life."