In an operation which would have made any soldier from the Brigade of Gurkhas proud, campaigner Joanna Lumley ambushed Border and Immigration Minister Phil Woolas in Westminster and frogmarched him into an impromptu live press conference on Thursday.
Woolas looked helpless as he was railroaded by the former Avengers actress into making a public statement, committing the Government to take action, in front of millions of BBC viewers.
The beleaguered Border and Immigration Minister has been under intense fire recently over his Parliamentary expenses claims and losing a vote in Parliament, forcing the Government to re-think it’s policy on former Gurkhas wishing to settle in the UK.
Lumley, who has been a powerful public champion for the Gurkhas as they have fought through the courts and Parliament, took full advantage of Home Office heavy-handedness to demand assurances from Mr Woolas after five former Gurkhas received letters from the Home Office apparently telling them they did not qualify to settle in Britain.
The letters, arriving only a day after Gordon Brown at Prime Minister’s questions and in a private meeting with Lumley had promised their cases would be reviewed, insisting he was taking personal charge of the issue.
Brown was unaware of the letters and was only informed of their existence by Lumley who spoke of “a gap in communications inside Government”.
Lumley said she had been up at midnight sending a three-page personal letter to Brown, only to be told of the letters of rejection yesterday morning.
The Home Office insist the letters to the five Gurkhas had clearly said their applications had only been rejected under previous criteria, but would be reviewed under new criteria that would be drawn up by the end of the month.
Lumley sprung into action, calling a Westminster press conference on Thursday afternoon after the five Gurkhas received apparent letters of rejection from the UK Border Agency.
The Guardian reported that, alerted to Lumley’s decision to hold a press conference, Woolas raced to the TV studios across the road from parliament to send out a message of reassurance about the real meaning of the letters, only for Lumley to follow him and then agree to hold an impromptu meeting accompanied by cameras in the offices of the BBC.
Addressing the Minister, Lumley spoke of her “enormous shock” at the letters and wanted assurances the Gurkhas, including some Falklands veterans, would not go through “this cartwheel of emotions”.
The pair then agreed to hold a joint press conference at which a visibly squirming Woolas insisted the government was obliged by the terms of a court judgement to send the letters.
Home Office sources insisted the Gurkha’s lawyers would have understood the letters’ true meaning, adding “someone is playing childish games … a slick political operation is running this”.
But at the joint press conference the cornered Minister was forced to nod in agreement as Lumley dictated that the Gurkha lawyers would help in drawing up the new guidelines, that the review would be completed by June, and the cases of the 1,500 outstanding Gurkha applicants would all be looked at “most sympathetically”.
“There is so little to be reviewed, so little to be looked at, except all these men, all these applicants should be received with open arms.”
“This letter is not a letter of rejection. It is a letter explaining the legal process.” He added it would be bad politics and irresponsible simply to wave them in.
The Home Office stressed that of the 1,500 outstanding cases, 100 had been waved through this week. Woolas added he thought the five cases in contention yesterday were also likely to be agreed.
Ministers are concerned that they may set a precedent that would allow any overseas soldier who had fought for Britain entry along with their family, and say they can only construct the new criteria after they have completed the review of the 1,500 cases.
“I know we have been accused of being emotional but that is because I am an actress and a woman, and we are always being accused of being emotional of which I am rather proud. I think that unless you can take judgments of right and wrong like an automaton, you must have emotions because that is our only way of moral guidance.”
The Gurkha issue has become a source of embarrassment for Gordon Brown’s Government and looks set to run and run.
Conservative leader David Cameron waded into the fray saying the “left hand of Government did not know what the right hand was doing”.
Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said:
“At worst this was a betrayal of the Gurkhas and at best a monumental shambles in Government where one part didn’t know what the other part was doing.
“It is amazing that the day after the prime minister says he is taking charge … decorated war heroes from the Falklands war have received letters saying they won’t be allowed to stay.”
Ironically, since coming to power in 1997 the Labour Governement has done more for the Gurkhas than all previous administrations. The current battle concerns pre-1997 soldiers.
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