Page last updated at 18:37 GMT, Thursday, 7 May 2009 19:37 UK

Lumley in public clash on Gurkhas


Ms Lumley has spearheaded the campaign for Gurkha settlement rights

Joanna Lumley says the immigration minister has "reassured" her over Gurkhas' rights to settle in the UK, in an unscheduled and dramatic meeting.

The actress and Phil Woolas came face-to-face in highly-charged scenes at the BBC's Westminster office and then held an impromptu press conference nearby.

It followed the rejection of appeals by five Gurkhas for residency, rulings which Ms Lumley said were "shocking".

Opposition parties said government policy had become a "shambles".

Extraordinary scenes

Mr Woolas said the cases of the five Gurkhas, one of whom was badly injured during the Falklands War, would be reviewed.

He indicated campaigners and opposition parties would have a say in the formation of new regulations on residency rights, forced by Labour's Commons defeat on the issue last week.

Ms Lumley said: "I have met Mr Woolas now and I am reassured again. Because I know we are going to assist Mr Woolas in making the strongest guidelines possible.

"We have to believe in this. This is all we've got to believe in. We wish this campaign was over now."

But she urged the government to act more quickly, saying the issue could be settled by next week.

The 1,500 Gurkhas whose applications for permanent residence were currently being considered should "be received with open arms", she said.

Joanna Lumley and Phil Woolas (PIC: Xanthe Hinchey)
Ms Lumley and Mr Woolas left BBC offices for a media conference

"There is nothing more to think about and consider," she said, adding that the government had been sending out "blurred messages" about its policy.

Mr Woolas said immigration policy could not "be determined on a whim" and residency rules for Gurkhas had to be considered within a legal framework.

But he said ministers were respecting the will of Parliament in reviewing the regulations, after Labour's recent defeat on the issue, and he believed that the Gurkhas would be "pleased" with the outcome of the review.

The meeting between Ms Lumley and Mr Woolas came about after Ms Lumley arrived at the building in which the BBC studio is based to host a press conference.

As Ms Lumley, who has spearheaded the campaign for Gurkha settlement rights, prepared for her press conference Mr Woolas began a live television interview inside - Ms Lumley stood outside watching.

Once his interview ended the two, surrounded by reporters and television crews, made their way to an office to hold talks.

The BBC's Political Editor Nick Robinson said he had rarely seen scenes of such a kind, with Ms Lumley appearing to be leading the government a merry dance on the issue.

Although the meeting had not resulted in a change of policy, it showed just how powerful the Gurkha campaign had become and how crucial Ms Lumley's involvement was.

Rejection letters

The day's events were triggered by letters sent to four Gurkhas informing them that their residency applications had been turned down.

Ms Lumley said the decisions were an "enormous shock", coming a day after she met Gordon Brown and was assured he would deal personally with the row over residency rights.

While you do not qualify for settlement now, your case will be reconsidered when the next stage of reform has been finalised

Letter from UK Border Agency to Gurkhas

Some 36,000 Gurkhas, a brigade of Nepalese soldiers who serve in the British Army, were denied UK residency because they left before 1997.

Ms Lumley has long argued for Gurkha soldiers to be granted the the same settlement rights as soldiers from Commonwealth countries who have fought for the UK.

Ministers eased the residency rules for Gurkhas earlier this year after the High Court said its policy was not sufficiently clear.

Under the current rules, ministers argue that more than 4,000 Gurkhas will be able to settle in the UK but campaigners have said the figure will be closer to 100.

However, the rules are to be reviewed again after the government was defeated in a Commons vote on the issue.

The cases of the four Gurkhas were considered under the existing rules and Mr Woolas stressed their request for settlement had not been rejected once and for all.

The UK Border Agency - which considers residency applications - said their cases would be "reconsidered when the next stage of reform has been finalised".

No 10 says it will to publish revised rules by the end of July and consider all existing applications by the end of the month.

'Strong campaign'

Officials point out that more than 100 Gurkhas have been granted rights of settlement in the last few days as the backlog of outstanding cases are dealt with.

Mr Woolas said Ms Lumley and other activists had run a "strong campaign" but denied ministers had been "outmanoeuvred".

The prime minister has absolutely got to get a grip on this issue
David Cameron

However, opposition parties said the rejected applications flew in the face of government commitments to review the system following its embarrassing parliamentary defeat.

Tory leader David Cameron said the "left hand of this government doesn't know what the right hand is doing".

"The prime minister has absolutely got to get a grip on this issue," he told a meeting of party supporters in Derbyshire.

The Lib Dems described the latest rulings as "astonishing".

"At worst this is a betrayal and at best it is a monumental shambles," said its home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne.

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