LONDON: Britain’s highest-profile Muslim politician Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is under sustained attack from the right-wing press as part of the witch-hunt operation to oust her from the cabinet post, including objections that she has made more trips to Pakistan than any other single country since becoming a minister in the coalition government, The News can reveal.
Attacks on Lady Warsi, which started a week ago with allegations that she had stayed at a friend’s house rent-free while claiming allowance from the government exchequer, got worse, personal and vicious over the week when her family, relatives and friends were besieged from the right-wing tabloids, including the pro-Tory but extremely right-wing, anti-immigrant Telegraph newspaper, resulting into a barrage of new and unsubstantiated allegations on Warsi and her conduct.
Mainstream commentators agree that attacks on Warsi are part of an elaborate, sexist and racist plot which is aimed at ousting the daughter of Pakistani immigrants from her position of influence. But anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia campaigners are rallying to her defence, pointing out that while many senior politicians, including white female politicians, are given an easy ride, Warsi is being subjected to undue criticism.
The ultimate aim, supporters of Baroness Warsi say, is to bring her under pressure so that she is forced to resign but Lady Warsi is determined to fight on. Newspapers on Sunday objected why Lady Warsi had spent more than £14,000 of taxpayers’ money on trips abroad, 14 visits in two years, including five to Pakistan and others to Bosnia, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, India, Rome, Uzbekistan and Malaysia. She has been singled out for going to Pakistan and other Islamic countries for attempting to increase trade and cultural relations between Britain and the Islamic world, including nuclear-armed Pakistan.
But the fact has been ignored that as the first Muslim in a British cabinet, who is fluent in Urdu, Punjabi and Gujrati, and who can read and write Arabic, Baroness Warsi is a massive asset in building relations overseas. She represents the British government abroad, in her role as cabinet minister without portfolio, as part of the government’s ongoing work to promote trade, enhance bilateral relations and engage on issues of security with countries of strategic importance.
On Sunday, two newspapers alleged that Barrister Abid Hussain, a youth community activist in Pakistani communities who had played a key role in efforts to eradicate radicalism from British Muslim youth, was a member of the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir and questioned why he had accompanied Baroness Warsi on a trip to Pakistan.
Abid, who is a family relative and has extensive family links in Pakistan, told The News he was taking legal action against The Sunday Telegraph for bringing disrepute to his name. He confirmed: “I have never had any involvement with Hizb-ut-Tahrir. I will take legal action against anyone who alleges I have been a member of this organisation.”
Separately, The News has reviewed all allegations against Baroness Warsi. The Sunday Telegraph alleged that Warsi had “never registered a controlling stake in a spice manufacturing firm” in which Abid Hussain happened to be her business partner. But Warsi maintains that “the shareholding was not a controlling interest and was therefore below the threshold for inclusion in the Register of Lords’ Interests.”
A source close to Warsi told The News: “In February 2012, a shareholder in the company transferred his shares to the other shareholders, including Baroness Warsi. This transfer was recognised on the company’s Annual Return. Baroness Warsi immediately transferred 15 shares to her husband, leaving her with a minority shareholding. Baroness Warsi’s interest was always fully disclosed to the Cabinet Office.”
The Sunday Telegraph objected that Lady Warsi has been on 17 foreign trips while her role as party chairman is to “foster relations with grass roots members.” The paper alleged that “eight were paid for by the government, two by Saudi Arabia and one by an Azerbaijani expatriate group.” Warsi clarified that she has not taken any trip paid for any Azerbaijani group while in office and “a single trip as a guest of Saudi Arabia” but this was not an official government visit.
“The invitation from the Saudi government was extended to Baroness Warsi as one of a number of international Muslim legislators invited to take part in the pilgrimage (Hajj). However, Cabinet Office and FCO were consulted beforehand. The visit was fully disclosed on the Lords register, and widely publicised at the time. Britain’s first Muslim cabinet minister has declared both trips (to Saudi Arabia) in the House of Lords register of outside interests but the costs have not been disclosed,” said the source. “Baroness Warsi visited Saudi Arabia as a guest of the Saudi government. She is not required to disclose the cost of the visit under House of Lords rules. Baroness Warsi’s husband accompanied her on the visit, at his own cost.”
Warsi has already issued a clarification relating to the accusation of claiming expenses while living rent-free at a friend’s London flat. She has said that she stayed in a room at a flat occupied by Naweed Khan, a colleague from Conservative Campaign Headquarters. She made an appropriate payment to Naweed Khan on each occasion, which compensated for the inconvenience caused and additional costs he incurred as a result of her being there. She has also invited the Commissioner for Standards in the House of Lords to investigate the matter, thereby enabling the Commissioner to undertake an investigation which would otherwise be time-barred.
Baroness Warsi claimed the overnight subsistence allowance, which compensates peers for accommodation, subsistence and some travel expenses, when staying overnight in London in order to attend the House of Lords. Baroness Warsi is content that her claims were in line with the letter of the law and the spirit of the rules.
Replying to the charge that she did not tell House of Lords authorities that she was receiving income from a London property she had bought and rented out, Baroness Warsi has acknowledged that due to an oversight she failed to register her ownership of the flat on the Register of Lords’ Interests when its value and the gross rent received came to exceed the thresholds for disclosure (although the net income was always below the disclosure threshold). When the discrepancy became apparent, she immediately informed the Registrar of Lords’ Interests of its omission. At all times her ownership of the flat and the fact that it was being let out were fully disclosed to Cabinet Office officials and HM Revenue and Customs, and were appropriately reported on the register of ministers’ interests held by the government.
The Sunday Times said that an aid foundation set up by Warsi in 2002 has been operating in breach of Charity Commission rules as a long-standing trustee is Tabasum Aslam, a former Liberal Democrat councillor from West Yorkshire, “who was convicted of a housing benefit fraud in 2007”. According to the source the charity’s chairman has confirmed that he and the trustees were unaware of Aslam’s conviction, which resulted in a conditional discharge. “Upon being made aware of the allegation, the charity confronted Mr Aslam, who stepped down as a trustee, and notified the Charity Commission,” said the source.