By Bob Duncan
Baroness Warsi, the co-chairman of the Conservative party, is to be formally investigated by the Standards Commissioner of the House of Lords, following reports she claimed accommodation allowance while staying rent free with a friend.
The Conservative peer had referred herself to the Lords watchdog after Labour had called for the matter of her expenses to be investigated by the metropolitan Police. The police decided not to pursue the investigation and instead referred it back to the House of Lords.
Following an initial assessment, a spokesman for the Lords standards commissioner said he would hold a formal investigation.
The rules for expenses claims by members of the House of Lords, as set out on the Parliament website for the year 2007-08, say members living outside London can claim a maximum of £165.50 a night.
The owner of the property in Acton, west London, Dr Wafik Moustafa, said he never received any money from the unelected Tory peer. Baroness Warsi said she had made “appropriate” payments to an intermediary, her friend and now special adviser Naweed Khan, which were the equivalent of what she would have paid for hotel costs at the time.
Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim woman to be a Cabinet minister, has also apologised to Prime Minister David Cameron over a ministerial trip to Pakistan with her business partner. She has faced criticism over the official trip with Abid Hussein after it was alleged that she had failed to declare a stake in a company.
The Prime Minister has referred the matter to his adviser on the ministerial code, but said he believed the probe was only a matter of tying up “loose ends”.
However, one Conservative MP has said Lady Warsi should stand down pending the investigation by Sir Alex Allan, No 10’s adviser on ministerial interests, into whether she broke the ministerial code. This requires ministers to ensure no real or perceived conflict between their official responsibilities and their personal interests.
Lady Warsi, who sits in the cabinet as minister without portfolio, said it was “widely known” – both in her private office and the British High Commission in Pakistan – that Abid Hussain was her husband’s second cousin. But she said she did not realise the fact they had “a common business interest” as minority shareholders in a small food company, Rupert’s Recipes, also had to be declared.
Asked about Lady Warsi’s future on Tuesday, Mr Cameron said he was “very happy with the explanation she has given”, adding “She has apologised for the mistake she has made but I think it right for Sir Alex Allan just to see if there are any loose ends that need to be picked up. It’s no more than that.”
A comprehensive-school-educated Asian woman, who speaks with a Yorkshire accent, Lady Warsi has risen rapidly to the top of a party opponents often depict as being dominated by white, privately educated men. She arrived at her first cabinet meeting in May dressed in a traditional South Asian shalwar kameez.
She is also a minister without portfolio, with licence to speak out on a range of issues – and she has not been afraid to court controversy, particularly when speaking out about what she sees as the rise of Islamaphobia in Britain.
In 2010, she told the New Statesman: “If you have a pop at the British Muslim community in the media, then first of all it will sell a few papers; second, it doesn’t really matter; and third, it’s fair game.
In February 2012, Newsnet Scotland revealed that Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the most senior Catholic figure in the UK, was not invited to join an official UK delegation to the Vatican which was organised by Lady Warsi, and which included Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Michael Moore.
Mr Moore had claimed that there was no oversight and that invitations were the responsibility of the Vatican. However this was challenged by Vatican officials who said UK Ministers should have known that Cardinal O’Brien needed to be invited.
It subsequently emerged that Baroness Warsi had herself personally invited Archbishop Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, but had failed to include his more senior Scottish equivalent.
Labour have questioned why Mr Cameron has referred Lady Warsi’s conduct to his adviser on ministerial interests while he has declined to do the same for Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt over his controversial handling of the BSkyB takeover bid.
But Mr Cameron said the cases were “very different”, adding that: “In the case of Jeremy Hunt, obviously all of that has been gone through by the Leveson Inquiry.”