THE BLOG

Baroness Warsi Has Serious Questions to Answer

08/06/2012 10:09 BST | Updated 07/08/2012 10:12 BST

It was announced this week that the Conservative peer and Minister without Portfolio, Baroness Warsi, is to be formally investigated by the House of Lords standards commissioner over reports that she allegedly claimed £165 per night for accommodation whilst staying with her political adviser in a friend's house apparently rent-free.

Since these initial allegations came to light in The Sunday Times, a whole host of questions regarding Baroness Warsi's conduct have come to the fore. Earlier in the week Ken Clarke and the ultra-ambitious Louise Mensch took to the airwaves to try and down-play the whole thing, dismissing the spate of allegations as "very minor", "silly and pedantic", and even alleging that Warsi is the victim of a "media witch hunt".

But the truth is that there are a number of serious, legitimate and wide-ranging questions about Warsi's conduct that warrant urgent answers.

Firstly, Baroness Warsi has already admitted that she failed to declare that a relative, Abid Hussain, had stakes in the same firm as her before travelling together to Pakistan on an official government trip in 2010. This is reminiscent of the Liam Fox-Adam Werritty affair. Again we have unaccounted personal guests of a senior minister turning up during official government business.

Section 7.1 of the Ministerial Code states that "Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise". It is clear from this that David Cameron was right to finally refer Warsi to the independent adviser on ministerial interests. (This referral of Baroness Warsi only makes his failure to act in relation to the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, more indefensible).

The Sunday Telegraph also alleges that Mr Hussain was once a prominent member of the extremist Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir - an organisation that David Cameron promised, and has thus far failed, to ban. Indeed, Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at King's College London, has said that Mr Hussain was a member of the group's national executive as recently as 2005.

The fact that Warsi chose to take this particular individual raises serious questions. Why was it deemed necessary that Mr Hussain accompany the Minister on what was supposed to be official business? Bearing in mind Mr Hussain's background, was he subjected to security vetting before accompanying Baroness Warsi to Pakistan? Was Mr Hussain's presence cleared by either the Cabinet Office or Number 10? And given the revelation's in yesterday's Telegraph that Mr Hussain may have accompanied Baroness Warsi to meetings with wealthy Pakistani politicians in the UK as well, what precisely was the nature and purpose of these meetings?

But this is just the start. There are other pressing questions emerging from the reports in the Sunday Mirror that Baroness Warsi has been on a large number of visits abroad at the taxpayers' expense. Since May 2010, she has made over 14 visits, including five to Pakistan and others to Bosnia, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, India, Uzbekistan and Malaysia. Just in the last five months, she has travelled abroad, apparently on official business, at least once a month and has been on long trips to Pakistan twice. On average, she is out of the country for four to five days each time. This means she could be spending up to a quarter of the working month abroad.

There is of course nothing wrong with ministers travelling abroad when they have government business. Ministers from the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, for example, have to travel frequently for perfectly legitimate reasons. But despite rather half-hearted spinning at the weekend from allies of Warsi that the Baroness has somehow acquired a central role in our foreign and security relations, the fact is her principal job is as co-chairman of the Conservative party. She has no departmental responsibilities listed whatsoever.

Why has she been allowed to go on so many foreign visits at considerable cost to the taxpayer? Unlike her colleagues at the Foreign Office, she is not regularly subject to questions in Parliament about these multiple visits. We need urgent assurances that there was no party political element to Warsi's trips, especially in relation to her visits to Pakistan, as section 10.1 of the Ministerial Code states that "official transport should not normally be used for travel arrangements arising from Party or private business, except where this is justified on security grounds".

One of Warsi's primary responsibilities is to try and drum up support for the Tory party from amongst Britain's sizeable population who are of Pakistani heritage. There is some suggestion, for instance, that Baroness Warsi was instrumental in launching the Conservative Friends of Pakistan at the Savoy Hotel last month, an event that was attended by both David Cameron and, interestingly, by the Prime Minister of Pakistan during an official visit to the UK.

So far from the allegations being "minor" or "pedantic", it is clear that Baroness Warsi does face serious questions about her conduct as a minister. But the government's handling of the BSkyB bid, the shenanigans that marked the Fox-Werritty affair, the 'cash4cameron' scandal and now the allegations surrounding Baroness Warsi's conduct, tells us something about the character of David Cameron's government.

By refusing to refer Jeremy Hunt to the independent adviser - something that Labour will challenge next week in the House of Commons - David Cameron effectively tried to give Jeremy Hunt 'immunity' from being accountable to the ministerial code. It may mean now that some ministers in David Cameron's government feel that they are untouchable. Other ministers already have a strong sense of entitlement - that they are born to rule - and that the institutions of government are somehow part of their own private domain, where they are free to act as they please.

There is a growing sense in some parts of the civil service, particularly from those who have only very recently left Whitehall, that some members of the government are utterly shameless in trying to use the trappings of office for their own political purposes. That's why recent allegations are so important - and it's why we need answers fast.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and Shadow Minister without Portfolio