Baroness forced to declare financial interests after leak reveals links to anti-Islam activists

Politics

A controversial member of the House of Lords has been forced to declare financial interests following a huge leak of documents that also revealed her links to prominent anti-Islam activists.

Baroness Cox said her failure to register support from the not-for-profit company Equal and Free Limited – which was used to pay for her parliamentary researcher – was an “oversight”.

The crossbench peer also failed to declare that she was an unpaid director of the company.

Minutes of meetings obtained by the anti-racism campaign group Hope not Hate and shared with Sky News reveal that Equal and Free Limited has received funding from an American organisation run by two evangelical philanthropists.

Based in Los Angeles, Fieldstead and Company handles the donations of Howard Ahmanson Jr and his wife Roberta Ahmanson, and focuses support on “religious liberty issues” as well as art, culture and humanitarian relief work.

In a 2011 interview with Christianity Today, Mrs Ahmanson said: “We are probably the single largest supporter of the intelligent design movement, and have been since the beginning.”

Intelligent design argues that aspects of life are best explained by the involvement of a higher being rather than evolution.

The couple has also been linked to orthodox Christian groups and political campaigns against same-sex marriage.

While parliamentary rules require peers to disclose support received from outside organisations, they are not required to detail where funding originated from initially.

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‘Oversight’ corrected quickly

Jess Garland, head of policy at the Electoral Reform Society – which campaigns for an elected House of Lords – says the structure of the chamber can work against good transparency.

“They are encouraged to have outside interests and outside expertise, but this creates a real grey area when it comes to lobbying – who’s funding these interests and where’s the money coming from?” said Ms Garland.

Baroness Cox says she corrected her register of interests as soon as the “oversight” was brought to her attention.

A spokesman for the House of Lords said there was a “robust code of conduct” but this had “no locus over how companies or other organisations providing financial or research support to members generate their income”.

Fieldstead and Company has been approached for comment and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on its part.

Among the documents leaked to Hope not Hate are minutes of regular meetings that have been convened by Baroness Cox on the parliamentary estate and attended by prominent and often controversial critics of Islam.

The documents show that non-affiliated peer Lord Pearson was also present at many of the meetings, which began in 2013 under the name “The New Issues Group” and have continued to take place in 2023.

Baroness Cox and Lord Pearson provoked controversy in 2010 when they brought the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders to the UK.

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Baroness Cox brought controversial far-right politician Geert Wilders to the UK in 2010

Controversial meetings

Minutes for a 2015 meeting show a memo written by UKIP activist and group member Magnus Nielsen that describes Islam as having “hostile intentions to everyone who is not Muslim”.

The minutes go on to state that the West is in an “at present… ideological war” with Islam and predicts a “bloody mess” in the future.

Minutes from November 2013 state that one meeting attendee – the activist Anne Marie Waters – was asked if she would help draft a parliamentary question for Baroness Cox regarding a film about free speech.

Waters went on to set up Sharia Watch UK, a group that in 2015 tried to stage a “Muhammad cartoons” exhibition in London, and was later involved in anti-Islam Pegida UK alongside English Defence League (EDL) founder Tommy Robinson.

The documents also show that another group member, Alan Craig, was taken to a meeting with a government minister by Baroness Cox.

Mr Craig provoked controversy in 2018 after claiming in a UKIP conference speech that a “holocaust of our children” was being orchestrated by groups of men from Muslim backgrounds.

The leaked documents state that Equal and Free Limited was set up as a “channel” behind a private member’s bill put forward by Baroness Cox that is focused on equality in Muslim arbitration tribunals.

Baroness Cox told Sky News the New Issues Group “is a meeting of people who support the aims” of her private member’s bill, which would “provide protection for Muslim women whose sharia marriages are not legally registered”.

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The peer added that she has “strong support from Muslim women, including the Muslim Women’s Advisory Group”.

Nick Lowles, chief executive of Hope not Hate – the organisation that obtained the documents – said they appear to show the group is not just concerned about radical and political Islam.

“This group views Islam per se as a danger to the West. They view Islam as in conflict with Western culture and Western civilisation,” said Mr Lowles.

Why it is important for the public to know what is going on behind the scenes

The Sky News Westminster Accounts tool revealed companies donating to MPs with little clarity about their owners or the original source of the funding.

This leak of documents has flagged a similar potential issue in the Lords.

Peers don’t get the same allowances as MPs for their office setup so it’s not unusual for researchers to earn money from external sources.

The question is about transparency.

Members of the Lords have access to parliament, government ministers and an influence on policy and lawmaking.

They also get public funding and – crucially for those in favour of reform – voters can’t get rid of them if they disapprove of what they’ve been doing.

All of this makes it important for the public to know what is going on behind the scenes.

Complaints may now be put into the Lords Commissioner for Standards over Baroness Cox’s failure to make appropriate financial declarations in the past.

But political sources in the Lords also suggest there could be propriety concerns about the peer inviting such controversial anti-Islam figures into parliament.

Questions about US funding

Minutes from a meeting attended by Baroness Cox in 2014 state that “money has come in from USA mainly to pay for Muslim women coming to give evidence… $40,000 from Fieldstead & Company; and £8,000 has been promised from another source”.

The organisation has been reported to have links to a 2008 campaign in California to ban same-sex marriage and the American Anglican Council – an orthodox Christian group.

Its founder Howard Ahmanson Jr is the son of the late multi-millionaire and businessman Howard Ahmanson Sr.

He sits on the board of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle organisation that promotes intelligent design and critiques Darwin’s theory of evolution.

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MPs’ donations ‘need a complete overhaul’

Roberta Ahmanson is heavily involved with Fieldstead and Company. On the organisation’s website, she describes herself as a “writer and explorer focused on discovering the nature of reality, the role of religion, and the meaning of history and the arts”.

The California-based organisation has also funded numerous cultural causes including the National Gallery in London.

A recently published document sent to Sky News by Baroness Cox states that Equal and Free “remain sincerely grateful for Fieldstead and Company’s support”.

The peer declined to clarify how much money her firm has received from the Los Angeles organisation. However, parliamentary records show that Equal and Free began funding a House of Lords researcher in 2014.

Two other members of the Lords are also known to have contributed funding to Equal and Free Limited.

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