Sarwar bribe `implausible' says minister

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A CABINET minister went into the witness box at the High Court in Edinburgh yesterday to describe how he met Mohammed Sarwar in Downing Street to hear the newly elected Labour MP's response to a bribery allegation.

Nick Brown, who was government chief whip at the time in May 1997, said he had found a News of the World story that Mr Sarwar paid an election rival pounds 5,000 to ease off his campaign "implausible". However, Mr Sarwar's explanation was "too convoluted" for Mr Brown to understand in an afternoon and of such seriousness he handed on investigations to Labour's National Executive and the legal authorities.

The trial of the businessman, who became Britain's first Muslim MP when he held Glasgow Govan for Labour at the general election, is in its sixth week. Mr Sarwar denies charges of electoral fraud and attempting to pervert the course of justice. He is accused of having names falsely added to the electoral role, bribing an "independent Labour" candidate, Badar Islam, to pin the blame for the voting irregularities on another fringe candidate and of pretending the pounds 5,000 was a loan.

Mr Brown, now the Minister of Agriculture, told the court he arranged to meet Mr Sarwar at the chief whip's office at 12 Downing Street on 18 May 1997 - the day the story appeared and a little over two weeks after Labour's election triumph. Mr Sarwar was keen to discuss the allegations, he said. "I wasn't summoning him; we both wanted to discuss them as a matter of urgency."

Mr Brown said he found the allegation that Mr Islam had been paid a "bung" implausible. "It was too late in the campaign to affect the outcome."

The case continues.