The Foreign Office has spent up to £100,000 of taxpayers' money on sending a British delegation on the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
The group, led by two Labour peers, Lord Ahmed and Lord Patel of Blackburn, has travelled to Saudi Arabia for four years to "support" British Muslims among the 2 million pilgrims who go on the Haj. Britain is believed to be the only Christian country to send an official delegation on the pilgrimage. Christian pilgrims and Jews or Hindus visiting holy sites are understood not to receive similar support.
The British Haj delegation includes Foreign Office officials and doctors who can treat British pilgrims suffering from heat exhaustion and other ailments. The Foreign Office said it spent £30,000 on supporting the British delegation last year and £20,000 in previous years. It has already approved the budget for next year.
One anti-racism campaigner said the money would be better spent in Britain, promoting understanding between British Muslims and other racial and religious groups and supporting community projects. "This is a lot of money and it should be spent on promoting multiculturalism in Britain," said Tara Mukherjee, chairman of the London-based European Multicultural Foundation. "The money should be spent on helping to accommodate Muslims in a secular society."
About 50,000 British Muslims make the pilgrimage each year, many of whom are elderly, and an estimated 1,500 people sought help and advice from the British delegation.
Lord Ahmed said: "The involvement of the Foreign Office is useful. The delegation can treat people with minor diseases and cut the cost to the National Health Service. The British delegation put up big signposts and they give out leaflets to people so people can identify them."