A campaign group has written to Westminster’s Commissioner for Standards to request an investigation into the conduct of two Tory MPs after The Ferret highlighted inconsistencies in their reporting of donations from a so-called “dark money” trust.
Unlock Democracy, a group that campaigns for democratic reform in the UK, has written a letter alleging possible breaches of the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament by MPs David Duguid and Douglas Ross.
Both MPs received £7,500 from the Scottish Unionist Association Trust (SUAT) but each politician gave the trust a different legal status and addresses in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Alexandra Runswick, Unlock Democracy’s director, said these inconsistencies make it “clear that donations from SUAT have not been accurately reported”, adding that “misreporting undermines the integrity of the whole register”.
Scottish Labour backed the request for a probe and called for the MP’s conduct to be “urgently investigated”.
The SNP said the MP’s inconsistent reporting posed “serious questions” for Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson over her party’s alleged “dark money” funding.
According to a report by STV News, SUAT donations accounted for a fifth of Scottish Conservative party spending during the 2017 general election.
In June, The Ferret reported that Banff and Buchan MP Duguid listed SUAT as having “other” donor status while Ross, the MP for Moray, listed SUAT as a “friendly society” in separate entries to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
All friendly societies are supposed to be registered with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) but SUAT is not currently registered on the FCA’s Mutuals Public Register which lists organisations owned by their members.
Additionally, Duguid gave a Melrose address while Ross provided an address in Glasgow.
SUAT recently revealed the Glasgow address is its correct address following pressure from political parties. The Scottish Tories told The Ferret that the Melrose address is that of SUAT Chairman, Robert Miller-Bakewell.
When notified of Unlock Democracy’s complaint to the Standards Commissioner, a Scottish Conservative spokesman said that the Electoral Commission had “clarified that the SUAT is an unincorporated association” and that the party had since “advised both members to change the register to reflect this clarification”.
The Electoral Commission is currently examining SUAT after we reported inconsistencies in the trust’s legal status listed on Scottish Tory donation records.
One inconsistency is that, under Electoral Commission rules, unincorporated associations that donate more than £25,000 in a calendar year are required to register with the Electoral Commission and report gifts in excess of £7,500.
However, SUAT is not included in the Commission’s register of unincorporated associations. When asked to confirm whether it had advised the Tories that SUAT is an unincorporated association, an Electoral Commission spokesperson said they could not comment while the investigation is ongoing.
Runswick requested that the Commissioner for Standards investigates whether the MPs, “or their election campaign teams, misreported the status of the donor and thereby violated paragraph 13 of the Code of Conduct”.
Paragraph 13 states that MPs “shall fulfil conscientiously the requirements of the House in respect of the registration of interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.”
Runswick said that without an accurate register “the public cannot effectively scrutinise whether Members’ financial interests are having an undue influence over the policy-making process.”
As part of her supporting evidence, she highlighted the Electoral Commission’s ongoing examination into SUAT, which, she said, justifies “reasonable suspicion that donations from SUAT may be impermissible.”
The potential for MPs to misreport donations and be unaware of the source, “is to the detriment of transparency, public scrutiny, and accountability, and has the potential to undermine public trust in politics”, she added.
Runswick highlighted that, when questioned by the BBC about the address and donors of SUAT, Duguid admitted that he knew nothing about the trust and had been “more focused on winning the election than where any donation was coming from.”
Duguid said that every donation to his electoral campaign “went through the appropriate process” and that whether SUAT were an appropriate donor is “a matter for the party”.
The public has a right to know who is bankrolling the Tories and what these secretive donors expect in return for their large sums of money. Anything less would be an insult to their constituents in Moray and Banff and Buchan. Neil Findlay, MSP
Runswick also said that Ross had listed SUAT as a friendly society, despite the trust not appearing on the FCA’s register.
“It is a cause for concern that the MPs in question have not done sufficient due diligence on their donors”, she said.
“Furthermore, the apparent inaccuracy of the donor’s details makes it impossible for members of the public to find out who is making donations to MPs.”
She added: “At the very least, the Register of Members’ Financial Interests should be amended to include the correct information about SUAT.”
Scottish Labour’s head of campaigns, Neil Findlay, called on the Tories to reveal more information surrounding the trust and its donors.
“The scandal of ‘dark money’ seemingly being fed into the Scottish Tories and their bedfellows the DUP is deeply concerning”, said Findlay.
“It is absolutely right for Unlock Democracy to refer this case to the Standards Commissioner – and this situation must be urgently investigated.
“The public has a right to know who is bankrolling the Tories and what these secretive donors expect in return for their large sums of money. Anything less would be an insult to their constituents in Moray and Banff and Buchan.”
Last week The Ferret revealed that one of the SUAT Trustees, Peter Duncan, runs a public affairs firm called Message Matters that has lobbied Conservative MSPs at Holyrood.
Asked about Runswick’s request for an investigation, the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards said it does not comment on named individuals “outside of formal decisions” and that “all the relevant evidence are published at the end of the process”.
The investigation process is currently outlined in The Commissioner’s Information Note. However, an Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner spokesperson said that “the paragraphs dealing with disclosure of information have been superseded,” after MPs last week voted to give anonymity to all MPs under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
As such “the Commissioner may no longer publish routinely the names of MPs whose conduct is under inquiry”.
Duguid was one of the MPs who voted to support giving anonymity to Westminster politicians under investigation.
An SNP spokesperson said that “Serious questions are now piling up at Ruth Davidson’s door over the dark money that is funding the Scottish Tories.
“It’s time the Electoral Commission used its powers to crack down on rule breaking, cheating and dark money. If the Commission find wrongdoing, we must see forfeiture of donations as well as fines – the scale and range of SUAT activity merits both sanctions.”
Both MPs said that they could not comment on the donations in light of the investigation.
Scottish Secretary of State David Mundell was asked by the BBC on July 24 whether it was time for his party to “come clean” on the donations it had received from SUAT.
Mundell told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme that he was “absolutely satisfied that the Scottish Conservative party has appropriately registered all the donations that it has received and been fully transparent in that regard.”
Any matters between the Electoral Commission and SUAT “are for them”, he added.
A Scottish Conservative spokesman said: “Since 2001 the Conservative Party has declared all donations from the Trust in the correct way for permissible donations in accordance with the Electoral Commission. As always, we continue to work closely with the Electoral Commission on all these matters.”