Tory ‘dark money’ trust fined again by Electoral Commission

A so-called ‘dark money’ trust that gave £416,000 to the Scottish Conservatives has received another fine by the Electoral Commission for the late declaration of a donation.

The Scottish Unionist Association Trust (SUAT) paid a £300 penalty to the UK election watchdog on 9 June 2020 for failing to report its donation to the Tories before a deadline. This is the second fine given to the secretive trust in the last year.

The Electoral Commission stressed that its “reporting requirements are clear” and said it was “always disappointing when parties and members associations fail to provide timely reports.”

In September 2019, we reported that SUAT had been fined £1,800 by the Electoral Commission for failing to properly report donations. The Glasgow-based trust had also failed to report two donations totalling £207,350 within a required timescale.

The £1,800 fine followed a 14-month investigation by the election watchdog after an investigation by The Ferret highlighted inconsistencies in SUAT’s status in June 2018.

Electoral Commission probes £319,000 Tory ‘dark money’ trust

Critics then dismissed the £1,800 financial penalty as “peanuts”, “spare change” and “pathetic”. The SNP said it was merely “petty cash” for SUAT, while others demanded urgent reforms to prevent the flow of dark money and “legalised corruption”.

Commenting on the latest fine, Louise Edwards, the Electoral Commission’s director of regulation, said it was “vital that voters are given an opportunity to see full, accurate data on where their money comes from.”

She added: “The Commission will continue to enforce these requirements on all parties and campaigners to ensure that voters have the information they need.”

One inconsistency The Ferret identified in SUAT’s records – which led to its first fine – was the reported status of the trust in declarations of its donations to the Tories. Following its probe, the Electoral Commission concluded that SUAT is an exempt trust, an unincorporated association and a members association. The Commission said that under these guises SUAT failed to properly report donations and contributions.

The trust gave £416,510 to the Scottish Tories between 9 April 2001 and 05 January 2020, as well as direct donations to leader, Jackson Carlaw MSP, and Tory MPs, David Duguid, and former Scotland Office minister Douglas Ross. It also donated to the election campaigns of former Scotland Secretary, David Mundell MP.

In December 2019, SUAT’s coffers were boosted by a £491,322 donation from the Irvine Unionist Club, another so-called “dark money” firm that funds the Scottish Tories. We reported in 2018 that the Irvine Unionist Club was fined by the Electoral Commission for not properly reporting its £100,000 donation to the Tory party.

Former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson told the BBC in 2018 that “almost all” the party’s candidates would have benefited from SUAT. An STV report found that SUAT donations accounted for a fifth of the party’s spending during the 2017 general election.

Tory ‘dark money’ trust reveals £2.35m assets

Inconsistencies in the ‘dark money’ trust’s status

In 2018, The Ferret revealed that SUAT gave conflicting information about the trust’s legal status and address which it has since been forced to clarify. One address, in Melrose, was revealed to be that of SUAT chairman, Robert Miller-Bakewell, a former Scottish Conservative executive member and current deputy chairman of the Scottish Borders Conservative and Unionist Association.

HM Revenue and Customs later added Miller-Bakewell to its public register of “deliberate tax defaulters”.

The resulting pressure from opposition parties, the media, an intervention by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and questions to then-Prime Minister, Theresa May, prompted SUAT to publish its true address and the names of its trustees in July 2018.

SUAT then disclosed it had net assets of £2.35 million at the end of 2017, which it had “predominantly invested in UK listed equity investments”.

Former Tory MP quits ‘dark money’ trust

One SUAT trustee, former Scottish Tory MP and shadow secretary of state for Scotland, Peter Duncan, faced criticism after we revealed that he had lobbied Tory MSPs on behalf of his communications firm, Message Matters.

This prompted calls from the Scottish Greens for Duncan to choose between his roles as a Holyrood lobbyist and trustee of a body that funds the Scottish Tories. It also sparked calls for tighter lobbying rules from transparency campaign group, Spinwatch.

Duncan resigned as a SUAT trustee in July 2018. He told BBC Radio Scotland that it was advisable to have “more separation” from his work in lobbying politicians and “sensible” for him “to take a step back”.

However, he denied any conflict of interest and insisted that the money given by SUAT to the Scottish Tories was not “dark money”. It came from investing the proceeds of “tombolas and raffles” in the west of Scotland over 50 years, Duncan said.

The Scottish Unionist Association Trust has been approached for comment.

Header image thanks to FelixMittermeier (pixabay.com).

Good journalism changes things

The Ferret was established in 2015 with a mission to publish fearless, high quality journalism.

Since then thousands of people have joined us. We hope you will too.

We're a cooperative with places reserved for both our writers and subscribers on the board.

We're independently regulated, and work hard to keep our overheads down. This means that all the money we get from our subscribers is invested directly in original public interest news.

We're avowedly non-partisan so we can treat everyone fairly. We don't publish click bait and we don't do favours for political parties or powerful vested interests. We do help to change things.

Or see your other subscription options.

Got a story idea?

Tell us what you'd like us to write about next and vote up the best ideas.