An £1,800 fine imposed on a Tory dark money trust is “derisory” and “an advert to break the rules”, say politicians and campaigners.
The UK elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, has fined the Scottish Unionist Association Trust (SUAT) for repeated failures to declare more than £200,000 in donations to the Scottish Conservatives.
After an 14-month probe, sparked by a Ferret investigation in 2018, the commission concluded that SUAT had “consistently failed” to adequately report political contributions leaving the public without “the transparency it was entitled to have of SUAT’s finances”. The trust said its net assets at the end of 2017 were £2.35 million, and it is known to have donated £364,000 to the Scottish Conservatives.
But online critics have damned the £1,800 financial penalty as “peanuts”, “spare change” and “pathetic”. According to the SNP, it was no more than that “petty cash” for SUAT, while others have demanded urgent reforms to prevent “legalised corruption”.
The campaign group, Unlock Democracy, described the fine on SUAT as “the cost of doing business, not a penalty” and called for legal limits to be imposed on political donations. “When fines are so low it’s an advert for the donors that are bankrolling political parties to break the rules, not follow them,” said the group’s director, Alexandra Runswick.
“Penalties for rule-breaking must be proportionate, but time and time again the fines handed out by the Electoral Commission give a slap on the wrist to the rich donors that are bankrolling our politics.”
Campaign finance rules are “completely unfit for purpose” and “have made UK politics a playground for the rich”, Runswick argued. “Money is pumping through the veins of our political system and undermining democracy by allowing influence to be purchased by those who can afford it.”
She added: “We need an urgent crackdown on this legalised form of corruption, and that should start with a universally applied limit of £5,000 for political donations.”
The SNP alleged that the Scottish Conservatives had some “serious questions” to answer and urged them to “come clean” over their relationship with SUAT. “The dark money scandal has been lingering around the Scottish Tories like a bad smell and we now know that serious offences have been committed by this shadowy organisation,” said SNP MP Pete Wishart.
“The links between SUAT and the Scottish Tories is at the heart of all of this and we need to know that this will not happen again, and that all further donations will be legal and transparent. Many current Tory MPs secured significant donations from SUAT which no doubt assisted them in their election campaigns.”
He added: “Where SUAT will no doubt treat these derisory fines as petty cash I am grateful to the Electoral Commission for its investigation and outcome. We need to clean up Scottish politics and liberate it from dark money. Hopefully this judgement will help that.”
Wishart raised concerns with the election watchdog in 2018 about whether SUAT had pumped dark money into the campaigns of Scottish Tory MPs ahead of the 2017 general election. An STV report found that SUAT donations accounted for a fifth of the party’s spending during the election.
The Scottish Greens questioned whether the £1,800 fine was adequate. “It is frustrating that the fines for this substantial number of violations totalled just a small fraction of the money actually funnelled through SUAT,” said Green MSP, Ross Greer.
“The Electoral Commission desperately needs the power to deliver substantial fines and other enforcement mechanisms. Otherwise, the flood of dark money which is poisoning our politics will only continue.”
Greer added: “The Scottish Tories have been funded by dark money for years. Now this damning Electoral Commission report has been published, they need to urgently explain themselves.”
The size of the commission’s fine also unleashed a torrent of criticism on social media, with many pointing out it was less than one per cent of the undeclared donations. The fine was scorned as “pointless”, “laughable” and payable by “whatever they find down the back of their sofas”.
Sterling work by the @FerretScot and others on being so persistent on digging this up and exposing it. An £1,800 fine though for £319k of "dark" donations kind of wouldn't put you off if you had £2.35M of assets as this trust does. https://t.co/N6e9KrEEl6
— Andy Arthur (@cocteautriplets) September 17, 2019
Utter farce, costs more for Govt to administer punishment than it does for crooks to break the law
— Joel Benjamin (@Gian_TCatt) September 17, 2019
Campaign group Transparency International UK welcomed the Electoral Commission’s findings. The result “represents a victory for transparency around political party funding”, said Steve Goodrich, Senior Research Manager.
“Without the persistence of journalists at The Ferret, the public would still be in the dark over the source of this money,” he said. “It’s critical political parties, their members and associations understand and comply with the rules around money in politics to prevent the perception or reality that there is something to hide.”
The Electoral Commission confirmed that SUAT had accepted its findings and paid the fines. It also stressed that SUAT donations had been properly reported by the Scottish Conservatives.
The commission has previously argued for an increase in the fines it is permitted to levy. “Our decisions to issue fines depend on the circumstances of each individual case and take into consideration any mitigating circumstances,” a spokesperson told The Ferret.
“Where we do issue fines, they are issued proportionately and in line with our enforcement policy. The fine in this case relates to failures to notify the commission of exceeding the £25,000 threshold and to report two donations it received as a members association.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: “This is a matter for the Scottish Unionist Association Trust. As the Electoral Commission states, these donations were properly reported by the Conservative party.”