A Holyrood lobbyist and former Tory MP has quit a “dark money” trust funding the Scottish Conservatives, following an investigation by The Ferret.

Peter Duncan said he had resigned as a trustee of the Scottish Unionist Association Trust (SUAT) because it was advisable to have “more separation” from his work in lobbying politicians.

But he denied any conflict of interest and insisted that the £319,000 given by SUAT to Scottish Conservatives since 2001 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 Ferret reported on 19 July that Duncan had been criticised by transparency campaigners for lobbying Tory MSPs while also being a SUAT trustee. When questioned on BBC Radio Scotland on 29 July, he said he had resigned as a trustee “about ten days ago”.

“I felt it was sensible for me to take a step back,” he told interviewer, Isobel Fraser. “No great reasons for it, other than I felt it was advisable to just give a little bit more separation.”

When asked whether there had been a conflict of interest between his role as a SUAT trustee and as a lobbyist, he said: “No, I’m clear there has never been any conflict of interest between the two.”

Duncan’s decision to stand down was welcomed by Patrick Harvie MSP, the co-convenor of the Scottish Greens, who previously called on him to choose between his roles as a lobbyist and a SUAT trustee.

“Resigning from the SUAT was the right thing to do, it’s just a shame that it took sustained media scrutiny for Peter Duncan to make a choice”, said Harvie. “Those remaining trustees must do everything they can to ensure there are no obstacles to the Electoral Commission’s investigation.”

The Ferret revealed on 26 June that Electoral Commission records gave conflicting information about the legal status and address of SUAT. This prompted an investigation by the commission, which is on-going.

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

Following pressure from opposition parties and questions to Prime Minister, Theresa May, SUAT published the names of its trustees on 4 July, including Duncan. SUAT then disclosed it had net assets at the end of 2017 of £2.35 million, “predominantly invested in UK listed equity investments”.

Now, in an interview with BBC Good Morning Scotland, Duncan has insisted that SUAT was a “permissible donor” to the Scottish Conservatives and that its donations were “in no way dark money”.

“The suggestion that this is in some way dark money is a bit like suggesting the WI (Women’s Institute) is some KGB-front organisation. This is historic proceeds of tombolas and raffles throughout the west of Scotland going back 50 years,” he said.

“They were transferred into a trust with the express purpose, not of spending it, but actually investing it long-term. And that’s what the trust has done since about the time I was born.”

He added: “It has invested that money with the objective of growing its capital base and making some of the proceeds available on a semi-regular basis to the party’s campaigns.”

Peter Duncan's attempts to brush off these serious questions does nothing to clear up this mess for the Tories. Spokesperson, Scottish National Party

The Scottish National Party (SNP) called on the Electoral Commission to “crack down” on dark money. “Political campaigns have to be a level playing field to protect democracy – that is why this investigation is so serious and so urgently needed,” said an SNP spokesperson.

“Peter Duncan’s attempts to brush off these serious questions does nothing to clear up this mess for the Tories. Transparency over party financing is absolutely essential in any healthy democracy and the public need to have a clear understanding of who helped put their elected representatives into office.”

Duncan is a director of communications firm, Message Matters, which has lobbied Conservative MSPs at Holyrood on six occasions since 12 March 2018.

He was the Conservative MP for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale from 2001 to 2005, and shadow secretary of state for Scotland from 2003 to 2005.

The Ferret also reported on 24 July that the campaign group, Unlock Democracy, had written to Westminster’s Commissioner for Standards to request an investigation into  inconsistencies in reporting of donations from SUAT by two Scottish Conservative MPs, David Duguid and Douglas Ross.

Call for Westminster probe into Tory ‘dark money’ donations

Photo thanks to Lee Kindness, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.

This story was updated on 29 July 2018 to include comments from Patrick Harvie MSP.

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