Jo Swinson

Jo Swinson criticised over donor links to fossil fuels and tax avoidance

The new Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, has come under fire from political opponents for accepting donations from the director of a fund which invests in a Russian state gas company and advisers from a firm criticised for tax avoidance.

Swinson, the MP for East Dunbartonshire, has been given a total of £57,000 by the chief investment officer of Mondrian, which funds Gazprom, and from two senior tax advisers at the accounting firm, KPMG.

Politicians from the SNP, Labour and the Scottish Greens have criticised her for accepting the donations. This follows revelations that Swinson took money from the director of a firm with fracking licenses in England.

One SNP MSP said Swinson’s donations were “questionable to say the least” and a Green MSP said they should be returned. The Liberal Democrats responded by accusing the SNP of being “scared”.

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Since October 2018 Swinson has received £40,000 from Liz Desmond and her husband. Desmond is the chief investment officer of Mondrian Investment Partners.

Mondrian’s business is investing other peoples’ money. One of the companies it invests in is Gazprom, a natural gas and oil company which is majority-owned by the Russian state.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel emitting carbon dioxide on burning, which is blamed for climate warming, and nitrogen oxides which can cause cause respiratory problems.

Swinson has called for the Scottish and UK parliaments to stop investing in fossil fuels and was previously branded a “hypocrite” for accepting funding from a fracking businessman.

The Liberal Democrat leader has also received funding from Michelle Quest and Melissa Geiger, two senior tax advisers at consultancy and accountancy firm, KPMG.

Quest, who has donated £15,000, is head of tax while Geiger, who has given £2,000, is head of international tax.

According to KPMG, both women lead the “tax relationships with some of the firm’s most significant clients”. Quest also “leads thinking on the changing tax landscape and tax strategy, while seating (sic) on the Global Tax Steering Group helping make decisions globally for clients”.

KPMG has been criticised by campaigners and academics for helping large multinational companies minimise their tax bills. 

Paul Monaghan, chief executive of the campaign group Fair Tax Mark, told the Financial Times in September 2018 that KPMG are “active advisers on tax avoidance”.

Swinson has publicly criticised tax avoidance. In March 2018 she tweeted an article by Prem Sikka, professor of accounting at the University of Sheffield, saying it suggested “aggressive, extensive and deliberate tax avoidance by Caffe Nero”.

Sikka told the Ferret: “I think it is wrong for MPs to accept donations from organisations and individuals who seek to deplete the public purse by designing and marketing complex tax avoidance schemes. There has to be zero tolerance for anyone connected with the tax avoidance industry.”

The co-leader of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie MSP, urged Swinson to give back the donations. “If Jo Swinson wants to be taken seriously on climate and tax justice, she cannot remain in the pay of those who profit from fossil fuels or advising tax dodgers,” he said.

“This cash should be returned, or she will risk whatever shreds of credibility the LibDems still have.”

The Labour MSP, Neil Findlay, attacked the LibDem leader for being like the Tories. “Jo Swinson likes to claim that she is the person to challenge the establishment and Conservative politics,” he said.

“The reality is she was a minister in Cameron and Osborne’s government supporting the bedroom tax, the rape clause and massive cuts in public spending and now we find out she is taking cash from accountants who are the forefront of actively working on tax avoidance on an industrial scale.”

He added: “The reality is in so many ways Jo Swinson is indistinguishable for the Tory politicians she used to sit in government with.”

SNP MSP, Rona Mackay, said the background to some of these donations “appears questionable to say the least”. She added: “It would appear the new leader of the LibDems has no scruples when it comes to accepting donations.”

The Scottish Liberal Democrats hit back at the SNP, claiming they were “clearly scared” about the party’s increased support. “Unlike the SNP, Jo will continue to do politics differently and work with others to fight on the issues that matter,” said a LibDem spokesperson.

“In East Dunbartonshire Jo is known as a hardworking local campaigner who gets things done. That is why she has been so successful in fundraising to fight her campaigns.”

When asked if Quest, Geiger or Desmond were constituents of Swinson’s, the spokesperson did not reply. Quest’s twitter profile says she is based in London and Kent, Geiger’s says she is based in London and Desmond’s firm is London-based.

Other donors include Jessica Frankopan, a member of the wealthy Sainsbury family, and Mihir Magudia, a bitcoin entrepreneur who campaigns in favour of alternative currencies.

KPMG and Mondrian did not respond to requests to comment.

Photo thanks to Liberal Democrats.

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