A leading Holyrood lobbyist has been criticised after a Ferret investigation revealed he is also on the board of a secretive “dark money” trust that funds the Scottish Conservatives.
Peter Duncan, a former Scottish Tory MP and shadow secretary of state for Scotland and a current trustee of the Scottish Unionist Association Trust (SUAT), has lobbied Tory MSPs on behalf of his communications firm, Message Matters.
There have been 24 recorded instances of Message Matters lobbying at Holyrood since 12 March 2018 – the date the lobbying register website was launched – including six instances where Conservative Party MSPs were lobbied.
In one case, Duncan directly lobbied a Conservative MSP on behalf of a Message Matters client.
On March 26, Duncan met with Tory MSP Gordon Lindhurst to discuss “difficulties” a private company had had, “in developing a good relationship with the Registers of Scotland (RoS) and overcoming the consequences of unfair competition from the government agency.”
In another instance, Message Matters staff met with Highland list MSP Donald Cameron on 22 March in support of a client that opposes widely-backed proposals that would give community groups more opportunity to challenge planning applications. The proposals are being discussed as a new planning bill makes its way through parliament.
Electoral Commission records show that local Tory branches in the Scottish Highlands area have received £10,000 from SUAT since December 2016.
The Scottish Greens said that Duncan’s dual roles as a Holyrood lobbyist and trustee of a body that funds the Scottish Conservatives were “not compatible” and called on him to “choose one or the other”.
David Miller, co-founder of Spinwatch, a transparency campaign group, called on the Holyrood authorities to urgently consider tightening the disclosure rules for people lobbying parliament.
The Ferret reported on 26 June that £319,000 had been given to Conservative causes by SUAT, although Electoral Commission records gave conflicting information about the legal status and address of the trust. This prompted an Electoral Commission probe into the trust donations, which is still ongoing.
Following pressure from opposition parties and questions to Prime Minister Theresa May, SUAT revealed the names of its current trustees, of which Duncan is one. Title deeds to a SUAT-owned building published by The Ferret show that Duncan has been a trustee since at least 6 February 2014.
In total, SUAT has given £123,320 to the Scottish Tories since February 2014.
Established in 2012, Message Matters, is a communications and lobbying firm that was founded by Peter Duncan and Andy MacIver, a former Scottish Conservative head of communications. Companies House records show the pair are still the only two directors of the firm.
The Message Matters website lists a wide range of clients, including Pfizer, Standard Life, Abellio, Marine Harvest, Teach First and the think tank, Reform Scotland.
When you have politicians potentially relying on the patronage of lobbyists representing fee-paying clients, there is a clear and present risk of a perceived or even real expectation of quid pro quo. Steve Goodrich, Transparency International UK
Patrick Harvie, the co-convenor of the Scottish Greens, said that Duncan’s dual roles as a Holyrood lobbyist and trustee of a body that finances the Scottish Conservatives are “not compatible,” and called on him to stand down either as a lobbyist or from his trustee role.
“While there remains very little transparency over SUAT’s financial activity, one thing is clear, the former MP Peter Duncan has played a role in lobbying the Tories,” he said.
“These roles are not compatible and to avoid a conflict of interest he should choose one or the other.”
David Miller, co-founder of Spinwatch and editor of Powerbase, a website that monitors power networks, said: “It’s a cycle of dark money within the political system. It’s not acceptable for that not to be clear and transparent.”
Miller also argued that the Scottish Parliament rules need to be urgently tightened. “There needs to be proper thinking about how you would actually regulate this,” he said.
Steve Goodrich, Transparency International UK’s Senior Researcher Officer also echoed these concerns.
“When you have politicians potentially relying on the patronage of lobbyists representing fee-paying clients, there is a clear and present risk of a perceived or even real expectation of quid pro quo”, he said.
“There are few things that could undermine confidence in our representatives more than the perception that they’re putting wealthy vested interests first at the public’s expense.”
A SNP spokesman called on the Scottish Tories to be transparent about its relationship with SUAT.
“With more and more connections emerging that tie SUAT directly to the funding and operations of the Scottish Conservatives it’s high time the Tories provided some much-needed clarity, or else people will form their own conclusions over this murky affair,” he said.
A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: “We declare all our donations in line with Electoral Commission rules, and always have done. Lobbying groups of all types meet MSPs from all parties – there is nothing unusual in that whatsoever.”
In response to a detailed list of questions from The Ferret, a spokesperson for Message Matters said: “Your inquiry is so littered with inaccuracy and a lack of context that I wouldn’t know where to start.”