A secretive trust without a fixed address or known current trustees that gave £319,000 to the Scottish Conservatives is under examination by the Electoral Commission.

Electoral Commission data shows that the Scottish Unionist Association Trust (SUAT) gave £318,876.66 to the Tories between 9 April 2001 and 28 February 2018.

Conservative politicians who accepted SUAT donations include deputy leader, Jackson Carlaw MSP, Banff and Buchan MP, David Duguid, and Moray MP, Douglas Ross.

SUAT funding is legal but the SNP have alleged that the Scottish Tories are “up to their necks in dark money” and called on the Electoral Commission to crack down on “dodgy practices.”

Campaign group Unlock Democracy said that unincorporated organisations like SUAT are often created by political donors to “exploit loopholes in electoral law” and to “shield themselves from scrutiny”.

However, the Tories said in response to the above criticism that the donations were permitted under current rules while refuting any wrong doing.

There is little information in the public domain about SUAT. Electoral Commission records show that the trust’s date of creation was given as 26 April 1968. But SUAT is not a registered entity with Companies House, the Financial Conduct Authority, or OSCR – Scotland’s charity watchdog.

This means there is no information available about the people who currently manage the organisation, and no public accounts to indicate who its donors are, or what assets it holds.

The only person known to be publicly listed as a SUAT trustee is Kim Donald, a former Scottish Tory deputy chairwoman and board member of the UK party.

Donald was listed as a trustee in a Scottish Tories’ 2010 Commission report, as well as a member of the Commission itself, and chairman of the similarly-titled Glasgow Unionist Association Trust (GUAT).

SUAT’s official address is unknown, but three different addresses –  in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Melrose – have been used on official records.

No address is given in the majority of SUAT’s Electoral Commission entries and the trust is listed as an unincorporated association.

Under Electoral Commission rules, unincorporated associations that donate more than £25,000 in a calendar year are required to register with the Electoral Commission and report gifts in excess of £7500.

However, SUAT is not included in the Commission’s register of unincorporated associations. The Ferret asked the Electoral Commission why SUAT is absent, and the body has promised to investigate.

Many other records include the address of the Tories’ Glasgow office and list SUAT as a limited liability partnership.

The Ferret obtained the title deeds to the Glasgow building from the Registers of Scotland, which suggest that the trust shares an address with a Glasgow accountancy firm.

They also reveal that previously high-profile figures in the Scottish Tories were SUAT trustees in 2014, alongside Donald.

These trustees include former Scottish Tory chairman and Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Peter Duncan, former Scottish Tory executive, Robert Miller-Bakewell, and Alison Polson, secretary of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Association, which proceeded the party in Scotland.

The Scottish Tories said they rent their Glasgow office from SUAT but did not comment on the trust itself.

Campaign group Unlock Democracy’s director, Alexandra Runswick, questioned the arrangement.

“The fact that the Scottish Unionist Association Trust rents out an office to the Scottish Conservatives also raises a bigger question about whether any gifts in kind are being given,” she said. “With the current information available, we simply don’t know.”

Title deeds also show that the building was gifted to SUAT by GUAT, which shares the same address and many of the same trustees.

Another listed SUAT address in Melrose was used by the Scottish Borders Tories to host a “drinks party” with Horsham MP Jeremy Quin in May. The event was also attended by Borders Tory MP, John Lamont.

Companies House records show this is also the correspondence address of Miller-Bakewell, who is also chairman of the Scottish Borders Tory Association.

Miller-Bakewell, a former consultant at Merrill Lynch, the Bank of America’s wealth management division, is listed as an active director of two horse racing companies in the Lothians and Borders, and of multinational energy firm, RPS Group.

Electoral Commission donation data goes back as far as 2001 when legislation requiring parties to report their donations and loans came into force.

SUAT’s 102 recorded donations average £3,126.24 and were given to local branches in Tory target seats throughout Scotland. Open Democracy revealed that SUAT contributed £28,000 to fund the Scottish Tory surge in the 2016 Holyrood election, alongside other secretive organisations.

The Scottish Borders Tories have been the biggest beneficiary of SUAT donations throughout the years. The Borders branch received seven donations totalling £21,300, while a further 12 totalling £35,000 went to the Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk branch.

Sixteen donations totalling £56,100 went to branches in Dumfries and Galloway, 12 donations totalling £44,000 went to the central party, 11 donations totalling £32,500 went to Edinburgh branches and 9 donations totalling £30,750 went to branches in Aberdeenshire.

SUAT also loaned £5,000 to the Tories in 2009, this time using an Edinburgh address linked to the late Ann Hay, another SUAT trustee and former secretary of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Association.

GUAT – also listed as an unincorporated association and now apparently wound up – gave four donations totalling £5,565.14 to the party between 2003 and 2007.

A 2007 Scottish Parliament register of member’s interests document shows that Jackson Carlaw MSP received travel and accommodation reimbursements of up to £5,000 from SUAT for his role as a member of the party’s executive committee, and as deputy chairman. No address, or further details of the organisation are provided.

UK Parliament registers from 2017 and March 2018 show that Tory MPs Duguid and Ross, both new intakes at the 2017 snap election, received £7,500 from the trust.

The Westminster Register of Financial Interests for Douglas Ross describes SUAT as a Friendly Society, registered in Glasgow. All friendly societies are supposed to be registered with the Financial Conduct Authority but a search of the Mutuals Public Register does not produce any records for SUAT.

The equivalent declaration for Duguid simply lists the status of the organisations as “other”, although it gives an address in Melrose.

Both Ross and Duguid said the donations had been permitted under election spending rules and that the central party had ensured that SUAT was a permissible donor.

However, a SNP spokesperson said: “Ruth Davidson has serious questions to answer over the dark money swirling around the Scottish Tories.

“First it was revealed that the DUP had received a controversial £435,000 donation from a shadowy group chaired by Scottish Tory and Glasgow-based businessman, Richard Cook.

“Now it transpires the Scottish Tories themselves are bankrolled by a secret trust, which has donated £319,000 with absolutely no transparency on whether the cash has come from a permissible source. The Scottish Tories are up to their necks in dark money and it’s time the Electoral Commission zeroed in on these dodgy practices.”

An ‘exempt trust?’

The Electoral Commission said it cannot comment on particular cases or donations, but clarified the rules around donations and so-called ‘exempt trusts.’

Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA), it is the responsibility of political parties – rather than than the Electoral Commission or the donor itself – to ensure that any donations they accept are from permissible sources.

Political parties can accept donations made by trusts that meet certain permissibility requirements specified by PPERA. If met, such donors can be considered exempt trusts.

A trust can be considered exempt if it was created before 27 July 1999, no property has been transferred to the trust since that date, and the terms under which the trust was created have not varied since that date.

However, the title deeds to SUAT’s Glasgow property show that ownership was transferred from GUAT to SUAT on 05 February 2014. The Ferret asked the Electoral Commission if this would disqualify SUAT as an exempt trust, and said it would investigate the matter.

“Parties are legally responsible for carrying out the necessary checks to ensure that any donations and loans they accept are permissible”, a spokesperson for the Electoral Commission added.

“If the Commission becomes aware of any evidence to suggest that the rules have not been followed then we would assess the evidence in line with our enforcement policy.”

Unlock Democracy warned of the lack of transparency surrounding political party donations and the abilities of clandestine donors to “buy influence”.

“Even if nothing wrong has been done and all rules have been followed, inconsistent reporting creates a barrier for the public to effectively scrutinise donations,” said Runswick.

“We’ve known for a long time that donors to political parties exploit loopholes in electoral law, setting up organisations like unincorporated associations to shield themselves from scrutiny.

“Secrecy around political donations inevitably gives the impression that donors are trying to use their deep pockets to flout transparency rules to buy influence over parties and the policy-making process.

“This damages public trust in politics and undermines the integrity of our democracy.”

Transparency International UK warned of the limitations in laws surrounding political donations.

“The UK’s campaign finance laws are intended to shed a light on where big money comes from in our democracy and where it goes”, said Steve Goodrich, research manager.

“When the public are left in the dark about a donor it shows that either the rules aren’t achieving what they set out to do or they’re not being implemented properly in practice.”

The Ferret repeatedly attempted to contact SUAT via the Scottish Tories’ Glasgow and Borders offices, as well as its trustees, but did not receive any response by time of publication.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Tories said: “Everything donated from the SUAT to the Scottish Conservatives has been properly declared in line with Electoral Commission rules. We always check that donations are permissible before accepting. Any questions about the trust should be directed to the trust or the Electoral Commission.”

Jackson Carlaw MSP declined to comment.

The Ferret has redacted the home addresses of 2014 SUAT Trustees in the title deeds published in this story. 

The original version of this story stated that SUAT was being investigated by the Electoral Commission for ‘failing to register’. This was omitted on 26 June 2018 as the commission is examining the group’s status as an ‘exempt trust’.

On 3 July 2018 ‘UK government registers from 2017 and March 2018…’ was corrected to ‘UK Parliament registers…’

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