Sturgeon weighs into Scottish Tory ‘dark money’ row

Pressure is mounting on the Scottish Conservatives over the alleged use of  “dark money” from a secretive trust after Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, raised concerns about revelations by The Ferret.

We reported on 26 June that £319,000 had been given to Tory politicians by the Scottish Unionist Association Trust (SUAT), which has no fixed address or known current trustees. Inconsistencies in the trust’s status are under examination by the Electoral Commission.

Sturgeon tweeted her surprise that more questions had not been asked after SNP MP Pete Wishart raised the issue in the House of Commons. Another SNP MP, Mhairi Black, has also demanded answers from Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson.

The Scottish Greens said it was “no coincidence” that recent Tory electoral gains in Scotland have “coincided with an upsurge in suspicious donations”.

Scottish Labour called on Davidson to reveal the donors behind the trust and what “they expect in return for their six-figure sum”.

SUAT is listed as an unincorporated association on Electoral Commission donation records but is not included in the Commission’s register of unincorporated associations. 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 £7,500.

Title deeds obtained by The Ferret also revealed that property was transferred to SUAT after a cut-off date, which should apparently disqualify it from being an ‘exempt trust’.

Trusts can be considered exempt if they meet certain requirements as specified by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. One of these requirements is that no property has been transferred to a trust since 27 July 1999.

However, title deeds for a Glasgow building owned by SUAT show that ownership was transferred to SUAT by the similarly-titled Glasgow Unionist Association Trust on 5 February 2014. The building is also used as the office of the Glasgow Tories and other Tory associations.

Speaking in Westminster, Wishart called for a comprehensive investigation by the Electoral Commission.

“I have asked the Electoral Commission to fully investigate the Scottish Unionist Association Trust – this murky organisation which has been bankrolling the Tories in Scotland for the last few years,” he said.

“We need a full debate on this dark money as I fear we’re only seeing the tip of the Scottish Tory dodgy donations iceberg.”

Wishart also expressed concern about Richard Cook, the former vice chairman of the Scottish Tories.

The Constitutional Research Council, of which Cook is chairman, made the donation to the DUP. However, donation rules in Northern Ireland mean that as the donation was made before July 2017, details about it remain hidden.

The source of SUAT’s funds is also secret. The Ferret has repeatedly attempted to contact SUAT but has not received a response to date.

The Electoral Commission confirmed it had “opened an investigation to determine whether the Scottish Unionist Association Trust complied with their reporting requirements as set out in law.” It would not comment on an ongoing investigation.

The commission also confirmed that it had heard from Wishart and would respond “in due course”.

Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay called on Davidson to reveal SUAT’s donors. He said: “The recent revelations that ‘dark money’ has bankrolled the Scottish Tories are deeply concerning.

“Many members of the public will now rightly ask how an unregistered trust with no fixed address and no current trustees found a spare £319,000 to donate to a political party.

“Ruth Davidson must come forward and tell the public who these donors are and what did they expect in return for their six-figure sum.”

Green MSP Ross Greer attributed donations from SUAT and other secretive trusts to Scottish Tory gains in recent elections.

“It’s no coincidence that the so-called Tory revival has coincided with an upsurge in suspicious donations to Ruth Davidson’s party”, he said.

“Given the Tories reluctance to provide answers to these questions over many months, including my own over £25,000 from the now-defunct Irvine Unionist Club, I look forward to hearing the Electoral Commission’s findings.

“We can only hope this will also lead to greater transparency in some notable donations to the Leave campaign prior to the EU referendum, which have raised more than a few eyebrows.”

The Scottish Tories declined to comment. “Everything donated from the SUAT to the Scottish Conservatives has been properly declared in line with Electoral Commission rules,” a party spokesperson previously told The Ferret.

“We always check that donations are permissible before accepting. Any questions about the trust should be directed to the trust or the Electoral Commission.”

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

Photo credit: Kenneth Halley | CC | https://bit.ly/2fRoxsa

This story was updated on 13/07/2018.

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