A Scottish organisation which gave £100,000 to the Conservative Party has been fined by the Electoral Commission for not properly reporting its donation.
The Irvine Unionist Club, an unincorporated trust headquartered in rural Ayrshire, was given a £400 fine by the regulatory body for “failure to provide notification of gifts to a political party exceeding £25,000, and notification of gifts received by due date”.
Campaigners have recently criticised the opaque funding arrangements for the Scottish Conservatives as undermining “confidence in our democracy”.
The club first came to prominence in 2017 after openDemocracy revealed it had donated £100,000 to the North Ayrshire Conservative and Unionist Association, but was not legally registered with the Electoral Commission.
The organisation’s treasurer Bryan Gossman said then that most of the £100,000 had gone to the “central party in Edinburgh”.
Any group donating more than £25,000 has to be registered with the commission and declare any donations of more than £7500.
The anomaly was reported by openDemocracy to the Electoral Commision, which launched an investigation.
The fine for IUC comes after we revealed that a shadowy trust without a fixed address or then-known trustees had given £319,000 to the Scottish Conservatives.
The Scottish Unionist Association Trust (SUAT) is also under investigation, sparking criticism about so-called ‘Dark Money’ funding for political parties.
Conservative politicians who accepted SUAT donations include deputy leader, Jackson Carlaw MSP, Banff and Buchan MP, David Duguid, and Moray MP, Douglas Ross.
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 – to ensure that any donations they accept are from permissible sources.
Political parties can accept donations made by trusts that meet certain requirements specified by PPERA. If met, such donors can be considered exempt trusts.
SNP MP Pete Wishart said: “The dark money net is now closing in on the Tories as their dodgy and cavalier financial dealings become further exposed and punished. This is probably just the first of many examples where the Tories will be found short of what is permissible by the Electoral Commission.
“Last week I wrote to the Electoral Commission for an update on my complaint about the transfer of property to the Scottish Unionist Association Trust in flagrance of the Commission’s rules on exempt trusts under section 162 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I hope that the Electoral Commission now make speedy progress with this investigation.
“Some £318,000 of unaccountable money has been swirling about in Conservative coffers supporting a number of candidates and MPs. The Conservatives need to start to come clean on where this money comes from and how it was acquired.”
Electoral Commission probes £319,000 Tory ‘dark money’ trust
Transparency International UK said that non-transparent funding undermines confidence in democracy.
“Transparency over the funding of our politics is a key bulwark against corruption and undue influence,” said Steve Goodrich, research manager.
“When the source of political contributions are kept in the dark it does nothing for confidence in our democracy.
“In order to prevent money in politics being hidden by accident or intentional deceit, the Electoral Commission needs to provide a credible deterrent against non-compliance with the rules disclosing political donations.”
Alexandra Runswick, Director of Unlock Democracy, said: “A £400 fine pales in comparison to £100,000 donation. If the penalty for breaking the law is going to be so measly then ultimately political parties are going to see this as a price worth paying.
The tantalising offer extended by dark money donors seems too difficult to resist for political parties, and this is not the first time we’ve seen an attempted cover up.
Unlock Democracy recently made a complaint to the Standards Commissioner about donations made by the Scottish Unionist Association Trust (SUAT) to two Scottish Conservative MPs.
The Scottish Conservatives said trustees had accepted the fine, and stressed that the party was not under investigation.
“The Electoral Commission has investigated the donation, and has concluded that the Trust was not exempt in terms of the 2000 Political Parties Act’s reporting requirements,” a spokesman said.
“The Trustees have accepted that they were at fault in failing to register the donation, and have paid the £400 fine. The Conservative Party was not investigated nor subject to any fine.”
The Irvine Unionist Club fine was announced in the Electoral Commission’s latest announcement of concluded investigations on Tuesday 18th September.
Commenting on the fines, an Electoral Commission spokesperson said: “Unincorporated associations, such as the Irvine Unionist Club, must register with the Electoral Commission when they make political contributions of more than £25,000 in a calendar year and must report any relevant gifts that they have received.
“This ensures there is transparency about funding of political campaigning. Irvine Unionist Club failed to comply with these rules and the Electoral Commission has fined them £400.”