By David Ferguson
Readers of Newsnet Scotland might remember me. The Wendy Alexander FOI? The Labour Party smear campaign spearheaded by Jim Murphy’s Special Advisor Rami Okasha and Glasgow North East’s Westminster MP Willie Bain?
I haven’t quite finished with FoI, and after all the sanctimonious Labour posturing over The First Minister and ‘Murdochgate’, the Okasha/Bain smear campaign might come back to bite them yet.
I haven’t finished with the Electoral Commission either – the body on which the country will apparently rely to ensure a fair and legal referendum. I hope to be talking about the subject in a future article for Newsnet. But they’ve provided me with some further grounds for talking about them today.
Following the Sunday Times sting on Tory Party Treasurer Peter Cruddas and lobbyist Sue Southern, there was a predictable media furore. What I found interesting was the way this furore concentrated on only one half of the story – the “cash for access to Cameron” angle. I have to say that in this regard, Newsnet Scotland was perhaps as guilty as others.
The fact is that selling mealtime access to Cameron for cash, however tawdry and dubious, is not in itself illegal. Even if it could be proved beyond any doubt that business people paid cash to the Tory Party for the questionable privilege of sitting beside David Cameron while he bolted his lunch, it’s not a crime.
Which makes the part of the story that found itself whisked under the carpet all the more interesting. Remember if you will that Peter Cruddas and Sue Southern were not teenage activists fumbling their way through their first money-raising efforts on behalf of their Party. Cruddas was the Tory Party Treasurer, and Southern was a former aide to Cameron himself, who certainly has access to the highest echelons of the Party.
To his credit Iain Dale, one of the country’s leading Conservative bloggers, did pick up on the story. Here’s what he had to say:
Possibly the most damaging allegation made in the Sunday Times article is this…
There was still one problem, however. The proposed donation was being paid from a Liechtenstein fund and belonged ultimately to Middle Eastern investors. It was a foreign donation. Cruddas was happy for the reporters to find a way around this and said he’d arrange a meeting with the party’s “compliance people” to check that it was legitimate. One option was to create a UK company to donate the money.
He said: “Set up a company, employ some people to work here.”
Later, though, the reporters’ lobbyist spoke to party officials and returned. As the reporters, posing as executives, were British, the money could be channelled through them.
“[The company] would have to donate through an individual (perhaps a director of the company) who is registered on the UK electoral roll,” Southern wrote. She later claimed on the phone: “[The party] don’t pry as to where the money comes from, at all.”
Iain Dale hit the nail smack bang on the head. This is indeed “the most damaging allegation”.
When the Sunday Times journalists told them that the proposed funds were coming from a Liechtenstein fund owned by Middle Eastern businessmen, Cruddas and Southern must have known beyond any doubt that the donation was illegal. Under s.56 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) anyone working for or on behalf of a political party is obliged to take all reasonable steps to ensure that any donations received are legal. The behaviour of Cruddas and Southern fell so far below this standard that it’s not even worth talking about.
But PPERA s.61 goes further. Under this section it is a criminal offence - punishable by up to one year in prison – for any person to enter into any arrangement designed to conceal the true source of a donation, or to provide or withhold information with the intention of concealing the true source of a donation.
So when Cruddas, having been told that the source of the donation was illegal, expressed himself “happy” to have the ST journos find a way to “work around this” he was proclaiming to the rooftops that he was perfectly happy to circumvent S.61. He even went so far as to offer them a possible ‘solution’ - the setting up of a shell company to channel the funds – which is itself illegal.
Southern went one better. She uncovered an unspecified number of un-named party officials, who, she claims, told her that the party “don’t pry as to where the money comes from, at all”. And just for good measure, she herself came back with another – likewise illegal – method to channel the funds into the Party, via third parties in the UK who would have been legal donors if the money had been theirs.
So to reiterate: One Tory Party Treasurer, one senior lobbyist who is a former aide to the Prime Minister, and an unspecified number of Tory Party officials, had all demonstrated quite unequivocally that they were willing to commit offences under PPERA s.61 in order to secure funds for the Party.
These are indeed very damaging allegations. It is noteworthy that there has been not so much a whisper of legal action from either Cruddas or Southern to challenge the truth of the allegations.
The Tory Party collects tens of millions of pounds in donations every year. Given the demonstrated willingness of its most senior representatives to ignore the law, as revealed by the ST sting, a member of the public might reasonably want to ask whether all of these donations are in fact legal, and indeed whether any real effort is expended to ensure that they are. Or do the Tories simply “not pry as to where the money came from – at all”?
Fortunately we have a body which is responsible for taking such matters in hand on our behalf – the Electoral Commission. The Commission is responsible for the probity of the democratic process in Britain. It has a statutory duty to oversee the application of PPERA. Surely the Commission would want to talk to Cruddas and Southern about any previous donations they had been involved in, and how they had been secured, and where they had come from, and whether any attempt had been made to confirm that they were legitimate?
The Commission would certainly want to know the identity of these “party officials” who told Southern that they “don’t pry as to where the money comes from - at all”, in order to remind them of their obligations under PPERA, would it not?
To jog the Commission along, I lodged a formal complaint and a request for an investigation, laying out the above-mentioned information. It appears that I was joined in this by a fellow member of the public, and by another chap by who goes by the name of Jack Straw.
We have just had our answer:
“The Electoral Commission has concluded its assessment of allegations that Sarah Southern, Peter Cruddas or the Conservative Party breached donation law… The Commission found no evidence to support the allegations and will not be opening an investigation into the matter.”
It would be utterly pointless to write back to the Commission and point out that I did not allege that anybody had breached donation law. My allegation was that their behaviour, in declaring themselves unequivocally ready to breach s.56 and 61 of PPERA, raised reasonable suspicions that they might previously have breached donation law which ought to be investigated. It would be pointless to write to the Commission and point out to them that I asked that the party officials who had demonstrated themselves willing to ignore donation law should be identified and named.
It would be pointless because the Commission would simply ignore me. They have concocted a pretext for their usual whitewash. Instead of investigating allegations that have been made, the Commission has declared that it will not be investigating allegations that have not been made. The matter will be closed.
So no investigation will take place. No awkward questions will be asked. Cruddas will not be asked to demonstrate that he took any steps to ensure that the other millions of pounds he has secured in donations were legitimate. Southern will not be obliged to divulge the names of the party officials who have no wish to pry into where the money comes from, at all.
In his article, Iain Dale observed:
“This is Michael Brown territory and in my opinion is tantamount to encouraging someone to break the law. It would not surprise me at all if the Police didn’t look into this…”
Trapped inside the Westminster bubble as he is, Mr Dale can be forgiven a little naiveté. From my perspective as a humble member of the public, I have zero expectations that the Electoral Commission, the police, or anybody else might take an interest in senior conservatives and their representatives who declare themselves happy to break the law.
I do, however, predict that the rise up the ranks of the quangocracy of The Electoral Commission’s Director of Party and Election Finance, Lisa Klein, will be inexorable, and unimpeded by any obstacle.
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