Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

Concerns raised over ‘dark money’ funding anti-lockdown MPs

Tory MP Steve Baker's Covid Recovery Group has received £10,000 in donations from an unregistered association. Experts say electoral law needs to change

profile2.jpg Screenshot 2021-06-14 at 16.44.52.png Peter Geoghegan
Martin Williams Katie Tarrant Peter Geoghegan
14 June 2021, 3.52pm

A group of anti-lockdown MPs has been criticised for taking thousands of pounds’ worth of donations from a secretive organisation which is not listed on any official company registers.

The Recovery Alliance has been providing media and consultancy services to the COVID Recovery Group (CRG), a group of Conservative MPs that has repeatedly called for lockdown restrictions to be lifted.

The group has proven adept at grabbing news headlines, with the CRG’s Steve Baker this weekend warning Prime Minister Boris Johnson against extending COVID restrictions on 21 June.

But the group’s funding has come under scrutiny after it emerged that Baker has received nearly £30,000 in donations for the CRG, including £10,000 from a little-known group that does not have to declare its original funder.

The Recovery Alliance, which has almost no internet footprint, is an ‘unincorporated association’ – meaning that details about its finances and leaders can be kept anonymous.

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MPs and campaigners have criticised the legal loophole and called on the CRG to be more transparent about donations.

Labour MP Clive Lewis, who sits on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, told openDemocracy that it’s “not exactly hard to see” why the CRG might want to “conceal their donations”.

“The policies they are trying to enact on behalf of anonymous donors, such as removing lockdown restrictions even when cases are rising, would have disastrous implications for public health,” he said.

The Scottish National Party’s Philippa Whitford said: “In light of the possible influence of this group on UK government decisions, it is important there should be transparency about who is funding them and therefore influencing their policy demands.”

As openDemocracy previously revealed, the Democratic Unionist Party received £435,000 ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum routed through an obscure unincorporated association based outside Glasgow.

‘Harass the enemy’

The CRG was set up last year by Tory MPs Mark Harper and Steve Baker in resistance to lockdown measures. It has been vocal in criticising the government.

Ahead of today’s announcement that lockdown restrictions will be extended, Baker texted CRG members saying: “It is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.”

Voters have a right to know who is influencing our politics. It’s time for transparency and openness, to fix the rot and restore faith in politics

Neither the CRG nor the Recovery Alliance appear to have a website, although the CRG has published videos about lockdown on social media.

However, it has been claimed that the Recovery Alliance is an umbrella organisation that brings together lockdown-sceptic MPs with the UsforThem campaign group. Reports say that both groups are being advised by Westminster lobbyist Ed Barker, a former parliamentary candidate for the Conservative Party.

UsForThem has raised thousands of pounds through crowdfunding and called for schools to reopen earlier. It is now campaigning against giving COVID vaccines to children – claiming there are “unknown harms” and that “novel vaccines fast-tracked to market have in the past caused devastating harm”.

The Recovery Alliance has also been linked to a campaign group called Believe In Vaccines, which called on the government to use the vaccine rollout to guarantee “permanent immunity from Covid-related lockdowns and restrictions”.

As well as benefiting from the unregistered Recovery Alliance, the Conservative CRG has received several other donations, made via Baker. In total, they amount to almost £30,000.

The register of MPs’ financial interests shows that this includes a £4,500 donation from a private equity firm called Risk Capital Partners LLP.

The business was co-founded by Luke Johnson, the former chair of Patisserie Valerie, who previously admitted he considered fleeing the country after the café chain uncovered what it called “potentially fraudulent” accounting irregularities. Five people were arrested and questioned in relation to the allegations in 2019.

The CRG has also received £15,000 from Matthew Ferrey, a former senior partner at oil company Vitol, who has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservative Party.

‘Giant hole in the sieve’

The Electoral Reform Society has previously warned about unincorporated associations “potentially masking many separate donations through a single entity”, and pointed out that they have “few legal reporting requirements”.

Jess Garland, director of policy and research at the Electoral Reform Society, told openDemocracy: “Unincorporated associations are another giant hole in the sieve that is Britain’s party funding rules, letting ‘dark money’ flood into our political system.

“There is a glaring lack of transparency that only fosters distrust and – often justified – fears over who is secretly steering our political debate.

“Voters have a right to know who is influencing our politics. It’s time for transparency and openness, to fix the rot and restore faith in politics.”

Steve Goodrich, head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK, also criticised the role of unincorporated associations in political donations, saying there are “too many dark corners for donors to hide”.

“It is far too easy to evade the rules on donor disclosure through the use of murky unincorporated associations. Despite reforms a decade ago, it is still nearly impossible to learn who is really making political contributions through these secretive clubs.

“To bring dark money out of the shadows we should have greater sight of all political donations worth over £500.”

openDemocracy has contacted Baker for comment.

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