Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

Exclusive: Egyptian billionaire’s firm’s £1.5m export deal unveiled days after Tory donation

Unatrac gave the Conservatives £125,000 in January. Six days later the firm's taxpayer-backed deal was announced. Opposition MP calls for official inquiry.

Peter Geoghegan Jenna Corderoy
Peter Geoghegan Jenna Corderoy
19 June 2020, 3.29pm
Li Binian/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The British government announced a £1.5 million loan to a company owned by a Egyptian billionaire less than a week after it made a £125,000 donation to the Conservative Party, an openDemocracy investigation has found.

The Tories have been accused of giving donors “special treatment on government policy” and exchanging political favours “for large amounts of hard cash” after awarding the export finance deal to Unatrac Ltd, a company that has given more than £600,000 to the Conservatives over the past five years, according to filings with the Electoral Commission.

Liberal Democrat MP and leadership candidate Layla Moran said: “The public deserve answers, there should be an official inquiry and full transparency over any links between this donation and funding decision."

On 20 January, international trade minister Liz Truss announced that UK Export Finance was supporting a £1.5 million loan to Unatrac, which distributes Caterpillar products. On 14 January, Unatrac had donated £125,000 to the Conservatives.

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UK Export Finance – which exists to help British firms export – refused to confirm when the decision to award finance to Unatrac was made but said that the decision was made before the firm’s recent political donations.

The public deserve answers, there should be an official inquiry and full transparency over any links between this donation and funding decision

Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP

Unatrac is the British arm of the Mansour Group, a business empire owned by Mohamed Mansour, an Egyptian billionaire. He served as a minister under dictator Hosni Mubarak and praised his current authoritarian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for making the country “much more stable”.

Steve Goodrich, research officer at Transparency International, said that the time has come to end what he calls “the corrupting influence of big money” in British politics.

“So long as there are no limits on political donations there will be a suspicion that favours can be bought with large amounts of hard cash. There are only so many times you can claim it is pure chance when party donors benefit from government decisions around the time of their contributions,” he said.

Conservative Communities minister Robert Jenrick has faced calls to resign after it emerged that he intervened in a planning decision for property developer Richard Desmond, who subsequently donated £12,000 to the Tories earlier this year.

‘Special treatment’

UK Export Finance, an arm of the Department for International Trade, provides a mixture of direct financing and loan guarantees to British firms operating abroad. The idea is that companies and banks involved in an export deal should not lose out if an overseas buyer does not pay, or makes late payments.

UK Export Finance aims to break even, but the British taxpayer makes up any losses.

On 20 January, UK Export Finance announced that it was supporting a £1.5 million loan to “enable the sale of machinery from Unatrac to Mota-Engil Africa, underpinning work on roads in the North East of Uganda”.

A representative of Unatrac said at the time:“The deal will underpin and enhance our supply chain partnerships with prime contractors involved in infrastructure improvement in Uganda.”

UK Export Finance declined to give details of the deal, saying it was treating openDemocracy’s written questions as a Freedom of Information request. It did say, however, that the agency’s decision to support Unatrac was made after lengthy consideration.

Unatrac has emerged as a major Tory donor in recent years, giving more than £600,000 since 2015. The firm gave the party £75,000 ahead of last December’s general election.

A Mohamed Mansour is also recorded as having given £12,500 to the Conservatives in 2017. It is unclear if this is the same Mohamed Mansour who owns Unatrac. Mansour is listed as Egyptian national on Companies House. Foreign citizens are generally prohibited from donating to British politics.

Scottish National Party MP Martin Docherty-Hughes said that the Unatrac finance deal was “yet another in a growing list of Tory party donors getting special treatment on government policy”.

Docherty-Hughes said that like football club owners, political donors need a ‘fit and proper person’ test.

“Good governance and the public interest means we need to know exactly how the Conservatives consider it to be proper to continue to accept donations from a company owned by a politically exposed person, with all of the conflict-of-interest questions that then raises.”

‘Serious concerns’

Mohamed Mansour is a household name in Egypt, where his business empire includes car dealerships, real estate and the country’s main supermarket chain. The Mansour Group acquired Unatrac, the Caterpillar dealership in East and West Africa, in 1997.

Mansour has been involved in politics, too. He was transport minister for four years under President Mubarak, who was overthrown in the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising of 2011. The same year Mansour was linked to a major corruption scandal in his native land involving members of his extended family.

The Conservatives have received donations from other businesses with Egytpian links. As previously reported, OCI UK Ltd has given the Tories £200,000 since 2017.

Part of the business dynasty built by Egyptian tycoon Onsi Sawiris, OCI UK is controlled by Sawiris’s son Nassef. In 2018, Nassef Sawiris struck a deal to take over English football club Aston Villa.

To protect the probity of our politics we must end the corrupting influence of big money

Steve Goodrich, Transparency International

Any UK-registered company can legally donate to British political parties but transparency campaigners have warned that foreign businesspeople can use donations to buy access to the British political system.

Sue Hawley, head of transparency group Spotlight on Corruption, said: “Clearly making party political donations is a way for foreign donors to ingratiate themselves into the UK political system. It would be very concerning if such donors could buy their way to respectability and access public funds on the back of that.

"It's very disturbing that the Conservative Party is accepting donations from people such as Mansour.”

Hawley added that she has “serious concerns that UK Export Finance is supporting companies like Unatrac”.

UK Export Finance has been criticised in the past for its approach to potential corruption.

In 2008, the OECD was highly critical of the then Labour government’s decision to halt a Serious Fraud Office inquiry into arms sales to Saudi Arabia that had been insured by UK Export Finance’s predecessor, the Export Credits Guarantee Department.

The Export Credits Guarantee Department introduced tough anti-bribery procedures in 2004, in an attempt to make sure that projects it supported were not tainted by corruption. However, following lobbying by BAE Systems and engine maker Rolls-Royce, these procedures were weakened.

The Conservative Party and Unatrac have been approached for comment.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
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