Ruth Davidson. Image, Scottish Parliament
A major donor to the Scottish Conservatives ahead of their 2016 Scottish Parliament election has been fined on the back of an openDemocracy investigation.
As part of our investigation into the dark money driving the Scottish Conservatives, we wrote last year: “In April 2016, a group called the Irvine Unionist Club gave the North Ayrshire Conservative and Unionist Association £100,000. In order for a group like the Irvine Unionist Club – an Unincorporated Association – to give a donation of more than £25,000, it has to be legally registered with the Electoral Commission, and declare any donations to it of more than £7,500. The Irvine Unionist Club doesn’t seem to appear on the list of registered donors, and Googling it reveals almost nothing, meaning that we don’t know where their money came from.”
The treasurer of the North Ayrshire Conservatives, the former Scottish rugby international Bryan Gossman, told us that the cash had in actual fact been transferred to “the central party in Edinburgh”. However, the Scottish Conservative Party, led by Ruth Davidson (pictured), is not registered as an accounting unit with the Electoral Commission, meaning the donation was hidden in the local party's accounts. Ruth Davidson's party spent £980,000 during the campaign, meaning the donation made up more than 10% of their funding. In the previous Scottish Parliament election, the party only spent £275,000 and, with the extra money in 2016 came their best ever election result.
We reported the Irvine Unionist Club to the Electoral Commission, and heard nothing for more than a year. However, the latest monthly update from the Electoral Commission says that they have fined the Irvine Unionist Club £400 for “Failure to provide notification of gifts to a political party exceeding £25,000, and notification of gifts received by due date”.
Speaking to the Ferret, the 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."
Also speaking to the Ferret, the Scottish Conservatives said that 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.”
“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."
Commenting to the Ferret 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."