David Cameron and Richard Cook. Image from voterichardcook.blogspot.com
In a Westminster Hall debate, the SNP MP Martin Docherty-Hughes called for an urgent review of current laws which allowed Cook, the chair of the Glasgow-based Constitutional Research Council (CRC) to exploit a legal loophole and avoid publicly stating the source of the record donation to the DUP.
The CRC is legally defined as an unincorporated association, permitted to donate money to political parties, campaigns and individuals in elective office.
Opposite of open democracy
Although the Constitution minister, Chloe Smith, told the debate that responsibility for unincorporated associations lay with the Electoral Commission, and that data held by them was a “treasure trove of information”, Docherty-Hughes said the way the DUP donation was organised was “the exact opposite of open, properly-functioning parliamentary democracy.” He questioned whether anyone in the DUP knew the source of the cash that was largely used to fund pro-leave campaigning on the UK mainland, and whether any “requisite due diligence” was done ahead of the money being accepted.
Under previous Northern Ireland electoral laws, donations to any of the major political parties were protected. The exact origins of £435,000 could have been revealed if the government had honoured its promise last year to back-date legal changes to the time of the 2016 referendum. This did not happen.
Poster boy to cowboy
Doherty-Hughes said Cook, a Tory candidate in the 2010 general election in East Renfrewshire, who had been photographed alongside the former prime minister, David Cameron, and with the current leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson was “a poster boy for the way in which unincorporated associations have been used to funnel vast swathes of dark money into our political process."
However by “letting cowboys like Richard Cook effectively mark their own homework”, Doherty-Hughes said the probity of major political donations could not be assured.
Details of Cook’s business history – largely uncovered through openDemocracy investigations – were given to MPs. A waste-management consultancy Cook was involved with appeared to fit well with a “Green Tory” image. But this was described as a “scam” involving the illegal shipment of waste tyres round the world. Cook had submitted false evidence to authorities in India and the UK, said Doherty-Hughes.
The SNP MP said Cook’s track record in business “pulls apart the Conservative candidate’s carefully managed public persona.” He said another company connected to Cook owed UK tax-payers £150,000 and was involved in a Californian court case brought by an international haulage form which alleged unpaid bills of $1.5 million.
Other questionable connections revealed in the debate included a company set up by Cook, Five Star Management, where 75 per cent of the shares were held by a former head of Saudi Arabia Intelligence. Another partner had previously been involved in a gunrunning scandal in India.
Cancer in our political system
Refusing all attempts by Tory MPs to interrupt his speech, Doherty-Hughes accused the government of failing to address major failures in the way political donations were being monitored by the relevant authorities. “Dark money is a cancer in political system and unincorporated associations – like Cook’s CRC – are the most prominent way in which this cancer enters the bloodstream.”
Smith, replying for the government, said there were no plans to amend electoral donation laws. She said the current legal framework “allows us all to be transparent.”
She said the government had made changes to the law in Northern Ireland last year which allowed “greater transparency” on who donated to political parties, adding that the accusations described by the SNP did not fit.
Richard Cook has previously denied any wrongdoing in his business dealings. Mr Cook told the Sunday Herald: “The CRC is regulated by the Electoral Commission. We operate solely in the UK. We accept donations only from eligible UK donors. We donate solely to permissible UK entities. Any suggestion that we have done anything else is basically defamatory. I’m not going to get into the donors, like I am not going to get into the members.”