Minister snubbed warning from elections watchdog over foreign donations
Revealed: Security minister didn’t even reply to Electoral Commission’s letter warning of loophole in UK election law
Security minister Tom Tugendhat snubbed an official plea by the UK’s elections watchdog urging him to close legal loopholes that could be letting other countries donate to British political parties through the back door, openDemocracy can reveal.
The government today defeated an attempt to tighten the law around the issue, six months after the Electoral Commission urged Tugendhat in writing to act. The minister never responded to the commission's letter.
By contrast, the government has lost no time in pushing ahead with controversial new rules requiring voters to bring ID to polling stations, at an estimated cost of £180m. Just seven allegations of voter impersonation were made last year, none of which was proven.
John Pullinger, who chairs the Electoral Commission, wrote to Tugendhat about the loopholes for foreign cash in November under the heading “Protecting elections from foreign interference”.
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Pullinger’s letter, obtained by openDemocracy through a freedom of information request, highlighted the need for stronger controls on donations to “address the risk of foreign interference in UK political campaigns”.
One loophole Pullinger identified was the fact political parties are allowed to take cash from UK-registered companies, without any checks on how or where those companies earn the money in question.
“We have recommended that existing controls on donations should be strengthened so that parties and campaigners can only accept donations from companies that have made enough money in the UK to fund the amount of their donation,” he wrote.
“Currently, a company can donate to a UK political party or campaigner if it is registered at Companies House and ‘carrying on business’ in the UK. There is no requirement for the company to show that it has made enough money in the UK to give or lend to campaigners.”
He also recommended strengthening scrutiny around donations in general, placing a greater requirement on political parties and campaigners to know the true source of funds. “Although parties and campaigners are already required to check that a donation is from a permissible source,” wrote Pullinger, “we have recommended that they should be required to take additional steps to ensure they know where the money has come from.”
The letter, addressed to Tugendhat, specifically mentions the National Security Bill and potential amendments designed to give greater protection to UK elections from foreign influence.
As security minister at the Home Office, Tugendhat is responsible for the National Security Bill and any potential amendments. But the Electoral Commission, which has responsibility for protecting the integrity of the UK’s elections, confirmed yesterday that Tugendhat still had not replied to the letter six months on.
The Home Office would not comment, but openDemocracy understands that the letter has now been passed to a different government minister.
Last year, before entering government, Tugendhat appeared to share some of the Electoral Commission’s concerns. In the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine, there was a renewed focus on the donations the Tory Party has received from Russian-connected individuals and companies.
Tugendhat told Insider in March that it was “perfectly legitimate” to criticise parties for accepting donations from organisations “that are not clear”.
"Just because you could doesn’t mean you should,” he said. “I’m absolutely sure the Conservative Party has taken money perfectly legally. I’m in no doubt at all that Mr or Mrs Jones was perfectly entitled to donate money. But there are lots of people who are entitled to donate money. You don’t have to accept it from all of them.”
MPs today voted down proposals to clean up the dark money that flows into the coffers of political parties through a proposed amendment to the controversial National Security Bill.
The existing bill includes provisions for a “Foreign Influence Registration Scheme” designed to require foreign powers or those acting for them to register activity such as lobbying in the UK, or subsequently face criminal charges. Initial proposals faced severe criticism for potentially curtailing legitimate activity while doing little to deter malign actors.
The registration scheme places the legal responsibility on foreign agents to act within the law. Crossbench peer Alex Carlile’s amendment, by contrast, focused on donations and would have placed legal responsibility on the UK parties receiving the money.
The government would not comment on the amendment, but a spokesperson said: “UK electoral law provides robust controls to ensure only those with a legitimate interest in UK elections can make donations to political parties. Political donations from foreign powers are illegal.”
Updated 3 May 2023: This story was amended to reflect the government's defeat of Alex Carlile's amendment to the National Security Bill.
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