- The House of Commons Code of Conduct requires MPs to register their financial interests, if any, on the appropriately named register of MPs’ financial interests. Register entries remain in the register of MPs’ financial interests for 12 months and members can update them during that time. Once a financial interest no longer appears in the register, however, the entry cannot be revised. This creates an unsatisfactory incentive, I believe, for MPs to ignore any errors someone might identify in their register entries: after 12 months the incorrect information will disappear and cannot then be corrected. Last year, Tim Farron MP, who was Lib Dem leader at the time, failed to correct a donation he had registered on the register of MPs’ financial interests, despite three emails from me during the relevant 12 months. When I complained to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, then Kathryn Hudson, she said in a letter she would not begin a formal inquiry because at date of complaint the inaccurate donation was no longer shown on the register! Ms Hudson directed me to the Electoral Commission, which finally got the Lib Dems to correct the donation. Astonishingly, however, the commission online database of political donations fails to show the donation was updated, let alone when. What’s worse, the amendment is not documented anywhere on the public record.
- On 4 April 2016, Mr Farron registered a £2k donation on the register of MPs’ financial interests – from BTP Advisers International Ltd (registered company number: 08522892) (screen shot in Figure 1). This was incorrect, as I exclusively established (see 27 April 2017 post). The donation actually came from linked firm BTP Advisers Limited (registered company number: 07455523).
- When I complained about this in a letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in September 2017, I had sent a fourth request for comment (email) to Mr Farron, again unanswered.
- On Ms Hudson’s advice, I duly complained to the Electoral Commission. The regulator of political party finances told me in an email that, following correspondence with the Lib Dems, it had amended the relevant donation (screen shot in Figure 2). As you can see, there is no evidence there of the changes and when they were made. So much for transparency and accountability. Highly unsatisfactory.
- The watchdog updated the record on 16 November 2017, it added in another email, after I requested the date. It also confirmed my fear: the amendment is not documented anywhere on the public record.
- That’s the end of the matter, according to the Electoral Commission. It has no interest in holding Mr Farron to account for failing to register the donation accurately on the register of MPs’ financial interests. Nor is it concerned by his ignoring my four emails.
- MPs currently have a free pass to ignore errors in their entries on the register of MPs’ financial interests. We must close the loophole in the rules for the register that allowed the then Lib Dem leader to avoid accountability for both registering an incorrect donation and failing to rectify the error. Also, the Electoral Commission should surely routinely report any changes it makes to the political donation data it holds. Updated records in its online database must be clearly identified as such, not hidden.
On 22 August 2017, I revealed that regulator the Charity Commission was going to instruct charity The Lee And Bakirgian Family Trust (registered charity number: 1046940) to re-submit its latest accounts “in the correct format”. This was after earlier that month I’d brought to the commission’s attention the problem with the latest accounts, made up to 30 September 2016: they didn’t contain an independent examiner’s report to the charity trustees. Here are the deficient accounts, downloaded from the commission on 27 July 2017: 0001046940_AC_20160930_E_C. Well, the north west charity has duly re-submitted them – but there’s no record on the commission’s public register of charities that the accounts had to be re-submitted. The re-submission is hidden. The fact of re-submission is hidden in the new version of the accounts, too. Both are unsatisfactory. The charity’s records should surely be complete and transparent.
Lord Lee of Trafford (Lib Dem) is a celebrated private investor, who, among many other things, has for a long time written a column in the FT newspaper about investing. How ironic: former MP Lord Lee pores over company accounts and tells FT readers how to interpret them. Yet the latest accounts for his own charity – he’s a trustee – were inadequate, according to the regulator.
On 18 September 2017, the commission told me in an email Lord Lee’s charity had now re-submitted the accounts. Nevertheless at date of publication there’s no indication of the re-submission on the commission’s public register of charities. There the revised accounts, which aren’t identified as such, are erroneously shown as received by the commission on 28 April 2017 – the date when the original accounts were filed there. In other words, the regulator hides the re-submission.
It’d be less of a concern if the revised accounts themselves documented the fact of re-submission and why it was necessary. But they don’t.
So the latest accounts now include an independent examiner’s report to the charity trustees – which, although undated by the examiner, obviously helps to maintain public trust and confidence in Lord Lee’s charity. But neither the commission’s public register of charities nor the accounts themselves record the fact of re-submission and why it was necessary. So much for transparency and accountability.
When I brought to the commission’s attention the new problems, a staff member said in an email: “We are in the process of reviewing and updating the ‘search for a charity’ and register page, I have forwarded your comments to the relevant team for them to incorporate into their feedback for future versions.” I won’t hold my breath.
- Lord Lee of Trafford (Lib Dem) is a celebrated private investor, who, among many other things, has for a long time written a column in the FT newspaper about investing. One of the former MP’s declared non-financial interests is his role as a trustee of charity The Lee And Bakirgian Family Trust (registered charity number: 1046940). Here I reveal a problem with the latest accounts for the north west charity, made up to 30 September 2016.
- Income that year, £30 236, is above the statutory threshold for external scrutiny of the accounts, £25k. Yet there was no external scrutiny of the accounts. That is, there’s no evidence of an independent examination.
- In July 2017, I twice requested a comment from the public contact for the charity, Simon Ellis at accountants Jackson Stephen LLP, Warrington (email). I didn’t receive a response.
- On 18 August 2017, a spokesperson for regulator the Charity Commission told me in a written statement: “The Commission will be contacting the trustees to request they re-submit their accounts in the correct format so that we can be satisfied the accounts we hold are accurate and in line with charity law.”
- On 4 April 2016, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron MP declared a cash donation of £2k on the register of MPs’ financial interests. It came from BTP Advisers International Ltd (registered company number: 08522892). The Lib Dems in his constituency, Westmorland and Lonsdale, accepted the donation from the company on 31 March 2016, according to the Electoral Commission online database.
- BTP Advisers International Ltd was dissolved on 19 July 2016, after filing one set of accounts only – for a dormant company – made up to 31 May 2014, Companies House records show. It was incorporated on 9 May 2013 by its two directors, Sandra Lawman and Mark Pursey.
- Both have been politically active with the Lib Dems, and for a long time. On 6 March 2017, Mr Pursey said in an email that he was a party member, and had been “for the last 27 years.” He added: “I have no involvement in the party today beyond being a member and supporter. However, in the past, I have served as a local Lib Dem councillor, worked for the party, and volunteered to help on many of its campaigns.” Meanwhile, Ms Lawman’s profile on the website of Dudley Miles Company Services Limited (registered company number: 03208062), a company where she’s now a director, lists various roles as a Lib Dem activist (screen shot in Figure 1).
- Mr Pursey campaigned as a Lib Dem for the UK to leave the EU – he was a member of the Liberal Leave team, as its homepage at 20 June 2016 shows: https://web-beta.archive.org/web/20160620223359/liberalleave.org.
- Political donations above £2k must be disclosed by a company in the directors’ report within the annual report. This donation, of course, falls just under. Yet dormant BTP Advisers International Ltd didn’t even file its overdue second accounts, made up to 31 May 2015. It was then dissolved, of course, on 19 July 2016. How could a dormant company donate £2k to the Lib Dem leader?
- So I asked Ms Lawman and Mr Pursey in an email three questions about their company and the donation. On 6 March 2017, Mr Pursey told me in an email that the donation didn’t come from BTP Advisers International Ltd. Rather, it came from BTP Advisers Limited (registered company number: 07455523). That, he told me, “is an active company, and always has been.” Mr Pursey also asked where the donation was shown as from BTP Advisers International Ltd, despite the fact I’d explicitly referred to the register of MPs’ financial interests. I pointed again to Mr Farron’s entry there, providing the link; whereupon he replied in an email the same day: “Well then that’s wrong. I am [sic] no idea why that is what is down. I’ll ask them to change it.”
- Ms Lawman at Dudley Miles Company Services Limited didn’t respond to the original email.
- What does BTP Advisers Limited do? It’s a “multi-award winning communications agency working across international media relations, crisis management, political campaigns and legal disputes,” says the Twitter biography (@btpadvisers). Mr Pursey is founder and managing partner.
- Not everyone is a fan, however. In December 2011, for example, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that Mr Pursey had boasted to an undercover reporter of BTP Advisers Limited’s PR work for the Rwandan government, including its creation of an internet “attack site” to counter accusations that the government had been involved in genocide: https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2011-12-06/pr-firm-attacked-critics-of-rwandan-government. There the Bureau also reported his claim the company was working for the controversial government of Azerbaijan.
- In March 2013, meanwhile, The Sunday Times newspaper exposed BTP Advisers Limited’s role in the Kenyan presidential election, in particular orchestrating an alleged “dirty tricks” campaign against British diplomats, on behalf of eventual winner Uhuru Kenyatta: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/lib-dem-defeats-our-man-in-kenya-830n0rs5vj5.
- On 21 April 2016, the Guido Fawkes website criticised Mr Farron for accepting the £2k donation from what it identifies as BTP Advisers because of the company’s PR work for “some of the most authoritarian regimes in the world”: https://order-order.com/2016/04/21/farron-bankrolled-by-disgraced-rwanda-spinners/. Guido Fawkes said nothing, though, about the actual company on the official record for the donation, BTP Advisers International Ltd.
- There’s no suggestion that anyone has done anything illegal.
- On 7 March 2017, I emailed Mr Farron at parliament seeking an explanation for the discrepancy between his declaration on the register of MPs’ financial interests and what Mr Pursey had told me in emails the day before. Having heard nothing, I sent a reminder a week later. This time his office (no name disclosed) acknowledged receipt, on 17 March 2017, adding: “We are making enquiries and will come back to you in due course.” Again, nothing. So I sent a third email on 19 April 2017. At date of publication I haven’t had a response.
- Mr Farron’s declaration is unchanged on the latest register of MPs’ financial interests (that is, at 10 April 2017). Similarly, at date of publication BTP Advisers International Ltd remains as donor on the Electoral Commission online database.