SNP referendum donations ‘spent on office renovations’
Police investigating allegations of fraud over £600,000 ‘ring-fenced’ fund set to interview party boss and husband of the first minister
John Boothman and Jason Allardyce Sunday July 25 2021, 12.01am BST, The Sunday Times
Hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations earmarked for a Scottish independence referendum campaign may have been spent on refurbishing the SNP’s headquarters and on legal fees, it has emerged.Police are investigating allegations of fraud surrounding more than £600,000 that was raised after an appeal by the party in 2017. The controversy threatens to damage Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, and her husband Peter Murrell, chief executive of the SNP.
Officers are expected to issue warrants shortly to obtain financial material from the SNP as they look into 19 complaints about the fighting fund that it had described as “ring-fenced”.Police are expected to interview Murrell as well as the MSP Colin Beattie, who was reinstated as party treasurer last month. They are also expected to speak to several former party officials who recently resigned over not being shown full accounts by Murrell.They include the MPs Joanna Cherry and Douglas Chapman, the party’s former treasurer, and three members of the SNP’s finance and audit committee.Yesterday the party declined to comment on suggestions that some of the donations were spent on a refurbishment of its offices near the Scottish parliament, rumoured within the SNP to have cost £385,000.Neither would it discuss allegations that the money was spent on legal costs for Murrell and his chief operating officer, Sue Ruddick, in relation to a parliamentary inquiry into the handling of harassment claims against Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader and first minister.It has also been claimed that the party met legal costs incurred by the MP Alyn Smith after he said without evidence that the Brexit party was a “money-laundering front”. The SNP declined to be drawn.The row is the latest in which Sturgeon is in danger of being embarrassed by her husband, who has led SNP HQ for 22 years. He has faced calls in the past to stand down over claims, which he denies, that he was involved in a malicious campaign to bring down Salmond.Critics say that the present arrangements put too much power over party and state in the hands of one couple, something that Salmond warned Sturgeon about when she took over in 2014.One SNP source said: “There are clearly huge issues with the way the SNP is run, including with the finances and governance of the party and headquarters. If he [Murrell] hadn’t been married to the party leader he would have been sacked long ago.”
Although the SNP pledged that the money raised from its £600,000 appeal in 2017 would be kept aside for a future referendum campaign, it has said it does not separate out restricted funds in its annual accounts and that such donations were woven through the overall income figures each year.After Chapman resigned in May, saying that he had not been given enough information to do the job, Sturgeon said that she was “not concerned” about the SNP’s finances.“Every penny” raised by the crowdfunder would be spent on a referendum campaign, she said. Internal critics have said that she attended one NEC meeting where concerns about the ring-fenced money were raised more than two years ago, but not properly addressed.
Stephen Kerr, the Scottish Conservative chief whip, accused the SNP leadership of making up contradictory explanations as it went along. “They really need to get their story straight,” he said.Leadership loyalists have dismissed the row, arguing that everything the party does is in support of delivering a second referendum and independence. The SNP said: “We will co-operate fully with the police investigation and will make no further comment.”Police are said to have announced the formal investigation into fraud allegations, despite concerns from the Crown Office
.The Sunday Times has been told that police officers were “stunned” by the position taken by the prosecution service.One source said that police officers and the Crown Office were “at loggerheads” before the force’s announcement this month that it was opening a formal investigation, having conducted initial inquiries into complaints alleging fraud.The source said: “Police told the Crown days beforehand. The Crown wanted a change of wording. They wanted a form of words that made it more of a fact-finding mission but the police had already had that and it was because documentation had not been handed over that they wanted to escalate it to an investigation.“Police were stunned that the Crown was putting them in that position. They were unhappy because if it was about anyone else in this position they would call it an investigation.” The source added that warrants were expected to obtain any material the party has not handed over.
Kerr said: “The police must be allowed to investigate without any potential interference which undermines their efforts to find out the truth. That would be completely inappropriate and would only raise further suspicions among the public if the Crown Office were to question what officers were doing.”Police Scotland said its enquiries are continuing. The Crown office said: “It would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing police investigation. It has not been reported to us and we have only provided advice.”On the issue of whether Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain would recuse herself from the issue, given her appointment was on the recommendation of the SNP government, it added: “As is customary in cases involving politicians, any resulting case reported to us will be handled by the procurator fiscal and independent Crown counsel without the involvement of the law officers.”Police officers from the economic crime and financial investigation unit of the specialist crime division based at the Scottish crime campus at Gartcosh are running the investigation. They have already been in contact with current and previous SNP national executive members and party HQ seeking information, documents, minutes and correspondence relating to the financial appeal
.The Sunday Times has seen correspondence between Ian McCann, the SNP’s compliance officer, and a member from 2020 in which he appeared to confirm monies were set aside, despite claims they were woven through the accounts.He wrote: “Your other donations are in a ring-fenced fund to fight the next referendum, whenever we are in a position to call that.”Since May’s elections there have been continuing ructions within the SNP over its referendum strategy including the resignation of its independence taskforce chief Marco Biagi after only six months in post. On his departure he said it was “the worst job” he had ever had.
SNP sources suggest that membership has fallen from more than 125,000 in 2019 and that Sturgeon and Murrell’s running of the party has soured relations with some of its biggest donors, including Chris Weir and her late husband Colin, who, in 2011, won £161 million in the EuroMillions lottery.Weir, who died in December 2019, is said to have made a donation to the referendum fund but later demanded his money back — something police are said to be satisfied that the party did. (Article ends)
Two issues raised in this news report deserve more investigation.
Let me make clear from the beginning I cannot say any of the money spent came from the ring fenced fund. It might have but I have no way of knowing. I can confirm however that the draft accounts do contain an entry, totalling several hundreds of thousands of pounds spending on furnishings, fixtures and fittings during 2020. I was also told by an NEC member that the majority of the 24 staff employed are working from home at the moment.
The first thing that needs more investigation is the news that the Party appears to have spent £ 385,520 on a category in the accounts headed Furniture, fixtures and fittings. This seems to me to be a fantastic amount of money to spend on a building they DON’T OWN? The Party lease the property so it seems incredibly generous to spend this money. Dare I ask what was it spent on and was there any contribution from the actual landlords as would be normal on any renovations costs at this level? The Queen will be asking them to move into Holyrood Palace at this rate!
Further to this issue it seems to me that there are a number of questions about the accounting measures used to record this expenditure and net values in the accounts relating to the nominal values of this transaction and others relating to the real present day value of office computer equipment detailed in the accounts as having a net book value of £268,368. The combined value of the furniture, fixtures and fittings on a building the Party does not own and this computer equipment, after depreciation is listed at a net book value of £690,437. I think most business people would regard both these figures as requiring severe investigation and questioning in any takeover situation where any audit was being carried out to establish true value. I thought it might include some super sophisticated software development but software has its own separate category amounting to another £248,885 in net book value. Perhaps the Treasurer might like to clarify all this huge expenditure as I am sure many members would like to know the answers. The Conference requires to approve the accounts at Conference. I would suggest adequate time is allocated for questions. I suspect there will be a lot to explain.
The other revelation in the article was the report that the police had to fight the Crown Office to elevate their inquiries into the “ringfenced money” to a full investigation. We already know from the Salmond case that the Crown Office and the Scottish Government have not been acting independently in these matters and the relationship has led to a series of political malicious prosecutions including Salmond, Hirst and Murray. This news that they were also active in applying different criteria to this investigation to try to temper and protect the SNP from the normal application of the law only serves to confirm that Kenny MacAskill was right to call in the House of Commons last week for much clearer Division of responsibilities between the Lord Advocate, Crown Office and Scottish Government.
I am, as always
Yours for Scotland.
BEAT THE CENSORS
Unfortunately a number of pro Indy sites have turned out to be merely pro SNP sites and have blocked a number of bloggers, including myself. We have managed to frustrate these efforts to close us down through our readers sharing our articles and building our audience. In addition many have taken out free direct subscriptions. I very much appreciate this support.
Are available on the Home and Blog pages of this website. By taking out a subscription you will receive notification of all future posts. You will be most welcome.