Skip to main content

National Crime Agency Investigation: Javad Marandi

Volume 732: debated on Tuesday 16 May 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the implications of the National Crime Agency’s investigation into Mr Javad Marandi.

The hon. Lady asks about a law enforcement operation, and she and the House know that the Government do not and cannot comment on investigations being undertaken by law enforcement. This Chamber and this Dispatch Box are not the place, cannot and should not be the place, and never have been the place to comment on live investigations by law enforcement. That remains as much the case today as it has been for the last several decades.

UK electoral law sets out a stringent regime of donation controls to ensure that only those with a legitimate interest can make donations, and that those donations are transparent. Permissible donors include registered electors, UK-registered companies carrying out business in the UK, trade unions and other UK-based entities. I remind the House that this Government have taken significant steps to strengthen the integrity of our elections and to update electoral law to ensure that our democracy remains secure, modern, transparent and fair.

This includes reforms to election finance. The Elections Act 2022 introduced a restriction on foreign third-party campaigning at elections. It is an important and existing principle that only those with a legitimate interest in UK elections can spend money to seek to influence the electorate. The Act, moreover, strengthened transparency in the political finance framework by introducing a new requirement for political parties with assets and liabilities above £500, which of course includes the SNP, to produce an assets and liabilities declaration upon registration. It also introduced a new, lower, registration threshold for third-party campaigners spending more than £10,000 during the regulated period before an election.

The Government are developing a new anti-corruption strategy, which we plan to launch later this year, which seeks to address the impact of corruption on our national security and to strengthen trust in our institutions. The Government are committed to the fight against corruption, and since 2010 the United Kingdom has led international efforts to combat corruption through the delivery of the 2017 to 2022 anti-corruption strategy, on which we will continue to build.

Mr Speaker, I conclude by passing on to you and the House the apologies of the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), who would ordinarily have replied to this urgent question. Unfortunately, he is not available at this moment.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.

The news this morning that Javad Marandi has lost a 19-month legal battle with the BBC to remain anonymous is a victory for transparency and freedom of the press in a battle often weighted in favour of wealthy oligarchs. It also goes to the heart of our democracy. Although it is incumbent on me to state that Mr Marandi denies any wrongdoing, and I note that his lawyers emailed me just five minutes ago, the National Crime Agency has found that companies linked to him are a crucial part of the money laundering network known as the Azerbaijani laundromat. Credit must go to Martin Bentham of the Evening Standard and the BBC’s Steve Swann and Dominic Casciani, to the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, who back in 2017 exposed the $2.9 billion stolen from the people of Azerbaijan, and to the NCA for its part in this case, naming Mr Marandi as a person of importance.

The UK must not be a home for the world’s dirty money, but it has become so under the Tories. Mr Marandi appears to have used corporate structures—

Order. Are you going to continue with that—yes or no? If you are, you are going to leave the Chamber. Can I have an answer? Are you going to behave?

Order. I am sorry, Mr Malthouse, but I do not want interruptions being shouted when the Member is asking the question. The Minister wants to hear it and this is a serious matter. I do not want backchat from those on the Benches. As I say, if you wish to leave, you are more than welcome to do so, but I am certainly not going to have any more of this.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Mr Marandi appears to have used UK corporate structures, including Scottish limited partnerships—Hilux Services LP and Polux Management LP—registered to a mailbox in my constituency. In the light of that, what further tightening of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, which is currently in the House of Lords, will the Government carry out?

There are clear political and security aspects to the Azerbaijani laundromat and to this case. Mr Marandi is a significant donor to the Conservative party. Electoral Commission figures show that he donated £756,300 to the Tories between August 2014 and November 2020, while the laundromat investigation was ongoing. That money secured him access to the Conservatives’ leaders group and advisory board, which, no doubt, was part of a wider effort at reputation laundering.

When was the Minister made aware of Mr Marandi’s links to the Azerbaijani laundromat and what action did he take? Can he confirm what meetings Mr Marandi has had with current and former Ministers, and what influence his donations have bought him? Has he received any Government contracts? Does the Minister agree with Transparency International, which considers Mr Marandi’s links to the laundromat to be a national security risk? What will the Minister do to legislate on SLAPPs, strategic lawsuits against public participation, which inhibit journalists investigating—

A sentiment I entirely share, Mr Speaker.

I knew nothing about this gentleman until about an hour or an hour and a half ago, when I was briefed by officials, or perhaps earlier this morning when I saw the story in The Times. The Government are committed to making sure that the United Kingdom does not have dirty money. The hon. Lady has referred to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, which is passing through Parliament. It is designed to further strengthen those measures.

The Government are also firmly committed to legislating as soon as parliamentary time allows to combat so-called SLAPPs, whereby extremely rich individuals use, in essence, vexatious or malfeasant lawsuits to shut down proper scrutiny and proper free speech. Clearly, in this case the judge decided that transparency and the public interest were served by disclosure, and I welcome that.

On the other questions about donations, I am afraid that I do not know anything about those, although that is rather dangerous territory for the nationalists just now, is it not?

I had not intended to intervene in this urgent question, but I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister say that the Government are proceeding with introducing the anti-SLAPPs legislation, as I had seen a report suggesting that it had somewhat fallen off the agenda. Will he tell us when, given the short time left in the life of this Parliament, the anti-SLAPPs legislation will be brought forward? There is cross-party consensus that it is extremely important and valuable.

I agree with all my right hon. Friend’s sentiments, particularly that about the importance of anti-SLAPP legislation, to which the Government are committed. On the timing, that is out of my hands. I have been informed that it will happen as soon as parliamentary time allows, but I am sure that, if he makes representations to the Security Minister and others, he will receive a fuller answer.

Here we are again, Mr Speaker, with an urgent question on Conservative party donations. As we have heard, the National Crime Agency has named Mr Marandi as a person of importance in its investigation into what has been described by the judge in the case as a “significant money-laundering scheme”. Mr Marandi has been on the Conservative advisory board of ultra-wealthy supporters, donating £756,300 to the Conservative party between 2014 and 2020. This is not the first time that we have to come to this Chamber to ask questions about the Conservatives’ lack of rigour when accepting donations. Just last month in the urgent question on alleged secret Chinese police stations, my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary told the House that The Times had reported

“a Chinese businessman linked to an alleged Chinese secret police station in London, is linked to the united front work department, and has organised Tory party fundraising dinners and attended events with Conservative Prime Ministers”. —[Official Report, 19 April 2023; Vol. 731, c. 248.]

In April, the Good Law Project published damning revelations that, since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Conservatives had accepted at least £243,000 from Russian-associated donors, some of whom were linked to sanctioned businesses and organisations. I reminded the Security Minister of that when we recently debated Lord Carlile’s proposed amendment to the National Security Bill, which would ensure that political parties do their due diligence when checking where donations come from—an amendment which the Government whipped their MPs to vote against. I warned the Government just two weeks ago that, if they rejected proposals to clean up donations, the public would draw their own conclusions as to why, and here we are again.

Can the Minister confirm when the Government last accepted a donation from Mr Marandi and when he first knew that he was a person of importance in such a case? If he says that he was briefed only this morning, why has it taken until now to understand these revelations and the implications? Will the Government be giving back the donations that they have received in the light of these revelations? Can the Minister now confirm that the Government will back Lord Carlile’s amendment, or will they continue to suggest that there is nothing to see here?

The London laundromat must be shut down. The Government’s donations must be cleaned up.

I welcome the fact that the National Crime Agency is investigating the apparent wrongdoing that has been going on and taking legal action as well. I am sure that all Members of the House will welcome that.

The National Security Bill is still being considered in the House of Lords, and we may see it down here in the course of ping-pong, so there will be plenty of further opportunities to discuss that. I would add that people are entitled to be considered innocent until proven guilty. That is quite a long-standing principle of law in this country, but all political parties, on both sides, need to be vigilant about donations. [Interruption.] Well, there have been donations received by a Labour Member of Parliament, and connections of a Labour Member of Parliament to someone who was later declared a foreign agent of China by MI5, so to suggest that this is polarised on party political lines is a misrepresentation. All political parties need to be very careful, thoughtful and discerning about where donations come from, regardless of what the law may say, and that is a lesson which political parties need to reflect on very carefully and learn from.

If I may be of some assistance to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis), the Lord Chancellor told the House earlier today, did he not, that he was looking at using legislation already before the House for the SLAPPs?

I regret that I was not in the Chamber earlier to hear that, but my right hon. Friend is an impeccable source of information and I am sure that Members will heed him accordingly.

I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for tabling the urgent question and you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. These revelations are completely damning. There is an investigation into the Azerbaijan laundromat. A total of $2.9 billion was stolen. It was laundered through UK companies and used to bribe politicians and line the pockets of the corrupt Azerbaijani elite, and Javad Marandi is linked with it. Now we hear that he donated three quarters of a million pounds to the Tory party, got an OBE and access to Government Ministers. We should take these allegations very seriously. If they are true, dirty money has well and truly crept into our politics. The Conservative party will not regulate itself, so will the Government bring forward regulations requiring all parties to do due diligence and checks on the source of all political donations? Will the Minister make sure that this donation is returned, and will he investigate and report back to Parliament on any access that Mr Marandi got to Government Ministers because of his large donations to the Conservative party?

As I have said, the rules in this area are being debated as the National Security Bill passes through the House. They are currently being debated in the House of Lords and, as I said in response to the shadow Minister, they may well return here in the course of ping-pong. I welcome the National Crime Agency’s investigation and court action, because no one wants to see dirty money flowing through London. The fact that the NCA is taking action is therefore to be welcomed. I gently repeat the point I made previously, that people are entitled to be assumed innocent until proven guilty. Issues of this kind are not exclusive to one side or the other; I have referred already to the foreign agent of the Chinese Government who was linked to a senior Labour Member of Parliament. In that context, all political parties—not just the two main ones, but the others too—need to exercise caution and vigilance in these matters, for all the reasons that the right hon. Lady just outlined.

I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for tabling the question and you for allowing it, Mr Speaker. Today’s revelations about Mr Marandi’s donations not only raise serious questions about the relationship between money and power in our democracy at present, but are a major security concern. If the Prime Minister is serious about restoring integrity to politics, as he has said, will the Government also now launch an independent inquiry into those and other donations?

As I have said, there is a live law enforcement investigation connected with the Azerbaijan allegations. I think the right thing to do is to allow that NCA investigation to reach its conclusion.

The Minister will know, as we all do, that trust in democracy and our electoral law is precious and should be kept. Today’s revelations come on top of revelations yesterday by a Government MP that the voter ID laws were an attempt at gerrymandering. The public’s trust is precious; it is easily lost and hard to gain. The Minister mentioned aspects of the Elections Act 2022. Parts of that Act make it easier for foreign actors with bad intentions to influence British politics, so will he look again particularly at the overseas electors loopholes included in that legislation, to ensure that our democracy remains safe and secure?

I agree with the hon. Lady that it is vital that our elections remain safe and secure, but the Elections Act included a number of measures that further tightened up our law, not least the restriction on foreign third parties campaigning at elections, and the strengthening of the transparency framework in relation to political finance. The Act significantly strengthened the law in that area.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on securing this urgent question on something we both have an established interest in. The Javad Marandi case shows that bad-faith actors find it too easy to buy access into the body politic, yet most of his donations were done through the official Conservative and Unionist party channels. Earlier this month, we saw painstaking investigation by Jim Fitzpatrick of openDemocracy, showing how shady so-called think tanks such as Our Scottish Future had the lowest possible financial transparency ranking, leaving them open to manipulation from unknown dark-money donors like the notorious Constitutional Research Council during the Brexit referendum. Can the Minister say how the Government are going to ensure that those think tanks and campaigning organisations, which have a clear political goal, comply with best practice and declare who their donors are?

Organisations engaged in political campaigning are covered by the expanded remit of recent legislation—but when it comes to transparency of political donations, I must say the Scottish Nationalists have quite a cheek lecturing anyone else.

I understand there has been a court judgment that a $500,000 deposit by Mr Marandi is one of the sources of the £1 million seized by the National Crime Agency as illicit money. Given that, does the Minister think it would offer some public reassurance if he were able to say from the Dispatch Box now that the Government party will immediately investigate the sources of donations it has received from Mr Marandi?

I am afraid I do not know the details of the cash flows connected with that gentleman; nor do I know the details of the live investigation. I suggest to Members of the House that we wait until the investigation is concluded. All political parties should be careful, in the way the hon. Gentleman just described, in making sure that donations they receive are properly sourced and untainted.

I find it astonishing that a Minister who knew he was coming to the Dispatch Box to answer this question did not bother to read the BBC’s webpage, which had a very simple diagram showing exactly where the £40 million Mr Marandi received had come from. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) not only on securing this urgent question, but on her determination in dragging the Government kicking and screaming to the point that they are finally going to do something about the Scottish limited partnerships, because, as we all know, there has never been any legitimate purpose for establishing them. Two of the partnerships she mentioned, Hilux Services and Polux Management, have been named in court by a judge as part of a money laundering ring. During the short period that Hilux Services existed, from 26 March 2013 to 3 October 2016, a time in which Mr Marandi was a significant beneficiary of the company, he donated £143,000 to the Conservative party. Does the Minister accept that, if it is established that, during the time Mr Marandi was making the donations, he was also in receipt of dirty, laundered money, that money must be paid back immediately?

As I have repeatedly said, the Government cannot, will not and should not comment on live investigations, and we never have. The hon. Member asserts as fact what he has read on a news website, but let us wait for the investigation to conclude before drawing conclusions. The last people I will take lectures from on campaign transparency when it comes to finance are the nationalists, who are under investigation by Police Scotland as we speak.

There has been reporting on Mr Marandi’s links with the Azerbaijani laundromat, including his links to the ruling family of Azerbaijan and his facilitating property deals for them, for at least six years. Does the Minister think it is moral to retain the donations from Mr Marandi?

I think we should wait for the investigation to get to the bottom of the facts, rather than basing conclusions on rumours and assumption. It is important that that investigation concludes but, as I have said, it is incumbent on all political parties to be very careful and thoughtful about where they take donations from.