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National Crime Agency Investigation: Javad Marandi

Volume 830: debated on Wednesday 17 May 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 16 May.

“The honourable 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.”

My Lords, the National Crime Agency investigation into the Azerbaijan laundromat is extremely serious, with an alleged $2.9 billion in stolen money laundered through UK companies. An individual with alleged links to this is also being investigated—an individual who gave three-quarters of a million pounds to the Conservative Party and who got an OBE and access to government Ministers. Can the Minister confirm whether this is accurate? In the other place, the Minister said that the National Security Bill is to be considered again in the Lords on ping-pong, as we know, and we may see it return to us. In the light of this investigation, what amendments are the Government going to support in the Lords, or what amendments are they going to bring forward themselves, in order to deal with this and ensure that we all have confidence that there is no dirty money in our politics and that this issue will be addressed at last?

The noble Lord will be aware that I cannot comment on ongoing investigations; no Minister at the Dispatch Box would. With regard to Mr Marandi’s status in the United Kingdom, he is a citizen of this country, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware, and his honours and so on are a matter of public record. As for political donations, UK electoral law already sets out a robust regime of donations and controls to ensure that only those with a legitimate interest in UK elections can make political donations, and that political donations are transparent. It is an offence to attempt to evade the rules on donations by concealing information, giving false information, or knowingly facilitating the making of an impermissible donation. I think this structure is pretty robust already, and a large number of various Bills, strategies and so on have recently been published which contribute to this debate.

My Lords, all political parties have had problems with political donations. For that reason, the Liberal Democrats have put in place a stringent, robust system to protect our integrity. I think the Minister was referring to an Answer given by the Minister in the House of Commons, when he said that our

“electoral law sets out a stringent regime of donation controls”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/5/23; col. 701.]

Manifestly, it does not do that. It specifies who can give donations but not where that money might come from. So far from being stringent, there is now a danger that laundered money may have been introduced into our democratic processes. If the system is as stringent as the Government make out, how was it possible for the Conservative Party to accept donations from this individual while the laundromat investigation was ongoing?

My Lords, I am going to repeat what I have said: there is a long-standing principle, first introduced by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1998, that if you are eligible to vote for a party in an election, you are also eligible to donate to that party. That includes overseas electors, as noble Lords will be aware, with reference to the Elections Act. Coming back to that Act, I remind the House that the Government have already taken significant steps to strengthen the integrity of our elections and update our electoral law. This was done to ensure that our democracy remains secure, modern, transparent and fair. I could go on in considerable detail about the Elections Act, but it has been much debated in this House.

Is not the case referred to in this Question an illustration of the opacity, rather than transparency, of the financial system relating to political parties? Is it not very important that we should put all protections in place to ensure that political parties have a well-understood and common system of ensuring that donations, in particular those emanating from foreign powers, are dealt with in a proper way? In those circumstances, would the Minister agree to meet me to discuss the amendment in lieu—replacing Lords Amendment 22—which I tabled last Friday for the next stage of the National Security Bill?

I would be very happy indeed to meet the noble Lord to discuss his amendment. I remind noble Lords that, as I say, any suspected breaches of the law are a matter for the Electoral Commission or the police. It is not appropriate to comment on individual cases or ongoing investigations, but if a donation is from a permissible donor, it is for the recipient to decide whether or not they want to accept that donation.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of Operation Branchform, the Scottish police investigation into the finances of the Scottish National Party. What he will not be aware of is that earlier today, Alexander Burnett, the Conservative Whip in the Scottish Parliament, wrote to the Presiding Officer demanding a parliamentary inquiry into that while that investigation is going on. In a published statement, he said that such a new committee would

“give the public confidence that the whole truth around this increasingly murky affair involving Scotland’s ruling party will be laid bare once and for all”.

What advice would the Minister give his parliamentary colleague, who speaks for the party: that maybe he should have removed the plank from his own eye before suggesting that, or that this is a good idea, and what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander?

The noble Lord will not be surprised to know that I was not aware of the Scottish dimension to this subject, so I will refrain from further comment.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and I am grateful to the Minister for his reference to the report made by my predecessors in 1998. I draw the Minister’s attention to a 2021 report, made by that same committee, which looked at electoral finance. The Minister may remember that the committee made a number of recommendations for reinforcing the provisions to ensure that improper funds were not coming into the electoral system, and it is a cause of great regret to myself and the committee that the Government decided not to take forward any of those recommendations. In the light of the most recent suggestions that there are problems, might the Government wish to revisit that decision and take into consideration more positively the recommendations of the independent and cross-party Committee on Standards in Public Life?

My Lords, the Government responded to the report published by the noble Lord’s committee, Regulating Election Finance, in September 2021, and the Elections Act 2022, to which I have already referred, contains measures which closely link to recommendations made in the report; for example, the new requirement on political parties to declare their assets and liabilities over £500 on registration, and a restriction of third-party campaigning to UK-based or otherwise eligible campaigners. The Government have stated that the recommendations in the report deserve full consideration, electoral law is complex, and more work is required to consider the implications and practicalities.

Just to follow on from that question from the noble Lord, Lord Evans, does my noble friend accept that all organisations, however properly conducted, can find themselves in difficulty over the money laundering regulations—as, for example, happened with HSBC, of which the noble Lord, Lord Evans, was a director?

Yes; I absolutely accept my noble friend’s point. Certainly, in relation to the question that has been asked, it is incumbent on all parties to be vigilant about all donations at all times.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister shares the general concern about maintaining public confidence in the integrity of our electoral process, including political finance. He must be aware that there have been persistent rumours, with a good deal of circumstantial evidence, that there have been flows of money indirectly from the Russian state into Conservative Party funds. So long as that suspicion is maintained and we do not have transparency about what really happened, there will be questions about the integrity of our political process. Should the Government not ensure that there is full transparency about these various reports and publish some of the redacted parts of the ISC’s Russia report?

My Lords, we have gone back and forth on this issue on a number of occasions. The noble Lord refers to rumours, but he is prone to starting some. I remind the noble Lord that, as my right honourable friend the Policing Minister pointed out in the other place, an MP from the noble Lord’s party in the other place accepted sizeable donations from somebody who was later identified by MI5 as a foreign agent. Those in glass houses.

My Lords, it would be more effective if the political parties had to repay that money. That might be an incentive not to accept money that we think is dodgy.