WHEN Nicola Sturgeon was pressed by an STV journalist for comment on swirling allegations of a missing £600,000 independence ‘fighting fund’, she said she was “not concerned”. But judging by the absence of SNP accounting transparency, I think she should be.
The origins of this murky tale traces back to 2017, when £482,000 was raised by the SNP via the website ref.scot. The money was to be used for a second independence referendum that Nicola Sturgeon had been promising. But when a surprise 2017 general election struck the SNP lost 21 MPs – a blow bad enough to convince the First Minister to delay her plans for indyref2.
In the aftermath of that 2017 general election a furious row then erupted between the SNP and opposition parties who alleged the governing party might have used the fund to pay for the election. This led to the SNP denying they had done so and pledging the £482,000 ref.scot fund would be “frozen” and “ring fenced”; kept for a future second independence referendum.
But that promise to freeze and ring-fence the fund has since led to a new allegation, this time from pro-independence voices. Put simply the fresh allegation accuses the SNP of fraud, soliciting money for the purpose of a second independence referendum – only to use it for SNP party business. This row entered high gear inside the SNP and wider ‘Yes’ circles when the 2019 accounts were released; causing the abrasive pro-independence blogger Stuart Campbell to begin kicking over the ant hills.
The 2019 SNP accounts revealed only £96,854 “cash in hand and at bank” (down from £411,042 in 2018) and £271,916 SNP reserves (down from the £591,077 from 2018). The question was raised: where, precisely, in the SNP 2019 accounts is the “frozen” ring-fenced indyref2 fund?
At this point the then SNP National Treasurer Colin Beattie released an agitated statement saying: “I felt it was important for me to get in touch today to quash rumours spreading on social media about one of our fundraising appeals.” The only problem is Mr Beattie went on to say “Like all other political parties, the SNP does not separate out restricted funds in annual accounts. Any such donations are woven through the overall income figures each year.”
It is not too difficult to guess why the “woven through” explanation failed to allay fears of a ‘missing’ indyref2 fund. After all you might be forgiven for thinking that ‘woven through’ is the opposite of ‘frozen’. Lacing the fund through various parts of the SNP accounts would seem to conflict with it being ‘ring-fenced’. Especially if we consider Nicola Sturgeon’s recent claim that SNP accounts are managed on a ‘cash flow basis’ (more on that later)
But something equally pertinent is Mr Beattie’s claim that “like all other parties the SNP does not separate out restricted funds”. I consider this a blatant lie from the then SNP National Treasurer. For one thing the SNP themselves used to explicitly list restricted funds – including referendum funds. Journalist Tom Gordon for example points to 2012 SNP Financial Statements doing precisely that in his June 3rd piece in the Herald.
Tom Gordon pointed out in his article that “the treasurer then was the same Mr Beattie who now gives members a glib brush-off, despite the precedent.”
An immediate question for the SNP to answer is why they stopped itemised listings of restricted funds in their accounts. This absence of basic transparency only serves to raise concerns about the current state of SNP financial procedures.
This is so much the case that in March this year three members of the SNP’s Finance and Audit Committee resigned. They cited a lack of access to SNP accounts. Apparently, Peter Murrell (Chief Executive and husband to First Minister/SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon) felt disinclined to permit them full access to the party books. Things got even spicier when Mr Beattie’s replacement as SNP National Treasurer Douglas Chapman resigned in May. He explicitly stated that “I have not received the support, or financial information to carry out the fiduciary duties of National Treasurer”.
The exodus of people from positions bearing legal or fiduciary obligations for oversight of their party accounts was rounded off by Joanna Cherry SNP MP resigning from the NEC – again citing a total absence of transparency.
And all these resignations are serious reason for concern; these roles are all the ones supposedly ensuring SNP financial and accounting transparency. After all the National Treasurer is charged by the ‘Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000’ to be:
“responsible for keeping proper accounting records that disclose, with reasonable accuracy, at any time the financial position of the party and to enable him to ensure that the financial statements comply with the Act.”
For an SNP treasurer to tweet that he feels prevented from being able to ensure accuracy of party accounts, or able to ensure that they even comply with law is startling. And that he then felt the only way to protect himself in law was to resign from post only underscores my deep concern.
Yet despite all this, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon claims she is “not concerned” about her party finances.
She is presumably still unconcerned despite Police Scotland being in receipt of a formal complaint alleging wrongdoing. A complaint they are currently assessing and making enquiries to establish whether legal wrongdoing has taken place, thus meriting a formal police investigation.
An SNP spokesman informed The Times the SNP is “more than happy to set out the facts should questions be asked of us by any appropriate authority”. Are we to take it then the SNP do not consider questions being asked by their own Finance & Audit Committee qualifies as coming from an ‘appropriate authority’? Do they seriously mean to imply that their own National Treasurer is not an ‘appropriate authority’ to ask questions of their husband-and-wife leadership team? This is quite incredible stuff.
But this situation becomes even more a cause for concern if we return to Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that “our accounts are managed on a cash flow basis”. I have but one issue with this, I am not sure this is true. The only logical interpretation I can make of the First Minister’s claim is that the SNP uses cash rather than accrual accounting. But if we look at the accounting policies section of the 2019 published accounts, we find this is not true.
The heart of this tale is a governing party completely failing to ensure proper transparency concerning its finances. But worse than that, it is a story of a party that takes voters for fools. It will take more than Colin Beattie’s self-evident lie about no party separating out restricted funds in published accounts to quash the swirling accusations surrounding SNP finances. And bizarre claims that ‘ring-fenced’ funds can be “woven” in byzantine fashion through the books will not help either. The fact is, we all deserve proper answers as to how the Scottish National Party has been ‘managing’ its cash flow.