Johnson allies blame Electoral Commission 'incompetence' for failing to register donors

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Indy Politics

Allies of Alan Johnson angrily hit back at the Electoral Commission for "incompetence" last night after the Health Secretary became the second cabinet minister in as many weeks to fight for his career over a fresh Labour Party donation blunder.

Mr Johnson insisted he had shown "100 per cent honesty" throughout his deputy leadership campaign after it emerged that a penniless foreigner had been used as a front to donate £3,334 to his campaign last June.

The claims came only days after Peter Hain was forced to quit his cabinet post as Work and Pensions Secretary after failing to declare £103,000 which had been donated to his own deputy leadership campaign. The Electoral Commission has now referred the allegations to the police.

Yesterday allies of Mr Johnson rallied to his defence, with his replacement James Purnell denying there had been "any impropriety" and insisting that "everything was above board" in his team's declarations of donations.

Instead of blaming the Johnson campaign for breaking the rules on donations, the Health Secretary's supporters accused the Electoral Commission of failing to register the information it had been given in May last year.

"It is pretty annoying," said a source close to Mr Johnson. "We have a copy of the form we submitted to the Electoral Commission in May last year. We told the Commission at the end of November or early December it was not on their register. It is still not on their website. We want to know why it has taken them so long."

In echoes of the David Abrahams scandal – when funds were channelled through an associate – Waseem Siddiqui, who was visiting Britain from Pakistan on a student visa, told the Sunday Mirror he did not even know who Mr Johnson was.

He said his brother Ahmed Yar Mohammed – treasurer of Croydon Central Labour Party – asked him to write the cheque to the Johnson campaign, and then gave him the money.

It was also claimed that the Johnson campaign had admitted finding almost £10,000 from four donors – including Mr Siddiqui – who had not been registered on the Electoral Commission website.

Last night Mr Mohammed, 29, denied any intention to disguise his donation. He said: "As I was travelling at the time, I asked my brother-in-law Mr Waseem Siddiqui to write a cheque for Mr Alan Johnson's campaign. I did this in good faith and at no point was it my intention to disguise my donation."

The claims caused exasperation in Downing Street, where an embattled Gordon Brown is trying to shore up an administration increasingly mired in sleaze allegations. It threatens to overshadow the Prime Minister's launch today with his new Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell of proposals to force more people off benefit and into work.

Last night Mr Brown was standing by Mr Johnson, making it clear he had "full confidence" in him.

Alan Duncan, a Tory spokesman, said Mr Johnson's case appeared not to be in the same league as Mr Hain's failures: "I'm not calling for the Electoral Commission to investigate Mr Johnson," he said on Sky News. "But at the heart of Government there is a problem and this is further evidence of it."

Mr Johnson said he and his team had complied fully with the law. His campaign team checked the donor was a registered member of the Labour Party and legally able to give the money. They had registered it with Parliament, the Labour Party and the Electoral Commission, he said.

A member of Mr Johnson's team said: "We don't understand why somebody who is a member of the Labour Party and is politically active didn't want to give the money himself. We can understand businessmen not wanting their names to come out in public sometimes, but this man was a member of a constituency Labour Party. We don't understand why he should give the money to his brother."

Mr Johnson said he and his team had checked that Mr Siddiqui was on the electoral roll, so legally able to donate the money – and went further in also checking he was a member of the Labour Party.

"I'm as surprised as anybody else, but all I can say is that we have followed absolutely the procedures," he said. "I'm very keen to find out the truth about where he got the money, but there can be no accusation [that] either me or my team indulged in any kind of impropriety whatsoever."

Under the rules, all donations should be declared to the Electoral Commission within 60 days, and donations should not be given under someone else's name.

Sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe, who ran Mr Johnson's campaign, said: "It was only in December as we were closing down all the accounts that we checked it wasn't on the Electoral Commission website. They asked us to resubmit. We said we have already submitted but we would resubmit it."

Liberal Democrat frontbencher Norman Baker said: "This is another murky situation which will need to be properly investigated if confidence is to be restored."

Labour under investigation

* Peter Hain

The former Work and Pensions Secretary failed to declare £103,000 in donations to his Labour Party deputy leadership campaign. The Electoral Commission has referred the case to the police.

* The Labour Party

In breach of all the rules, it accepted proxy donations worth £660,000 from the property developer David Abrahams using names of his business associates. Police are investigating.

* Wendy Alexander

The Scottish Labour leader took £950 from a Jersey-based donor for her leadership campaign after an approach by her team. Scottish police are investigating.

* Harriet Harman

Labour's deputy leader accepted a £5,000 donation to her campaign from Janet Kidd, a proxy donor acting for David Abrahams. The Electoral Commission is investigating.

Party donations: The Rules

* No proxy donations allowed.

* Donors can use an "agent", but must register details of the original donor with The Electoral Commission.

* MPs must also declare donors on the Register of Members' Interests.

* Donations of more than £5,000, as well as the name, address and other relevant details of donors, must be declared publicly within 60 days.