Brexit minister linked to group that used loophole to channel £435,000 to DUP used to fund Leave campaign

Steve Baker disclosed that he received £6,500 from the Constitutional Research Council 

Chloe Farand
Sunday 02 July 2017 16:17
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Conservative MP Steve Baker at his High Wycombe office
Conservative MP Steve Baker at his High Wycombe office

The new minister for exiting the EU has links to a group that channelled £435,000 to the DUP to campaign for Brexit during last year’s referendum.

Steve Baker received £6,500 from the Constitutional Research Council, the body which used a legal loophole to make the donation to the DUP, Parliament’s register of interests shows.

Interest has grown in the Constitutional Research Council, which has links to a number of powerful groups on the UK’s political landscape.

These include the DUP, which signed a deal with Theresa May to prop up her minority government, and the European Research Group, an influential group of about 80 pro-Brexit MPs which was chaired by Mr Baker until last month.

According to The Observer, the Constitutional Research Council - which has no website and no accounts - is one of several organisations that emerged as having played a key role in securing a Brexit vote.

The council is chaired by Richard Cook, a former vice chairman of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. His business associates reportedly include a former Saudi spy and a man involved in a major arms scandal.

In his register of interests, Mr Baker writes: “As Chair of the European Research Group (ERG), I accepted £6,500 from the Constitutional Research Council to fund hospitality for ERG members and their staff at an event on 19 December 2016.”

A loophole in the electoral rules created at the time of the Troubles means that unlike the rest of the UK, parties in Northern Ireland are not obliged to reveal the identity of their donors for security reasons.

Just before last year’s referendum, the DUP received a £435,000 donation from an anonymous donor.

An investigation by Opendemocracy forced the DUP to admit the money had been donated by the previously unknown Constitutional Research Council.

The DUP, which was the only party in Northern Ireland to campaign in favour of Brexit, funded some of the Leave camp advertisement campaign, including a wrap on the free newspaper Metro which is not distributed in Northern Ireland.

Neither Mr Baker not the Department for Exiting the European Union responded to requests for comments.

Christopher Howarth, senior research at the European Research Group, told The Observer: “It’s a registered donation from a permissible donor. That’s all the information you would need.”

Lord Bew, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, told the Sunday paper a change to bring greater transparency to Northern Ireland’s party finance laws was long overdue.

He called on the government to commit to a timetable for introducing transparency arrangements in Northern Ireland in line with those in the rest of the UK.

The origin of the funds gathered by the Constitutional Research Council remain unknown.

In May, Mr Cook told the Sunday Herald in Scotland the council decided who to fund after receiving project submissions, which aimed to promote the union of the UK regions.

A spokesman for the DUP said: “The Electoral Commission has raised no issues in relation to the DUP campaign, including the donation which came from a permissible donor, who in turn are themselves regulated by the Electoral Commission.”

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