Senior Tory MP warns about lack of checks on wealthy Russian donors

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Senior Tory MP warns about lack of checks on wealthy Russian donors
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A senior Conservative MP has raised concerns about the lack of checks on wealthy Russians donating money to the party, and expressed disbelief at Boris Johnson nominating the son of a former KGB officer for a peerage.

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Bernard Jenkin said a “change in attitude” was required to improve transparency around attempts to curry favour with politicians.

His warning came in newly released testimony by the Commons standards committee, which held an evidence session with parliament’s director of security, Alison Giles, last month.

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Jenkin said there was a “problem in political donations” because MPs are only required to declare the name of the benefactor but that the true person or group behind them could remain a mystery.

Fresh concerns have been raised about Evgeny Lebedev being given a peerage by Johnson following media reports that said the prime minister overrode intelligence agencies’ security concerns.

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Johnson dismissed the reports as “simply incorrect” and Lebedev has insisted he is not an “agent of Russia” and claimed to have been subjected to “farcical” Russophobia claims.

But Dominic Cummings, a former top adviser in No 10, claimed this week that he was “in the room when the PM was told by Cabinet Office officials that the intelligence services and other parts of the deep state had, let’s say, serious reservations about the PM’s plan”.

Revealing his own concerns about the appointment, Jenkin said MPs should work properly to identify the true source of hospitality or donations, rather than just declare the “front organisation” that provided them.

According to an official transcript released on Thursday, Jenkin said: “That is far more than the Electoral Commission required, by the way, which is why we end up with all these Russian donors giving money to the Conservative party, and indeed to other parties, because nobody is obliged to say, ‘Who is this guy? What business is he in? Is he, in fact, a crook? You can’t accept money from him.’

“Mind you, he gave a peerage to Lebedev – I can’t believe it. It seems to me that that is part of the change in attitude that is required.”

Lebedev, who joined the House of Lords in November 2020 as a crossbencher, said he was “not a security risk to this country, which I love”.

Jenkin suggested two lists of countries be drawn up from which MPs could and could not accept hospitality.

“The Five Eyes countries are not a risk,” he said, referring to the intelligence alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US. “France – bit of a risk. There are Italy and Germany. When it comes to Russia and China, that is an absolute no-no.”

Downing Street was approached for comment.

During the session, MPs were warned that all party parliamentary groups (APPGs) – a type of unofficial cross-party organisation focusing on specific causes or countries – were “a very attractively accessible” way for foreign governments to wield power in the UK parliament.

Giles said the groups were “relatively unregulated and, crucially, dependant on outside interests for funding and support makes them very easy to engage with”.

“Many APPGs will be actively looking for the kind of support that foreign entities and governments would be only too pleased to provide,” she said.

Related: Boris Johnson’s broken promise on MPs’ second jobs fits a pattern

“My impression is that current disclosure obligations are relatively superficial … Given how I described how foreign entities tend to operate now, that does not get to the risk, which is at one or two removes from the front person operating. Given how easy it is to set up shell companies and to obfuscate funding sources, I do not think that that goes far enough.”

Giles said current declarations about the groups were “relatively superficial” and that she had a “top 10” of APPGs she was interested in.

But she added: “There are so many APPGs and they are so unregulated that it would be difficult to make headway even if you had unlimited resource.”

The House of Lords appointment commission was encouraged by Labour leader Keir Starmer this week to review Lebedev’s peerage and publish the advice it gave about the appointment to Johnson.

But the commission’s chair, Lord Bew, said on Thursday that he had “no role in assessing the propriety of sitting lords” and added: “Although the commission seeks to be as transparent as possible about its criteria and processes, its formal advice to the prime minister is confidential.”

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