By Martin Kelly
The No campaign is showing signs of strain after a senior Labour MSP appeared to distance himself from the Better Together group following controversy over the business background of its biggest donor.
Quizzed on Good Morning Scotland about the half million pound donation given by businessman Ian Taylor, Labour MSP Ken Macintosh denied he knew anything about it saying he was, “not close enough”.
Mr Macintosh, a member of the Scottish Labour shadow cabinet, was asked whether he had concerns about the controversial half million pound donation made to Better Together by Mr Taylor, whose company this week has been linked to a Serbian war criminal and paying illegal kickbacks to officials in Saddam Hussein’s former regime.
The Labour MSP replied: “I am not close enough to the campaign to know … I’ll go and have a look at this story afterwards.”
A hesitant Mr Macintosh, when pressed added: “Well, I would certainly want the Better Together campaign to make sure that the people donating to the campaign are … abiding by all the laws and are properly scrutinising but I’ve got no inside knowledge … I’m not close enough to the campaign to tell you that.”
Controversy surrounds the business dealings of Better Together’s biggest contributor after stories emerged detailing controversial business dealings carried out by his company Vitol.
Following the news of his £500,000 donation to the No campaign, newspaper articles resurfaced that cast doubt on the ethical nature of the company. It emerged in 2001 that Vitol had paid $1 million to Serbian war criminal Arkan, who according to the Guardian newspaper had helped fix a secret oil deal.
Arkan, who was heavily involved in organised crime, was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for war crimes which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians.
In 2007, Mr Taylor’s company also pled guilty to grand larceny in a New York court. Vitol had breached UN sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein, leading to fines of $17.5 million.
It also emerged last year that Vitol had paid some employees through a tax avoidance scheme, so-called Employee Benefit Trusts. The EBT scheme allowed the company to avoid paying tax on UK employees’ salaries. According to the Telegraph newspaper, Vitol is now engaged in negotiations with HMRC in order to reach a settlement on paying off the outstanding tax bill.
The revelations have led to SNP MP Angus Robertson calling on Better Together to hand the money back. Mr Robertson has also called on the anti-independence group to clarify whether its head Alistair Darling knew about the donation and whether he approved.
According to the Sunday Herald, Mr Taylor made the controversial donation of £500,000 to the Better Together campaign after a private meeting with Mr Darling on Lewis. Mr Darling has a holiday home on the island.
The Herald newspaper reported yesterday that despite attempts, both Mr Darling and his Labour MP colleague Douglas Alexander who has previously attacked the Conservatives over their acceptance of money from Mr Taylor, could not be contacted for comment.
Last September another Labour MP, John Mann, a member of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committe, accused Mr Taylor’s company of “backing corrupt regimes”.
Mr Mann’s criticism followed an episode in July 2012 that saw a subsidiary company of Vitol purchase a cargo of Iranian fuel oil, in what appeared to be a breach of the EU sanctions regime in place against Iran.
Although Vitol Oil admitted that it had allowed its subsidiary company in Bahrein to purchase the fuel, the company denied that there was any wrong-doing. Vitol Oil is a Swiss registered company and so was not legally bound by EU imposed sanctions.
The episode caused the Labour MP to accuse Vitol Oil of “immoral” trade and “backing corrupt regimes”. Mr Mann demanded that the Conservative party return donations it had received from Mr Taylor, describing them as “dirty money”.
SNP MP Angus Robertson said the Labour MP bore full responsibility for the donation. Commenting on Mr Darling’s silence and the comments from Labour MSP Ken Macintosh, he added:
“With these remarks from a senior Labour shadow cabinet member, we are seeing the first signs of the Labour Party distancing themselves from this inappropriate donation. It was after all a Labour MP, John Mann, who described Mr Taylor’s donations to the Tories as ‘dirty money’.
“Alistair Darling is the Chair of the No campaign, and he can no longer remain silent on this growing scandal.
“I am awaiting a reply from Mr Darling to my letter calling on him to hand this donation back pending a full internal investigation into the circumstances of the donation, and a pledge to make the findings public.
“Mr Darling met Mr Taylor before this donation was made, so he bears personal responsibility for it. We need to know if any of these issues – such as Vitol paying Serbian war criminal Arkan $1 million, avoiding UK tax through an ‘offshore pay scheme’ for over a decade, or the latest revelations about their dealings in the Congo – were discussed.
“And we need to know if Mr Darling approves of these activities – in terms of the tax avoidance issue, for example, he is a former Chancellor.
“The credibility of the No campaign and each of their constituent political parties – Labour, Tory and Lib Dem – is on the line.
“The reputational damage this is doing to the No campaign will far outweigh the value of the £500,000 donation from Mr Taylor. For his own sake as much as anything else, it is time for Mr Darling to do the right thing and hand this money back.”
In a further twist it has emerged that a House of Commons Treasury report published in 2009, revealed testimony that suggested Vitol companies registered in the UK “had actively assisted Congo […] to maintain its opaque offshore marketing scam”.
The Treasury report revealed that in 2006, a UK High Court judgement ruled that: “there is evidence that Vitol Group (that is, Vitol Broking, Vitol Services, Vitol SA and other companies in the Vitol Group) […] has played a role and a significant role in the dishonest judgment-proofing scheme”
However, last night Mr Darling broke cover and in a statement said he was “pleased” with the donation: “Ian has made clear his reasons for supporting Scotland as a strong part of the UK,” said Mr Darling.
“For our part, we are pleased to have his support and we think that people who care about Scotland should be able to speak out against the nationalists without facing these kind of personal attacks.”
In an uncomfortable follow up for the No campaign, Vitol’s Chief Executive Ian Taylor who donated the money to Better Together has sent a lawyer’s letter to Scottish Arts Website National Collective and the Herald newspaper.
The legal threat has resulted in the National Collective site being taken down. Aamer Anwar, Solicitor acting on their behalf stated: “National Collective have instructed my firm to act on their behalf, they state that they will not be bullied or silenced and state that their website is offline only as a temporary measure for a few days. A detailed and robust response will be issued early next week along with further questions for the ‘Better Together Campaign’ .”
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