By a Newsnet reporter
Labour MSP Johann Lamont has been urged to clarify whether she agrees with a Labour MP who described donations from a Conservative supporting businessman, who has given £500,000 to the Better Together campaign, as “dirty money”.
In a letter to the Scottish Labour leader, SNP MP Angus Robertson has demanded she give her views on comments made by Labour MP John Mann after she claimed to be unaware of them in an interview.
Responding to questions posed by Radio Scotland presenter David Miller who asked if she agreed with a decision by the anti-independence campaign Better Together to keep a £500,000 donation from businessman Ian Taylor, the Scottish Labour leader replied: “I am quite happy to say to you that the money should not be returned.”
However asked to comment on quotes given to a national newspaper by fellow MP John Mann who recently demanded the Conservative party return a similar donation it had received from the same businessman – labelling it “dirty money” – Ms Lamont claimed not to be aware of Mr Mann’s comments.
Now in a letter to the Scottish Labour leader, SNP MP Angus Robertson who has been pressing the Better Together campaign to return the cash, has asked Ms Lamont to clarify whether she agrees with Mr Mann and other Labour figures who have expressed disquiet over the donation.
In his letter Mr Robertson writes: “On Friday morning, you said that you didn’t know whether a Labour MP described Mr Taylor’s donations to the Tories as ‘dirty money’, while later on in another interview you described the donation as ‘appropriate’.
“In fact, to quote the Daily Telegraph of 26 September 2012: ‘Vitol was accused of “immoral” trade and “backing corrupt regimes” by John Mann MP, a Labour member of the Treasury Select Committee, who demanded that the Tory party hand back the “dirty money” it had received from Mr Taylor.’
“Now that you are aware of this, do you agree with Mr Mann that the Tories should hand back their donations from Mr Taylor? And if you do agree with your Labour colleague, how can you possibly regard Mr Taylor’s donation to the No campaign as ‘appropriate’? “
Mr Robertson also highlighted recent legal threats against news outlets by Mr Taylor and Vitol that led to one website being taken offline:
He added: “In addition, do you agree with Mr Taylor’s threats to take legal action against media outlets that have reported disturbing facts about Vitol – such as them giving $1 million to Serbian warlord Arkan?”
In his letter, Mr Robertson pointed to comments from one of Ms Lamont’s own MSPs, Elaine Smith who said suspicious donations should be handed back.
“Your own Holyrood colleague, Labour MSP Elaine Smith, said that while she had not studied details of the donation, it should be ‘closely looked at’. She said: ‘I think if there’s anything suspicious in any way at all about donations then of course they should be handed back.’
“This goes to the very heart of the credibility of the No campaign – the people of Scotland want a fair referendum, and are therefore entitled to some clear and consistent answers from you on this matter.”
The row over the donation has been rumbling on for almost two weeks after controversial business dealings by a company headed by Ian Taylor were highlighted after the businessman was revealed to be the biggest backer of the anti-independence campaign Better Together.
Days after Better Together revealed Mr Taylor as their biggest donor, details emerged relating to his company Vitol, which opponents claimed brought the acceptance of the donation into question.
It emerged that the company had paid $1 million to a former war criminal in order to secure an oil deal. In another episode Vitol was revealed to have been fined $17.5 million after pleading guilty in the USA to charges of grand larceny relating to allegations of sanctions busting and payments to officials in former dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Better Together has refused to hand back the money given to it by the Vitol Chief Executive with Labour MP Alistair Darling, who heads the No campaign, saying he was “pleased” to have the support of the Conservative party backer.
However former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish has expressed his own concerns over the donation saying: “Labour has to be clear about whether this is the type of finance we want in the campaign…We need absolute transparency. We have to be very careful about what kind of money should be used. The unionist campaign has got to respond to legitimate questions and the criticism that’s been put forward.”