Five parties accept illegal donations, exposing flaws in foreign-influence rules

Conservatives, SNP, Reform, Lib Dems and Greens took payments arranged by TBIJ from donor not on electoral roll

Five of the UK’s six main political parties accepted illegal donations made on behalf of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), exposing how easy it is to bypass laws meant to limit improper influence by foreign donors.

TBIJ arranged a series of multiple small payments to each of the six major parties. The payments were individually less than £500 – the lower limit of the legal definition of a political donation – but passed that threshold once added together.

Labour was the only party to correctly identify and block the money. The Conservatives, Reform UK, Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Scottish National Party (SNP) all failed to bar or return the payments.

When approached with TBIJ’s findings, parties disagreed about whether they were required to spot the donations or report them to the Electoral Commission, highlighting the confusion around the rules.

Experts said the findings show “deeply concerning” flaws in party donations processes as well as the “Swiss cheese” nature of rules intended to ensure fair elections and prevent foreign influence.

Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA), a political donation from an individual can only be made by someone on the UK electoral roll.

PPERA rules cover donations of £500 or more and state that parties must return impermissible payments within 30 days. If they fail to do so, they should raise the incident with the Electoral Commission.

Guidance by the Electoral Commission says that parties should look for donors attempting to circumvent the law by making multiple smaller payments. The regulator’s website states: “You must be alert to situations where it appears that a donor is attempting to evade PPERA. It is an offence to attempt to evade the controls on donations.”

The commission’s guidance on crowdfunding states that parties should ensure their records are maintained in a way that enables them “to ascertain if multiple donations have come from the same source”.

TBIJ asked an overseas resident who is neither British nor on the UK electoral roll to make a series of smaller payments totalling £525 to the six parties via their websites. The payments were all made within a few days in May using a foreign bank card. The donor was not asked to confirm that they were on the electoral roll and the parties did not appear to check.

Approached for comment the Lib Dems said: “We follow the law […] Where ineligible donations are received, we return them to the donor within 30 days. Our monitoring system has identified and returned £18,150 to donors as ineligible during 2024 and £5,000 was forwarded to the Electoral Commission.”

But Gavin Millar KC, an expert in election law, told TBIJ that it is a criminal offence for someone to knowingly accept illegal donations to a political party and a civil offence to do so without knowing. “The system of self-policing these donations has never really worked,” he said. “You are leaving it to the beneficiary to check.”

In cases of people making small donations adding up to more than £500 he said: “It is an offence under PPERA s.61 for any person knowingly to further an arrangement which facilitates the making of donations other than a permissible donor.

“Any political party that doesn’t look out for this sort of scam or doesn’t report such suspicions is going against the spirit of the Act. And if the party staff knowingly accept over £500 in small donations from a single impermissible donor (saying and doing nothing) they are also, of course, at risk of committing the offence themselves. Or being an accessory to the donor’s offence.

“They can turn a blind eye or say [it is] not our job to do it, but this just goes to [show] how absurd it is to have the beneficiaries of the money policing the system.”

Labour allowed the donor to make payments totalling £456 but blocked a final donation that would have taken the total to £525.

The only other party that acknowledged the receipt of a cumulative sum over £500 was Reform, which asked for the donor’s full name and address in order “to do the necessary checks” to comply with the law.

The donor supplied a UK address that had been purchased for £22 online. Reform did not make any further inquiries and did not return the money.

None of the other parties returned any of the money donated or raised any further queries within the 30-day time limit.

Susan Hawley, executive director of Spotlight on Corruption, said: “The next government urgently needs to beef up the Electoral Commission, close the gap in criminal enforcement and strengthen the UK’s Swiss cheese electoral laws to prevent foreign and undue influence.

“That must include political parties being put under legal obligation to do proper checks on donations – and face significant consequences where they fail to do so.”

Responding to requests for comment, the Green Party said it has reported itself to the Electoral Commission over the breach, which it said took place “when we were in the process of changing over our payment systems … We are confident that the systems we have in place will be able to spot these types of donations in the future.”

The SNP said it has “reported individuals to the Electoral Commission who may have conspired to breach the rules on permissible donations”, but did not say if this was before or after TBIJ alerted the party to the issue. The Lib Dems told TBIJ it “follows the law”, while the Conservatives and Reform did not comment.

An Electoral Commission spokesperson said: “Political parties are required to follow the political finance laws when it comes to checking and reporting donations. Under the regime, the responsibility is on parties to ensure the permissibility of donations over £500 and report any impermissible donations they receive.

“The laws are in place to maintain the integrity of the system, and we publish this information for transparency. Where we have evidence that the laws are not being followed, we will consider it in line with our enforcement policy.”

Reporters: Eleanor Rose, Simon Lock and Lucy Nash
Deputy editor: Katie Mark
Impact producer: Lucy Nash
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editor: Alex Hess
Fact checker: Jasper Jackson

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