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‘Dark money’ group behind £30,000 in donations to Wales Secretary revealed

06 Mar 2021 5 minutes Read
Simon Hart (left) by Chris McAndrew (CC BY 3.0).

Wales Secretary Simon Hart has declared over £30,000 in donations from a ‘dark money’ group registered at a home of a landowning family “descended from aristocracy”, an investigation by Nation.Cymru has found.

The register of MPs’ interests shows that Hart received £7,000 from the “Landsker Business Club” last month, which comes on top of four more donations worth £26,000 from the group since 2015.

The group is one of a dozen local ‘business clubs’ which have given almost half a million pounds to the Conservative party and its politicians over the past 15 years, according to Electoral Commission records.

They form part of a network of ‘dark money’ donor clubs which act as an intermediary for wealthy Conservative supporters who want to give cash to the party while remaining anonymous.

Funding from “dark money” groups like the Landsker Business Club is entirely legal but Transparency International says “it shows the rules aren’t achieving their aim: providing transparency and probity over the origins of money in politics.”

“Trust in politics is already rock bottom, anonymous cash from Business Clubs sloshing into political campaigns just makes things worse,” Unlock Democracy director Tom Brake, a former Liberal Democrat MP, told Nation.Cymru.

Nation.Cymru asked the Secretary of State for Wales for comment, but he did not respond.

‘Cap’

Like most of these groups, the Landsker Business Club doesn’t have a website publicising its activities, membership terms or contact details. One of the only traces of the Club’s existence online is a 2014 advert, placed by “Adrian”, calling for logo designs.

But Electoral Commission records show the club is registered at a farm in Pembrokeshire which, according to Companies House filings, is owned by Adrian Lort-Phillips.

He is a director of two property firms run by the Lort-Phillips family, which is reportedly “descended from the aristocracy” and “can trace their ancestry back to Viscount Cobhamand”.

The family are currently in the process of redeveloping the site of their former mansion, Lawrenny Castle, into a housing estate which residents fear will be used as holiday homes.

Adrian Lort-Phillips is not the first in the family to have a connection with the Conservative party. They have owned Pembrokeshire’s Lawrenny Estate since 1851 when it was inherited by George Lort-Phillips, who was a Conservative MP.

Although another member of the family, Patrick Lort-Phillips, later stood for the Liberals in Ebbw Vale.

The family also share a connection to fox hunting with Simon Hart. The Carmarthen West and Pembrokeshire South MP was master of the Cressely Hunt between 1988 and 1998, a position formerly held by a Colonel Lort Phillips of Lawrenny, according to the Hunt’s website.

Hart went on to become the chief executive of the Countryside Alliance and continued to work for the hunting lobbyists as an MP. Hart received up to £30,000 a year to act as a consultant for the Countryside Alliance between 2013 and 2019 and only stood down as chair of the organisation when he was made Wales Secretary.

Unlock Democracy say there’s a “simple solution” to the issue of ‘dark money’ groups. “MPs already have to declare every individual donation over £1500 – apply the same rule to donations from Business Clubs,” said Brake.

“It doesn’t stop anyone donating, but it does mean everyone gets to know who they are, and their motivation. And if you add an annual cap of £5,000 the ability to buy influence is greatly reduced too.”

Not only has Hart received money from the Landsker Business Club, but a charity newsletter from December states that “Simon Hart sent in £200 from Landsker Business Club”.

‘Hollowing out’

The Lort-Phillips family are in the process of redeveloping part of their estate into a £10 million housing development comprising 39 homes, seven of which will be affordable.

It was given planning permission in 2019 despite concerns among councillors and residents over the number of affordable housing and holiday homes.

“Members expressed regret that a greater number of affordable properties had not been provided,” state minutes of a Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority planning meeting considering the development on the “former Mansion Site.”

In an objection to the plans, Lawrenny resident Stephen Oates also warned: “Recent experience demonstrates that up to 50% of all new houses built in the village are purchased as second homes.”

Another Lawrenny resident wrote: “This development is being built to quench the thirst for second homes in the area.”

Adrian Lort-Phillips says though that the development should be seen as part of a fight back against the “hollowing out” of rural communities in Wales.

“We hope our growing community can demonstrate to others that a rural way of life, supported by busy, working rural centres such as Lawrenny, is part of the future of the countryside, not of the past”, he told the Western Telegraph when the scheme won planning permission.

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