Tories accused over alleged failure to declare use of 'free' office space as donation

Conservative Party in West Midlands faces inquiry over alleged failure to declare use of facilities as donation

The Conservative Party in the West Midlands is at the centre of an Electoral Commission inquiry after allegedly failing to declare donations of free office space worth tens of thousands of pounds. It has been accused of using facilities paid for by a separate, right-wing campaign organisation for three years but of failing to declare this as a donation.

The commission, the political spending watchdog, last week confirmed that it is "reviewing" a complaint sent by Labour MP John Mann. He has claimed that the Tories have used offices in a manor house run by Coleshill Campaigning Services (CCS), a body which campaigns on behalf of the party but does not have to declare any expenditure.

The disclosure will reignite a fierce debate over the Tories' use of donor-funded commercial organisations such as CCS to avoid strict laws on party funding. Labour claims that the Tories use bodies such as CCS to spend unlimited sums on campaigning and elections. Mann, MP for Bassetlaw, said yesterday that the commission's inquiry will examine evidence that the party is hiding its donors from public scrutiny.

"Evidence that the CCS and the West Midlands Conservatives shared an office seems to fly in the face of the recent report that these organisations operated separately. But more importantly, where is the donation for the West Midlands Conservative office space in their Electoral Commission register?" he asked.

Last October the commission cleared the party of receiving or failing to report discounts from CCS following a two-year investigation. The allegation of undeclared rent was not included in the original inquiry.

The office space allegedly used by Tory officials is in Coleshill Manor, a stately home in a business park owned by wealthy Tory supporter Robert Edmiston. Edmiston's company, IM Properties, picked up the rent for CCS - worth around £80,000 a year.

Inquiries by the Observer have established that two directors of the West Midlands Conservatives can be contacted in Coleshill Manor, according to their personal assistant.

This newspaper contacted Sandra Gillett, PA to regional director Carys Parry, last month. She said she was based in Coleshill Manor, as was Parry. She also confirmed that West Midlands Tory treasurer Phillip King had a desk there with a direct telephone line. Simon Jevon, campaign director for Birmingham and the Black Country, is also based there, according to the party's website.

The West Midlands regional office is a key part of the Conservative party. It is the largest division outside Central Office and the only one of 12 Tory European Parliament regions with an income of more than £25,000 a year.

An Electoral Commission spokesman said that the body is reviewing the original investigation in light of new allegations.

A Conservative official said: "The West Midlands Regional Accounting Unit is a registered accounting unit and not a physical office and therefore does not occupy or use any premises. It is therefore not liable to pay rent."


Rajeev Syal and Charles Young

The GuardianTramp

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