John Swinney has been urged to investigate how Covid support grants can be clawed back from independence activists in Angus who were coached by an SNP officer to apply for them to raise funds “for the indy cause”.
Mr Swinney, who serves a dual role as Covid recovery secretary and deputy first minister, has also been asked to use his influence as a prominent independence campaigner to encourage the activists “to do the right thing” and return the cash.
We revealed on Tuesday how Brechin Blether In and Forfar Blether In, community Yes hubs that operate independently from the SNP, received £10,000 each from Angus Council after being encouraged to apply by Tim Rideout – the director of a maps company who has been tasked with establishing a currency policy for the SNP.
The activists say they were entitled to claim the cash but have been accused of “trousering” money set aside for struggling firms after we reported how Dr Rideout coached campaigners to apply for the “free gift” for the independence cause.
Do the right thing
Scottish Conservative North East MSP Maurice Golden, who has led calls for the two hubs to return the money, has now written to Mr Swinney asking him to set out what official action can be taken to recover the funds.
Mr Golden wrote: “During the darkest days of the pandemic employers all over Scotland struggled to stay afloat. Small firms were especially vulnerable and support funding was a lifeline for many.
“Sadly not everyone was eligible for help, so you can imagine how frustrating it must be for those in genuine need who were turned away to see a political campaign receive those funds instead.
“As cabinet secretary for Covid recovery, I would be grateful if you would set out what official action can be taken to recover the funds in this case.
“Should official action not be possible, I would ask you, as a respected figure in the independence movement, to encourage the hubs to do the right thing and return the funds.”
Mr Golden said this approach would be in keeping with the precedent set by SNP branches in Arbroath and Montrose after they were caught applying for Covid support funds they were not entitled to.
It seems separatists all over Angus were trousering support funds meant for hard pressed employers.
First it was SNP branches in Arbroath & Montrose. Now nationalist campaign hubs in Brechin & Forfar have been caught at it.
— Maurice Golden (@mgoldenmsp) September 14, 2021
We reported previously how the two branches were ordered to pay back £20,000 of business support because rules in Scotland do not permit grants to political parties.
Meanwhile, a legal loophole in England allowed 15 Conservative associations and seven constituency Labour parties to claim hundreds of thousands of pounds in financial help – even as millions of ordinary people were frozen out.
Mr Swinney did not respond to a request for comment on Mr Golden’s letter and would not say whether he believes the two Angus hubs should return the money.
Instead, a Scottish Government spokesman, responding more than eight hours later, said local authorities are responsible for determining whether businesses are eligible to receive grant funding based on government guidance.
He added: “It is wholly a matter for the local authority to recover funds if they believe they have been misawarded.”
We reported previously how Dr Rideout, who was at the time an ordinary member but has now taken a place on the SNP’s national policy development committee, asked for a “wee donation” to the Scottish Currency Group if independence activists were able to successfully claim £10,000 with his help.
Dr Rideout is convener of the group, which describes itself as “people working towards the introduction of a Scottish currency as soon as practicable after Independence Day”, but says no donation was ever made.
A free gift
Forfar Blether In received £10,000 after one of its members, Bill Golden, responded to a post by Dr Rideout on the Scottish Currency Group Facebook page asking whether they could still apply despite paying “zero” because of small business bonus relief.
During the conversation, Dr Rideout boasted of raising tens of thousands of pounds “for the indy cause” from the “free gift of £10,000” being handed out to Yes groups, while Mr Golden gloated about “Westminster money helping us get rid of Westminster”.
Mr Golden would not say what the £10,000 was spent on or whether the Forfar hub will return the cash. He said Angus Council looked again at the hub’s application after concerns were raised earlier this year and found it met “all the criteria necessary”.
Brechin Blether In received their £10,000 after Mr Golden said he would pass the information to Angus SNP councillor Kenny Braes.
Mr Braes, who represents the Brechin and Edzell ward, told us that while he is involved with the Brechin Blether In, he did not submit the application and could not recall whether he had passed the details on to another individual to apply.
He sought to distance himself from the comments of Bill Golden and Dr Rideout about claiming the funds for the independence cause but maintained it was appropriate for the Brechin hub to use the grant to cover a loss of income from its small retail element and donations during the pandemic.