The Institute of Economic Affairs is facing two official investigations after it emerged that the thinktank offered potential US donors access to UK government ministers as it raised cash for research to promote free-trade deals demanded by hardline Brexiters.
The Charity Commission announced on Monday that it had opened a regulatory compliance case into the IEA on the basis of concerns about its political independence. Whitehall’s lobbying tsar, Alison White, also said she will examine whether the free market think tank should be registered as a lobbyist.
The two investigations were announced following an undercover investigation by Unearthed, an arm of Greenpeace, which found that in May the IEA arranged for US donors who pledged to donate £35,000 to have a private meeting with Steve Baker MP, when he was Brexit minister. Its director Mark Littlewood was also covertly filmed promising introductions to ministers for an investigator posing as a representative of a US farming investor who was considering donating to the IEA.
A spokesman for Baker said that any suggestion he would attend meetings because “access” to him was being sold was entirely false and that Baker “met US Republicans in his political capacity to discuss trade relations between the two countries”.
Lobbyists are expected to list their clients and any contact with ministers or senior civil servants. The IEA, which is an educational charity, does not routinely declare its donors, which are known to include tobacco, oil, alcohol and gambling companies or associations.
It also emerged on Monday that the casino industry donated £8,000 to the IEA after it published a report calling for more casinos. The National Casino Forum confirmed it checked facts from the report and an internal document seen by the Guardian suggests the forum had agreed to fund the report as a way of getting its message across through the IEA.
The IEA said industry does not have “any sway or influence on the conclusions we come to in our research”. It said no one outside the think tank saw a draft of the casino report or made any changes prior to publication.
The thinktank’s director, Mark Littlewood, had previously told Unearthed’s undercover investigator that a donor could fund and shape “substantial content” in research reports commissioned by the IEA, that would support calls for a free-trade deal between the UK and the US.
The investigation by the Charity Commission raises questions about the IEA’s charitable status which means it enjoys tax breaks on its £2.3m annual expenditure. Charity regulations state that “an organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political”.
A Charity Commission spokeswoman said the allegations raised by the Unearthed investigation and reported in the Guardian were “of a serious nature”.
“Educational charities can play…