Controversial Tory peer funds new scholarship

A new scholarship for undergraduate students at York is being funded by Lord Irvine Laidlaw of Rothiemay, a controversial Scottish businessman and leading donor to the Conservative Party.

Laidlaw’s tax exile status and hefty political donations have come under close scrutiny in the past, along with a high-profile tabloid scandal concerning his private life in 2008.

The University accepted Laidlaw’s invitation to join the Laidlaw Leadership and Research Scholarship Programme late last year, with the first cohort of scholarships to be awarded in May.

The University’s official Laidlaw Scholarship webpage describes the scholarship as “an exciting new programme that equips undergraduate students with the skills, knowledge and values to become the leaders of tomorrow in their chosen occupations”. Successful applicants will undertake a summer research project, and will participate in leadership training as well as receiving a scholarship award of around £6 000.

All University of York undergraduate students in their first or second year of study, in any discipline, will be eligible to apply. Several other UK higher education institutions also offer Laidlaw Scholarships, including the universities of Newcastle, St. Andrews, and Oxford.

Laidlaw made his multimillion-pound fortune by building an international conference organisation business, which was sold in 2005 for a reported £768m. Since the sale he has become a renowned philanthropist, making an extensive string of charitable donations through the now disbanded Laidlaw Youth Trust which supported disadvantaged young people in Scotland. Laidlaw has also made many significant donations to academic institutions, including the largest donation ever made to the University of Leeds (£9m) to support the development of an undergraduate library – now called the Laidlaw Library – which opened in May 2015.

Laidlaw’s financial aid also stretches into the political arena, most notably in the form of extremely large donations to the Conservative Party. In 2006, Laidlaw turned a £2.9m loan into a gift to the Conservatives, making him the largest donor to the party at the time. He additionally gave a £25 000 gift to Boris Johnson’s successful London mayoral election campaign in 2008, which attracted criticism when Johnson was late declaring the gift.

The Electoral Commission also revealed that between the years 2005-2010, Laidlaw’s company – Abbey Business Centres – donated £807 000 in cash and £540 887 in “non-cash” donations (such as providing rent-free buildings and other services) to the Tories. This contradicted a report in 2009 from David Mundell, the current Secretary of State for Scotland, that Laidlaw would not donate to political parties until he had “sorted out his tax issues”.

In 2008, a tabloid newspaper alleged that Laidlaw flew prostitutes from Britain to a £6 000 a night hotel in Monte Carlo (where Laidlaw resided at the time – some say to avoid UK taxes) for champagne-fuelled sex parties. One of the parties was said to include a 22-year-old Vogue model with cocaine being offered to guests, though the account stated that the drug was not taken by Laidlaw. The subsequent media furore led to Laidlaw publicly apologising and seeking treatment for sexual addiction. Laidlaw confessed: “I should have been stronger resisting temptations”.

Despite the media controversy, Laidlaw remained a member of the House of Lords until longstanding issues with his taxes came to a head in 2010. Though Laidlaw was made a life peer in 2004, his membership in the upper chamber was always fraught with concerns about his non-domicile tax status.

Laidlaw gave assurances to the House of Lords Appointments Commission that he would become a UK tax resident by April 2004, but this pledge never came to fruition. In 2010, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act forced Laidlaw to step down from the House of Lords in order to retain his non-domicile tax status.

The Tory peer also hit the news in 2013 when he auctioned off £17m worth of his prestigious classic car collection. One car – a unique 1957 Maserati 250S – sold for £2.128m. Laidlaw continues to make extravagant financial donations, with The Sunday Times Giving List 2016 reporting that in recent months he gave £11.2m worth of donations, mainly to educational beneficiaries.

Tom Banham, Director of Employability and Careers at the University of York, is quoted in the University’s official magazine for donors, Changing Lives, as saying: “Inspiring students to participate in programmes that accelerate development and enhance their employment prospects after York is more important than ever before.

“The Laidlaw Scholarship programme will allow us to build on the excellent reputation we have for instilling leadership qualities and values in our students. The programme will give extra recognition to 25 students who demonstrate fantastic leadership potential in their chosen field.”

The Changing Lives piece goes on to state: “York has long-valued the role of leadership in the development of a fully rounded student experience, and we are enormously grateful for the opportunity to offer these prestigious scholarships to University of York students.”

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