Ex-Labour MPs and Panama: close but no cigar

The defection of seven backbench Labour MPs to form a new association calling itself “The Independent Group” has caused a few ripples in the mainstream media, albeit with a “funny tinged” faux pas. This isn’t a political blog so I won’t get into an analysis of the politics (although I’ll declare an interest here and say I’m a Labour member). What I will be addressing here are some of the myths that are already circulating about the group’s website and company registration.

A few internet sleuths have been looking up The Independent Group’s website domain registration, using a tool called Whois. They have discovered that details about the group’s website, theindependent.group, have been redacted and there is a mention of Panama. Understandably enough, particularly following the Panama Papers scandal that exposed industrial-scale tax evasion, people have assumed that The Independent Group have something big to hide.

What’s in a name?

Unfortunately it isn’t quite the smoking gun that these people think it is. The domain name was created and purchased through a domain registration company called Namecheap Inc. This is a perfectly legitimate company that anyone can use to register a website name (I have bought a couple of domains through them myself over the years). Buying a *.group web domain through them costs the princely sum of £7.77 (plus VAT) at current exchange rates.

Now here’s the thing. Anyone can look up the name, address, email and phone number of the owner of any website through Whois. A lot of website owners aren’t comfortable with this, especially as there are a lot of spammers, scammers and stalkers out there who abuse the system, so Namecheap offers an additional service called WhoisGuard. This anonymises the details and is based in… Panama. It doesn’t mean that the website itself is registered in Panama. Note also that anyone who needs to contact the website owner to serve a notice can still contact them via the abuse@namecheap.com address.

Of course it’s legitimate to ask why a political group feels the need to hide behind an anonymisation service but it simply isn’t true that funds can be secretly squirrelled away in offshore accounts via this facility. All that is being hidden here is the contact details for a website domain registration that costs less than £8 per year.

So the Panama connection isn’t really a smoking gun, it’s just an easy assumption to make when you don’t understand how website registration works. Tell your friendly neighbourhood tinfoil hat wearer that it’s more like a clown’s gun with a flag that says “Bang!”

Another myth that has spread about the website is that it was registered in 2015. This is completely false. As you can see on the screenshot of the Whois record, it was actually registered on 10 February, 2019.

Mover and Shuker

The Independent Group is currently operated through a private company called Gemini A Ltd, which at the moment is owned solely by Gavin Shuker MP (one of the original seven defectors). It was created on 16 January 2019, as you can see from the Companies House record.

It is registered at 3rd Floor, 1 Ashley Road, Altrincham, Cheshire, United Kingdom, WA14 2DT, which turns out to be above a Wetherspoon’s pub. This is just a correspondence address and there are 200 companies registered there, according to Companies House. It’s not actually clear at the time of writing whether JD Wetherspoon plc owns the entire building or simply owns or rents the ground floor. It doesn’t particularly matter either way, however, as maildrop facilities of this kind are a fairly common and perfectly legal operation.

The Independent Group’s registered address is in an office above this Wetherspoon’s pub, The Unicorn, in Altrincham. (Google)

So this is a private limited company, which is registered in the UK. There is nothing wrong with that as such. What is rather more controversial is that “The Independent Group” is operating as a private company and isn’t registered as a political party, which means that it isn’t subject to the same scrutiny by the Electoral Commission and by Parliament as a registered political party would be. A private limited company does have to publish accounts but as this is such a new company, it is under no obligation to publish accounts for quite a while. This is where people need to focus their attention if they want to scrutinise exactly what this group of MPs is up to.

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