Ashcroft asked questions in Lords about tropical idylls

Author: By Andy McSmith

In April and May, the billionaire deputy chairman of the Conservative Party submitted written questions to ministers about government and EU aid to Belize, in Central America, where he made a large part of his fortune.

He also asked whether any officials from the British Treasury had visited the Caribbean islands of Turks and Caicos in the previous six months. The peer’s role in the Turks and Caicos Islands is to be raised on Monday in the House of Commons.

“I have got questions about the role of Lord Ashcroft in the Turks and Caicos Islands and we need an unequivocal and unambiguous answer from David Cameron about his status and potential role in the future,” Mike Gapes, chairman of the all-party Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said yesterday.

An investigation by the committee headed by Mr Gapes eventually resulted in Britain reimposing direct rule on Turks and Caicos Islands, after allegations of corruption had been levelled at the former prime minister, Michael Misick. While Lord Ashcroft and his businesses are not suspected of any wrongdoing, Mr Gapes plans to use the foreign affairs debate in the Commons on Monday to ask questions about his political influence in the region.

Lord Ashcroft is not a habitual attender of House of Lords debates and has made one speech there in just under three years. According to the official record he has visited the Lords on average on 34 or 35 days of each year since he was awarded a life peerage in 2000. He has never claimed expenses.

He has tabled 41 written questions in three years ? far fewer than the average MP, but more than most peers. Six of the last 12 have been about the Caribbean, and another 15 were about whaling. Lord Ashcroft has campaigned to persuade Caribbean governments not to support Japan’s application to be allowed to hunt minke whales.

In April, he asked if any Treasury officials had been to the Bahamas, Bermuda or Turks and Caicos Islands, “and if so, on what dates and for what purposes”. In March, he asked for a list of the Government’s current aid projects to Belize, and what plans the Government has for Airport Camp, Belize.

As disclosed in the House of Commons Register of Members’ Interests, Lord Ashcroft’s firm, Flying Lion, paid for William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, to pay a five-day visit to six countries, including Belize and Turks and Caicos Islands in April 2007. Flying Lion also paid for flights to the Turk and Caicos Islands by the shadow International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell in November 2007, and by Michael Ancram, the former shadow Foreign Secretary, and the Tory MP Mark Simmonds in November 2004.

Lord Ashcroft has made five speeches in the Lords in nine years. In his first, he urged that Britain must retain a military presence in the Caribbean to protect its former colonies, including Turks and Caicos Islands, where he declared he had business interests. He last spoke in December 2008, in a foreign affairs debate. Before that, he had not made a speech since November 2006, when he criticised the legislation which bans political parties from receiving donations from abroad.

Lord Ashcroft had a condition attached to the award of his peerage, in which he was told that he had to make the UK his permanent home for tax purposes by the end of 2000. Michael Oakeshott, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman in the Lords, is planning to introduce legislation in January that would force every peer to choose between paying UK taxes or giving up their seats in the House of Lords.

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