Ashcroft is a billionaire, a long-time tax-exile in Belize, and a former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party who has donated millions to the party. He was also a key supporter of the Brexit campaign.
Ashcroft’s connections with Belize are significant. It was in July 2015, during “a hard night drinking” with Ashcroft in San Pedro, Belize, that Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, along with Ashcroft’s fellow Belizean businessman Andy Wigmore, “resolved to start preparing immediately for the referendum campaign”.
In 2017 Ashcroft was ranked as the 95th richest person in the UK by the Sunday Times Rich List, with wealth estimated at £1.35 billion. He moved many of his interests to Belize in the early 1990s and his complex web of companies includes many that are registered there. He now exerts considerable influence on the small country, where – as the Economist reports – his holding companies control the country’s biggest bank, Belize Bank.
According to the Guardian, Ashcroft “encouraged local politicians to pass laws between 1990 and 1992 which set up flags of convenience, and secretive offshore ‘international business companies’ and trusts, in return for paying annual registration fees to the government.” This all helped create business for Ashcroft’s bank, to which the operation of Belize’s offshore registry was subcontracted. The newspaper quotes from a report into the resulting state of affairs by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA):
“Some members of the government and the business community are sceptical regarding the act’s real benefits to the country. They see some benefits going to lawyers and accountants associated with Belize Bank, but little benefit to the rest of the country. It is … a mechanism whereby illicit activities could be disguised by shrewd operators. The secrecy of information would allow drug traffickers freedom in establishment of companies under the IBC act to conceal or transfer drug proceeds. The confidentiality of companies, names, officers and account information makes it almost impossible … to investigate any allegations of illegal activities.”
In 1999, Labour MP Peter Bradley raised questions about Ashcroft in the House of Commons. He said:
“Mr Ashcroft is a man whom our former high commissioner in Belize, Mr. David Mackilligin, described last week as ‘an object of suspicion to governments in the area, especially the Americans who have to cope with constant war against drug-runners and money-launderers’.
“He cannot escape responsibility for establishing a system that makes Belize a much more tempting target for drug-runners than it would be and for resisting efforts to regulate it properly in order presumably to maximise his company’s profit.”
Ashscroft denied that he had any involvement in any illegal activities and brought a libel action against the Sunday Times, which had published a piece investigating his affairs. He claimed damages against the newspaper of up to £100m. The case was settled out of court and the newspaper was forced to publish a retraction. However, no damages were paid and nor did the newspaper pay Ashcroft’s costs.
Ashcroft has been one of the biggest donors to the Conservative Party in recent history, transferring donations of £5.1m between 2003 and 2008 via his company Bearwood Corporate Services. These donations, which involved a complex series of transactions through offshore companies, were the subject of an investigation by the Electoral Commission. It found no law had been broken. However, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott warned: “Democracy is in danger if Lord Ashcroft has been pouring millions into Conservative campaigns through an offshore pipeline from a Caribbean tax haven.”
Ashcroft’s business practices in the UK have also come in for intense criticism. In 2003, a High Court Judge said of the tactics he had used during the takeover of another company:
“It is the kind of thing which brings the City into disrepute … the purpose of the City is to raise finance to enable companies to develop businesses for their own and the country’s well-being. Where matters are dealt with in speculation and profits are made, which are then gathered offshore, when there is no merit and no exposure to the kind of risks associated with companies, that to my mind is not legitimate.” He also criticised Ashcroft’s failure to come to court to give evidence, saying the aim had been to reveal “as little as possible about the Ashcroft empire and its connections”.
Ashcroft has a particular dislike of the regulations the EU places on business. The day before the referendum in 2016, he warned that “damaging new rules are already planned concerning ports, the art market, online television, electrical appliances and VAT. ” As it happens, in 2010 Ashcroft had been accused of avoiding VAT on opinion polls he commissioned for the Conservatives by paying for these through a company he owned in Belize.
Being resident in Belize has not been without its downside for Ashcroft. He was initially rejected for a peerage in 1999 by the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee on the grounds that he spent most of his time abroad in Belize and Florida and conducted almost all of his financial affairs overseas. When he was made a Conservative peer the following year, Ashcroft made a written undertaking giving his “clear and unequivocal assurance” that he had decided to take up “permanent residence in the UK again before the end of this calendar year”. However, in 2010 he was forced to admit that he had not in fact done this and was still a “non-dom”.
He promised at that time that he would finally be taking up residence in the UK – a change in the law would have required him to give up his peerage otherwise. But documents leaked in the Paradise Papers scandal of 2017 showed that Ashcroft remained a domicile of Belize even after 2010. They also showed that he had been receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in payments from an offshore trust in Bermuda.
By this time, however, Ashcroft had retired from the Lords, saying that “my other activities do not permit me to devote the time that membership of the Lords properly requires”.