Michael Ashcroft

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’.

Bradley went on to write, in a letter that appeared in The Times: 

“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”.

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Owen Paterson

Owen Paterson is a former cabinet minister, climate change “sceptic” and hard-line Brexiter.

A regulation burner through and through, he has spent much of his political life railing against “EU red tape”, seeing this as an integral part of his neo-liberal Thatcherite ideology. Paterson’s war on “red tape” has dovetailed neatly with his refusal to accept well-established climate science.  He opposes government support for renewable energy but backs fracking to the hilt, and when his views on climate change have been challenged he has trotted out myth after discredited myth.

He appears to have used his role as Environment Secretary in Cameron’s government as an opportunity to wage ideological war on the environment. As George Monbiot has observed, it was Paterson who:

“insisted on a mass cull of badgers against scientific advice, who stripped away the last regulations protecting the soil from erosion, who believed that “the purpose of waterways is to get rid of water,” who sought to turn our rivers into featureless gutters, and who championed the pesticides that appear to be destroying bees and other animals.”

Bizarrely, he has claimed that “we will use taking back control of our borders to better protect our native fauna and flora”, giving as examples protection against “the signal crayfish and the alien grey squirrel”. Both species were introduced from America, a country Paterson says will offer a “very big and exciting” new trade deal.

Owen Paterson claims to be one of three founding MPs of the Vote Leave referendum campaign group who developed the “take back control” of our laws, money and  borders message. Along with “hard” Brexiters such as Farage, Banks and Tice, he sees a “no deal WTO rules” Brexit as desirable, saying that “it is an ineluctable certainty that we’re going to end up with WTO at the end of this.”

He also believes that “an abrupt departure from the EU would give the UK the opportunity to strike trade deals with fast-growing economies outside the EU and would generate reduced food prices, since the UK would no longer have to impose the EU’s high tariffs against non-EU agricultural goods.” The NFU’s policy director Martin Haworth has described this as “the absolute nightmare scenario” for British farmers:

“We’d be outside the EU, we’d lose access to the single market, we’d have lower tariff barriers so food prices would drop and farmers’ prices would come down, and our farmers wouldn’t be subsidised, whereas our competitors would be, both in Europe and in large parts of the world.”

Paterson stunned a meeting of Cameron’s coalition cabinet by suggesting that EU workers who currently do much hard and essential farming work in Britain should be replaced by pensioners. He claimed they would be happy to pick fruit and vegetables for less than the minimum wage. One Whitehall official, reported his cabinet colleague David Laws, “tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a laugh”.

Paterson’s comments have frequently, as the Independent observes, “caused some degree of bafflement and derision.”

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Richard Tice

🔥Richard Tice is a multi-millionaire property developer and co-founder with Arron Banks of Leave.EU. Since the referendum, he has continued to push for a hard Brexit as co-chair of Leave Means Leave.

Tice is CEO of the asset management group Quidnet Capital LLP, which has around £500 million of property under management. The company’s website boasts that he “has over 27 years experience in international real estate markets covering physical property, corporate activity, financing and distressed debt in both the quoted and unquoted sectors”. It also notes that Tice “ran his own distressed debt advisory business until late 2009”.

“Distressed debt” is a branch of what many see as “vulture capitalism“, and involves buying up companies that have run into trouble, often because of dire economic conditions. The Guardian has described how this typically works:

“The funds circle struggling firms and buy their debt at a discount to gain control of the business. Usually hedge funds or proprietary desks at large investment banks, the funds may turn their debt into equity in a restructuring, gaining a stake or full control of the firm, or sell the assets in a liquidation, receiving a higher price for the debt than they paid for it.”

Many might think that the economic chaos caused by Brexit will create the ideal conditions for “distressed debt” specialists such as Tice.

Tice, however, prefers to maintain that Brexit is a revolt against the “metropolitan liberal elite” who are “completely oblivious to the concerns of millions of hard-working British families across the country”.

Tice
Extract from Private Eye

Some of Tice’s property developments have attracted unfavourable attention. With the Earl of Bathurst, he is a director of Bathurst Development Limited, which plans to build thousands of houses on the edge of Cirencester, increasing the size of the town by 40%. Land for the proposed Chesterton development is held by a trust registered in Bermuda – a tax haven – enabling Bathurst Development to avoid paying a very large amount of capital gains tax on the scheme. Lord Bathurst has defended this dodge by saying that when the avoided tax is spread across the UK to the Outer Hebrides “it won’t be very much”.

Until 2014, Tice was CEO of CLS Holdings. One of its lucrative projects (before Tice became CEO) was a major leisure/retail development in Vauxhall that was warmly supported by Tice’s fellow Brexit cheerleader, the constituency’s Labour MP Kate Hoey. Tice’s friendship with Hoey goes back 20 years, according to Arron Banks’ book.  He led two major planning applications for over 1.5 million sq ft of property in Vauxhall, including for two 50-storey residential towers.

As co-chair of Leave Means Leave, Tice has urged Theresa May’s government not to agree any kind of transitional arrangement with the EU, which he claims is “completely unnecessary”, and demanded that the UK leave the Single Market “no later than two years after triggering Article 50”. In December 2017 he co-wrote an open letter to May’s Cabinet insisting that it must “break with EU red tape”, and that “it should be non-negotiable that the UK is free to diverge from EU rules and regulations when it leaves the EU on March 29th 2019.”

In June 2017 Tice announced that he was setting up a new, £100m investment trust. “I would have done [this] had Brexit not happened,” he said. “But for all the doomsayers who think the world is going to end, I think the opportunities are growing.”

For certain types of ultra-wealthy investor, there’s little doubt that Brexit will offer very rich pickings indeed.

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Arron Banks

Arron Banks

💰🇷🇺Banks is the original self-styled “Bad Boy of Brexit”. A Bristol-based businessman with extensive, documented, offshore interests, he is the co-founder of the controversial Leave.EU campaign. Banks says he contributed almost £9m in cash, loans and services to pro-Brexit causes – one of the biggest single donors to the Leave campaign and possibly the biggest donation to a political cause in British history.

OpenDemocracy has undertaken detailed research into Banks’s financial affairs, concluding that, “the value of his businesses are materially lower than Banks’ own inflated boasts” and questioning how he could afford such huge contributions to the Leave campaign.

Banks’ complicated financial arrangements are partly carried out through companies located in various tax havens, including Gibraltar, the British Virgin Islands and the Isle of Man (where he owns a bank with Jim Mellon). In the UK, Companies House records appear to show that Banks has set up 37 different companies using slight variations of his name. All this makes it hard to ascertain the origins of the money that he was able to pass on to the Brexit campaign.

In 2013, scrutiny by financial regulators in Gibraltar found Banks’ underwriting business Southern Rock to have reserves below the legally required minimum.

In 2015 Banks founded Better for the Country Ltd, a company aimed at promoting Brexit. This is Leave.EU’s official company name in Companies House records. OpenDemocracy has reported that its board includes, alongside Banks himself, Andy Wigmore, Elizabeth Bilney and Alison Marshall – all active in the Leave campaign. All of them were also trustees of Banks’ charity, the Love Saves the Day Foundation, which was recently wound up in the midst of an investigation by the Charity Commission. The charity’s accounts showed that it had not disbursed any funds whatsoever in the entire period of its existence.

Strangely, Better for the Country Ltd / Leave.EU was a subsidiary of STM Fidecs, a company in which Banks has been a “substantial” shareholder. STM Fidecs claims to specialise in “international wealth protection” and in “structuring international groups, particularly separating and relocating intellectual property and treasury functions to low- or no-tax jurisdictions”.

Banks denies he has ever tried to avoid paying tax in the UK. However, one of the businesses of which Banks was a director, Rock Services Ltd, had a reported turnover of £19.7m in 2013 but paid just £12,000 in corporation tax. It had knocked off £19.6m in “administrative expenses”. In 2017, the Panama Papers leak revealed some details of Banks’ substantial offshore interests,  including a shareholding in “PRI Holdings Limited, which Panamanian-based Mossack Fonseca set up as an offshore company in 2013”.

In November 2017, the Electoral Commission announced it was opening “an investigation to establish whether or not Better for the Country Limited (BFTCL) and/or Mr Arron Banks breached campaign finance rules in relation to donations at the 2016 EU referendum”. This is in addition to the separate Commission investigation into whether one or more donations – including of services – accepted by Leave.EU was impermissible, and whether Leave.EU’s spending return was complete.

Questions have also been raised about Banks’ contact with Russian state actors ahead of the 2016 referendum campaign. In 2015 he and Leave.EU’s Andy Wigmore had a six-hour meeting with the UK’s Russian Ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, at the Russian Embassy in London. The meeting was at the invitation of a Russian contact who had attended Ukip’s annual conference (“a shady character called Oleg” according to Banks).

Banks has attempted to pass these contacts off as a joke and has not disclosed details of what was discussed or agreed, other than that: “Our host wanted the inside track on the Brexit campaign and grilled us on the potential implications of an Out vote for Europe.”

According to the Sunday Times, Banks’ Russian wife Katya (formerly Ekaterina Paderinaas) was suspected by Special Branch of working for the Russian government. The plot thickened after it was revealed that she narrowly avoided deportation following the intervention of a Liberal Democrat MP who employed a Russian believed by MI5 at the time to be undertaking espionage.

Banks has dismissed claims of Leave campaign links to Russia as “complete bollocks from beginning to end”. Leave.EU created a video of investigative journalist Carol Cadwalladr – who has shed much light on Banks and Leave.EU – being beaten up to the strains of the Russian national anthem. Banks also tweeted that she “wouldn’t be so lippy in Russia” (where journalists critical of the Putin regime, including Anna Politkovskaya, have been murdered).Banks Russia

He mocked another journalist by sending him a bottle of vodka with a note saying “From Russia with love”.

Following allegations by a female employee of Banks’ insurance company GoSkippy, Banks was arrested in 2012 on suspicion of harassment and issued with a prevention of harassment notice. After complaining to the police, the employee was dismissed from the company and took legal action against it alleging unfair dismissal. GoSkippy agreed on an out-of-court settlement.

In January 2017 Banks launched Westmonster, a website modelled on the alt-right platform Breitbart. Posts on the site have been widely shared by right-wing extremists and Russian trolls seeking to stir inter-communal hatred in the UK.

Banks has relished the experience of running Leave.EU, and it is not hard to see why. In many ways, he was ideally suited to bankrolling and fronting up a thoroughly dishonest campaign. He also coined the phrase “Bad Boys of Brexit”.

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