Ashcroft sold Belize passports for pounds 33,000

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL ASHCROFT, the controversial Tory party treasurer, sold Belize passports for pounds 33,000 each, The Independent can reveal. Holders had the right to "trouble-free travel" around the world without visas.

The passports were available quite legally until as recently as last month through a firm called BHI Offshore Financial Services, a part of Mr Ashcroft's BHI Corporation. The firm also offered to sell offshore companies and trusts, which could make investors' money safe from tax authorities, creditors, former spouses and even disinherited children.

Mr Ashcroft, who is the Belize ambassador to the United Nations, sold the financial services arm of his company in June as part of a wider restructuring, a spokeswoman said yesterday. However, an earlier announcement omitted specifically to mention the sale of the financial services arm.

Yesterday a website for BHI Offshore Financial Services was still offering "economic citizenship" of Belize in return for a non-refundable pounds 26,000 "investment" in the country's government, plus professional fees of pounds 6,600. The passports, which are also sold by other companies under Belize law, would appeal to people who wanted to keep a low profile while travelling.

The revelation drew fresh protests from Labour MPs, who hope to make Mr Ashcroft's activities in Belize an issue with voters in tomorrow's Eddisbury by-election. The billionaire businessman has given pounds 2m to the Conservatives in the past two years.

Last night Peter Bradley, the Labour MP for The Wrekin, who has questioned Mr Ashcroft's links with the Conservatives, said voters should be told where the party's funding came from. "Surely there must be a way of making an honest penny without trading in passports," he said. "Nobody has any objection to Mr Ashcroft making a fortune and, if he chooses, donating part of it to the Conservative Party. But I really do question whether the Tories ought to be taking money from a man who has made it in such peculiar and controversial circumstances."

The passport payment conferred full economic and political rights on the applicant and his family, as well as alternative passports, the company's website promised, adding: "There is, however, no requirement for new citizens to relocate to Belize. The main priority of many applicants is to obtain a Belize passport which is issued upon [granting] of citizenship. It is an extremely useful travel document and allows visa-free entry to a significant number of countries worldwide. This feature has attracted many applicants from the Far East, Russia and Eastern Europe."

Among the other facilities offered by the firm were offshore trusts designed, according to their promotional literature, to avoid taxes, death duties, creditors and divorce settlements. "A Belizean trust is relieved entirely from all local taxation including duties charged on the death of the settlor ... A disposition of property into a Belizean trust may not be set aside to satisfy the claim of a divorced spouse, disinherited heir or creditor in bankruptcy," it said.

Among the other services offered by the firm were "International Business Companies", which could be used to minimise tax, to keep investments in a company name rather than that of an individual and to register ships and yachts through offshore companies, the literature said. Until last month, Mr Ashcroft also had a stake in the firm that ran the Belize shipping register, which has been criticised for being a "flag of convenience".

The firm also sold international company bank accounts with the Belize Bank, a subsidiary of BHI Corporation, which could be opened only by offshore companies. "BHI Corporation offers international banking services through the Belize Bank Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary," the firm said. "The Belize Bank is the largest commercial banking operation in Belize and offers a full range of services to international customers."

A statement issued by Mr Ashcroft's solicitors this week did not mention his recent activities in the offshore finance business. "Belize Bank, in which Mr Ashcroft has a substantial interests, is involved in domestic banking in Belize which is separately regulated from offshore banking businesses," the statement said.

"While it accepts some deposits from offshore customers it operates procedures to obtain proof of identity of its customers and requires banking references before it accepts such deposits. Neither the bank nor any other entity in which Mr Ashcroft is interested has an offshore banking licence, and Mr Ashcroft has no interests in the offshore banking sector in Belize."

More than 20 Labour MPs added their voices to the protest over Mr Ashcroft yesterday, signing a Commons motion that expressed "surprise" the Tory treasurer should be a tax exile living mainly in Florida and conducting his principal business activities in Belize.

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