Conservatives In Crisis: FO objections `led to summit ban on Ashcroft'

Portillo by-election victory raises spirits amid disclosures that treasurer was barred from Commonwealth meeting summit
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The Independent Online
MICHAEL ASHCROFT, the Conservative Party treasurer, was barred from an international summit after government objections, it emerged last night.

Mr Ashcroft, who holds dual British-Belize nationality and is the Central American country's representative to the United Nations, had been due to attend the recent Commonwealth leaders meeting in South Africa as a representative of Belize. But the former colony dropped plans to include him in its delegation after the Foreign Office expressed reservations about his presence at the meeting in Durban. Whitehall sources denied that an official objection to Mr Ashcroft's presence was made.

The sources suggested that Belize had decided it would not be in its best interests for Mr Ashcroft to attend, because of the controversy in Britain over his role as Tory treasurer.

The Independent revealed earlier this year that Mr Ashcroft's nomination by William Hague as a peer was turned down by the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee. This decision is said to have been in the Foreign Office's mind when a discreet message of concern was passed to Belize. It is understood there is concern at the Foreign Office over Mr Ashcroft's "dual role".

However, the involvement of the Foreign Office is bound to fuel Tory claims that the Government is involved in a "dirty tricks" against the party's treasurer. Mr Ashcroft was not available for comment last night. He has previously insisted that he has always voted at the UN in accordance with the Belize government' wishes.

The disclosure in The Independent that a senior Tory MP has been given an official rebuke over his links with the controversial Tory party treasurer yesterdaybrought further pressure on the party leader, William Hague, over Mr Ashworth's position.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Elizabeth Filkin, ruled yesterday that Bowen Wells MP should have mentioned in committee discussions that he was a director of Mr Ashcroft's BHI Corporation. Mr Wells, chairman of the International Development Select Committee, was paid pounds 20,000 per year plus expenses for his non-executive directorship of BHI, the holding company for Mr Ashcroft's Belize Bank.

The parliamentary watchdog found the MP "would have been wise" to declare his connection but said he had not breached the stricter rule against paid advocacy.

While Mr Wells held the directorship, from 1997 to 1998, his committee investigated the Lome Convention, whose trade rules on bananas affect growers in Belize. Two per cent of the Belize Bank's loan portfolio was in loans to those farmers, Ms Filkin was told.

The ruling followed complaints by two Labour MPs, Denis MacShane and Alan Whitehead, that there was a conflict of interest between the directorship and Mr Wells' committee duties.

However, Ms Filkin rejected a claim that Mr Wells should have stood aside from committee proceedings. She said he had properly declared his BHI directorship in the Register of Members' Interests as well as to the International Development committee when he was elected chairman.

Mr MacShane said "If Michael Ashcroft has either the interests of his party at heart or has concern for the good name of parliamentary politics, he should resign as Tory party treasurer."

Meanwhile, in the wake of the revelations earlier this week that Mr Ashcroft had used a Belize bank to donate more than pounds 600,000 to the Tory party, Scotland Yard cast doubt on the party's claims that the disclosure of its bank account details was the work of computer hackers. David Veness, Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, said the police had yet to decide whether the disclosure of the records was a criminal matter.