PARLIAMENT: SAFETY AT SEA; Tory attacked over Belize shipping links

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THE CONSERVATIVE treasurer was attacked in the House of Lords yesterday for his links to a "flag of convenience" shipping register with one of the worst safety records in the world.

A transport minister condemned the record of the Belize register, which is part owned by Michael Ashcroft. Mr Ashcroft has made major donations to the Conservative Party and took charge of its finances last year.

Lord Whitty, a transport minister and former Labour Party general secretary, said it seemed Tory funding had changed little.

"In past life I have had cause to look at the finances of the Conservative Party and the people involved. It does appear that things haven't changed," he said. "It is true that the Belize register has a pretty poor record and there has been considerable anxiety expressed in the maritime community about that."

Lord Whitty was answering a question from Lord Razzall, the Liberal Democrat treasurer, about the sinking of a Belize-registered ship called the Rema last year in which five British crew members died. Lord Razzall said Belize had one of the worst safety records of any "flag of convenience," and asked Lord Whitty to press Mr Ashcroft to improve it.

Despite being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which demands links between ships and their countries of registration, the Belize register has many ships which have little or no connection to the Central American state.

Lord Razzall said if ships were genuinely linked to the countries where they were registered, safety standards would be better and accidents such as the sinking of the Rema would happen less often.

Lord Brabazon of Tara, the Conservative transport spokesman, said it was wrong to draw any conclusion about the accident before an investigators' report was published.

"There is a very tenuous link between Mr Michael Ashcroft and his holding in the Belize register and the fact that this ship tragically sank," he said.