William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, was attacked yesterday for refusing to say who he met or what he did during a working visit to the Turks and Caicos Islands a year before widespread corruption was uncovered there.
The Caribbean country reverted in August to its old status of a British colony ruled by a governor appointed by the Foreign Office after members of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee returned from a visit with disturbing reports of corruption and intimidation. The Turks and Caicos prime minister at the time, Michael Misick, resigned and is now facing a criminal invesigation.
Mr Hague had been to the islands a year earlier. He declared in the Commons Register of Interests that the trip, in April 2007, was made "in my capacity as shadow Foreign Secretary". His flight was paid for by the Conservatives' largest donor, Michael Ashcroft, who has significant business interests on the islands. It is not known whether Mr Ashcroft accompanied Mr Hague on the trip.
The Independent has repeatedly asked for details of the people Mr Hague met on the islands. Specifically, Mr Hague's spokesman was asked whether he had met any of the islands' opposition politicians – who later expressed their concerns over the governance of the country to the Foreign Affairs Committee.
After two weeks in which the question was put to Conservative campaign headquarters every few days, a spokesman replied: "We do not provide a running commentary on private meetings that took place almost three years ago. However, it is a matter of public record that Lord Ashcroft occasionally attends meetings in his capacity as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.
"The Conservative Party takes the need for political reform in the Turks and Caicos extremely seriously. We fully supported the Government's decision to take action against corruption [there] and have called for urgent reform in the administration of the islands."
According to an inside source, Lord Ashcroft's office at Conservative campaign headquarters was consulted before the answer to The Independent's question was drawn up.
The refusal to give more details was condemned yesterday by Greg Pope, one of the three members of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee whose report from the Turks and Caicos Islands led the Government to revert to direct rule.
"When we visited the islands in 2008, what we discovered was a huge level of corruption and intimidation. I have been to many countries as member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but I have never seen people so frightened to meet British MPs, except perhaps in China," Mr Pope said.
"William Hague suggests to the public that he is fit to be the next Foreign Secretary. We have a right to know who he met, besides the Prime Minister, Michael Misick, and what he was up to in the Turks and Caicos."
The islands' political problems were raised in the Commons recently by the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Mike Gapes. He read out a letter sent to David Cameron by Shaun Malcolm, former leader of the opposition party in the Turks and Caicos Islands, complaining about the influence Lord Ashcroft allegedly wielded.
Yesterday Mr Gapes said: "What has Mr Hague got to hide? If he went there on a fact-finding mission and met people who do not wish to be identified, and if that had led to action to deal with the abuses that our members later identified, it would be reasonable for him not to say who he met. But he did not call for any inquiry or suspension of independent rule on the islands."
Tax accounts: What they say about Ashcroft's status
Eric Pickles, the Tory party chairman, is the latest politician to be wrong-footed by Michael Ashcroft's insistence on keeping his affairs private.
Last week, Mr Pickles suggested that Lord Ashcroft, who is his deputy chairman, would be "very happy" to go on BBC Radio 4's Today to say whether he is a UK taxpayer. But when the programme invited him to appear, he would not.
"We did try to contact him about his tax affairs but we got no further than his spokesman, who said that Lord Ashcroft is a private individual," Today interviewer John Humphrys said.
David Cameron and William Hague have also faced questions about whether the billionaire Tory peer pays UK taxes, in line with a promise he made when he was awarded his peerage in 2000.
Labour MPs have been raising an increasing number of questions about that promise. One, Gordon Prentice, has called a Commons debate on Monday about the role of the Information Commissioner in requesting the information. Mr Prentice wants the commissioner to order the Government to answer questions about Lord Ashcroft's tax status.