Leading article: A troubling lack of transparency

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The Independent Online

Lord Ashcroft, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, is an individual with an unusual level of influence in our national political life. The businessman turned politician has been a generous donor to Conservative Party coffers for almost three decades.

And in recent times, he has been using his private wealth to particular political effect, channelling large sums directly into Conservative associations around the country which are fighting for Labour-held marginal seats. This appears to be having an effect. The Conservatives are polling better in the constituencies which have benefited from Lord Ashcroft's largesse than others.

But how much do we really know about this powerful donor? He rarely gives interviews, or makes public appearances. And his business affairs are opaque. When Lord Ashcroft was awarded his peerage in 2000, it was on the understanding that he would become a UK taxpayer. But today he refuses to answer questions about his tax status. He is also facing an Electoral Commission investigation into his donations to the Conservative Party.

And now doubts have been raised about his conduct in the Central American nation of Belize, where Lord Ashcroft was formerly a resident and where he continues to have considerable business interests. In August the Prime Minister of Belize, Dean Barrow, denounced the peer for using his wealth "to subjugate an entire nation". And, as we report today, there is still considerable political resentment at the peer's influence there.

Meanwhile, Lord Ashcroft's influence in Britain is taking on new forms. He recently acquired two successful political websites. The peer claims his interest in the sites will be purely entrepreneurial, rather than party political. But several of the contributors to one of these sites were not comforted by this reassurance, choosing to resign.

We should not jump to the conclusion that there is something inappropriate about Lord Ashcroft's influence on British politics. But public life needs transparency, particularly where large influxes of money are concerned. At the moment, such transparency is lacking with regard to Lord Ashcroft.