MPs demand fresh scrutiny of Lord Ashcroft

Information watchdog criticised for delays

Michael Savage,Political Correspondent
Saturday 29 August 2009 00:00 BST

The tax status of the Tory donor Lord Ashcroft came under renewed scrutiny last night as MPs demanded the publication of secret details of his promise to live permanently in the UK.

Britain's information watchdog was criticised for delays in deciding whether to force through the release of details about the assurances, given by Lord Ashcroft to the Government after his elevation to the peerage in 2000. He is said to spend some of his time in Belize, where he has many business interests.

Gordon Prentice, a Labour MP, has demanded answers from the Information Commissioner after the head of the civil service, Sir Gus O'Donnell, refused to release the details. Lord Ashcroft has donated millions of pounds to the Tories. He has always refused to say whether he is resident or pays taxes in the UK, claiming it is a private matter.

The Information Commissioner has taken more than a year to decide whether the Cabinet Office should be made to release the details. A source said work on the case had been slowed because of the amount of material handed over by the Cabinet Office. Mr Prentice said he would be calling a debate on the matter when Parliament returns in October.

"There are meant to be new rules under which matter of serious public interest are given priority," Mr Prentice said last night. "Lord Ashcroft gave that assurance way back in 2000 when he was elevated to the peerage. It is not just an honorary matter – it is a seat in the legislature. That is why I am pushing for these answers." The Tory leader, David Cameron, was called on to clarify the tax status of Lord Ashcroft.

Norman Baker, a Liberal Democrat MP, said Mr Cameron had a responsibility to be honest with the public. "This is a matter of significant public interest. We're entitled to know the facts," he said. "The matter can soon be settled by David Cameron. His silence on this matter is astonishing." A spokeswoman for Mr Cameron said: "Lord Ashcroft has given us assurances about his status in the past. There is nothing to suggest that these have been broken."

A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner's Office said that the issue was still "under active consideration by a caseworker" and blamed a backlog for the 16-month delay.

The fresh pressure for the details comes a day after Lord Ashcroft was criticised by the Prime Minister of Belize for attempting to "subjugate an entire nation" with his money. The peer's website states: "If home is where the heart is, then my home is in Belize."

The Belize Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, stood by his attack last night. "The Prime Minister stands fully behind what he said," his spokeswoman said. "It was a very measured statement that he delivered in the House of Representatives."

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