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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Double trouble for the Tories

Whilst David Cameron continues to face serious pressure to axe Andy Coulson as Tory communications chief over claims about phone hacking at the News of the World, the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw has opened a second front that could potentially give the Conservatives much more grief.

He has decided to accept an amendment in the House of Lords that will have the effect of placing a ban on non-residents and so-called "non-doms" making donations to political parties. The amendment, tabled by the campaigning peer Lord Campbell-Savours, is designed to force the Tory donor Lord Ashcroft to clarify his tax affairs:

Campbell-Savours said: "We have the moral high ground. The government is being very reasonable about this. I know this is very difficult for all concerned. I am very pleased the justice secretary believes we have a good case." The veteran Labour peer tabled his amendment last month to put pressure on Ashcroft. The Tory deputy chairman, who has directed millions of pounds to help his party target marginal seats, was granted a peerage in 2000 after agreeing to become resident in Britain for tax purposes. He refuses to discuss his tax status. Straw had informed Labour MPs earlier this week that they would face a three-line whip to overturn the Campbell-Savours amendment when the political parties and elections bill returns to the Commons on Monday. The justice secretary said that the amendment would have no impact on Ashcroft because he makes donations to the Tories through his company, Bearwood Corporate Services, and not as an individual.

The government still believes that the ban will have no impact on Ashcroft. But Straw believes that a change in law will put pressure on the Tory peer to clarify his tax status. "This will not deal with Lord Ashcroft," a government source said. "But it will deal with those who make donations as individuals. It establishes a clear principle. It will put pressure on Lord Ashcroft and will heighten questions about his tax status."

There are still questions as to whether Lord Ashcroft has complied with his pledge to become resident in the UK as one of the conditions of him taking a seat in the House of Lords. Lord Ashcroft has repeatedly refused to say whether he is legally resident in the UK and whether he pays UK income tax. The Conservative Party itself has also refused to answer such queries, with David Cameron deflecting questions and saying that are not a matter for him (even though Ashcroft takes the Conservative Party whip in the Lords and works in Conservative Central Office).

This additional provision will very much put the spotlight on the way that Ashcroft is currently bankrolling marginal seats for the Tories without having those issues resolved.
It's not up to Camoron to prove whether Ashcroft is legally resident in the UK, it's a matter for the Paliamentary authorities and if he's illegally taking a place in the House of Lords then it's a matter for the police. If he's donating money to the Conswervatives then I assume the Electoral Commission have seen evidence of his residence in the UK.
These are political questions not legal ones
I wish people would read articles before commenting. Lord Ashcroft does not make donations personally, he does it through his company. Under the PPER Act, the company must be registered and operate in the UK. Its shareholders need not be. (And yes, this is a loophole in the law which should be closed.)

As to Ashcroft's position in the Lords, that is a moral matter not a legal one. He promised to become UK resident, but now refuses to confirm that he is. I do not believe that the law requires that Lords are UK residents, so it's a matter of trust in a Tory Lord's promise. Not something the Police can deal with. And until we have an elected upper house, nor can we the voters.
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