Previous SectionIndexHome Page

11.41 am

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): I should like to raise some important issues before the summer recess--issues that some Conservative Members may not wish to hear, but that need to be raised none the less.

In recent weeks, there has been much interest in and speculation about Mr. Michael Ashcroft. Many allegations have been made. Many revelations have appeared in the daily papers about his status as a foreign funder of the Conservative party, about his business dealings andabout his relationship with the previous Government. Throughout it all, the Leader of the Opposition has stood by Mr. Ashcroft and said that he has no case to answer. Mr. Ashcroft has conceded that his connections with the Conservative party are causing it damage, but he still resolutely refuses to go.

May I remind the House who Michael Ashcroft is? He is a United Kingdom tax exile. His principal residence is in the United States of America. His principal business interests lie in Belize. He funds the Government party there--the People's United party, which I understand has recently sought advice on joining the Socialist International. He is Belize's ambassador to the United Nations. He is a citizen of Belize; he is also a citizen of the Turks and Caicos Islands. As far as I know, he is a citizen of other places, too. All those credentials are considered by the Leader of the Opposition to qualify him for his other job: treasurer of the United Kingdom's Conservative party.

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1134

Mr. Ashcroft is a man about whom our man in Belize warned the Foreign Office: there was, he said, a

of course, that shadow has been ignored by the Leader of the Opposition. Mr. Ashcroft is a man whose business interests, according to a report by Rodney Gallagher, which was sponsored by the Foreign Office as part of its aid to Belize, were creating

    "a growing sense of disquiet"

in Belize--a sense of disquiet clearly not shared by the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Ashcroft is a man whom our former high commissioner in Belize, Mr. David Mackilligin, described last week as

He went on to write, in a letter which appeared in The Times:

    "he cannot escape responsibility for establishing a system that makes Belize a much more tempting target for drug-runners than it would be and for resisting efforts to regulate it properly in order presumably to maximise his company's profit."

That is, apparently, what motivates Mr. Michael Ashcroft--the bottom line. It is not political conviction; I have mentioned that he funds not only the Conservative party but the People's United party in Belize. It is not personal loyalty. It is not public interest, but the ruthless pursuit of the bottom line. He has made money out of flags of convenience in Belize, which is known to have one of the worst safety records in the world. According to The Independent this morning, he has sold passports for profit. According to our Foreign Office diplomats, he is prepared to "stir up trouble" for Britain in the Turks and Caicos Islands if he does not get his way.

In no fewer than 10 of the 40-odd votes in the United Nations since he has been Belize's ambassador there, Mr. Ashcroft has voted against the United Kingdom. As I have said, he has opened the door in Belize to money laundering and drug trafficking through his interference in the regulation of its financial sector. The linking of Michael Ashcroft to the drugs trade is the most alarming aspect.

On Sunday, Mr. Ashcroft told the BBC that, although he was aware of one investigation undertaken by the Drug Enforcement Administration in the United States, he believed that it had concluded in 1992 and that its principal interest was Belize, not him. To be caught up in one drugs investigation may be just bad luck--a big man in a small place at the wrong time--but there is more.

I have seen documents, which have also been seen by The Times--files of the DEA, the FBI and the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. All refer to Michael Ashcroft and to his business interests. I have no reason to believe that they are forgeries. They are taken from the files of United States investigation, intelligence and enforcement agencies. They make disturbing reading.

In 1989, Mr. Ashcroft's name was linked to a DEA drug-trafficking inquiry that stretched across Europe, the United States and Canada, and involved the son of Jean Baptiste Andreani, who was immortalised, if that is the right word, in "The French Connection." In 1992, a Thomas Ricke was arrested and jailed for laundering

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1135

money, gained from organised crime, through Michael Ashcroft's Belize bank. In 1993, the DEA conducted an investigation of Belize-linked businesses, half of which were connected to Michael Ashcroft--12 of the 25-odd that it investigated had links with Michael Ashcroft.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bradley: No. Time is pressing. Other hon. Members want to speak.

In 1994, a DEA file reported observing Michael Ashcroft taking a flight from the United States to the Caribbean. It referred to

It also reported that the plane was owned and piloted by two suspected drug traffickers.

In 1996, Mr. Ashcroft was the subject of another investigation. In 1997, a man arrested in Holland on suspicion of drugs offences gave as his address the same address in Belize as Mr. Ashcroft's principal company, Belize Holdings. Those are serious matters.

I do not claim that Michael Ashcroft is guilty of any offence. I simply do not know, but nor does the Leader of the Opposition. However, he above all should be concerned about these allegations. The drip, drip, drip of disclosures is becoming a torrent that threatens to engulf the Conservative party. It is extraordinary that the Leader of the Opposition has taken no action about it. After all, it was he who said just last year:

He said it, but did he believe it and did he mean it?

If Michael Ashcroft were just another business man, we would take little interest in him, but he wants to play a role in British public life, and that gives us a legitimate interest in his affairs. That is why the Leader of the Opposition must refer him to the ethics and integrity committee that he established recently. That is why he should relieve him of his post as treasurer of the Conservative party, and why he should consider returning to him the donations that he has made in recent years.

Michael Ashcroft says that he will not go. Only one man can decide his fate--the man who says that he runs the Conservative party--but does he dare? Does he have the courage or even the authority to sack him, and can he afford to, given that Michael Ashcroft is the man who owns the Conservative party?

The Conservative party says that sleaze is a thing of the past, but it is running its campaign in Eddisbury on money from Belize, and tomorrow it will ask the people in that constituency for their trust. Does the Leader of the Opposition want it said that Michael Ashcroft is the man who defines the Conservative party? This is a real test of his qualities of leadership. He has a big decision to make.

11.51 am

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): I shall preface my remarks by congratulating those hon. Members who have taken the opportunity of this Adjournment debate to highlight the problems of the sheep and pig industries. Before I move on to my own theme, however, I wish to

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1136

state how much I deplore the comments of my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley).

The House will understand that what the hon. Gentleman said was covered by parliamentary privilege, but I did not hear him cite any specific charges that had been brought against Mr. Ashcroft. I remind the House of the very important principle and tenet in British law that a man is innocent until proved otherwise. The hon. Gentleman questioned the motives and motivation of Mr. Ashcroft, but I hope that I shall not be out of order in questioning the hon. Gentleman's motives. He spent 10 minutes giving us a lot of innuendo but, as far as I know, he was unable to substantiate that with any facts.

On a more pleasant note, I wish to say that, in my opinion, the British countryside looks more beautiful than it has ever done at this time of year, probably due to the wet spring that we had. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have an interest in trees, and you will appreciate that the beauty of the British countryside is largely due to the tree cover that it enjoys. I want to speak specifically about commercial forestry.

Last year, the Government issued their forestry strategy for England, which was largely aspirational and entirely platitudinous. As far as commercial forestry was concerned, it was eminently worthy but, in practical terms, worthless. England, together with Ulster and Eire, is bottom of the European league for tree coverage. In England, 8 per cent. of the land mass is covered in trees. In Eire the figure is 7 per cent., and in Ulster 6 per cent. In contrast, the overall figure for European Union land mass coverage is 36 per cent. Taking the United Kingdom as a whole, the comparable figure is 10 per cent., but that includes large areas of scrub oak, the third most common species after spruce and pine.

I have some questions for the Government. Are they satisfied with the present situation and the current downward trend in new planting? What, if anything, are they prepared to do about the matter, and how will they go about it? At present, the forestry industry is experiencing unprecedented difficulties. First, it suffers from red tape, particularly that associated with felling controls. Secondly, it suffers from cheap imports--I remind the House that labour costs in Latvia, for example, are a quarter of those in the United Kingdom. Moreover, road fuel prices in Latvia are only a third of those in this country. Thirdly, crippling vehicle excise and road fuel duties have a much more significant effect on forestry than on industries whose loads are less bulky and often much more valuable.

Haulage accounts for at least 25 per cent. of the delivered value of British-grown round timber. For obvious reasons, the scope for transferring the loads to the railways is limited. A lot of our forestry land is well removed from the rail-heads, and in any case loads have to be hauled by road to reach them.

A fourth problem facing the industry is the lack of any coherent long-term Government strategy sufficient to give the private sector long-term confidence. Forestry is, after all, a very long-term business. People who plant trees often do not live to see them come to maturity. Planting, therefore, is done with the long term in view.

Fifthly, the Forestry Commission is a rogue elephant when it comes to commercial decisions, and does not always operate under the same constraints as the

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1137

private sector. Many other difficulties face the industry, not least an ill-informed public who do not accept that trees are grown as a commercial crop and that trees, like humans, have a finite life.

A prosperous commercial forestry industry brings many economic benefits. First, there is an obvious benefit in the employment that it creates. The forestry industry is a major employer in rural areas. It is estimated that it employs 35,000 people in the United Kingdom, and that employment is permanent and year-round. That contrasts with the agriculture industry, where more of the labour tends to be under contract and on a seasonal basis. Moreover, the forestry industry is often situated in remote areas where there is no alternative employment.

In the past decade, the industry has invested no less than £1.8 billion in new saw milling and wood processing facilities, which now produce timber and wood products derived from British forests that are worth £2 billion per annum. That is a valuable contribution to our balance of payments. Our forests represent a store of value and are a very important strategic reserve.

The third benefit to be derived from a healthy forestry industry is to the environment. I have already mentioned how trees benefit the landscape, and most hon. Members will be aware of the beneficial effect that trees have on our atmosphere by absorbing surplus nitrogen and other impurities. Forestry is a sustainable and infinitely renewable source of raw material and fuel. Given that so many people are worried about the environment, a thriving forestry industry will ensure that there is life and work in our countryside, and will prevent its reduction into a decaying park.

I have several questions that the Governmentmust answer. Do they acknowledge the economic, environmental and employment benefits of a thriving forestry industry? Do they accept that the portents for the future are alarming? The area approved for felling increased from 12,000 hectares in 1989 to 19,000 hectares in 1998, but the area planted in the same period fell from 37,000 hectares to 17,000 hectares. What action will the Government take to deal with the problems that I have described? They could remove at a stroke the burden of regulation and the punitive effect of the exorbitant 11.6 per cent. increase in road fuel duties.

Will the Government look again at the efficacy of their grant schemes in encouraging a vibrant forestry industry, and will they consider reintroducing tax reliefs such as existed before 1988? Now that the "polluter pays" principle is so well established, there is a strong case for giving relief to those who, far from polluting the atmosphere, do so much to clean it up. Or will the Government do nothing? Will they take the short-term view that foresters are an insignificant minority; that 35,000 jobs are neither here nor there; that our timber can all be sourced from abroad; that a living vibrant countryside is the rhetoric, not the reality, of Labour in office?

I move that the House does not adjourn until a Minister has come to the Dispatch Box to state unequivocally that wood is good, and what the Government will do positively to encourage this generation to plant trees for the benefit and enjoyment of generations yet unborn.

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1138

Next Section

IndexHome Page