How to avoid a straight answer, in three easy steps

Senior Tories are still reluctant to clarify Lord Ashcroft's tax status.

Oh dear. The big question mark over Lord Ashcroft's tax status doesn't seem to be going away. With formal requests currently in motion for the big-time donor's status to be clarified, journalists have been pushing senior Tories for a straight answer.

The Information Commissioner has condemned their "evasive and obfuscatory" responses, but still the finely crafted answers that could be straight out of a political satire come thick and fast. It sounds like Conservative HQ is administering some serious media training.

Rule one: deflect from the specifics to the general -- in this case, answer questions on Lord Ashcroft's tax status with a general statement on Tory policy. Rule two: say something confusing, or try to turn the argument on its head. Rule three: if those fail, claim ignorance.

For these rules in action, listen to Sir George Young, shadow leader of the Commons, on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning (ironically, he was criticising the "grey area" of parliamentary privilege).

Question: Of course there's one big question that hangs over your party, doesn't it, which relates your deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft, and what his tax status really is. What are the conditions that were applied when he was awarded a life peerage?

George Young: On the question of tax status, there was an all-party amendment on Tuesday to the corporate governance and constitution bill that's now going through, that makes it clear that, as from next year, anybody in the House of Lords is deemed to be domiciled for tax purposes. I hope that resolves the issue. They'll all have to pay tax like they were you or me.

Q: But it's still quite interesting to know what the man financing a lot of the election campaign activities -- what his status is?

GY: I think his total funding since the last election is about 5 per cent of the Tory party.

Q: That's a considerable amount of funding to come from one individual, isn't it? Conditions were applied to him, as I understand it, when he became a life peer, that he was resident for tax in the UK. Is that your understanding of it?

GY: My understanding is that there is, at the moment, a Freedom of Information request to the Cabinet Office, to clarify exactly what the undertakings were. I think one has to let that take its course.

Q: Wouldn't it be better for your deputy chairman to just tell us what the conditions were, rather than digging around in the Cabinet Office? He's perfectly free to tell us, isn't he?

GY: Well I think that's a matter for Lord Ashcroft rather than for me to clarify.

Q: He's your deputy chairman. It's a party matter!

GY: But it's an undertaking which he gave to another body and that body has been asked for documents. I don't know what those documents contain. We have to wait for the Freedom of Information process to complete its course. I'm sorry, but I just can't shed any light on this.

The Tory shadow foreign secretary William Hague's performance on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday was no less controlled. Note the specific-to-general transition, and the attempt to turn the heat on to the opposition.

Andrew Marr: The Information Commissioner says that "statements by senior politicians concerning Lord Ashcroft's undertaking" -- that's on tax -- "have been evasive and obfuscatory". Now can you, therefore, tell me whether or not he pays tax in this country?

William Hague: Well, let me give you something that's not at all evasive and obfuscatory. David Cameron has called, and the government have then come into line with that, for all members of both Houses of Parliament to be treated as if they're fully resident and domiciled in the United Kingdom for tax purposes -- with no ifs and buts whatsoever -- from the next financial year. Lord Ashcroft has said that causes him no difficulty at all, and that he will still be sitting there in the House of Lords under those rules . . .

AM: . . . You gave a very, very clear statement about your policy. You didn't give quite such a clear statement to the question: does he pay tax as a British taxpayer, as a British citizen? Which is a very straightforward question.

WH: Well, I'll give you another clear statement, which is that when he was made a peer in the year 2000, he was asked to give certain guarantees about that and he then implemented those guarantees -- and he's assured me that he did. Although what they were in detail was defined between him and the Inland Revenue at the time. I am not a party to that any more than the --

AM (over): But he's a very key figure.

WH: -- Labour Party is a party to all those people in the House of Lords, some of whom are non-domiciled and so on, but who give donations to the Labour Party.

They're not budging. But the clock is ticking -- on 1 February, the Cabinet Office was ordered to reveal within 35 days the nature of the undertaking Ashcroft made regarding tax in the UK when he became a peer in 2000. Roll on, 8 March!

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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How Devon's humpback whale is dredging up the politics of the sea

The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.

The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other. 

Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.

Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.

According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.

If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).

So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general? 

Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.

Troubled waters

Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.

But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.

The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.

Into the Brexit deeps

So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover. 

But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.

There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”

And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters. With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry.

But with migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says. 

Out of the Blues

At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.

But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).

It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.