Let’s start with a bit of a history lesson.
Back at the end of last October, I, like a few other bloggers, started to do a little digging around after a Bermuda registered company called Flying Lion Limited, which operates out of Boca Raton, Florida and whose main line of business seemed, on the available evidence, to be that of ferrying Conservative politicians hither and thither in its sole substantive asset, a Dassault Falcon 900EX long-range corporate jet, registration code VP-BMS.
Flying Lion, which was quickly dubbed ‘Con Air’, turned out to be owned by the Baron Ashcroft of Chichester – Michael to his friends – who, amongst numerous other interests, is currently Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party and one of its biggest, if not the biggest, of its funders.
Now it was while I was digging around for information on Flying Lion’s activities that I happened across a small number of discrepancies in the records held by parliament (specifically the MPs Register of Interests) and by the Electoral Commission (register of donations to regulated donees) relating to flights donated to a very senior Conservative Politician, the current Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague.
On first examination of Hague’s records, I noted that a number of flights provided by Flying Lion, which appeared on his register of interests as an MP, failed to appear on the Electoral Commission’s published register, and three in particular, caught my eye at the time:
A visit to Israel and Jordan on 15th-17th May 2006, flights provided by Flying Lion.
A short visit to Pakistan, on the 6th-7th December 2006, for which Flying Lion provided both the outward flight from London to Pakistan and a flight from Pakistan to Bahrain, where Hague attended a conference organised by the International Institute of Strategic Studies from 8th-12th December 2006. This one particularly piqued my interest as the costs of accommodation during the conference and the return flight from Bahrain were met by the IISS and correctly recorded in both registers.
A ‘grand tour’ of the Atlantic Basin, which took place between 28th March and 3rd April 2007 with stops in Belize, Brazil, the Falkland Islands, Iceland, Panama, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, flights provided by – yes – Flying Lion.
At the time I consulted the Electoral Commission’s register, back in October, none of these flights were recorded in William Hague’s personal entry, nor were they recorded as donations to the Conservative Party and all were, seemingly, long overdue and well outside the 30 day limit for registering donations required under PPERA.
Just under three months later, I returned to this issue in the wake of Peter Hain’s spate of difficulties over unreported donations to his campaign for Labour’s Deputy Leadership, not specifically because of Hain’s situation by because of allegations of non-reporting levelled at around the same time against another of the candidates, Alan Johnson. What rekindled my interest was Johnson’s response to allegations that he’d failed to register a number of donations, in which he asserted that these donations had been correctly registered in line with the provisions of PPERA and that they seeming absence from the Electoral Commission’s published register was a consequence of of the Commission failing to adequately maintain their registers. The Guardian article regarding the allegations against Johnson also nicely illustrates some of the confusion that seems to abound in this issue by stating that Johnson’s campaign had ‘insisted that paperwork was filed for all the gifts within the 60-day limit’. Now, I may have missed something along the way but both PPERA and the Electoral Commissions’ published guidance state that regulated donees, like Johnson and Hague, are allowed 30 days to register donations, gifts and overseas visits from the date that donation is accepted, which in the case of flights I would take as being the date of the flight itself.
So, recalling the discrepancies in Hague’s published records from three months earlier, it seemed that I now had two possible answers to the question of why there were discrepancies in the Electoral Commission’s register, either Hague had failed to register these flights in line with the legal requirements set out in PPERA or he had registered them but their non-appearance was due to the Electoral Commission failing to keep their published registers up to date, and reason to take another look at Hague’s entry, not to mention venture a few comments on Hain’s situation.
What I discovered when I checked back was that two of the previously ‘missing’ visits had now been added to Hague’s register entry, the trips to Israel/Jordan in May 2006 and his ‘Atlantic tour’ of March/April 2007 but, having not taken the precaution of taking screenshots the previous October, I had no way of finding out from the register, when these visits were actually registered nor any means of proving that they had not appeared on Hague’s entry the previous October, which seems to me to be a rather unsatisfactory state of affairs. One of big plusses of the parliamentary register is that it is published in defined editions with a date of publication and recorded the precise date on which interests, such as overseas visits, are registered, so even if the financial information in the register is sometimes a tad less than fully illuminating, it is at least possible to verify when interests were registered and, therefore, whether MPs are recording their interests at the time they are supposed to. By complete contrast, the Electoral Commission’s registers, while they do provide much more accurate financial information on the value of gifts and donations and disclose the date that these were accepted, what they don’t provide is the date on which donations, etc. were actually registered. So without going to the trouble of regularly monitoring these registers for additions and alterations there is no simple or transparent method of ascertaining whether MPs and political parties are complying with the law regarding time limits for registrations or whether the Electoral Commission is adequately maintaining its registers and keeping them reasonably up to date, and as the allegations levelled against Alan Johnson demonstrated, when questions are being asked about the probity of MPs/political parties dealings in regards to funding, any omissions, however innocent, can be a source of potential difficulties.
Fortunately, despite the lack of transparency in the published Electoral Commission registered, it is not impossible to verify the actual registration dates of entries – you simply have to resort to using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the relevant information…
… and that is precisely what I did by submitting a request for the exact registration dates for three of the entries on Hague’s register of overseas visits, the two visits which had suddenly appeared, unannounced, on the register at some time in between October 2007 and January 2008 and the entry for Hague’s visit to the IISS conference in Bahrain immediately following his seemingly unregistered trip to Pakistan – the reason for this last request was simply that both this visit and the trip to Pakistan which immediately preceded it were registered on the parliamentary register of interest on the same date, so you’d generally expect that the relevant paperwork for both visits would also have been forwarded to the Electoral Commission at the same time, although not necessarily on the same date that they were reported to parliament.
Now at this point in proceedings, we need to look at all the evidence in its proper sequence, starting with the evidence of discrepancies in Hague’s entry on the Electoral Commission’s register of donations to regulated donees, and to do that we need to start off with a list of Hague’s registered overseas visits, since becoming Shadow Foreign Secretary, as extracted from the parliamentary register of MPs interests.
William Hague MP – Overseas visits since becoming Shadow Foreign Secretary on 6 December 2005 on MP’s register of interest
|22 March 2006, to Prague for meeting with ODS (the Civic Democratic Party). Return flight provided by Flying Lion Ltd. (Registered 25 May 2006)|
|3-4 April 2006, to Sudan in my capacity as Shadow Foreign Secretary, to investigate the humanitarian situation there. I was the guest of Oxfam who provided my accommodation and in-country transport. The cost of my flight was met by Flying Lion Limited. (Registered 8 May 2006)|
|15-17 May 2006, to Israel and Jordan, in my capacity as Shadow Foreign Secretary. The costs of my flights was met by Flying Lion Ltd. The cost of my accommodation in Israel was met by Conservative Friends of Israel. (I stayed at the residence of the British Ambassador in Jordan during my visit to Amman.) (Registered 25 May 2006)|
|28 June 2006, return flight to Prague provided by Jonathan Green, a retired businessman from London. (Registered 21 August 2006)|
|4-8 September 2006, to China and Kazakhstan, in my capacity as Shadow Foreign Secretary. The costs of my flights was met by Flying Lion Ltd and the costs of my accommodation in China was covered by the Chinese authorities. I paid for my own accommodation in Astana, Kazakhstan. (Registered 25 October 2006)|
|6-7 December 2006, to Pakistan in my capacity as Shadow Foreign Secretary. The cost of my flights was met by Flying Lion Ltd and I covered the cost of my own accommodation on the visit. (Registered 11 December 2006)|
|8-10 December 2006, to Bahrain, to attend the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Manama Conference. The cost of my accommodation and my flight from Bahrain to London was met by the IISS. The cost of my flight from Pakistan to Bahrain for the conference was met by Flying Lion Ltd. (Registered 11 December 2006)|
|28 March-3 April 2007, to Belize, Brazil, the Falkland Islands, Iceland, Panama, and the Turks and Caicos Islands in my capacity as Shadow Foreign Secretary. The cost of my flights was met by Flying Lion Ltd and I covered the cost of my own accommodation during the visit, except for my accommodation in Panama where I was the guest of the Vice-President and Foreign Minister, Samuel Lewis Navarro. (Registered 3 May 2007)|
|18-19 June, to Syria in my capacity as Shadow Foreign Secretary. The cost of my flights was met by Flying Lion Ltd and I covered the cost of my own accommodation on the visit. (Registered 19 June 2007)|
|7-9 December 2007, to Bahrain, to attend the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Manama Conference. The cost of my accommodation and return flights from London to Bahrain was met by the IISS. (Registered 10 December 2007)|
|15-17 February 2008, to the United Arab Emirates in my capacity as Shadow Foreign Secretary. The cost of my accommodation was covered by the Government of the UAE and the cost of my return flights from London to Abu Dhabi was met by Flying Lion Ltd. (Registered 21 February 2008)|
Okay, so what we have on the parliamentary register are eleven overseas visits in total for which flights were provided as a donation/gift, eight of which were provided entirely by Flying Lion, one by an individual donor, Jonathan Green, and two by the IISS, although the transfer from Pakistan to Bahrain for the first IISS conference was another Flying Lion donation.
Now, the obvious next step is to look at what is actually on Hague’s register entry at the Electoral Commission, which requires this screenshot, which was taken yesterday.
William Hague MP – Overseas visits since becoming Shadow Foreign Secretary on 6 December 2005 on Electoral Commission’s register of regulated donees.
You’ll note that there are only seven registered visits here, with a total registered ‘value’ of £29,478.77.
William Hague MP – discrepancies between the two registers.
The four ‘missing’ visits are the two return trips to Prague in March 2006 and June 2006, the trip to Pakistan immediate preceding the 2006 IISS conference in Bahrain and the most recent visit to the United Arab Emirates, for which the Electoral Commission is due to receive the paperwork this week and which can, therefore, be safely excluded from further consideration.
So what we have are three clear discrepancies to be accounted for, the two visits to Prague and the detour via Pakistan on the way to the 2006 IISS conference, and its now that things start to get rather interesting.
For one thing there are ongoing and unanswered questions regarding precisely how the value of donated flights by private jet should be recorded on the Electoral Commission’s register.
What the law states is that in-kind donations should be notionally recorded at market value if a precise cost cannot be identified, the problem being when it comes to using the services of Flying Lion (and other private aviation services) its not at all clear which ‘market’ MPs should be referring to, the market for scheduled flights with a standard airline, like BA, El Al, Lufthansa, etc, which is what it appears is being used as a base for assigning a value to these flights, or the private charter market in which the going rate for a return trip to Prague runs to around £9,600.
Does this actually this matter?
Well, yes it does and why it does is easily explained if one looks at the two ‘missing’ visits to Prague, one donated by Flying Lion and the other by Jonathan Green – we’ll assume that what Green provided was a scheduled flight and, to be reasonable, we’ll assume that Hague flies Business Class so he can prepare for his engagements while in transit. Even based on current prices a return ticket to Prague from Gatwick, flying Business Class, will weigh in at somewhere around £700-800 and as its only donations exceeding £1,000 that have to be registered with the Electoral Commission by law, that would explain, perfectly reasonably, why the Prague trips are not on Hague’s entry…
…but for the question of whether its reasonable to value flights made in a private jet, the market value of which may be anything from 10 times upwards of that of a scheduled flight, at the same rate as that of scheduled flight.
This question is particular relevant when one considers that one of the legal, and seemingly fairly common, practices which has drawn quite a bit of flak of late is ther practice of accepting donations that fall just under the limit at which they must be registered with the Electoral Commission, a practice which has been treated, in some quarters, as being akin to money laundering. So, on the question of how MPs like Hague should value flights by private jet rests the question of whether he trip to Prague donated by Flying Lion should have been registered or not.
The other clear discrepancy here is, of course, the trip to Pakistan, which appear not to have been registered at all despite it appearing that Hague was flown by private jet, first to Pakistan and then from Pakistan to Bahrain, a distance of around 5,200 miles, assuming he visited Islamabad -Karachi would take the distance down to around 5000 miles and Lahore up to 5400 miles. As Flying Lion’s Falcon 900EX has an estimated range of just shy of 4,000 miles and costs around $7,000-$8,000 for a full tank of aviation fuel, there is no way on earth that one could contrive a valuation for this trip that would not be registrable and yet these flights are conspicuous only by their absence, an absence made all the more noticeable by the marked disparity in the costs booked against two seemingly identical visits to the same conference and for the same duration made only 12 months apart. Hague’s 2006 visit is listed at a value of £1929.04, while his 2007 visit is recorded as having cost £4.461.78, an increase of 131% over the previous year.
William Hague MP – FOIA request for registration dates.
We have a number of issues already and having set these out it time to turn to the question of the two overseas visits – to Israel/Jordan and Belize, etc, which were missing from Hague’s published register entry at the Electoral Commission in October 2007, but were present in January 2008, plus the related matter of the registration date of the visit to the 2006 IISS conference for which the first part of Hague’s visit – the detour via Pakistan, does not appear on the EC’s website.
The question of exactly when these visits were registered was made subject of an FOIA request, which the Electoral Commission dealt with within the time specified by FOIA 2000 (well done) which garnered with response:
The Israel and Jordan visit was reported to the Commission on 5 November 2007. The Bahrain visit was reported to the Commission on 18 December 2006. The Belize, Brazil, Falkland Islands, Iceland and Panama visit was reported to the Commission on 2 November 2007.
It would appear that William was just a little tardy in filing his paperwork here, but only when that paperwork related to flights provided by Flying Lion Limited.
The Israel/Jordan visit on on 15th-17th May 2006, the value of which is given at £2,651.19 and which was added to the parliamentary register on 25th May 2006, was not actually registered with the Electoral Commission until 5th November 2007, at little short of 18 months after the donation was accepted. Being generous, the Electoral Commission should really have had the paperwork for this visit by the end of June 2006.
Likewise, the Atlantic Tour of March/April 2007, which coincidentally included visits to Belize, the country of which Lord Ashcroft is a citizen, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, where he is classed as a ‘belonger‘, was not registered with the Electoral Commission until 2nd November 2007 despite being valued at £8,486.75 for what was, following a sensible itinerary, a total flight distance of around 20,000 miles, with an expected fuel cost, alone, of somewhere in the region of $30,000-40,000, maybe slightly more, at current prices.
However when we come to the the trip to Bahrain in 2006, the Pakistani leg of which remains unreported according to the latest list of Hague’s donations, this was registered with parliament (with the Pakistan visit) on 11th December 2006 and the portion of the visit covered by the IISS was registered with the Electoral Commission only a week later.
Now there may be a practical reason for this, after all, if what the IISS covered was the cost of a scheduled flight back from Bahrain plus accommodation then it would not be difficult for Hague’s staff to quickly verify the cost of the trip and, therefore, the amount to be registered.
Then again, if the price of scheduled flights is being used as the basis for registering the costs of flights provided by Flying Lion then that still wouldn’t be that difficult to pull together – a quick check on-line gives a business class fare, one way, London to Islamabad, of £1,681…
…mind you, for a chartered private jet, the best quote I can find (based on four passengers) is a little over £50,000 and trips to Prague and Belize (both from London) run to £9,800 and £68,000 respectively, in fact…
(hang on a second)…
…using the site from which I was about obtain quotes for private jet charters and Hague’s tour of the Atlantic itinerary, which I ran in the order which most minimise the flight distances involved, i.e. London – Reykjavik – Turks and Caicos – Belize – Panama – Brazil (Rio) – Port Stanley (Falklands) and back to London, I get an estimated charter cost for the whole trip of…
… £271,446 for flights for which Hague declared a donation to the value of £8,486.75 or about 31-32 times under the odds in terms of market value.
(Doing the Judith Chalmers bit here, that’s based on four passengers – you’d expect Hague to take a bag carrier or two – flying a standard jet. If Hague prefers a little luxury then then the London – Falklands leg alone bumps up from £103,000 to £130,000)
Who needs Easyjet or RyanAir when you’re getting subsidised flights one that scale?
It’s also worth point out here – well it is for me – that both the Israel/Jordan and Belize, etc. trips were belatedly registered with the Electoral Commission within a week of my post identifying discrepancies in Hague’s entry (3oth October 2007) which could be something or may be nothing as there’s no way of knowing for sure whether the motivation for putting his house in (slightly better) order came from having the finger pointed at him or more generally from the amount of interest at the time in Flying Lion.
So where are we going from here?
That’s a good question and I’m little undecided at the moment.
There are other matters I (or an enterprising journalist) could pursue via FOIA, particularly in regards to any guidance provided by the Electoral Commission to MPs on the registration of private flights and their proper valuation; and having found two late registrations and one significant flight package (London-Pakistan-Bahrain) still missing, one obvious line of enquiry is to request copies of any correspondence that passed between the Commission and Hague regarding the registration of these flights.
At this time there are enough grey areas here to warrant not coming to too many conclusions, particular about Hague, personally, because its entirely conceivable that the late registrations are the result of problems in obtaining valuations of the flights from Flying Lion or they may have been delayed while letters were exchanged with the Commission on the question of how they should be valued. As politicians go – and as I said back in January – I’m not inclined to think that Hague has personally been up to anything particularly dodgy here and would prefer to go with the idea of cock-up rather than conspiracy (at least as far as Hague is concerned) unless solid evidence to the contrary emerges, particularly when the whole business of registering overseas visits seems to be a bit of bureaucratic nightmare.
That said, there are legitimate questions to be raised here.
According to the Electoral Commission’s registers, Flying Lion have provided the flights for 20 overseas visits undertaken by Tory MPs since 2002 at a registered value of around £170,000 – this, as a matter of interest, includes a trip by David Cameron to Prague that, unlike Hague’s visit, was declared at just over £3,000 as was a £16,000 trip to the Sudan – Hague’s visit to the same place came in at £5,400.
That figure doesn’t include any domestic flights or short-hop flights to the continent that haven’t been declared on the assumption that they can be passed off as being valued under the £1000 limit and it doesn’t include any flights provided before the Electoral Commission’s registers came into effect – as this article from the Independent from 1997 shows, ‘Con Air’ has been in business for quite a while:
Peter Lilley flew round the country drumming up support for his Tory leadership campaign in a jet donated by Michael Ashcroft, the controversial multi-millionaire offshore financier.
Mr Lilley’s use of the executive aircraft will raise eyebrows in a party still reeling from sleaze allegations and questions about its links with big business. It will further fuel controversy about the leadership election which has seen all the contenders mount expensive publicity efforts. The Tory contest for the first time has used techniques more familiar to a general election, with candidates sending out messages on videos and glossy brochures…
…John Fraser, a spokesman for the Lilley campaign, confirmed Mr Ashcroft had donated his plane. But it was not loaned directly to Mr Lilley but via his adviser – Lord Archer. “Michael Ashcroft lent Jeffrey Archer as a personal favour an airplane for three days. This was used for Peter Lilley’s regional tour.”
The serious point is that due to the lack of clarity in regards to the correct method of putting an in-kind value on these flights, which, if strict rules on market value were applied could come it at anything from three to thirty two times the reported value depending on distance travelled, a conservative (no pun intended) estimate of the unreported value to the Conservative Party of having Ashcroft’s air taxi service on tap could easily be anything upwards of £1.5 million since 2002 and who can guess how much since Flying Lion first cropped up on the public radar in 1997 – and never mind the questions about the Conservative Parties ‘carbon footprint’ to go with this now that they’ve allegedly embraced a green agenda.
There has, of course, been a stream of negative press surrounding the funding of political parties and MPs finances evr since the first inklings of the story that was to become called ‘loans for peerages’ hit the news-stands, although at the time the focus of atention was one the question of whether anyone involved had acted unlawfully.
More recently, however, the scope of public scrutiny into the funding of politics and the politic classes has shifted beyond mere questions of possible illegality towards questions about some of the things that MPs and political parties have been able to do to keep their financial dealing out of the public eye by means of exploiting, quite legally, loopholes in the system, and the more one looks at Flying Lion the more one comes to think that the valuation of a 20,000 mile, six stop tour of the Atlantic by private jet at less than £9,000 is a prime example of just this kind of exploitation, especially when you’ve been quoted £270,000 for a commercial charter to fly the same route.