Whilst the Electoral Commission’s investigation into whether the millions donated by Bearwood Corporate Services – wholly-owned by the now liquidated Bearwood Holdings – to the Conservative Party’s marginal seats campaign were legal, fresh evidence has emerged that Bearwood is up and running again.
Lord Ashcroft, owner the Belize Bank, which is considered to be the nucleus of his empire, set up a complex donations mechanism to the Conservatives. Funds started off in Belize-based Stargate Holdings, before filtering through UK-registered (and now liquidated) Astraporta, then UK firm (and now liquidated) Bearwood Holdings, before passing through Bearwood Corporate Services, a UK Limited Company – and the final waypoint for donations before they landed in David Cameron’s warchest.
The financial statements of Bearwood Holdings from 2007 are available publicly online and show ‘L Austen’ listed as a director. His name – Lyn Austen – also appears in numerous Google searches for Bearwood Holdings.
Intriguingly, Lyn Austen now lists his occupation as Managing Director at Bearwood Corporate Finance (BCF), whose registered office is very close to that of the previous St. Florian House address for Bearwood Corporate Services (BCS).
The BCF website is very basic and quite mysterious, with no personnel or even company registration or FSA details listed – odd considering it’s a company in the financial services industry.
In fact, the only reference the website makes to an individual or other company is a firm called Oasis Europe, with whom it apparently works in partnership.
Calling the number on the BCF website takes you straight to Lyn Austen (or his voicemail). I called Oasis Europe and whilst the first person I spoke to at their Reading Office didn’t seem to know who BCF were, an individual I spoke to later confirmed that BCF essentially acts as a subsidiary to Oasis Europe, but is not a registered company itself, and it trades under the Bearwood name with permission from Lord Ashcroft. The individual at Oasis Europe categorically stated: “We have no links whatsoever to Lord Ashcroft”.
In fact, the precise nature of their involvement with BCS is made clear on their own website, as the company states:
“…on 1 July 2006 we acquired the acquisition search business and management of Bearwood Corporate Services. They are a highly regarded player in the sector…”
It was at that time also that BCS changed its registered address to that of its auditor’s – Arcadia House in Southampton.
However, this made no difference to the donations. BCS continued to donate, both to Conservative Central Office, as well as constituency offices, after the address change and buy-out by Oasis Europe, just as it did before.
Several questions arise. Firstly, if BCS was a mergers business and it sold this part of its business to Oasis Europe, what was the company’s business from 2006? And secondly, how was it doing enough of it to allow it to hand over £634,000 in cash and over £3,210,000 in non-cash donations to the Conservative Party after its buy-out – particularly since it’s reported to have just two employees?
I’m not making any accusation of Oasis Europe, but it does seem strange that a company claims to have no links whatsoever with Lord Ashcroft – merely saying that they are allowed to use the Bearwood name – and yet not only purchased a ‘major’ party of BCS business, but also poached its management (presumably they are referring to Lyn Austen.
It is interesting to say the least that Lyn Austen was still a registered director of Bearwood Holdings in 2007 and 2008 (at least) and this company formed a critical link in the donation chain into the Conservative Party. He is also reported to have been a director at Astraporta UK.
In 2005, Lord Ashcroft described BCS as a “small merger-broking business”. In 2008, when questioned by The Times, Lyn Austen confirmed that the merger brokering business of BCS had been sold and that he no longer worked there. It was suggested that Austen only actually resigned after The Times’ probe.
The question for Oasis Europe is why the director of its corporate finance business (BCF) was concurrently the sole named director of Bearwood Holdings, which wholly owned BCS, which has in turn donated over £3,800,000 to the Conservative Party since 2006?
It is also very interesting that as soon as an investigation was speculated upon, both Astraporta UK and Bearwood Holdings failed to file their company accounts (for September and November 2008) and entered liquidation by March 2009. If that doesn’t smack of a cover-up, I’m not sure what does.
I’m sure that the Electoral Commission has all this information already. It professes that it aims for integrity and public confidence in democracy. For that reason alone, it must make a ruling on the donations before the election.
Whatever’s going on, it’s pretty clear that all is not what it seems in Lord Ashcroft’s murky world.