Tory chief Lord Ashcroft settles website libel claim

Tory deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft has settled his libel action over a website claim that his companies offered banking facilities which helped customers unlawfully to evade tax.

Lord Ashcroft, the chairman and majority shareholder in BB Holdings Limited, accepted a public apology and a substantial undisclosed donation to a charity he founded - Crimestoppers - from accountant Richard Murphy.

Murphy, a director of Tax Research LLP, who has a website, Tax Research UK and a related blog, will also pay the legal costs of the peer and two subsidiaries of BB Holdings - The Belize Bank Ltd and Belize Bank International Ltd.

Lord Ashcroft's counsel, Godwin Busuttil, told Mr Justice Eady at the High Court that in April this year Murphy published an article on his website entitled "Lord Ashcroft's Belize Bank - a supplier of tax evasion services?"

It accused the claimants of knowingly and intentionally supplying or offering to supply banking facilities which enabled or assisted customers unlawfully to evade tax and which provided anonymity for those who had indulged in criminal activity and which enabled or assisted the laundering of dishonestly or criminally acquired funds by using the Bank's corporate credit cards.

Busuttil said Murphy, of Downham Market, Norfolk, appeared to have based his allegations on his understanding of what he had read on a third party's website, but that in fact that website said no such thing and its owners had subsequently confirmed that they were not making any such allegations nor were they even referring to the claimants.

Unfortunately, Murphy did not approach the claimants for comment before posting the defamatory allegations, Busuttil said, adding: "In fact, as the defendant accepts, these allegations are entirely false.

"The Belize Bank Ltd and Belize Bank International Ltd comply with the strict Belize banking laws which comply with internationally-set standards for offshore banking and which have been framed in accordance with the requirements of the International Monetary Fund and the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force.

"Additionally, the Belize Bank Ltd and Belize Bank International Ltd are subject to regulation by the Central Bank of Belize, and the general supervision of the Belize Financial Intelligence Unit.

"There are also rigorous internal procedures supported by external audits to ensure that the claimants' banking business is conducted in accordance with the regulations set in place to prevent exactly what the defendant alleged."

He said Murphy appeared to have misunderstood the purpose of secured corporate Visa cards, which was a normal service offered subject to appropriate customer checks.

Such cards were issued by other well-known international banks and met the strict requirements of Visa.

Busuttil said that when the errors were pointed out, Mr Murphy unreservedly apologised, removed the article and confirmed that he had taken steps to ensure that references to it were removed from third parties websites.

Murphy, who represented himself in court, sincerely apologised for the embarrassment suffered and undertook not to repeat the allegations.

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