Lord Ashcroft investigation pulled by BBC Panorama over legal problemsProgramme postponed following objections from Tory benefactor's lawyers over interpretation of company document
Owen Bowcott and Rajeev Syal guardian.co.uk, Monday 27 September 2010 21.09 BST Article history
An investigation into Lord Ashcroft's finances has been postponed by the BBC after legal objections. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

A BBC Panorama investigation into the financial affairs of the outgoing Conservative party deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft was tonight pulled from BBC1's evening schedules at the last moment.

The programme is believed to have run into legal problems following objections from the Tory benefactor, who has been at the centre of fierce political controversy over his previous status as a tax exile.

The 64-year-old businessman, whose commercial interests are centred on Belize, is estimated to have given at least £11m to the party, with some of the funds focused on key Conservative target seats. He has fought several legal battles to defend himself against allegations about his business practices.

The Panorama programme, widely trailed over the weekend in the run-up to its anticipated Monday evening slot, alleged Ashcroft had avoided more than £3m in tax through a financial manoeuvre that involved transferring shares in the Impellam Group worth £17m to a trust to benefit his children.

Sources close to the peer claimed the programme was pulled because journalists had misinterpreted a company document released by Impellam on 6 April 2010.

Some of the interviews for the programme were filmed before the general election. Lawyers for Ashcroft have been engaged in a year-long battle with the BBC over the investigation into the Tory peer.

The Impellam document said the company "had been notified that, following a transfer of an indirect interest in the company, Lord Ashcroft no longer has a beneficial interest in 25,745,349 ordinary shares of 1p each in the company. These shares represented the whole of his beneficial interest in the company".

The BBC's investigators interpreted this to mean that Ashcroft had controlled the shares and subsequently moved them into a trust to benefit his children, according to a Conservative source. Ashcroft's lawyers, however, argued that the use of the phrase "indirect interest" showed that he did not own the shares.

A BBC spokesman last night confirmed that the programme had been delayed. "We put a number of questions to Lord Ashcroft two weeks ago, including one relating to a share interest transfer. We asked for a response by Friday 24 September. A response was received this afternoon. We have been given information that sheds new light on that issue and we will therefore review the programme."

The Conservative source said that the peer had been "saddened" and alleged there had been by a "demise of journalistic standards" at the BBC.

"There has been enormous waste of public money chasing this story - from flights to the Caribbean, to expensive legal fees," he said. "How the BBC could get itself into such a mess over such an easily checkable fact is laughable."

Lord Ashcroft's spokesman declined to comment.

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