Prince Charles’s estate made big profit on stake in friend’s offshore firm
MPs urge transparency after Paradise Papers show prince’s estate held stake in forestry firm as he campaigned on climate
Prince Charles with Hugh van Cutsem at an agricultural show in the 1980s. Photograph: PA/Guardian Design Team
Tuesday 7 November 2017 18.00 GMT
Last modified on Tuesday 7 November 2017 18.03 GMT
The Prince of Wales’s private estate has invested millions of pounds in offshore funds and companies, including a Bermuda-registered business run by one of his best friends, according to documents in the Paradise Papers leak.
The Duchy of Cornwall’s decision to buy shares was regarded as highly sensitive and board members of the company, which invested in land to protect it from deforestation, were sworn to secrecy.
Documents show the duchy was introduced to the company by its director, Hugh van Cutsem, a millionaire horse breeder who owned a 1,600-hectare (3,400 acre) estate in Norfolk. He met Prince Charles when they were at Cambridge University in the 1960s.
While there was no tax advantage to the estate, the decision to give financial backing to a company run by such a close friend of the prince, and the insistence that the estimated $100,000 stake be kept secret, may raise awkward questions for the duchy.
Its financial advisers may also be asked if the duchy should have publicly declared the investment in a company that might have indirectly benefited from the impact of the prince’s longstanding support for conservation projects.
He has been making speeches and writing books on the environment since the 1980s. In January 2008, months after the duchy bought the shares, the prince released a video in which he called for new ways of supporting rainforests.
The duchy pointed to the prince’s track record on green issues and insisted he had “never chosen to speak out on a topic simply because of a company that the duchy may have invested in”.
It said the prince did not have any “direct involvement in investment decisions”.
But the Labour MP and tax campaigner Margaret Hodge said the disclosures confirmed the need for more transparency.
“It seems clear to me that Prince Charles could not have known or understood the nature of the investment in his friend’s company,” she said.
“What is clear is that there should be proper transparency of all investments made by the Duchy of Cornwall, that the Prince of Wales should not be involved in investment decisions and that the Treasury should monitor the investments to ensure that the reputation and integrity of our royal family is protected.”
Highgrove, the prince’s home in Gloucestershire. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Before the Paradise Papers leak, there had been no public disclosure that the prince’s estate had offshore interests. While the royal household publishes annual accounts, it does not go into details about investments and where they are made – omissions that have been repeatedly challenged by parliamentary committees and campaign groups.
The Duchy of Cornwall is a private estate that was established in 1337 by Edward III to provide independence to his son and heir, Prince Edward. A charter ruled that each future Duke of Cornwall would be the eldest surviving son of the monarch and the heir to the throne. The duchy’s main purpose is funding the “public, charitable and private activities of the Prince of Wales and his family”.
The duchy owns 53,000 hectares of land in 23 counties, including Prince Charles’s Gloucestershire home of Highgrove. It is a major business with interests in commercial and residential property and farmland. The latest accounts show it had assets of £913m in April.
The duchy’s portfolio included shares in a company called Sustainable Forestry Management, which it bought in early 2007, according to theParadise Papers.
The company, which was registered in Bermuda’s capital, Hamilton, was set up in 1999 to trade in carbon credits. Van Cutsem, who died in 2013, was a director of SFM, a company that aimed to generate “attractive returns … by investment in the world’s tropical and subtropical forests”.
Board minutes for SFM from February 2007 show the duchy had recently become an investor in the company with the purchase of 50 shares.
“The chairman thanked Mr Van Cutsem for his introduction of the Duchy of Cornwall and asked and the board unanimously agreed that the subscription by the Duchy of Cornwall be kept confidential, except in respect of any disclosure required by law,” the minutes say.
Other investors in the company included wealthy business people and society figures, including an Israeli billionaire.
The shares appear to have been held for about a year, after which they were transferred to another investor for $325,000.
In the years after the duchy sold its stake, the company got into trouble after failing to raise enough funds to pursue projects, and was wound up in 2011.
Minutes for a later meeting show the company attempting to raise support for the 2007 “forest now declaration”, which called for policies and reforms to incentivise the protection of tropical forests and advocated the use of carbon credits.
The prince and Camilla, Duchess Of Cornwall, at the Highgrove shop in Tetbury. Photograph: Mark Cuthbert/UK Press/Getty Images
The papers show Van Cutsem wanted to brief his friend on the issue and he “asked that a set of documents be prepared for the Prince of Wales’s ofﬁce”.
The prince launched the Rainforests Project in October 2007, and in January 2008 it released a video in which he returned to the theme, saying: “We have to find a way of putting a price on them, on the forests, which makes them more valuable alive than dead. So how to do we do it?
“The immediate priority, I believe, is the need to develop a new credit market which will give a true value to carbon and the ecosystem services the rainforests provide the rest of the world … In other words, pay for the perpetual retention of forests.”
The papers show the duchy also committed to invest £1m in a private equity fund based in the Cayman Islands. It became a partner in Coller International Partners IV-D, which acts as a feeder fund for a $2.6bn fund run from London.
The duchy has never had to pay any UK tax on its income or gains from investments, although since 1993, the prince has voluntarily paid tax on the income he gets from the fund each year, after some expenses.
The prince greets William van Cutsem, godfather to Prince George, at the funeral of his father, Hugh, in 2013. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
A Clarence House spokesman said: “The prince has never chosen to speak out on a topic simply because of a company that the duchy may have invested in. In the case of climate change, his views are well known. Indeed, he has been warning of the threat of global warming to our environment for more than 30 years.
“Throughout this period, he has highlighted many different ways in which it might be possible to slow or halt the damage that is being done. Carbon markets are just one example that the prince has championed since the 1990s and which he continues to promote today, including in his most recent book published earlier this year.”
Asked about its investments, a duchy spokesman said: “The Duchy of Cornwall’s accounts are independently audited and presented to parliament every year. The Prince of Wales does not have any direct involvement in the investment decisions taken by the duchy. These are the responsibility of the duchy’s finance and audit committee.”
The duchy said it would not comment on any of its investments.
“Because it is a private estate we do not comment on the details of the investments beyond stating that they must adhere to its responsible investment policy, which governs the sectors that the duchy may invest in. In all cases, these investments do not derive any tax advantage whatsoever based on their location or any other aspect of their structure, and there is no loss of revenue to HMRC as a result,” it added.
In 2013, the public accounts select committee questioned the fairness of the estate’s tax-exempt position. There have also been calls to extend scrutiny of the duchy’s business dealings; currently, the Treasury must approve all the duchy’s land deals, but only those with a value of more than £500,000.