An investment firm whose CEO has given more than £1m to the Tory Party has a third of its assets tied up in petrostates which benefited from a UK Government fund

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A donor who has given more than a million pounds to the Conservative Party runs an investment firm heavily invested in oil and gas enterprises in many of the same emerging market economies targeted by the Government since 2017.

Ashmore Group – an investment company 31.2% owned by its CEO Mark Coombs – has an investment portfolio that includes at least £472 million in oil and gas around the world.

Byline Times has analysed the top 10 companies in 13 of Ashmore’s funds worth more than £100 million. It found £210 million worth of investments in oil and gas companies, and a further £262 million in so-called petrostates: Mexico, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Oman and Indonesia. This makes up 34.6% of the analysed assets.

Coombs has donated £1.1 million to the Conservatives since 2017: he made two £300,000 donations in 2017, gave another £250,000 in 2019, and then £250,000 more in 2021.

Ashmore specialises in emerging markets. In 2015, a new international scheme called the Prosperity Fund (PF) was launched by the Government, which invested a budgeted £1.3 billion in emerging economies around the world – including some of the same companies invested in by Ashmore.

The PF financed a number of initiatives around the world, with 27 projects in countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia. Its Mexico bilateral programme states that “there will be a need to support the current administration with the development of technical regulation and policies to support their ambitions in the energy sector” and that “one of these ambitions is to increase oil production in the energy sector”.

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“Mexican Petroleum (PEMEX), is still the largest player in the oil and gas sector in Mexico, and does not have sufficient resources and capabilities to take advantage of its extensive oil and gas reserves,” it adds.

Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), the Government-owned Mexican oil company, received £72 million in investment through Ashmore products. In 2019, PEMEX was revealed to be the ninth most polluting company in the world and the first in Latin America. It is also, according to the UK Government, the world’s most indebted oil company.

There is a history, going as far back as 2008, of reported union squashing by PEMEX including threats of physical violence and reports that a man died after being denied urgent medical care in a PEMEX hospital, allegedly because his son was a unionised PEMEX worker.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) conducted a review of the process and, in its resulting report, raised concerns over the lack of transparency surrounding the PF. It said: “Despite the UK Government’s public commitment to promoting transparency in international aid, the Prosperity Fund has not operated so far in a fully transparent manner. There is limited information in the public domain about its strategy and ways of working.”

Another report by ICAI this month noted that a lack of transparency from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office “allowed a discretionary approach to be pursued” and, although the PF did routinely publish “some programme documentation”, it was not to the same level of transparency as that exercised by its preceding Department for International Development.

Indeed, one of ICAI’s recommendations was that to meet OECD criteria of Official Development Assistance (OAD), eligibility for these funds “should be explicit and challenging”.

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When asked about the coincidence between Coombs’ donations and the implementation of this large investment project, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson said that the funds had been allocated in 2015, well before the donations. However, this was the case for the overall amount of the PF, not for the specific allocation, country by country, of these funds. The department provided no further comment.

There is no evidence that Ashmore exerted influence in determining PF policies and rules.

Petroleos de Venezuela is the country’s Government-owned oil company and received investment through Ashmore funds to the tune of £45 million. In 2019, it came just behind PEMEX as the world’s tenth most polluting company. Also on the list of oil companies featured in Ashmore funds is the Brazilian Petrobras, the world’s twentieth worst polluter.

Most of the funds, however, go directly into countries with economies heavily reliant on the fossil fuel industry. Oil exports represent 36% of Ecuador’s exports, 85% of Qatar’s, 97% of Saudi Arabia’s, and 65% of Oman’s and Indonesia was being described in 2017 as the “$120 billion oil and gas opportunity”.

Ashmore’s annual report and accounts for 2022 contain a section dedicated to sustainability. It states: “Ashmore recognises that it is important for the financial sector to contribute to climate action (Sustainable Development Goal 6), and the related net zero transition. To achieve the economic transformation required to deliver ‘net zero by 2050’ financial flows must become aligned with a low-carbon economy and incentivise climate mitigation and adaption.”

Ashmore Group refused to comment.


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