Comment: The UK’s democracy is not for sale!

The shocking revelation that a Conservative party co-treasurer offered access to the prime minister and chancellor for up to £250,000 underscores the need for urgent reforms to clean up political party funding in the UK.

By Chandu Krishnan

There have already been too many recent scandals which suggest that wealth can buy influence in parliament. Mr Cruddas' apparent willingness to sell access to the prime minister will increase the growing public unease about corruption in British politics. In a report published by Transparency International UK last year, it was found that the British public consider political parties to be the most corrupt among a list of key sectors of UK public life.

This provides a sad commentary on the current state of the political system and standards in public life. As more such scandalous cases emerge, there is a danger that the UK will increasingly be perceived as a country where the wealthy can gain unfair access to those who shape our laws and policies while the poor are increasingly marginalised and voiceless.

Transparency International UK first highlighted the corruption vulnerability of the current system of political party funding in a report in 2006, and many of our recommendations from then still stand – indicating that little has changed in the meanwhile.

Although legislation enacted over the past 12 years has lead to greater transparency in political party funding, unlike many other major industrial democracies, the UK does not have a ceiling on donations to political parties. There is particular concern that a handful of wealthy individuals and organisations might be able to buy influence or position through making large donations. Indeed, £250 million of the £423 milliom donated to political parties between 2001 and mid 2010 was from single donations of more than £100,000 made by individuals, companies or unions. The main three political parties included plans for reform in their election manifestos. The time to live up to those promises has come.

Access to the government should not be for sale to the highest bidder. The imposition of a ceiling on political party donations of, say, £10,000 per annum, would prevent such scandals from recurring with alarming frequency.

Parliament also needs to act with urgency to adopt legislation for a mandatory register of all lobbying activity so that the UK public knows who is lobbying whom for what, and how much they are paying for it. The coalition government has taken some steps in the right direction. It has changed the ministerial code to require ministers to declare all meetings with lobbyists and it has banned lobbying by former ministers for two years after they leave office. However, more must be done. The Cruddas meeting would never have been reported under the current rules.

The Cabinet Office recently launched a consultation on the introduction of a public register of lobbyists. However, in its proposals, the term 'lobbyist' is narrowly defined as those who undertake lobbying activities on behalf of a third party client. Therefore, corporate in-house lobbying teams will be exempt from the proposed new rules and the plans do not require ministers to declare meetings with lobbyists who are also friends. If we had a robust mandatory register then meetings like the one exposed in the Sunday Times would have to be recorded, lowering the risk of corruption.

Without these urgent reforms, public trust in politicians will be further eroded. Must we have more scandals before the political establishment accepts that reforms cannot be ignored any longer?

Chandu Krishnan is executive director of Transparency International UK

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