Wealthy donors appear to be buying Government policy by securing “preferential” access to ministers and senior politicians, the standards watchdog has warned.
Sir Christopher Kelly said the perceived influence of rich businessmen over politicians is undermining public trust in Westminster. He cited the Coalition’s planning reforms as an example of a policy that raised suspicions after The Daily Telegraph disclosed that property developers were paying thousands of pounds for access to senior Tories.
Such preferential treatment leads to increasing concerns that there is “no smoke without fire”, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.
“There is no doubt that significant donors do have preferential access to political decision makers,” he said. “The thought that anyone would give such a large sum of money to a party solely for altruistic reasons is quite a difficult one. The risk is policy being influenced in other, more subtle, ways because some people have access because they have given donations.
“There is a risk of it [influencing of policy by donors] happening and more importantly there is a public perception that it does happen.”
The comments by Sir Christopher amount to one of the most strident warnings yet that Britain’s political system is at risk of being corrupted by wealthy individuals.
Successive governments have faced scandals over allegations that donors are buying power, from “cash for honours” under Labour to concerns about the influence of City financiers over the Conservatives. All three main political parties run donors’ clubs, under which wealthy people willing to make minimum donations of, for example, £50,000 can buy access to senior politicians at private dinners and meetings. Sir Christopher says people are right to be suspicious of the motives of anyone who donates more than £100,000 to a party.
“There have been sufficient allegations in the past of people receiving honours, or policies being influenced, for people to think there is no smoke without fire,” he said.
“Whether it [influencing policy by donors] happens or not, the public clearly believe that it happens. There is a risk of it happening and, more importantly, there is a public perception that it does happen. That perception by itself is so important in terms of the confidence and integrity of the way that important decisions are taken that it seems to me it needs to be addressed.”
Sir Christopher said party donations should be capped at £10,000 and state funding increased to remove the taint of corruption.
A poll carried out by his committee last year found that eight out of 10 people thought rich people gave more than £100,000 only in the hope of receiving special favours. Electoral Commission figures show that 54 people last year gave more than £100,000 to political parties — 22 to Labour and 17 to the Conservatives.
The Daily Telegraph disclosed last year how major property developers have given hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Property Forum, a Tory donors’ club, in return for access to MPs.
The disclosure came after the Government was accused of granting developers a “state licence to print money” by overhauling planning laws to make it easier to build on greenfield sites. Sir Christopher says: “That is a very good example of the difficulties of assessing whether policies have been influenced by donations. If there is a coincidence with what they might have done and donations, then it is inevitable people will make allegations.”
Sir Christopher said that without change there would continue to be a “drip, drip of stories that create innuendo that there is a connection between donations and something else”.
A spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said: “There has never been any suggestion any Liberal Democrat donor has used their money to influence our policy-making.” A Tory spokesman said: “There is no question of individuals influencing policy or gaining an unfair advantage by virtue of their financial contributions to the Conservative Party.”
A Labour spokesman said: “We recognise there is still real public concern about party funding which is why we support further reforms.”
Michael Brown, the Liberal Democrats’ biggest donor who has been on the run for three years after being sentenced to seven years in prison for a £40 million fraud, has been arrested in the Dominican Republic. Mr Brown, 45, who donated £2.4 million of stolen money to the Lib Dems in 2004, disappeared while on parole in 2008.