Cameron policy 'for sale' to rich donors, says watchdog
BRITISH Prime Minister David Cameron was under pressure last night after claims that wealthy party donors appear to be "buying government policy".
A top standards watchdog alleged that "preferential" access to ministers and senior politicians was being bought.
Christopher Kelly, who is chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, warned in an interview that the influence of rich businessmen over politicians was undermining public trust in Westminster and said there was "no smoke without fire".
He cited the coalition's planning reforms as an example of a policy that raised public suspicions after revelations that property developers are paying thousands of pounds for access to senior Conservatives.
He said: "There is no doubt that significant donors do have preferential access to political decision makers. 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, and others don't.
"There is a risk of it (influencing of policy by donors) happening and more importantly there is a public perception that it is 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 needs to be addressed."
The comments by Mr Kelly amount to one of the most strident warnings yet that Britain's political system is at risk of being corrupted by wealthy individuals.
Successive government's have been 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 individuals willing to make minimum donations of up to £50,000 (€61,000) can buy access to senior politicians at private dinners and meetings.
Mr Kelly said people were right to be suspicious of the motives of anyone who donated more than £100,000 (€122,000) to a party.
Party donations should be capped at £10,000 (€12,000) and state funding increased to remove the taint of corruption, he said.
"The question we have to ask ourselves is: 'What is the level of donation which any reasonable person would think would be so low that it would not run the risk of influencing policy?'
"We decided it was £10,000 -- bearing in mind that £10,000 a year is still £50,000 over the course of a parliament."
A poll carried out by his committee found that eight out of 10 people thought that rich individuals only gave more than £100,000 in the hope of receiving special favours.
Electoral commission figures show that last year 54 individuals gave more than £100,000 to political parties, including 22 to Labour and 17 to the Conservatives.
Mr Kelly said that corruption was difficult to prove because "influence on policy is hard to assess, private conversations difficult to capture".
He said: "These things are never as straightforward as saying 'if I give you x money, will you change policy in that respect'."
'The Daily Telegraph' disclosed last year how major property developers had given hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Property Forum, a Tory donors club, in return for access to Conservative 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.
Mr Kelly said: "That is a very good example of the difficulties of assessing whether policies have been influenced by donations." (© Daily Telegraph, London)