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Party fundraising Tuesday, 13 October, 1998, 16:05 GMT 17:05 UK
Row erupts over political funding
Lord Neill
Lord Neill: getting rid of a "tradition of secrecy"
By BBC News Online's Nick Assinder.

Tony Blair has been caught at the centre of a row over the funding of British politics after the long-awaited Neill report demanded sweeping changes.

Within minutes of the publication of the radical and wide-ranging report, ministers welcomed its conclusions but said there was no way it could be implemented for around two years, and possibly longer.

The Opposition immediately hit back, accusing Tony Blair of threatening to put the issue on the back burner - and demanded legislation should be included in this year's parliamentary programme.

Others called for a voluntary agreement between the parties to ensure the main recommendations - which will change the face of politics and election campaigning - could be in place for the 1999 "year of elections".

European parliament
No new legislation may be in place before the European elections
They are angry that the proposals will not be law before elections to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and for a London Mayor.

And there are fears that the main parties will use any delay to boost their coffers with as much undeclared cash as they can get away with.

Tradition of secrecy

Ministers were clearly taken aback at the breadth and radicalism of the 250 page report, which contains 100 detailed recommendations for change and goes well beyond what was originally intended.

It's author, Lord Neill, declared the aim was to improve the public perception of politics.

"We encountered a tradition of secrecy about General Election expenditure - for example, the question of how it was spent," he said.

"The result of this secrecy in the past, we concluded, was that there is a suspicion and cynicism amongst the public.

"People have tended to ask questions like the following: What does a large donation buy? Does it buy access to ministers or special access over policies? We concluded that the whole system called for new arrangements," he said.

But to the dismay of many, Home Secretary Jack Straw only announced that the government would legislate on the report "before the next election."

He insisted the government was "committed to reforming and regulating the way political parties are funded", but said a draft Bill would not be published for about a year.

On that timetable it is highly unlikely any legislation could get through parliament for at least another year.

Queen's speech

Tory leader William Hague seized on the announcement, declaring new laws should be brought in as soon as possible.

And sources signalled they would be pressing for it to be included in the next Queen's Speech later this year.

Lord Neill's report includes numerous calls for either changes in existing legislation or the creation of new laws.

But key suggestions - including a 20m cap on election spending by parties, the naming of donors to party funds and a ban on all foreign donations - could be implemented immediately if the parties agreed.

The other major recommendation, for the creation of an Election Commission to oversee all funding and a special court with the power to fine wrongdoers, would require more fundamental changes.

Neither Labour or the Tories are currently discussing a voluntary code, although they are bound to come under increasing pressure to adopt one if legislation is a long way off.

BBC News
Political Correspondent John Pienaar on the likely contents of the report
See also:

10 Oct 98 | UK Politics
13 Oct 98 | Party fundraising
13 Oct 98 | Party fundraising
13 Oct 98 | Party fundraising
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