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Ministers in £1,000 cash for access row

On August 26, 2010, in Lobbying, by Editor

Businessmen pay for meetings over dinner.

Newspaper Article

- By Tim Shipman, The Daily Mail, UK

The Tories and Liberal Democrats were embroiled in a ‘cash for access’ row last night after it emerged that they are both charging rich businessmen for the right to rub shoulders with senior government ministers.

“For all the Conservative talk of new politics, this is the same old Tory sleaze. Selling access to government ministers at £1,000 a head is just grubby.”

Donors who pay £1,000 will get to sit with Tory ministers at a fundraising dinner at the Conservative Party Conference next month. And supporters will get to discuss – and potentially influence – government policy with LibDem ministers for as little as £250.

But all their names will be kept secret because the donations are below the £5,000 legal threshold which triggers scrutiny by the Electoral Commission watchdog.

The secrecy will undermine claims by David Cameron that he is committed to transparency in political funding.

Executives can buy a seat at the Conservative Party Business Dinner, where the special guest will be Chancellor George Osborne, for £500.

But ‘platinum diners’ paying twice as much are guaranteed to share a table with a serving minister near Mr Osborne. The dinner – inside the ‘ring of steel’ at the Birmingham International Conference Centre – is being marketed on the Conservative Party website as ‘an exclusive networking event’ where guests will ‘enjoy fine wines and superb food with fellow business leaders’.

But the Tories’ coalition partners have gone even further, explicitly boasting to their supporters will be able to discuss government policy with Liberal Democrat ministers.

LibDem donors can pay £800 to attend a ‘Corporate Day’ at the LibDem conference in Liverpool, which will include a speech from Energy Secretary Chris Huhne and a ‘special forum’ with Business Secretary Vince Cable and Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander – the man making the coalition’s spending cuts.

Adverts for the inaugural LibDems Business Dinner on Monday 20 September, hosted by party chief executive Chris Fox, come close to explicitly offering cash for access.

‘This dinner will provide guests with an unrivalled forum in which to discuss the issues that matter, with the people that matter,’ the invitation reads.

For just £250, the donors are invited to ‘join senior Lib Dems for a critical insight into the aims of the coalition and how our policies are at the very heart of government’.

Tory officials pointed out that Labour used similar fundraising dinners during Tony Blair’s tenure in Downing Street – and has a business dinner at its conference this year with seats available for up to £1,250.

But both the Tories and LibDems are coming to terms with the fact that their activities are subject to far more intense scrutiny now that they are in government.

Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the committee on standards in public life said: ‘If you’re trying to set a high moral tone, this sort of thing is unwise,’ he said.

‘Governing parties need to be very careful about their fundraising. The public reacts very strongly to the idea that you can buy influence with government.’

Tory funding is already under the spotlight after the resignation last week of ‘shady financier’ David Rowland as party treasurer.

The party’s biggest donor in the run up to the election was controversial hedge fund manager Jon Wood, who glories in the nickname ‘Keyser Soze’, the villain in the film The Usual Suspects.

Details of the way access to government ministers is being hawked to rich supporters will undermine Mr Cameron’s claim in that he wants to remove ‘the impression, now deep in the public mind, that influence, access and honours can be bought by wealthy institutions… and individuals’.

Labour MP Michael Dugher said: ‘This is cash-for-access, plain and simple,’ he said.

‘For all the Conservative talk of new politics, this is the same old Tory sleaze. Selling access to government ministers at £1,000 a head is just grubby.’

The Coalition government is committed to reforming the political funding system with a view to ‘taking the big money out of politics’. But so far Mr Cameron’s pledge to cap donations at £50,000 has come to nothing.

Tories claim they have been thwarted by Labour’s unwillingness to discuss reform of its financial links to the unions.

Officials last night dismissed comparisons with the Bernie Ecclestone affair when the Formula One boss paid Labour £1million before the Blair government changed policy on tobacco advertising to benefit the sport.

One source said: ‘There is absolutely no suggestion that anyone has done any favours for anyone.’

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