On the 8th May the MP for Crawley, Henry Smith asked the Speaker for clarification on a matter of accountability. His question may have been intended to embarrass the Labour Party, but in reality it exposes a gaping hole in the way in which our Parliament deals with conflicts of interests, and the ongoing toxic impact of Party Political funding. It is widely understood that MPs who individually receive funding from individuals or corporate donors must not only list these donations in the register of members interests, but if there is a debate in which their donors interests or companies are discussed, they have to make a point of acknowledging this so that those involved in the debate or Committee are not obliged to check out for themselves. If MPs break these rules they should be held to account which is why the Conservative MP for Bristol North West, Charlotte Leslie is currently facing an investigation. According to this report Ms Leslie forgot to register some donations to her local party amounting to £17,000 from the owner of Bristol Port Company. The man concerned is David Ord and he and his Company are opposed to the proposed Severn Barrage which is intended to generate electricity for all of us. The Barrage has many oppponents including Mr Ord and Charlotte Leslie has asked several questions about the Barrage in her role as MP. She also spoke to someone as part of a Select Committee and only subsequently listed a donation of £2,500 from the person concerned. Other MPs have made these same ‘mistakes’ in the past and for as long as significant donations are allowed within our political system, there seems to be an inevitable risk of these problems. My own experience of elections is that whilst listing donors is one extra issue to deal with when getting over the impact of a campaign, it is not a huge challenge.
The issue at the heart of Mr Smiths question was not that of personal donations but of donations to national parties. He asked the question as follows:
Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, during Prime Minister’s questions, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) raised the issue of the possible takeover of the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca by Pfizer. It has since been reported that the Labour party has received significant donations from AstraZeneca. I seek your judgment on whether that should have been reported. Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The short answer is that such donations would not have been personal to any individual right hon. or hon. Member, and therefore the issue of declaration does not arise in this context. I hope that is helpful to him, and indeed to the House.
So here we have a system that demands that individual MPs should register financial interests, but does not make the same demand of our Political Parties. One MP can of course have a huge impact in our public life, take for instance the impact of Caroline Lucas who as the sole Green MP has had significant impact across the House of Commons. However she would be the first to admit that her own impact could not match that of the entire Conservative or Labour Party.
The way in which these Parties attract donations is fascinating, if rather dispiriting. A recent posting from the Labour Party inviting people to attend their Labour Election Gala Dinner at the prestigious Round House in Camden. You can sponsor a table of 10 diners for £15,000 or if your means are not sufficient to pay £1,500 per head, there are £10,000 and £5,000 tables. Alternatively you can pay £500 for a good seat in the room or £400 for a good seat in the room, or finally £100 to attend the after dinner party. The access to shadow Ministers and MPs is part of the deal. No need to queue up for a face to face chat in a community centre on a Saturday Morning or Friday Afternoon. One can only speculate how many other opportunities exist within all of these powerful Political Parties. However as Mr Smith has pointed out to all of us, perhaps as part of a clumsy attempt to embarrass his political opponents, these donations, no matter how much influence they obtain for the donors, will never need to be declared in Parliament. This might help to explain why as I wrote recently, 75% of us believe that Big Financial Donors have too much influence on Party Political decisions. The Parties really don’t have any clothes. It is time for a change!