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Ministry sponsors face Niell inquiry

SPONSORSHIP of government departments by big corporations is to be investigated by Lord Neill's Committee on Standards in Public Life, it was announced yesterday.

Companies which spent millions last year sponsoring official events and campaigns might see their backing declared in future as political donations are at present.

Launching a wide-ranging inquiry, Lord Neill questioned whether there was any real difference between sponsoring a political party and sponsoring a government department. "A layman might ask what the difference is between two forms of sponsorship," he said. The committee will look at whether the level of sponsorship should be limited, and whether the amounts should be disclosed.

The issue was raised by Lord Norton, a professor from the University of Hull who became a Conservative peer last year. His questions in the House of Lords revealed that summits during Britain's European presidency last year received more than pounds 1m from firms such as Group Four, Eurostar and Rover.

Baroness Symons, the Foreign Office minister, revealed that last year's G8 Summit in Birmingham received pounds 500,000 in sponsorship. Among other sponsors were the Goldman Sachs merchant bank and Sony.

The Foreign Office added that it had retained the services of a specialist firm, Integrated Communication Projects Ltd, to seek the sponsorship. Approaches were made to more than 400 companies.

Numerous other government publicity projects received sponsorship. Among them were two Department of Trade and Industry projects - a safety campaign on burns and scalds sponsored by Morphy Richards and information on winter fuel payments sponsored by Gala Bingo Halls.