Neill to act over fears Dome sponsors `bought influence'

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MINISTERS ARE to be forced to disclose details of government sponsorship deals with commercial companies amid allegations that some Millennium Dome backers might have received privileged access.

The recommendation from Lord Neill's Committee on Standards in Public Life is bound to prove embarrassing, coming just weeks after the dome's official opening.

Ministers believed they had put behind them storms over the exhibition's sponsors and difficulties in raising money for the project.

Lord Neill of Bladen is expected to make the recommendation in a report due out in the new year. Although the report is still being finalised it is believed to say departments should report on the deals in their annual reports or should release details on demand. The committee is also expected to criticise ministers for their increasingly political use of ministers' special advisers.

The report will suggest new guidelines on lobbying, on appeals for MPs found guilty of disciplinary offences and on the ministerial code of conduct.

Evidence presented to the committee, which is just completing a review of standards in government, details meetings between ministers and dome sponsors and outlines policy issues that affected them as they made their donations.

Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the First Division Association of senior civil servants, said he feared "a great loophole" was opening up over rules on government sponsorship. While tight guidelines had been drawn up on political funding, less attention had been paid to companies' dealings with government.

"The committee has been looking very closely at the sponsorship of political parties and setting down rules. Frankly, we do not see any difference. Businesses sponsor government activities just as they sponsor party political events, for exactly the same reason.

"My guess would be that almost any request for details of sponsorship would be met by `commercial in confidence' tags and all the rest of it," he said.

For instance, evidence heard by committee members suggests Tesco announced its pounds 12m donation in February 1998, three months after learning of government plans for a supermarket car park tax. In May of that year representatives from the firm held a meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and in July the proposal was dropped.

There is no suggestion that Tesco made its donation to try to influence the Government's decision, nor that any deal was done on the issue. However, Lord Neill was asked to look at the issue and is believed to have taken the view that complete openness should be the key to government relations with commercial organisations.

Lord Neill's committee has been told that some Dome sponsors would not disclose details of their deals with the exhibition's organisers. The committee also found that government information on sponsorship was patchy.

Leading article, Review, page 3