Public support for state funding of parties grows after donations row

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The public does not believe that political parties should be funded by rich individuals and are warming to the idea of state funding, according to a new opinion poll.

The "cash for honours" affair has increased public hostility to parties relying on huge donations or loans from millionaires, the ICM survey for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust suggests.

Some 60 per cent of people agreed that donations were "unfair" because there is a risk that wealthy backers, trade unions and businesses could buy influence over parties, while only 22 per cent disagreed.

More people (47 per cent) thought that parties with significant public support should be provided with public funds to reduce their dependency on wealthy backers than opposed the idea (37 per cent). The margin is tight, but previous surveys have shown strong aversion to state funding.

The apparent rise in support for the idea will encourage Tony Blair, who is exploring it in talks with other party leaders.

By a majority of more than 2-1 (59 per cent to 25 per cent), people believed there should be limits on how much individuals could donate to parties.

If taxpayers are to fund politics, there is strong support (59 per cent) for the money to support local activity by parties, with only 18 per cent disagreeing.

The public is divided over the proposal by last month's Power Commission on the state of Britain's democracy for people to tick a box to donate £3 a year to the party of their choice when they vote at a general election. Some 54 per cent think it is a bad idea, while 43 per cent believe it is a good one.

The commission's plan has won the backing of Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, who is the latest cabinet minister to come out in favour of increased state funding for political parties. She said yesterday: "I am very attracted to the idea from the Power inquiry."

Ms Hewitt's local election campaigning in Leicester was supported by Sir Gulam Noon, a businessman who gave a loan to the Labour Party and was nominated for a peerage by Mr Blair, but it was blocked by the Lords Appointments Commission. Asked whether she thought it was a mistake for Mr Blair to ask for loans rather than straight donations, which had to be identified, Ms Hewitt said: "All that is being investigated. I have long been a supporter of greater state funding for political parties."

She added: "I think with the business of loans and peerages we should look for the fundamental solution, which in my view includes an elected second chamber."

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, gave the strongest hint so far on Wednesday to a Commons committee that the Government would back greater state funding when it receives the report at the end of the year by Sir Hayden Phillips, a former Whitehall mandarin who is investigating party funding.

Bridget Prentice, a constitutional affairs minister, is to brief Labour MPs on party funding next week before Labour submits its own proposals to the Phillips inquiry. It is expected to call for a cap on individual donations, and an increase in state funding.