LEADING ARTICLE : Invite Nolan to the party

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The Independent Online
For a long time now the funding of our political parties has been regarded as something of a private matter. So the Hong Kong magnate Sir Troo Bloo loves Maggie, what of it? And whose business is it if New Labour is getting a pound or two from northern industrialist Bob Short? The answer, of course, is that it is our business. While it may well be true that those who give money to political parties do so out of nothing more than ideological conviction, it would be naive to take this entirely on trust. So we don't.

This weekend the question was revived when Labour and the Liberal Democrats called for the Nolan Committee - broadsheet heroes of last week - to be allowed to examine the funding of political parties. Nolan is already due to begin looking at the Lords and local government. But the Prime Minister, apparently, does not agree, believing such scrutiny to be beyond the remit of the committee. Stephen Dorrell, fresh from the Churchill controversy, has gone public with the opinion that if "people are paid out of public funds to do a job, they should stick to the job they have been given". Poor old Dorrell's next task will probably be to reassure us about the harmlessness of the Ebola virus.

The first question, surely, is whether some scrutiny is needed. Is there an issue of concern about standards in public life here? We believe there is. Who gives money to political parties, why they give it and whether they expect anything in return, all reflect on the conduct of public life, whether or not they are expressly mentioned in Nolan's original terms of reference.

The next question is whether Nolan is the right vehicle for this enquiry. In his rather disarming interview on BBC1's On The Record yesterday, Lord Nolan himself speculated that his committee was unsuited to the sleuthing role of the bloodhound, preferring the more passive part of watchdog. Which is fine, because we do not actually need a body possessing police powers to, say, enter and search Smith Square, Walworth Road and Lloyd- Webber Towers, or to give the third degree to Steve Davis and Dickie Attenborough. Nolan's contribution would be to examine the principles of party funding, tackling issues such as disclosure, transparency and influence - and then come up with recommendations which would reassure the public. This he has already done very well when dealing with quangos and public appointments.

Nolan's own greatest worry is that such an enquiry would threaten the all-party unanimity in his committee, which has been crucial to its success so far. He anticipates that this could become a hopelessly partisan battle. This is fair. But the experience so far suggests that - providing all are treated equally - members of the committee have been rather good at losing their party tags. The Conservative member, Tom King, would presumably be reassured by a clear mandate for the committee from the Prime Minister.

So this week John Major could resolve this debate by simply tagging on the words "and political parties" to the end of paragraph two of the Nolan Committee's remit. If he does not, then he will instead spend the whole week answering one very straightforward question - what is it that he is so scared of?