Leading Article: Something to hide

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The Independent Online
THROUGHOUT the past week Tory leaders have treated the details of their party's finances as though they deserved the same security protection as the movement of troops in time of war. They have argued that individuals who donate to party funds deserve the same privacy as those who donate to Oxfam or any other charity. It seems not to have occurred to Sir Norman Fowler and his colleagues that a significant proportion of the population would not see the Conservative Party as a good cause and that a governing party can offer rather more favours to its friends than a dogs' home can.

In Italy, the entire governing structure - national and local politicians, civil servants, top industrialists, magistrates - has been rocked to its foundations by disclosures of Mafia links and of the 'kickbacks' received for the award of lucrative contracts. Nobody has suggested that anything remotely comparable is happening in Britain. But the belief that we have a relatively 'clean' political and public life - allowing a whole variety of individuals, companies and interest groups to get a fair hearing from ministers, MPs and civil servants without greasing their palms - is one of the few things that this country still has going for it. It is certainly an attraction to some of those 'inward investors' that ministers profess to be so anxious to woo. The Tory leadership should understand that, where there is excessive secrecy, people are apt to assume that somebody has something to hide.

Other countries have more stringent controls over election expenditure and over donations to political parties. Only last week, for example, the Belgian parliament passed a law making it illegal for political parties to receive contributions from business organisations or interests, on pain of being fined double what they get. The United States and Germany have limits on the amounts that may be contributed by overseas donors. Several countries have upper limits on the size of donations from any source.

But, whatever the legislation, anybody who tries hard enough will find ways round it. What is shocking about the Tory leadership is its apparent determination to find loopholes even in Britain's feeble laws. The only requirement for disclosure is on corporate donors - they must show money given to any political party in their annual accounts so that shareholders may judge that the board has acted in their interests. There is no corresponding requirement on the Tory party to show even its own members that the money does not come from tainted sources. We know about the main corporate donors - and the disproportionate number of knighthoods and peerages received by their board members - only because journalists and researchers have combed more than 1,000 company accounts.

Yet even this is too open for Conservative Central Office. As the Independent disclosed last week, it drew up a scheme (now withdrawn) to encourage companies to open accounts from which the party could use interest to reduce its overdraft charges. The party promised potential takers that 'all interest free loans are obviously treated in strictest confidence and no need arises to identify the source of the loan in the Party's annual accounts'.

Tory politicians argue that Labour's links with the trade unions are more questionable than their party's links with big business. And certainly Labour ought urgently to rethink the system whereby trade unions, in effect, buy votes that influence policy and choice of leadership in return for contributions. But this, at least, is open. Last year, unions gave pounds 8m to the Labour Party. How these unions deploy their votes at Labour Party conferences and in leadership contests is open to public scrutiny. pounds 8m is almost exactly the sum that the Conservatives are thought to have received from foreign backers in the run-up to the 1992 general election. These backers may have wasted their money. Or again, they may not. We have no way of knowing.

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