Someone recently tweeted (@confirmordeny) “political parties that get taxpayers money should be subject to #foi”. My initial response was to disagree and I got a follow up message: “I disagree. State-funded parties are as much part of the apparatus of the state as quangos.” After this second tweet I decided the issue needs looking at in a bit more detail.
Political parties in the UK have no special powers in themselves they only really get power through their candidates winning elections by gaining sufficient support from the public. This power is exercised through public bodies e.g. House of Commons, Ministerial Departments etc and not through the parties themselves which remain private bodies. Public funding seems to be the only factor that might make it right to make political parties subject to FOI.
public funding of political parties
Major political parties do receive public funding in several forms:
- Short money
- Cranborne money
- Policy development grants
- salaries for certain party whips; and
- Assistance to registered political parties, paid by the Scottish parliament
- free party political broadcasts
- other indirect state funding e.g. freepost and free use of meeting rooms
European wide parties also get EU money
Organisations in receipt of substantial public funding ought to be accountable for how the money is spent not just to their own members but to all taxpayers. The present system is not transparent enough but I am still not sure making political parties subject to FOI is the right solution.
The next thing to look at is what proportion of party funding is public money.
- Conservative Party (09 accounts): public: £5.2M, total: £42.0M. (~ 11%)
- Labour Party (09 accounts): public: £1.0M, total: £26.8M. (~ 4%)
- Lib Dems (09 accounts): public: £0.5M total: £4.3M (~ 12%)
- Plaid Cymru (09 accounts): public: £0.2M total: £0.8M (~ 25%)
As far as I can tell UKIP and the Green Party got no public funding at all for 2009.
Quangos in contrast are state controlled and in most cases receive substantially all of their funding from the state.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is a framework designed for public bodies that should not be imposed on private bodies not carrying out public functions and not receiving the majority of their cash from public funds.
Nevertheless political parties receive large amounts of public funding and therefore the public in general need a legal ‘right to know’ how that money is spent. The general requirement to file accounts with the Electoral Commission does not provide enough detail a new access regime is needed.