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Year 2001 No. 104, June 18, 2001 ARCHIVE

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Capping of Party Donations To Be Examined

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Capping of Party Donations To Be Examined

The Catastrophe at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital

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Capping of Party Donations To Be Examined

The Electoral Commission is proposing to investigate the capping of individual donations to political parties.

The main provisions of the legislation in the wake of the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life came into effect on February 16 this year. To stand candidates in an election, political parties must be registered, and all registered political parties must now report quarterly on individual donations above £5,000 to the Electoral Commission. During an election campaign, they must report to the Commission on a weekly basis. Other provisions relating to party finances are also in operation. The rationale has been that the reason the prestige of political parties is at an all-time low is because of the "sleaze" factor. Thus, political parties’ authorised expenditure for one year prior to an election has also been capped.

Commenting on the fact that the last election saw the lowest level of voter participation since 1918, the Electoral Commission’s chairman, Sam Younger, said he hoped to publish a report this summer that would "draw on the lessons". Another report next year would investigate plans for capping individual donations to parties, possibly at no more than £150,000. Sam Younger said that there was "a great deal of public concern over the scale of some donations and this is an issue which is not going to go away".

Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party receive sums in the millions of pounds from wealthy benefactors. For example, the Labour Party in recent months has disclosed three donations, each worth £2 million, from Lord Sainsbury of Turville, and the publishers Lord Hamlyn and Christopher Ondaatje. The reporting of donations during the election is to be found on the Electoral Commission’s website at: http://www.electoralcommission.gov.uk/returns_party/party_list_gb.htm

The view of Sam Younger is that the financial reforms introduced had gone "some way" to cleaning up party political funding. But, he said, "There are members of the public who suspect that no one gives something for nothing."

However, he also said that any cap on individual donations was likely to be linked with the introduction of state funding to make up for any shortfall in parties’ income. It remains to be seen how "shortfall" is to be defined. The root of the problem in the low prestige of political parties is not to be found primarily in the issue of their funding, but in the electoral system and political process, and the fact that within this political parties are reduced to electoral machines. Thus, the big parties need massive sums to try and cajole and manipulate the electorate to vote for them so that they can form the next government, otherwise they are not interested in electorate participation. The facts show that in this respect both Labour and Conservative are parties of the rich.

So far, the Electoral Commission has given indications that its thinking is based on notions of "equity" rather than on equality of all parties vis a vis the political process, big or small. Thus, for example, start-up costs for parties in putting into practice the recent legislation have been allocated on the basis of size and votes cast in previous elections, rather than an equal allocation to all parties. To ensure that there is no bias towards the big parties, it would be necessary to ban all expenditure by political parties during an election campaign, and ensure that all parties received an equal amount of state funding for this purpose.

But the fundamental reform required is for the political parties themselves to be prevented from coming to power, with candidates for election to be selected at workplaces, educational institutions and communities. The political parties in this reform of the political process would gain their prestige by being instruments of politicising the respective sections of the people whose interests they represent.

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The Catastrophe at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital

The people of Canterbury and throughout East Kent have been struggling for a number of years to prevent the Kent and Canterbury Hospital from being downgraded. David Shortt who represented the Campaign for Health in East Kent, even stood in the General Election as an independent candidate on the basis of fighting for the health care of the people and opposing the party juggernaut.

The situation at the K&C has now got so bad that during busy periods patients are given a hand bell to ring for attention because nurses can no longer see who needs help.

Last Friday, June 15, almost every junior doctor in the East Kent health authority, the sixth largest in England, signed a letter declaring that accident and emergency services at its three hospitals were unsafe. The 115 junior doctors said in the letter: "If no immediate measures are taken, the shortfall in bed numbers will have catastrophic consequences for the patients of East Kent over the busier months to come."

The experience is the usual alarming list of horror stories of patients being left for more than 24 hours before being able to see a specialist, or waiting for more than two days waiting for a bed. One patient said, "The staff are brilliant but are under so much stress. I went out for a cigarette yesterday and when I came back someone else was in my bed."

The K&C is due to lose its A&E department and important specialist facilities. Vigorous and sustained campaigning to the government and its Health Ministers has yet to reverse this decision. It is clear that the struggle is set to intensify over the direction that the government is taking the NHS.

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