WHILE the cash-for-honours inquiry continues to get the headlines in Britain, some productive work has been going on behind the scenes to reform the rules for donations to political parties and to hold down expenditure by the parties, especially on elections. Sir Hayden Phillips, a former permanent secretary of the Home office, is undertaking a review of party funding which seems likely to achieve a consensus among the leading parties. At the same time the House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee has produced a report on reforms which also has an encouraging degree of cross-party agreement. There is general acceptance of the desirability of placing a limit on the amount spent on election campaigns; the Phillips inquiry has suggested a maximum of 12.5 million pounds which is somewhat lower than recent general elections have cost the main parties. However, there is less agreement about a cap on donations from individuals, companies and institutions even though there is recognition that some limit is desirable, coupled with total transparency. The main stumbling block here is Labour's reliance on trade union contributions. It would be inconceivable for this bedrock support to be withdrawn or drastically reduced, even though after a decade of New Labour several unions feel semi-detached. One issue remains unresolved. How far should the state give political parties financial help: how much, by what means and to which parties? This may prove the most difficult to resolve.
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