Cash may buy access, but access does not result in policy

Once you’ve settled back down I would like you to draw your attention to the latest cash for access scandal which has rocked yet another government. It is, of course, preposterous that you can accept party donations in exchange for direct access to the prime minister, or any other elected official for that matter. Yet what the vast majority seem to have forgotten is that siting down and chatting with cabinet ministers does not mean that what is said to them will become policy.

If I donated, let’s say, £300,000 to the Conservative party, and had an informal lunch with David Cameron, and I said to him: “I believe that you need to introduce legislation which makes it illegal to wear trousers, jeans or any form of leg wear on a Friday.” It would of course be absurd that this suggestion would become policy, and this is what has been missed by the majority of individuals who are launching unrelenting attacks on the Conservative party.

It does not make it right, and this latest scandal can highlight a bigger problem that the entire system of party funding needs to be reformed. Yet just because you meet with a minister, it does not automatically mean that your conversation will be transplanted into legislation.

Let us take the National Planning Policy Framework, recently announced by Greg Clark, the planning minister. The new framework has been praised by developers, councils, retailers, and conservationists alike (aside from a few misplaced criticisms from Greenpeace). The reason I highlight this particular piece of policy is because there was a danger that undue influence would have been exerted onto the policy, giving precedence to retailers and developers, compared to conservationists.

As reported The Times, there were two businesses that could have benefited greatly from the revised framework. Michael Freeman, property developer and founder of Argent Group, and Sir Anthony Bamford, the boss of JCB, the construction equipment company, could have both benefited from the framework. So much so that George Osborne stretched the Treasury’s muscle, attempting to force the new framework to focus on “development” and “economic growth”, rather than “sustainability” and “preservation”. Yet Clark was not one to be bullied, and the framework itself has received applause from all sides, and this shows that despite the pressure from party donors, it does not mean that policy will reflect what they want.

It all comes back to trust in our politicians. If you believe that they are attempting to do what is best for the country, and the people who live here, then of course you are not going to worry about party donors. After all, political parties are still large organisations who require financial contributions in order to hire their staff, manage their activities, and represent the electorate.

On the other hand, if you base your trust on the distance you could throw them (and in some cases, such as Eric Pickles, that trust cannot surely extend beyond the meagre inches you could push him) then you will of course believe strongly that any influence and access is wrong, and is a corrupting influence on our politicians.

Personally, I come under the former category. If an elected politician accepts a donation from a shifty fellow in a suit, or meets for lunch with a slightly scrupulous individual wearing a monocle, than when that becomes public knowledge it is up to the public to decide whether they have made a mistake in associating with that individual. At election time, politicians are judged on their behaviour, and if the electorate believes that those they have conversed with are at fault, then that will be demonstrated in the voting booth.
What I am trying to say is this: cash may buy access, it has always been that way, and unfortunately it shall always be that way, but access does not result in policy. Greg Clark can be commended for not bowing to political pressure, and instigating a new framework which represents the public at large.

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September 2021
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