Transparency: the TaxPayers’ Alliance must practise what it preaches
I recently asked for your views on what we should do next. One contributor, Brian Smith, offered a measured defence of the TaxPayers’ Alliance. Some of his comments I agreed with, including his final parargraph: “You will only defeat them intellectually, with facts. Yah booing across the interweb will get no one anywhere.”
But I profoundly disagreed with this: “Expecting the TPA to be only political organisation absolutely open about its funding is expecting too much.” As the TPA’s lack of transparency was one reason for starting the Other TaxPayers’ Alliance, I thought it was worth responding in more detail. And Brian, or anyone else, is welcome to reply.
Let’s look at the facts. It’s simply not true that all political organisations are secretive about their funding. Most declare their income and expenditure, and some give a break-down of income sources, including donors. The TPA does neither. It publishes abbreviated accounts which means income and expenditure are withheld. The last time it published full accounts was in 2006, when it recorded an income of £130,000. But the current organisation has ten full-time staff across two offices, which suggests either its income has jumped substantially or it is loaded with debt.
The centre-left campaign group, Compass, by contrast, publishes a great deal in its annual report (which can be readily downloaded from its publications page) - and goes beyond that which is statutorily required. Thus you can learn how much was earned through members’ subscriptions, members’ donations, grants from various sources, etc, and how that money was spent. And - “in the interests of transparency” - all donors who gave £5,000 or more are listed, along with the amount donated.
If Compass can do it, then the TaxPayers’ Alliance - which claims to stand for transparency and probity - can do it too. No, it is not legally obliged to do so, but the TPA should practise what it preaches.
The role of the Midlands Industrial Council
According to the Sunday Times, one source of TPA funding has been the shadowy Midlands Industrial Council. The MIC was founded in 1946 as a pressure group to fight the Attlee government’s nationalisation plans and to champion free enterprise. It has donated around £3 million to the Conservative Party since 2001, much of it targeted at marginal parliamentary seats in the Midlands. As an “unincorporated association” it is allowed to keep its membership secret - allowing donors to get around the legal requirement on political parties to reveal their backers’ identities.
In 2006 the MIC was forced to publish its membership list after it was leaked to the Sunday Times. The list was made up of wealthy businessmen and included a large number of TPA supporters, as recorded on the BBC Politics Show website. (Lincolnshire Labour councillor Phil Dilks usefully drew together much of the reporting of the time on his blog.)
In October 2008, the Electoral Commission cleared the Conservative Party of breaking electoral law by using an MIC-funded company, Coleshill Campaigning Services (aka Constituency Campaigning Services), as a front to provide millions of pounds of services to Tories fighting marginal seats. But in January this year, Labour MP John Mann made a further complaint to the Electoral Commission – that CCS had failed to declare donations of free office space to the Conservatives worth tens of thousands of pounds.
Readers can draw their own conclusions about whether the “pro-transparency” TPA is compromised by its relationship with an organisation as opaque as the Midlands Industrial Council. What we don’t know is how much the MIC gave the TaxPayers’ Alliance, and whether it still funds the Alliance. Why won’t the TPA tell us? As it recently told MPs who tried to prevent their expenses being published: “If you have nothing to hide then you’ve got nothing to fear.”
Posted by Clifford Singer at 11:26am on 19 May 2009
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