Headlines: March 1st, 2004

The final stages of the Electoral Commission consultation on the funding of political parties, begins today with the first of a series of public hearings of evidence. This evening will also see an open debate on the issues at the House of Commons.The hearings, which are scheduled to take place in a number of major cities, begin in London when the first evidence will be taken from political parties, trade unions, major donors, think tanks and others. The first session will be followed by a public debate organised by the Commission. It will feature contributions from MPs Andrew Tyrie and Tom Watson.

The Commission is looking at the public funding presently received by parties and at whether donations to parties should be capped as well as the limits on campaign spending. It says that despite new controls on spending and donations, which were introduced in 2000, there is still concern over the way parties are funded and about the possible influence of large donors. The Commission says this latest phase of the consultation, which began last May, will examine all those concerns and try to identify if new arrangements would serve the democratic system better.

Sam Younger, Chairman of the Commission, said parties needed to be adequately funded to play their part in the political process but getting the right balance between public and private funding raised fundamental issues and he welcomed the opportunity to speak to key individuals and the public in the coming weeks.

After the hearing in London today and tomorrow, formal sessions have been organised in Belfast, Edinburgh and Manchester later this month and in Cardiff on April 1st. Each hearing will be linked to an evening debate on the issues.