Cash-for-access (United Kingdom)

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Location: United Kingdom
UnitedKingdom map.png
Author: Prof Jonathan Webb
Affiliation: University of Sheffield

Original text by Prof Jonathan Webb

Photograph of the UK Parliament surrounded by fog as a visual allusion to the concealed nature of parliamentary procedure.

In the United Kingdom, ‘cash for access’ denotes the exchange of money between two or more parties, with the donor seeking to gain access to an office-holder and the recipient facilitating access in exchange for money. The term is most frequently associated with cash given to MPs, parliamentary aides or ministers who agree to use their connections with office-holders to secure meetings in exchange for money. The term cash for access emerged in the wake of the 1998 ‘Lobbygate’ scandal involving Tony Blair’s political advisor, Derek Draper. Whilst the term appears to have been created shortly after the scandal, with its first use occurring in 1998, it has now entered common political parlance to describe the exchange of money for access to office-holders. Despite its contemporary origins in the British media, cash for access is closely associated with the linguistic term ‘open door’ (OED 2015)[1]. Often individuals embroiled in cash for access cases use terminology that suggests a particular sum of money can ‘open the door’ or ‘open doors’ to the office-holder in question (BBC 2010).

Cash for access is part of a wider set of informal practices known as ‘cash for favour scenarios’. Cash for favour scenarios are defined by the clandestine exchange of money for some type of privilege (Rowbottom 2010: 80)[2]. Two notorious examples that are also well-established in the British political and journalistic lexicon are ‘cash for questions’ and ‘cash for honours’. The term ‘cash for questions’ was coined in the wake of a 1994 political scandal, in which two British MPs were accused of taking money from lobbyists to ask questions in parliament that would benefit the lobbyist’s cause. Cash for honours refers to the awarding of life peerages to those who donated or loaned large sums of money to the governing political party, and is particularly associated with a political scandal of the same name under Tony Blair’s administration in 2006-7. The main feature that distinguishes cash for access from other cash for favour scenarios is that in cases of the former, financial inducement merely secures access to the office-holder and does not guarantee a ‘result’ or ‘benefit’ in return. Mere access to a politician may not directly influence their decision-making. In contrast, other cash for favour scenarios directly influence the actions of the office-holder. For example, in the 1994 cash-for-questions scandal, the money received by the MP Neil Hamilton directly influenced Hamilton’s line of questioning in parliament (Farrell, McAllister, and Studlar 1998: 83)[3].

‘Cash for access’ is broader in scope than other ‘cash for favour’ practices. The term covers a range of practices – from the corrupt and potentially illegal, to others which are more ethically ambiguous, and widely and openly practiced as part of political life. A distinction can be made between cases in which an individual agent personally pockets the money, and those where the beneficiary is an institution – typically a political party. All the major UK political parties use fundraising events such as balls and dinners, which often include tickets costing several thousand pounds to be seated on the same table as eminent politicians. For example, the Labour Party was criticised in 2014 for allowing wealthy donors to attend a £15,000-a-head gala dinner without having to publicly register their names. At a similar event held by the Conservative Party in 2015, guests were invited to bid up to tens of thousands of pounds to have dinner or partake in other social activities with various politicians. Such events are often criticised by the media, but this does not appear to affect the practice of them.

Although cash for access is closely associated with the institutional practices of UK politics, similar practices occur in other countries. In China for example, some cases of shouhui can involve the exchange of money for access to office-holders. Shouhui refers to the practice of office holders receiving unsolicited money in exchange for undertaking a specific action (Kwong 2015: 15)[4]. Despite shouhui cases often having a cash for access element, the practice is closer to other more illicit cash for favour practices (Navarro 2006: 169)[5]. Given that cash for access requires a certain set of institutional mechanisms to occur, it is perhaps unsurprising that in addition to the UK, its occurrence has been noted in other Westminster political systems such as Australia and Canada (Jabour 2015; McMenamin 2013: 135)[6].

Despite the relatively recent emergence of the term itself, cash for access as a practice can be seen as a historically embedded phenomenon within parliamentary life. Historical accounts of individuals able to buy access to office-holders stretch back to at least the early twentieth century. For example, Winston Churchill used his parliamentary connections to secure access to senior office-holders for Burmah Oil in 1923 (Jones 1991: 164)[7]. It is not always parliamentarians who receive the money that is exchanged in cash for access cases – they can involve any individual that has connections to an office-holder, who seeks to provide access for personal profit. For example, the 1998 ‘Lobbygate’ case involved the parliamentary aid Dereck Draper offering access to ministers to ‘those who could make their case’ (Theaker 2004: 77)[8]. Other high profile cases that have been exposed by the media include the 2010 cash for access scandal involving the Duchess of York; the 2012 cash for access scandal involving MP Peter Cruddas; and the 2015 scandal involving MPs Malcom Rifkind and Jack Straw – both former foreign secretaries.

The perception of cash for access cases has changed dramatically since the early 1990s. A series of high profile scandals in both the Major and Blair governments has made the general public increasingly critical of ambivalent parliamentary practice (Farrell, McAllister and Studlar 1998: 80-94)[9]. Whilst the majority of these scandals were not cash for access cases, ambivalent practices in general have become associated with a deviant parliamentary culture rife with ‘sleaze’ (Flinders 2015: 244)[10]. Consequently, cash for access has become associated with a wider set of practices that are perceived as degrading British politics and undermining the transparency of political conduct.

One institutional mechanism that may have increased the number of cash for access cases over time is the role of the party system in British politics. Since 1950, only three MPs have entered the House of Commons without any party political affiliation (Flinders and Matthews 2012: 337)[11]. Because political parties act as the vehicle into parliament, any decline in grassroots political party membership is likely to affect the ability of parties to remain competitive. Traditionally, political parties have relied on a broad membership base to mobilise and generate donations. As the links between political parties and wider society has fragmented in the post-war era, traditional support in the form of public donations or support from worker organisations has declined, resulting in a funding gap for political parties (Abbott and Williams 2014)[12]. As a consequence, private donors are increasingly filling this funding gap. Often the large sums donated by individual donors or businesses are conditional on access to office-holders. In the words of Tony Blair’s former Director of Policy Geoff Mulgan: ‘It is fairly obvious that if you are a funder you are more likely to have a meeting with advisers, a meeting with ministers, a meeting on occasion with the Prime Minister’ (Friedman 2013: 141)[13].

As a consequence of the shift in political party funding, cash for access cases are likely to increase. Whilst the general public is increasingly sceptical of current parliamentary practice, political life in the UK remains relatively free from corruption and cash for access should not always be perceived as corrupt practice. The increased occurrence of cash for access is best understood not as the degradation of politics but rather as a reaction to institutional change (Richards, Smith, and Hay 2014: 21)[14]. One mechanism that could be used to reduce the reliance of political parties on private donors is expansion of the Short Money state funding for political parties. This would allow the state to further regulate political party funding. However, given that the general public opposes state funding for political parties and there remains a reluctance on the part of politicians to extend what are already seen as generous state subsidies, the cash for access dilemma is likely to be perpetuated (Johnston and Pattie 2014: 23)[15].


  1. OED. 2015. ‘Open Door’. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Rowbottom, Jacob. 2010. Democracy Distorted: Wealth, Influence and Democratic Politics. Cambridge University Press.
  3. Farrell, David M., Ian McAllister, and Donley T. Studlar. 1998. ‘Sex, Money and Politics: Sleaze and the Conservative Party in the 1997 Election’. British Elections & Parties Review 8 (1): 80–94. doi:10.1080/13689889808413006.
  4. Kwong, Julia. 2015. The Political Economy of Corruption in China. Routledge.
  5. Navarro, Peter. 2006. The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought and How They Will Be Won. FT Press.
  6. Jabour, Bridie. 2015. ‘Palaszczuk Rejects “Cash-for-Access” Claim, Saying Parties Need to Raise Funds’. The Guardian, January 22, sec. Australia news.
  7. Jones, Geoffrey. 1991. Competitiveness and the State: Government and Business in Twentieth-Century Britain. Manchester University Press.
  8. Theaker, Alison. 2004. The Public Relations Handbook. Routledge.
  9. Farrell, David M., Ian McAllister, and Donley T. Studlar. 1998. ‘Sex, Money and Politics: Sleaze and the Conservative Party in the 1997 Election’. British Elections & Parties Review 8 (1): 80–94. doi:10.1080/13689889808413006.
  10. Flinders, Matthew. 2015. ‘The General Rejection? Political Disengagement, Disaffected Democrats and “Doing Politics” Differently’. Parliamentary Affairs 68 (suppl 1): 241–54. doi:10.1093/pa/gsv038.
  11. Flinders, Matthew, and Felicity Matthews,. 2012. ‘Party Patronage in the United Kingdom: A Pendulum of Public Appointments’. In Party Patronage and Party Government in European Democracies, edited by Petr Kopecký, Peter Mair, and Maria Spirova, 335–55. Oxford: OUP Oxford.
  12. Abbott, Brian, and Steve Williams. 2014. ‘Widening the ‘representation Gap’? The Implications of the “lobbying Act” for Worker Representation in the UK’. Industrial Relations Journal 45 (6): 507–23. doi:10.1111/irj.12076.
  13. Friedman, Bobby. 2013. Democracy Ltd: How Money and Donations Have Corrupted British Politics. Oneworld Publications.
  14. Richards, David, Martin Smith, and Colin Hay. 2014. Institutional Crisis in 21st Century Britain. Palgrave Macmillan.
  15. Johnston, Ron, and Charles Pattie. 2014. Money and Electoral Politics: Local Parties and Funding at General Elections. Policy Press.