The Liberal Democrats are offering lobbyists face-to-face meetings with ministers, including Nick Clegg, if they pay £25,000 a year. The cash-strapped party has launched a club offering privileged access to the Deputy Prime Minister and senior Liberal Democrats. The Leaders' Forum will be restricted to an elite of 50 individuals who will be invited to "exclusive dinners" and debates with frontbenchers in return for an annual £25,000 donation, payable into the party's Royal Bank of Scotland account. They are promised "unrivalled networking opportunities".
The Lib Dems were immediately accused of taking "cash for access", echoing funding controversies which embroiled the Conservatives and Labour. Such meetings are a favoured method for executives to quietly lobby prominent politicians about their corporate interests. Mr Clegg's Leaders' Forum was launched at a private meeting on 28 March, attended by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, and the veteran hand-shaker Peter Bingle, chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, which sponsored the event.
In documents provided to lobbyists and obtained by the magazine PR Week, Mr Clegg writes: "We are in Government for the first time in almost 70 years and are playing a central role in creating a fairer and more prosperous Britain. I'd like to invite you to join the debate ... My colleagues and I want to listen to you and to continue this dialogue." The Deputy Prime Minister reassures them: "You don't have to be a Liberal Democrat to take part. In today's politics, all are welcome." On the facing page is a price list.
One lobbyist at the launch said that it was made clear that the forum was "the one where you get to meet Nick". The disclosure is potentially damaging for Mr Clegg, who has promised a "new politics". The timing is also sensitive, with private healthcare firms circling around the NHS ahead of planned reforms. The Liberal Democrats' financial woes have mounted. The party ran up a deficit of £1.25m last year because it lost the £1.75m of "short money" funding it received from the public purse while it was in opposition. It had to lay off twenty staff.
Tamasin Cave, a spokeswoman for the campaign group SpinWatch, said: "It looks like cash for access. It's privileged access, for cash." But Mr Bingle said the forum was simply an opportunity for business people to get to know the party leaders. The Liberal Democrats denied the allegation of cash for access. A spokeswoman said: "Far from it being about access or influence it is an opportunity for us as a party to discuss and explain what we are doing in government and to stimulate conversation on various issues within group settings." The party reaffirmed its commitment to reforming lobbying regulations.
Oliver Duff and David Singleton, the Independent