WHEN Michael Portillo confronted the growing tide of sleaze allegations against the Government last year he famously saw the accusers rather than the accused as the real criminals.

A "masochistic" elite was dedicated to running down the country and its cherished institutions of Crown, Church and State, he said. The new British disease was "the self-destructive sickness of national cynicism''.

The British constitution is meant to ensure good government. Ministers face ferocious interrogations from sharp-witted representatives of the people. If anything goes wrong in their departments, they are answerable .

But the public no longer believes the system can detect abuse and punish the abusers. A Mori poll released eight weeks ago found that 80 per cent wanted a written constitution, a bill of rights and a freedom of information act to protect them against overmighty government.

The most obvious reason for demanding change is that ministers do not tell the truth to Parliament. Mr Waldegrave publicly admitted there are exceptional circumstances when they could "say something that is untrue in the House of Commons". Even if they were caught telling bare-faced lies, it is unlikely that modern ministers would feel duty-bound to leave office.

A new constitutional doctrine, invented by Kenneth Baker in 1991 after the escape of two IRA suspects from Brixton Prison, has limited accountability. Ministers were not responsible for the administrative failures of their departments, Mr Baker proclaimed, they should only pay with their jobs for "policy failures".

But no minister responsible for the poll tax disaster left government; indeed, Mr Waldegrave, John Gummer and Michael Howard are still in the Cabinet five years on. When the pound crashed out of the ERM in 1992, Norman Lamont, the then Chancellor, did not leave the Treasury but "sang in the bath". Equally insouciant were the ministers responsible for the Child Support Agency and the failure of Post Office privatisation. The criticisms of Parliament's ability to do its job go far beyond the behaviour of brass-necked ministers. Two years ago the Hansard Society published a report which said that the laws driven through by the whips were so badly drafted that they were often incomprehensible. The refusal to consult and to check that legislation will work mean that, in the words of Jane Hern of the Law Society, judges and lawyers were constantly "trying to find out what [law] is in force, when it came into force . . . and what the hell it means."

The failure of MPs to do their job is matched by the inability of the specialist Commons select committees to find out what each ministry is up to. Civil servants routinely refuse to answer questions from MPs on the committees, a contempt of the legislature which could land them in jail in the United States. Inquiries are met by the brick wall of the "Osmotherly rules", which prevent officials revealing advice to ministers. The rules are a typically British invention. They have no legal force whatsoever, were devised by a mandarin (the eponymous Mr Osmotherly) and could be abolished tomorrow.

If Parliament is at best an imperfect check on abuse, then local government is weaker. The Conservative ascendancy has been marked by the transfer of local services to quangos which are answerable to no one except ministers. Nearly a third of all public spending in Britain is now under the control of these appointed agencies. If anything goes wrong in hospital trusts, further education colleges or training and enterprise councils there is no one the electorate can sack.

Indeed, it is all but impossible to find out who should be fired. There is no central register of the names of the 73,000 quango members. Most quangos are not obliged to release papers to the public, hold public meetings or submit decisions to examinations of elected councillors, the National Audit Office or ombudsmen.

The law, the traditional check on government, is also largely impotent. After Lord Justice Scott's inquiry into arms to Iraq and Lord Nolan's hearings on sleaze, much has been made of the new breed of activist judges bringing ministers to heel. Both inquiries, however, were set up by the Government. If ministers feel strong enough to ignore demands for an inquiry, they can and do.

Ordinary citizens with personal grievances meanwhile find that although the courts can judicially review a narrow range of Government decisions, fundamental breaches of human rights cannot be challenged because Britain has not incorporated the European Human Rights Convention into domestic law.

The one institution which does seem to act as a check on sleaze is the Press. Since the 1992 election, 15 junior and senior ministers have resigned after newspaper exposes. For Tony Wright, Labour MP for Cannock and a leading constitutional reformer, the success of the Press shows the "systemic failure" of the British constitution. "It is an absolute indictment that not one resignation has been forced by information uncovered by MPs. The Commons has become a mere echo chamber for noises off."

But the Press is singularly unsuited to cleanse the national stables. Largely foreign-owned and obsessed with pursuing commercial interests, it has imposed a trivial agenda on public life. The bizarre result is that while the originators of the poll tax remain in power, eight ministers have been forced to leave in the past three years because of sexual "misconduct".

Many see this as a reflection of the priorities of the prurient public who buy the tabloids. Andrew Puddephatt, General Secretary of the civil rights group Liberty, is kinder on both the Press and and its readers and blames the obsession with sex on our unaccountable system: "It can't be an accident that a country with no freedom of information act and a culture of secrecy also has the most puerile Press in the world. If access to information were easier, we could all concentrate on more important issues."

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