Nolan as dirt buster

Will politicians accept restrictions on their conduct?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
AT THE END OF 1994, when the cash-for-questions scandals were at their height, John Major set up the Nolan inquiry into standards in public life. This is not a one-off get-the-facts investigation like the Scott inquiry, but a permanent standing committee which continues its work today. Lord Nolan's committee got down to work quickly, taking evidence from ministers, public servants, academics, pressure groups and other interested parties. It produced its first report in May.

The committee recommended that:

l MPs should be barred from working for lobbying firms and if they are hired for their parliamentary services in any other way they must disclose the details. The register of members' interests should be clearer, and its should be updated electronically to ensure it is up to date.

l MPS should be given a new code of conduct reminding them of their duty to country and constituents.

l There should be a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to investigate complaints, complemented by a seven-strong disciplinary panel (a sub-committee of the Committee on Privileges) of MPs whose hearings would be conducted in public.

l Ex ministers should wait three months before taking up any outside job. All appointments should be vetted by the special committee which already deals with civil servants, which can advise a delay of up to two years in cases of apparent conflict of interest. "The risk of abuse, or of unfounded and malicious criticism, would be much reduced by a vetting system."

l Ministers should be made subject to a clearer code of conduct and government departments should keep records of hospitality accepted by ministers - records which should be available for scrutiny if requested. The guiding principle for ministers should be: "Would you feel happy to see all relevant facts of any transaction or relationship fully and fairly reported on the front page of your favourite newspaper. If in doubt, cut it out."

l A new Public Appointments Commissioner should oversee the fairness of appointments to quangos, while quangos themselves should be more open to scrutiny and criticism.

Much of this - those parts dealing with quangos, for example - has been accepted, but the reactions of the Government and of Conservative backbenchers to new restrictions on their own conduct has been guarded. How far these proposals are adopted will only be known over time. Sceptics point out, for example, that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards would answer to the sub-committee, which would answer to the Committee on Privileges, which would answer to the Commons. This could fall some way short of rigorous external scrutiny.

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