Sleaze and business ethics

Click to follow
The fact that two separate groups - led by Lord Nolan and Sir Richard Greenbury - are examining the issues of standards and values in both public and business life is significant, disturbing and entertaining.

The significance is that such inquiries would not have been deemed necessary 50 years ago, would not have been conceivable when Baroness Thatcher was in full flow, and are now seen as being of considerable public interest and relevance. Clearly, something has changed.

The disturbing element is that the standards of many public figures in business and politics have switched from an emphasis on responsibility and rectitude to the pursuit of power, status and personal gain.

Entertainment arises because journalists can entice the practitioners of these standards to make idiots of themselves as they try to defend the indefensible.

Fifty years ago people in public service were held in high regard. The Government had just won a war and those involved were rightly given full credit for it. Business had played its part in the victory and there was a great sense of national solidarity. Talented people went into public life for reasons of principle and, in business, people still talked about their word being their bond.

Today, alas, this is all changed.No doubt many politicians enter public life with the highest motives, and most business people would still claim to be responsible and fair. But a pernicious obsession with materialism pervades in all the Western democracies, particularly in the US and Britain, where the pursuit of personal gain has become an acceptable objective of public policy. Baroness Thatcher consistently promoted the business ethos in public life and actually encouraged businessmen to take a bigger slice of the cake through higher salaries and lower personal taxes. The current sleaze is an inevitable consequence of promoting the virtues of self-aggrandisement.

It is easy to highlight the zest with which directors of the privatised utilities have awarded themselves share options that were deliberately underpriced by the Government, to ensure that privatisation would appeal to the small investor. But we must remember that during privatisation these waterworks managers were rubbing shoulders with financiers and lawyers whose fees and salaries made Cedric Brown look like a down-and-out.

Most public sleaze appears to emanate from the Government's side of the House of Commons; partly because the ethics of methodism still prosper in "The People's Party". Conservative MPs half a century ago tended to be men of capital and independence who were motivated by the prospect of a knighthood rather than a free weekend at the Ritz. Now most Tory MPs lack capital and resent the contrast between their relatively modest means and the enormous booties being collected by their contemporaries in the City.

Various things need to be done. First, self-regulation, whether propounded by the board of Barings or the remuneration committees of the utilities, is flawed. We need a US-style Securities and Exchange Commission in London.

Next, it is essential that we find ways of making shareholders more active in the affairs of their companies. We should consider insisting that institutions are directly represented on the boards of public companies. The modern Anglo-Saxon business culture is one where directors seek to minimise the earnings of the people who work for them, and maximise their own earnings at the expense of the shareholders.

I have rather more sympathy for the sleazy politician than the avaricious director. For a start politicians do not get paid very well. And the scale of their foraging is tiny - a £1,000 bribe for a question in the house is piggy-bank stuff compared with the Nick Leesons of the City. But that is not to say that we should condone it. The Conservative Party appears, during the Thatcher years, to have attracted a rather unsavoury gaggle of not very well-bred go-getters to their back benches, epitomised by Essex Man.

It is encouraging that Nolan and Greenbury are in business at all. They need to be vigorous in promoting higher personal standards.

The Prime Minister is also making encouraging noises. He might clean up his back benches, and improve his own personal security by making Essex Man a proscribed species in the Central Office selection process.

The author is chairman of Northern Foods.

The Independent is sponsoring `Public Standards and Business Values', a conference organised by Charter 88 on the implications of the Nolan inquiry, on 14 March in London. Details from Sarah Atkin 0171 222 1280, fax 0171 222 1278.