Commissioner is likely to be a former mandarin

Select committee split on key Nolan proposals. Chris Blackhurst reports
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The Independent Online
MPs will have their behaviour monitored by a new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, under recommendations made yesterday by the Commons Select Committee on Standards in Public Life.

This was the key proposal of the committee set up in the wake of the Nolan report earlier this year. Under the plan, to be approved by the full House next week, the Commissioner would:

t Maintain and monitor a register of members' interests;

t Advise MPs and the new Select Committee on Standards and Privileges on a new code of conduct for MPs;

t Hold induction courses for new MPs on conduct and ethics;

t Oversee the operation of the code and suggest amendments;

t Investigate complaints about MPs' conduct. The Commissioner, who will operate in much the same way that the Comptroller and Auditor-General, and Parliamentary Ombudsman currently report to their select committees, will be appointed by a resolution of the full House. If MPs agree, the job will be advertised and a firm of management consultants will be asked to help fill the post. It will almost certainly go to a former senior civil servant.

Two select committees will be abolished to create the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. The two - Members' Interests and Privileges - have been widely criticised for their failure to deal swiftly and effectively with recent "sleaze" allegations. The new committee should start with the new parliamentary session in November.

One of its first tasks will be to draft a new code of conduct for MPs. This, yesterday's report says, will be more easily enforceable, "if it consists of a series of broad and readily understood principles defining acceptable standards of conduct, rather than a detailed set of rules designed to cater for every possible eventuality".

On the Register of Members' Interests, the committee says it has no objection to Nolan's suggestion the list be made more widely available. However, on what an MP's entry should contain, the committee distanced itself from Nolan.

The Nolan inquiry said the Commons should restate a resolution passed in 1947 which bans MPs entering into contracts or agreements which restrict their freedom to act and speak. The committee said it could not agree to such a broad resolution.

Nolan said MPs should be prohibited from working for specialist lobbying firms and should be forced to disclose their consultancy contracts and reveal their earnings. The majority Tories on the committee and sole Liberal Democrat, Robert Maclennan, felt this was too broad. It was not clear, for instance, whether Nolan merely wanted to forbid MPs from working for firms with more than one client or whether the inquiry intended to prevent them from lobbying for a firm with just one client as well. Likewise, on disclosure of earnings, the majority argues, Nolan's recommendations would mean MPs having to deposit all contracts and payments for every television and press interview. However, after pressure from Labour, there will be rethink.

The report makes clear that the committee has the power to sit when the House is adjourned for the recess. MPs will be asked to agree next week that Nolan's recommendations on consultancies be discussed over the recess to prepare proposals for when they return.