Major backs radical Nolan

Major backs reforms but unrest expressed by Tory backbenchers threaten deb
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The Independent Online
John Major yesterday cleared the way for the most radical reform this century of the conduct of Ministers, MPs and senior civil servants by securing Cabinet backing for the "broad thrust" of the first report from the Nolan Committee on standards in public life.

The 55 recommendations from the committee under Lord Nolan, a senior Law Lord, are more radical than was expected when it was set up by Mr Major last October after a flood of "sleaze" scandals, which culminated in the resignation of the trade minister, Neil Hamilton.

A ban on MPs working for lobbying companies, and a requirement for Cabinet ministers to seek permission before taking private sector jobs - after a minimum "quarantine" period of three months - are among the main recommendations. The most contentious restriction on MPs is that they must make a full disclosure of any extra-Parliamentary income and how it was earned.

At the same time the committee proposes that the self-regulation system operated by the Commons should be overhauled by the introduction of a new independent National Audit Office-style "Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards".

Despite a distinctly negative response from many Tory backbenchers and the prospect of a fierce debate within the Tory Party, the warm reception for the report from the Labour Party leadership means that the distinct, if cautious, welcome from the Government is likely to be translated into implementation of the main recommendations.

The committee was unanimous and the senior Tory member of it, Tom King, emphasised his strong support for the recommendations. Moreover, David Hunt, the Public Services Minister, performed a swift U-turn following a robust defence before the committee of the status quo on former ministers taking private sector jobs. Yesterday he said the report had offered "a unique opportunity to rebuild public confidence in the integrity of our public life".

The first real test of Parliamentary opinion will come next Thursday when the Commons debates the report without a formal vote. No date has yet been set for the House to consider implementation and there were suggestions last night in Whitehall that there could be on a free vote.

But the committee stays in permanent session and it is understood that Lord Nolan will next turn his attention to local government and the House of Lords. He warned yesterday that he would be keeping a "progress watch" on his recommendations and that he expected "significant progress" on all recommendations within 12 months. He said that standards in British public life continued to be generally high but added: "A minority have caused the setting up of this committee"

"Parliament is the cornerstone of our democracy. If standards of conduct in parliament command public confidence, nothing much can go wrong. If they don't, nothing much can go right and the whole edifice could crumble," he said

Lord Nolan admitted that the "most difficult area" of his report had been the outside interests of MPs. In the end, the committee had come down against MPs working for "multi-client" firms and consultancies". While his committee held back from banning all consultancy work for MPs, the report recommends a more wide-ranging review by Parliament of all such consultancies.

Jack Straw, Shadow Home Secretary, called the report a "thorough condemnation" of the Government and the way it contributed over 16 years to a decline in standards.

"It was public outrage which forced a reluctant Government to set up the Nolan committee. The Government's position has now been comprehensively demolished by Lord Nolan and his committee. It is yet another severe embarrassment for John Major and his government."

The Liberal Democrat constitutional affairs spokesman, Robert Maclennan, backed a Labour call for a new probe into funding of political parties. "If John Major refuses to let them exercise their discretion in this area, it can only be because the Conservatives have something to hide," he said.

Road to probity, pages 4, 5