MP seeks inquiry into standards in public life

A SENIOR House of Commons select committee is to consider an inquiry into whether standards in public life are declining.

The move comes in the wake of the disclosure that Home Office officials trawled through personal records to see if Bill Clinton attempted to dodge the draft by becoming a British citizen in the 1960s, and amid a continuing row about the financial help Norman Lamont, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, received in evicting a sex therapist from his London home.

Giles Radice, chairman of the civil service sub-committee of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, said he would urge that his sub-committee should launch an inquiry in the new year into how effective the battery of rules covering standards in public life is proving.

The Home Office record check was one more example, coming on top of Treasury payments towards Mr Lamont's legal expenses, the arms-to-Iraq affair, and the use of public immunity certificates to prevent disclosure of ministers' actions in arms export prosecutions. All had raised questions 'about whether the present safeguards governing both ministers' and civil servants' actions are adequate. I am certain that some of these things would not have happened 10 or even five years ago'.

His decision to seek an inquiry came as Peter Hennessy, a noted Whitehall watcher and Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield Colleges, London, said just such an investigation was needed.

He will tell the annual Christmas lecture of the First Division Association, the top civil servants' trade union, tonight: 'There is a tang of unease in the air, a worry that standards of conduct in public life are slipping, that corners are being cut to suit ministerial and administrative convenience, or the needs of Britain's export figures on the defence side.'

A 'wide-ranging review of the standards of conduct in both ministerial and official life is needed to dispel the accumulated concerns of the past few months', he said. It was vital for the health and vitality of the political system.

Labour MPs are urging the Select Committee on Members' Interests to investigate whether Mr Lamont broke Commons rules by not disclosing the pounds 18,000 he received from anonymous Conservative sources, on top of the Treasury's pounds 4,000 contribution, towards his pounds 23,000 legal costs.

However, the Treasury said ministers must report gifts received in their official capacity which put them under a personal obligation, but that there were 'no rules about accepting gifts in their personal capacity . . .'