'No one with any honour would take Filkin's job'

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Indy Politics

"Wanted: new chief sleazebuster for Parliament. Candidates must be able to carry out duties with less pay, less time for investigations and lower status. Ability not to upset MPs essential."

When the advertisement for the post of Parliamentary Commissioner of Standards appeared in a national newspaper last month, these were not exactly the words used. But after Tuesday's explosive attack by Elizabeth Filkin on the "insuperable obstacles" that had been placed in her way by MPs and civil servants, they are perhaps more appropriate.

As the ferocity of her comments reverberated around Westminster, there was no question that the former Inland Revenue investigator had touched a raw nerve during her 33 investigations. After months of being undermined and whispered against, the watchdog had finally bitten back.

Some 40 people have applied to be the new commissioner, setting out in writing the qualities of integrity and scrutiny they believe it needs. The problem facing those seeking a replacement for Mrs Filkin from February is that it is difficult to see who would be prepared to take on the post.

Yesterday, Martin Bell, the "man in the white suit", slayer of Neil Hamilton and all round upholder of probity in public life, warned that no one with honour could take the job.

The former MP expressed the thoughts of many outside Parliament. "I don't see who is going to take this job," he said. "I was approached last week and said 'You must be kidding', because the job has been devalued. I can't think of anyone with honour taking it on."

Yesterday, the extent of the task faced by any new commissioner was underlined by a torrent of off-the-record briefing against Mrs Filkin.

One unnamed MP, described as a source close to the House of Commons Commission, the body charged with hiring and firing the watchdog, was particularly vehement.

The source told The World at One on BBC Radio 4 that Mrs Filkin was "politically naive" and accused her of having "an inflated sense of her own importance".

"If she thinks there is a conspiracy against her, she must be off her head. She gets paid £84,000 a year for a four-day week. MPs work hard seven days for £47,000. What is she complaining about?"

In fact, Mrs Filkin received a salary of £76,000, but the MP's anger was the latest example of the type of briefings that have dogged her tenure.

Mr Bell said that from the moment she was first appointed three years ago, Mrs Filkin was undermined by MPs' gossip. "I was aware of a whispering campaign which did indeed start within weeks of her taking office and it was done by friends of people in high places. The House of Commons tearoom was full of it from time to time," he said.

"It was very hard for her to counter, especially when it came from civil servants as well as MPs. I think it was concerted and organised by friends of people who were under investigation."

Mr Bell suggested that the intensity of hostile briefing may have been heightened by the fact that some MPs felt that, as a woman, Mrs Filkin would be more vulnerable to attack than a male commissioner.

Certainly, when she took up the post in 1998, Mrs Filkin's approach was a contrast to the more genteel style of her predecessor, Sir Gordon Downey. Prior to the job, she had spent 35 years in various public institutions, the last five as the powerful head of investigations at the Inland Revenue, Customs & Excise and the Contributions Agency.

During her job policing the Commons Register of Interests, Mrs Filkin investigated the affairs of some of its most powerful members. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister; John Reid, the Northern Ireland Secretary; Peter Mandelson, the former Northern Ireland secretary; and the former ministers Keith Vaz and Geoffrey Robinson, were all subject to her inquiries.

William Hague failed to declare his use of Jeffrey Archer's gym for judo sessions, John Major failed to declare income from speeches in the United States and Ken Livingstone failed to declare income from journalism and speeches.

But although Mrs Filkin's investigative skills were praised by some MPs, many began to believe that she had undertaken some inquiries that were either trivial or unfounded.

The very quality that would perhaps recommend her to the public, that she was an outsider who "didn't understand politics", was seen as fatal. Worse still, she had an unnerving closeness to journalists. Baroness Boothroyd, the former Commons speaker, said in her autobiography: "Any offence, whether serious or slight, made news and this created unnecessary tension in her relations with the House."

However, Tony Wright, Labour MP for Cannock Chase and the chairman of the Commons Public Administration Committee, summed up the main problem that faced Mrs Filkin and faces her successor. He asked Tony Blair in the Commons: "Do you know of any public institution apart from this one, where the people who are regulated have the ability to chose and dismiss the person who regulates them?" Not too surprisingly, the Prime Minister ducked the question.

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