Nolan faces conflict on policing of MPs

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Indy Politics
A head-on clash is looming between the Nolan inquiry into standards in public life and the House of Commons.

Tony Newton, Leader of the House, gave a glimpse of the battle to come when in answer to repeated suggestions as to how policing of MPs could be improved, he knocked them flat.

Sticking to the line that the best judges of MPs are MPs, Mr Newton opposed virtually every proposal aired by the committee. He was speaking in a personal capacity, but his words carried substantial clout.

Sir Clifford Boulton, a former Commons clerk and a member of the inquiry, was concerned that once the Privileges Committee had ruled on an MP's conduct, the "quasi-judicial atmosphere falls apart" when the penalty is set by the whole House. "This body [the Nolan committee] is groping for a way the penalty can be fixed by a small group", Sir Clifford said.

Choosing his words carefully, Mr Newton said such a proposal would not be acceptable. "The House of Commons would be extremely sensitive to delegating the ultimate sanction to some body other than the House of Commons as a whole."

Mr Newton signalled he would prefer the status quo,with clearer distinction between paid advocacy, which he opposed, and advice, which he did not.

On another suggestion canvassed by Nolan, the appointment of an outsider reporting to the Privileges Committee, in the way the Comptroller and Auditor General reports to the Public Accounts Committee, Mr Newton was equally negative.

The comptroller analogy appeals to Nolan because it could get round the problem of parliamentary sovereignty, in that the final decision would rest with MPs. It does not appeal to the Leader of the House.

Mr Newton said the comptroller was appointed by the Crown, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. In this case, he said: "Parliament may be sensitive to an appointment by the Crown."

Asked by Lord Nolan, who heads the inquiry, what would be the reaction if the appointment was made by the Queen after a resolution of the Commons, Mr Newton said: "You are ultimately talking about an appointment by the Crown."

The inquiry needed reminding that MPs are elected to serve; penalties that might stop them becoming MPs "are decisions to be taken by the House of Commons as a whole". He continued: "I'm not saying it's impossible, but I would draw attention to the sensitivity."

On ministers joining companies soon after leaving office, he said there was a risk of them falling into "a black hole" of unemployment if they were barred from taking up appointments.

He was prepared to yield on one area. Asked if there was not a case for merging the two MPs' watchdog committees, Members' Interests and Privileges, into one "scrutiny committee", he said it was an interesting idea. "I am a long way from ruling out a single body."

The most senior former civil servant to appear to date, Sir Peter Kemp, once second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, advocated setting up a select committee to review postings to quangos to deal with the perception that appointments were political.