Nolan launches public morality maze to low-key criticisms

Chris Blackhurst witnesses the first day's proceedings of John Major's inquiry into standards of behaviour in public life
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The photographers were shooed away and at 10.20am yesterday the 10-strong committee of the great and good assembled to deliberate on standards in public life finally got down to business.

Led by Lord Nolan, the law lord, the committee - eight male, two female, all white - looked suitably censorious. Sleaze, in the shape of being paid to ask parliamentary questions, rigging quangos and free junkets at the Ritz in Paris, were not for this grey gathering.

The setting, in a small but not crowded upstairs room - apart from journalists there were no more than 10 members of the public - in the austere confines of the Methodist Central Hall at Westminster, helped to add to the sense of moral purpose.

For three mornings a week for six weeks, the committee will discuss what Lord Nolan referred to as three "main themes": MPs' financial interests; ministers and civil servants and their relations with business; and quangos. Each topic will occupy two weeks of the hearings, which, Lord Nolan said, were important because "there is no doubt that there has been a fall in public confidence and the standards of behaviour of people in public life." Lack of people in the room was not matched by the response since John Major ordered the inquiry. More than 1,400 written submissions had been received.

Ivor Crewe, professor of politics at Essex University, had the distinction of being the first witness. He did not alleviate the low-key nature of the proceedings - akin to watching the Moral Maze in an empty room. For, while he said a recent Gallup survey showed 64 per cent of people believed that most MPs made a lot of money by using their position, compared with 46 per cent nine years ago, Professor Crewe declared he did not share that view.

To put it in context, sleaze was "not a burning issue" for most people, "not like drug abuse, crime and job insecurity". As evidence of that, Britain had not witnessed "clean up government" political movements as in the US or Japan. "Britain is far from that but there is unease, bordering on contempt," Professor Crewe said.

Sitting at Lord Nolan's shoulder, Sir Clifford Boulton, a stern former clerk of the House of Commons, put down a marker when he commented that here the press engaged in "entrapment", something that did not happen in other countries.

Criticisms of the committee - lack of judicial powers, inability to subpoena witnesses, and a too tightly drawn brief to the exclusion of party funding - were reinforced with the next witness, Simon Jenkins, the columnist and former editor of the Times. Asked by committee member Tom King, the Tory MP and ex-defence secretary, why he was there, Mr Jenkins responded: "I was written a letter and asked to come."

He agreed with Mr King that MPs do not make a lot of money from using public office.``They are relatively speaking uncorrupt," he said. What people were concerned about was "petty corruption".

Mr Jenkins said MPs should succumb to a parliamentary complaints commission. Similarly, appointments to quangos should be examined by an appointments commission. On paid lobbying, Mr Jenkins and the day's other two witnesses, Lord Blake, the Conservativeconstitutional historian, and Roy Hattersley, the former deputy Labour leader, were agreed: MPs should not do it.

Lord Blake made a robust call for a register of interests in the House of Lords and the disclosure of MPs' external emoluments. Their behaviour should be enshrined in a statutory code of conduct. It would, though, exclude their sexual activities. Lord Blake disagreed with Tom King, who claimed his proposals would lead to full-time politicians with no experience of the outside world.

After Mr Hattersley defended trade union sponsorship of Labour MPs - he claimed their political beliefs outrode any financial gain - he got himself into trouble with a demand that MPs should be excluded from voting on anything in which they had a direct pecuniary interest. Sir Clifford said such a suggestion was absurd - they could not vote on income tax.

Today, with the chairman of a lobbying company and Dame Angela Rumbold, who recently gave up her lobbying position, it can only get better.

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