`Over-zealous head' is marked down

NOLAN DEBATE: Government stalls on findings of inquiry into standards in public life. Stephen Goodwin reports
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Sir Edward Heath found himself enthusiastically cheered by Conservative backbenchers yesterday during the Commons debate on the report of the Nolan committee, as he mounted a scathing attack on the key recommendation of an "ethics officer" - a parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who would investigate complaints against MPs.

"There is such a thing as privacy of the individual," the former Prime Minister said, unusually making himself the darling of right-wing Tories.

At Question Time, John Major had been careful to avoid Tony Blair's repeated challenges to commit himself on the Nolan proposal that MPs give details not only of all consultancies and other paid jobs, but the sums earned.

And after a debate in which Tory MPs stoutly defended their extra-mural earnings and dismissed Lord Nolan as "an over-zealous headmaster", Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, indicated the recommendations would effectively go back into the melting pot.

"I'm inclined to think the appropriate course is to operate according to what the House would normally do ... which is to ask a group of senior and respected members to make recommendations about how we proceed in the light of the report and to put forward specific proposals for resolutions which might be put before the House."

Mr Newton acknowledged the fear expressed by Iain Duncan-Smith, Tory MP for Chingford, of "an attempted dictat" by the Government or deal with the Labour front bench, and he spoke of the devil being in the detail of the Nolan proposals.

Pressed by Ann Taylor, shadow Leader of the House, as to whether the committee of MPs would be considering Lord Nolan's proposals afresh or working out how to implement them, Mr Newton said it would "want to embrace both thoughts".

Mr Major was pressed three times by Mr Blair to say whether he accepted the recommendation that "MPs with consultancies should disclose the agreement under which they are paid and how much they are paid".

The Prime Minister said: "I established the Nolan committee because I am determined to see the highest standards in public life. I believe that it is important not only that we ensure high standards, but that the people of this country see for themselves that this House adopts high standards."

On consultancies, he said the Government wished to hear the views of MPs in the debate and take those into account before reaching a conclusion.

The Labour leader tried again: "What's his own view about that recommendation?" But Mr Major would not say. "The Government will have to place down motions on the Order Paper. Not least as a courtesy to the House we should listen to the views of the House."

Above mounting noise, Mr Blair came back: "Is the Prime Minister seriously suggesting that the debate may lead him to over-rule the independent recommendation of his own committee?

"If he isn't prepared to say whether he supports the disclosure of payments to MPs and he is refusing point blank to allow the committee to investigate payments to political parties, his support for Nolan will ring more than a little hollow."

Mr Major reiterated the need to listen to the views of the House before reaching a conclusion. "If after such a brief period of front-bench authority, Mr Blair is so arrogant that he no longer wishes to hear the views of the House, I think he will live to regret that."

Opening the debate, David Hunt, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, met a barrage of interventions, with those from the Tory side effectively urging delay.

Perhaps prescient, Tristan Garel-Jones, a former Foreign Office minister and confidant of Mr Major, said the Nolan recommendations should be referred to a committee of senior MPs who had already announced intentions to retire.

Nicholas Budgen, Tory MP for Wolverhampton SW, said if the terms on which MPs served in the House were to be materially changed, it should be done by statute "with all the slowness, deliberation and public discussion that that brings, rather than have it decided in panic in response to particular circumstances". The Euro-sceptic added: "After all, the worst things this House has done, whether it be the Dangerous Dogs Act or the Single Eur opean Act, have been done in a hurry."

He was supported by Tony Benn, the veteran left-winger, who said that dealing with the matter by statute rather than by an outside commissioner might find a wider range of support than ministers believed.

But Tony Wright, Labour MP for Cannock and Burntwood, said that to "delay and prevaricate" would compound the problem that the Nolan committee was set up to resolve.

Mr Hunt dwelt on Lord Nolan's less controversial recommendations affecting ministers and the Civil Service and was no more forthcoming than Mr Major over the proposed parliamentary commissioner.

"We must ensure that the recommendations would indeed achieve their aims. We shall have to examine these issues carefully, and resolve any difficulties, before we move to implementation," he said.

For a debate of such fundamental importance to MPs, it was not well attended. Numbers on the Labour back benches hovered around 30 for the opening speeches and about 50 on the Tory side.

Mrs Taylor said she was beginning to wonder from the remarks of Mr Major and Mr Hunt whether the Government was treating the matter seriously. Countering Tory protests at her description of the proposed commissioner as an "ethics officer", she accused the MPs of wanting to "create a smokescreen" to bury Nolan.

Labour certainly accepted the recommendation that MPs should reveal their interests, including the amounts paid to them by outside bodies, she said. But not only had Mr Major no view of his own on this central recommendation, "he is prepared to leave the decision to the very same backbench MPs whose financial interests have brought the House into disrepute in the first place".

Mrs Taylor said the House could take a decision in principle soon after the Whitsun recess on changes to the Register of Interests, including full disclosure of contracts and payments, so that the details could be in place by the new session in the autumn. In addition, the Clerk of the House should prepare a code of conduct for MPs based on the provisions in Erskine May, the Commons rule book.

Sir Edward, who entered the Commons in 1950 and now, as its longest-serving member, is Father of the House, complained: "We have now reached a stage where every man and woman in this House is an object of suspicion. I don't believe it is healthy."

Privacy of the individual was a principle Labour supported and they should support it in the Commons too, he said. MPs knew far more about what was going on in the House than could the "bureaucratic organsation" proposed by Lord Nolan.

"What saddens me about Lord Nolan is that he is an admirable judge, but to me he seems to lack a certain worldliness about what actually goes on in this world of ours. We have to be careful we don't fall into that trap."

Watching from the public gallery with the non- parliamentary members of his committee, Lord Nolan smiled at the remark.

Tom King, a Nolan committee member and former Tory Cabinet minister, said the public perception of the House had gone down and down. But he defended lobbying and argued that the proposed Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards would have been "warmly welcomed" by the two MPs - Tories Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick - who were recently suspended over the cash-for-questions affair.

The new system would have given them an "element of natural justice and efficiency and promptness that some might feel they were denied under the present hallowed system".

For the Liberal Democrats, Robert Maclennan said a pay rise for MPs and a written constitution would help resolve the problem. The growth in consultancies was "at least in part because the remuneration of MPs has not kept pace with the rise in earnings of others in society", he maintained.

A former Tory minister, Sir Terence Higgins, MP for Worthing, called for "a sensible level of pay" for MPs and urged that they be allowed to have "outside interests not connected with their membership of this House". His party colleague Sir Archie Hamilton, MP for Epsom and Ewell and another ex-minister, said: "It must be a good thing to get professional middle- class people to come into this House. If they are being told they have got to do this on a salary of pounds 32,000 a year, to be quite honest they are not going to come."

Sir Dudley Smith, Conservative MP for Warwick and Leamington, said it would be impossible to draw a line between paid consultancies, free advice and writing newspaper articles. Parliamentary sovereignty was being undermined by Lord Nolan, who he described as "an over-zealous headmaster".