Sleaze watchdog may have gone too far, warns chairman

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Indy Politics

The watchdog created to clean up British politics at the height of Tory sleaze is to investigate whether its work has gone too far and is now deterring people from taking up public office.

A decade after the Committee on Standards in Public Life was set up, its chairman Sir Nigel Wicks said he would review whether the whole anti-sleaze process had become "disproportionate".

The committee was created by John Major in 1994 in the wake of the "cash-for-questions" scandal which led to the resignations of the Conservative ministers Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith. The issue came to dominate the Major government and the Labour Party exploited it to the full before Tony Blair swept to office in 1997.

However, there have been fears that the arrangements put in place as a result of the committee's reports over the past 10 years have become overly bureaucratic. MPs in particular have complained bitterly that they have been subject to needless investigations into minor allegations of breaches of the House of Commons register of interests. Some officials have claimed that it is now difficult to attract high-flying businesspeople and others to public office because of the extra hurdles set up in recent years.

The particular areas for the new inquiry include appointments and reappointments to public bodies, and the management and enforcement of codes of conduct, including declarations of interest.

The committee will also be examining whether its own seven principles of public life, which include integrity and honesty, are being embedded into organisations effectively.

It will assess the impact of the Public Interest Disclosure Act of 1998 and its provisions for whistleblowing, as well as the appraisal policies for non-executives.

Among the questions that the committee will ask are whether there is any evidence that good candidates have been discouraged or that the calibre of appointments made has changed as result of the existing processes.

One area to be reviewed is the work of the Standards Board for England, a body that came into being in March 2001 which requires all councillors to sign up to an ethical code of conduct. It has received more than 4,000 complaints, but less than half are referred for investigation, and many concern allegations by fellow councillors about declarations of interest.

The inquiry will see what lessons can be learnt from comparing the content and operation of codes of conduct across not just town halls and police authorities, but also the National Health Service and other agencies.

Sir Nigel said that he had an "open mind" on the issues but he felt it was time for a fresh stocktake by the committee.

"We want to see whether the arrangements in public bodies, local government and the NHS, most of which have been created over the past 10 years or so as a result of this committee, are proportionate to the outcomes we want to achieve and are not over-bureaucratic, disproportionate or act as a disincentive to public service," he said.

The committee will hold a three-month consultation period for written submissions before mounting a series of public hearings. It will publish its report at the end of the year.

The scandals that started it all

John Major's back-to-basics speech at the Tory party conference in 1993 allowed the media to declare open season on any MP with a whiff of scandal around them. The following few years were awash with reports of sleaze.

But while the sexual misdemeanours of ministers such as Steven Norris attracted the most lurid headlines, it was allegations of financial irregularities or misjudgements that prompted Mr Major to set up the Parliamentary Committee on Standards in Public Life.

DAVID TREDINNICK and GRAHAM RIDDICK

The two former PPSs were suspended when the "cash for questions" scandal broke. They were found by the Commons privileges committee to have improperly accepted £1,000 each for tabling a Commons question. Mr Tredinnick was suspended from the Commons for 20 days by the committee and Mr Riddick received a 10-day suspension. Mr Riddick handed back the £1,000 cheque. The MPs were "trapped" in an investigation by The Sunday Times, which was criticised by the committee.

TIM SMITH

The former Northern Ireland minister was the next victim claimed by the "cash for questions" affair, after he admitted accepting money from Mohammed al Fayed, the Harrods chairman, and not declaring it at the right time. He had a history of placing bulk orders for parliamentary replies on behalf of his registered fee-paying clients.

NEIL HAMILTON

The Thatcherite former minister for corporate affairs was preparing to "dig in" after allegations that he accepted hospitality from Mr Fayed at the latter's Paris Ritz hotel. He remained unmoved after a confrontation by the whips over other interests, forcing Mr Major to sack him.

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