Trust in politicians at critical low after Iraq war and Hutton

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Trust in ministers has slumped to a critical low following the Iraq war and the death of the weapons expert David Kelly, a survey of attitudes towards public figures has shown.

Trust in ministers has slumped to a critical low following the Iraq war and the death of the weapons expert David Kelly, a survey of attitudes towards public figures has shown.

Tony Blair's style of government has also led to serious public concerns about "spin" and less than a quarter of people now trust ministers to tell the truth.

Ministers are now rated as less trustworthy than every other profession except estate agents and newspaper journalists. MPs have a marginally higher trust rating, but are less trusted than television journalists, doctors, police officers and health service managers. Just 10 per cent of people believe MPs will admit it when they have done something wrong.

The findings by the Committee on Standards in Public Life led to warnings yesterday that there is a prevailing mood of suspicion of party politics in Britain. "The absence of trust in politicians is so widespread as to make a disparity between public expectations and perceptions seem inevitable," the report says.

The report finds that Mr Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction has contributed to widespread public concern about "spin" and cover-ups.

Honesty in public office is still seen as the most important attribute, above competence or dedication. But there is "a widespread perception of a culture in which politicians try to cover up their mistakes, which sits uncomfortably alongside a strongly expressed desire among the public for them to 'come clean'", the report says.

Sir Alistair Graham, the committee's chairman, urged politicians yesterday to look seriously at the findings in the run-up to the general election.

Sir Alistair said that the behind-the-scenes briefings against cabinet ministers before yesterday's reshuffle only served to further undermine public confidence.

"The very clear conclusion is that people want their politicians to be honest, to own up to mistakes, to talk about the genuine difficulties," he said on Radio 4's World at One. "People will have a low opinion of government ministers who engage in this sort of activity rather than being up front."

The survey found that only 24 per cent of ministers were trusted to tell the truth, while only 27 per cent of people trusted politicians in general. Local MPs are rating higher than national politicians, earning the trust of almost half of their constituents.

The research also found evidence that most people distrusted party loyalties and preferred MPs to vote according their principles rather than follow orders from the party leader.

Under Mr Blair's premiership the public have become increasingly sceptical about whether they are being told the truth. The war on Iraq is seen as the most influential recent political event followed by the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr Kelly, as well as the "dossier" on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. These feature more vividly in the public consciousness than the debate over MMR, the rise in fuel duty or council tax.

The predominance of the Iraq war in the public mind will worry the Government, which has been trying to focus the debate on to public services ahead of the general election.

The public also believe that it is legitimate that ministers and MPs accept a degree of media scrutiny of their private lives. A quarter of people felt that all aspects of ministers' private lives should be examined while half felt that "a certain level" of scrutiny was justified. Only a quarter believed that ministers "should have the right to keep private lives private".

The media is seem as playing a crucial role in public accountability and exposing wrongdoing in politics. Almost 80 per cent of people were confident that the media would uncover misdemeanors among politicians - twice as many who had faith that the authorities would expose such wrongdoing.