The Attack on Sleaze: The inquisitor underlines his independence: Lord Nolan has shown he will deliver judgment without fear or favour, writes Heather Mills

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The Independent Online
Lord Nolan comes with a reputation as a scrupulous and fearlessly independent judge, ideally suited to the task of inquiring into allegations of sleaze in public life.

At 66 he is one of the youngest law lords, and he underlined his reputation last night when he announced that his committee would sit in public - just a few hours after John Major had told the Commons it would 'probably wish to deliberate in private'.

He said: 'I've grown up doing my work in open court in public and that is how I would prefer to go forward.'

Lord Nolan was one of the two appeal judges who, in an unprecedented constitutional ruling, found Kenneth Baker, then Home Secretary, guilty of contempt of court over the decision to deport a Zairean asylum-seeker in defiance of a court order. They rejected government arguments that ministers were above the law because they were protected by Crown immunity.

A month later Lord Nolan criticised Mr Baker again for refusing to consider the minimum jail term that should be served by a convicted IRA bomber. And in another high- profile case, he and two other appeal judges overturned Judith Ward's 1974 conviction for the M62 coach bombing in which 12 people died.

But it is as a lawyer and judge specialising in complicated tax matters that Lord Nolan is most suited to examine the financial and commercial activities of MPs and civil servants. He also comes with impeccable personal credentials. He is a devoted husband, a father of five children, a devout Catholic and a well-liked man. 'He's a very nice guy, rather gentle, very judicious,' said a contemporary last night.

Lord Nolan, an Oxford graduate, was called to the Bar in 1953 and soon established a reputation as a meticulous tax expert - an expertise recognised and relied on throughout his progress up to the Lords.

He became a law lord this year. Asked why he believed he had been chosen to chair the standing committee, he said last night: 'The Prime Minister said that they were anxious to have a guarantee of independence in the person of a law lord. As the Prime Minister said in the Commons, this country has the highest standards of integrity in public life. It is of the greatest importance that those standards be maintained and kept under review in changing circumstances.'

The committee has no direct precedent, Whitehall sources indicated last night, as the Prime Minister left its precise make-up open for consultation with Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown, the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders, and Lord Nolan.

Its nearest ancestor was the Salmon Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life, set up in 1974 in the wake of the Poulson scandal, after the architect had suborned officials in the Civil Service, National Health Service and nationalised industries to win building contracts.

Reporting in 1976, it recommended rules on hospitality and the acceptance of gifts by officials and led to the system of vetting business appointments for top civil servants. It was not, however, a standing committee, and existing standing committees such as the Boundary Commission offer no real parallel to the 'unique' body that the Prime Minister is devising.

(Photograph omitted)