A bold course, Captain Nolan, but still in sight of land

Political Commentary

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THERE is a school of thought, well to the fore in the newspapers, which holds that Lord Nolan and his committee represent something quite new in our public life. In one sense this is true, or half-true. They are to be in virtually permanent session. And yet, other individuals or bodies operate in a similar fashion.

There is the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee, which is surely the most ineffectual agency in the whole of our polity. There is the judge who is supposed to oversee the interception of communications and who has never, to the best of my knowledge, issued a single report which could cause the Government the slightest embar rassment. And there are the ombudsmen or perhaps, as we should now say, the counsellors for civil servants who feel they are being required to behave improperly.

This post was established in the wake of the Ponting case. Its first occupant was my old friend Sir Philip Woodfield, a former private secretary to Harold Macmillan. I still bump into Sir Philip from time to time but am too shy to ask him whether his shop is still open and, if so, whether he has many customers or, indeed, any customers at all.

There is even a committee buried somewhere deep in the crevasses of Whitehall whose task it is to establish the good faith of servicemen who wish to be discharged to fight parliamentary elections. This was a consequence of Mr Michael Heseltine's release from national service in the Welsh Guards when he became prospective Conservative candidate for Gower before the 1959 election. By 1962 the Heseltine Wheeze had become more widely known. Over 600 national servicemen announced their intention of standing at two forthcoming by-elections. The government took alarm, suspended the rule providing for automatic discharge and set up the committee which, as far as I know, exists to this day.

There is no reason to believe that Lord Nolan's committee will go the way of these individuals or bodies, and become a decorative part of the constitution merely. It is simply that committees in permanent session are not new.

In another sense again, Lord Nolan's committee is less a voyage into the unknown than a return to the safety of the shore. From the end of the war to the mid-1970s, one of the principal characteristics of our system of government was the commission, committee or tribunal under the chairmanship of an eminent judge. The most eminent of all was Lord Radcliffe (1899-1977). Whenever the government was in trouble the cry would go forth: Send for Radcliffe! The name was like a knell. The government usually found itself in even greater trouble than it had been in before the learned judge arrived on the scene.

In the 1970s he was supplanted by Lords Salmon and Wilberforce. The latter inquired into the wages of both coal miners and electricity workers. He followed the principle first enunciated by his fellow-Yorkshireman, Wilfred Pickles: "Give him the money, Barney." He was widely credited with destroying the Heath government's incomes policy and, indirectly, with bringing about the miners' strike of 1974, the miners having become emboldened by the judge's previous generosity.

Lady Thatcher had no time for committees. She did not see why she should be told what to do by a judge, however eminent. In this respect, as perhaps in others too, she was a prime minister after Mr Dennis Skinner's heart.

Mr John Major has gone back to pre-1979 times. For not only did he set up Lord Nolan's committee. He also took Sir Richard Scott away from the Court of Appeal to inquire into arms for Iraq. Though Sir Richard proved to be an astute investigator (and was, incidentally, what used to be called a heart-throb when he appeared on television, or so I am informed), his report is now mired in Whitehall. The foolish fellow has only himself to blame. He circulated for comment whole chunks of the draft to the civil servants concerned. What on earth did he expect to happen? He is rather like the United States boxer who recently invited Mr Nigel Benn to hit him and duly ended up in hospital.

Lord Nolan - admittedly conducting a different kind of investigation - did not proceed in this way. Mr Major, Mr David Hunt (performing a U- turn of which Ms Jayne Torvill would have been proud) and various other Conservatives have given his report a welcome which they are unlikely to extend to Sir Richard's production, when it arrives. It is a good thing that Lord Nolan and his colleagues have refused to give any support to the puritan wing of the People's Party, who would prohibit an MP from doing anything else at all for payment.

However, they rightly recommend that members should be prohibited from being employed by lobbyists with numerous clients. As one committeeman, Professor Anthony King, has conceded, they probably do not go far enough over stricter supervision of single-client consultancies. Putting ministers who wish to move to industry on the same level as civil servants (a change which aroused Mr Hunt's hot indignation a few weeks ago) is entirely reasonable. The proposal on quangos - that a kind of one-man or one-woman political scrutiny committee should be established - is equally reasonable but extremely feeble. It does not answer the question of why ministers should continue to make these appointments or, for that matter, of why we need quite so many quangos in the first place.

Parliamentary conservatives such as Mr Enoch Powell will find a good deal in the report to fortify them in their views. Much of the present confusion is a consequence of the establishment of the Register of Members' Interests in 1974. Many MPs have behaved as if registration, in the most attenuated form of words that satisfied the rules, entitled them to do anything they pleased afterwards. Then there was the setting up of the Select Committee on Members' Interests. Inevitably, this acquired an overlapping and competing jurisdiction with that of the Committee of Privileges, which consists, as Mr Will Carling might put it, of 16 old farts. Nolan recommends, however, that disputed questions should go to a sub-committee of the Privileges Committee, and suggests that the Members' Interests Committee might be allowed to wither away.

There is also the recommendation of a kind of House of Commons father- confessor (or maybe mother-superior) who will not be an MP. This again is not as radical as it sounds. Most Commons decisions are already taken by the Clerks. The scandalous decision to ban the showing of the Zircon film was taken jointly by Mr Speaker Weatherill and the then Clerk of the House, Sir Kenneth Bradshaw. The most influential person in the whole place is Mr Murdo Maclean, Private Secretary to the Chief Whip, also known as "the usual channels".

Above all, the law is to be left out. No Act is proposed. Neither new offences nor fresh obligations are to be created by statute. The House of Commons will continue to regulate its own affairs in a manner which has served so many of its members so well in the past.

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