Champion of the British standard: Lord Nolan is John Major's man for the mission impossible of restoring confidence in public life. Can he do it? Heather Mills reports

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Lord Nolan is a man with a mission. He has no doubt that the past 30 years have seen declining moral and ethical standards in all walks of life. He is equally convinced that those who accept responsibility in public life should be above reproach and set an example.

He will never have a better opportunity to help to restore those standards.

On Tuesday, John Major appointed him to head up a permanent new committee, of undefined constitutional status but with an extremely broad remit, to review standards in public life. The committee's investigative scope includes politicans, civil servants, local councillors and officers, among others.

For Lord Nolan, 66, the current controversy over sleaze is not, as some ministers and MPs have suggested, a frenzy whipped by by the media. It is a genuine public concern. 'I, and the people I talk to, are dismayed by the number of cases in which it has been accepted that something has gone wrong,' he says.

So many that arguably he faces a Herculean task in cleansing the parliamentary stables. The first two stalls he intends to target are those dominating the parliamentary and media agendas: gifts to ministers and MPs, and appointments to quangos.

He will not, of course, be directly involved in investigating the sleaze cases currently preoccupying parliament. 'That's not our function. But equally we will be very anxious to find out just what has happened, what has gone wrong and what we can learn from it.'

It took only 24 hours before rumours were circulating at Westminster that Lord Nolan's committee would be no more than a palliative, to relieve the Government of its acute political embarrassment. The committee has few teeth and the power only to make recommendations. But Lord Nolan believes there would be such a public outcry if he was ignored, that he will be able to achieve real change. 'We damn well have to,' he says.

Few doubt that Lord Nolan is he right man for the job. A devout Roman Catholic, devoted husband and father of five, he comes with a reputation as 'an old-fashioned liberal' - scrupulously fair, deeply moral, fiercely independent and fearless of the executive. 'He's nobody's lackey,' said one colleague.

He was one of the two judges in the Court of Appeal who, in an unprecedented ruling in 1991, found Kenneth Baker, then Home Secretary, guilty of contempt of court when he decided to deport a Zairean asylum-seeker in defiance of a court order.

Rejecting Government arguments that ministers were above the law because they were protected by Crown immunity, they ruled that both ministers and civil servants are accountable 'to the law and to the courts for their personal actions'. The judgment was upheld in the Lords - to which he has recently been elevated, his presence guaranteeing a liberal dominance in the nation's highest court.

A month after the asylum judgment, he criticised the Home Secretary again, for refusing to set out parole terms for a convicted IRA prisoner.

If further proof of independence were needed, Lord Nolan's first pronouncement was that his committee would sit in public, contradicting the Prime Minister, who moments earlier had told the Commons the committee would 'probably wish to deliberate in private'.

But neither is Lord Nolan afraid of public opprobrium for decisions that may be unpopular but which he believes to be right. As an appeal judge, he rejected compensation claims for nervous shock made by relatives of those who died in the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster. He also refused to overturn the decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions not bring criminal charges in the case of the Marchioness riverboat disaster in which 51 people drowned five years ago. 'But,' says a colleague, 'the terms in which he couched his judgment made so clear his understanding of the depth of feeling for the families and their frustrations, that many will have come away believing they had some victory.'

Another says: 'I have never known him not to do absolutely the right thing.

He has a tremendously strong sense of duty to the law and to his country. He is one in a million.'

In fact, from those who remember him at school - Ampleforth College, the Catholic equivalent of Eton - through to Wadham College, Oxford, where he studied law, the message is the same: 'He's very astute, very bright. He has a very acute sense of justice. Rather gentle, very judicious' - all qualities instilled in him by his close, stable family, his religion, the 'outstanding' Ampleforth monks and the Bar.

He was called to the Bar in 1953, where he swiftly built a reputation as a tax specialist, an expertise he has carried through to the Law Lords and will rely upon to examine the financial and commercial activities of MPs and civil servants at the heart of his inquiry.

The most wounding criticism made by those who know him is that he is 'boringly saintly'. But not otherworldly. Faced with a householder suing a golfer for trespass into his garden to retrieve a ball and the golfer counter-claiming for assault, Lord Nolan refused to find for either, telling them the dispute should have been sorted out over a drink and handshake in the pub.

He has two feet on the ground, and no skeletons in his own cupboard: 'My regrets are over things I have not done, rather than things I have. I've always said to my children, if you have doubts about doing something - do it. But if you have doubts about saying something, don't say it. I've often regretted things I've said.'

Does he have any intention of regulating the trickier personal apects of public standards, such as sexual indiscretions, MPs who cheat on their wives? 'I think that is a very difficult one. It's one the committee will have to think about,' he says.

Lord Nolan believes the current problems bedevilling government may be no more than a reflection of wider society, which has seen spiralling crime and violence. 'That really worries me. Even 15 years ago you never heard of elderly people being beaten up.'

He identifies no single cause of this degeneration, not the Government, not schools, not poor parenting. 'The influences have been so numerous and so varied it would unfair to single out any particular area. I do not think you can separate anybody from the society in which he or she lives. But if you accept a responsible job in public life then the need to try to set an example goes with it. It sounds pompous, but I do feel that.'

Lord Nolan's greatest difficulty may be enforcing his high standards without excluding many people of real talent and ability from public life. Faced with what seemed the impossible, Hercules diverted the river to wash away the dung overwhelming the Augean stables. Lacking real powers, Lord Nolan may end up having to resort to equal cunning.

(Photograph omitted)

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