Many thanks to Lord Bew, Chairman of the Committee on Public Standards, for holding an event this morning to remind us of the Seven Principles of Public Life, which have guided the ethical conduct of MPs for the past 19 years.
I have to confess that I had quite forgotten that there were Seven Principles of Public Life. My attention must have wandered on that day in 1995 when Lord Nolan, the first chairman of the Committee on Public Standards, first set them out.
I wonder, also, whether the committee itself has been bedevilled by a similar absent-mindedness. When I visited its website this morning and entered “Seven Principles of Public Life” into the search engine, up popped the message – “This is somewhat embarrassing, isn’t it? It seems we can’t find what you’re looking for.”
However, the important point is not what you or I know about those Seven Principles but whether the MPs know them and abide by them. To take those principles one by one:
1. Selflessness. Where to begin looking for examples of selfless behaviour by our MPs? Back in 1995, the year the Principles first came into force, the Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken grandly announced: “If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it.” With those words, he selflessly embarked upon a libel case against The Guardian which would have earned him a pile of money if he had won, but it was proved that he was lying, and he went to prison for perjury.
2. Integrity. Aitken is not the only MP to do a spot of porridge since the inauguration of the Seven Principles. Five MPs, all Labour, have been jailed for fiddling their expenses. Others were frankly lucky not to end up in court.
3. Objectivity. Try listening to Prime Ministers’ Question as David Cameron and Ed Miliband pummel each other with conflicting statistics about, say, the NHS, and assess for yourself the overall level of objectivity.
4. Accountability. At the 2005 general election, Labour received the votes of 21.6 per cent of the electorate – 35.2 per cent of those who voted – enabling them to rule with a commanding majority for five years. In 2010, the Conservatives received the votes of 23.7 per cent of the electorate - 36.4 per cent of votes cast. But the Tories do not intend to let trade union leaders call a strike on majorities achieved in ballots where the turn-out was low.
5. Openness. “I believe that when you have got something wrong, you have got to fess up and get on with it” – said the Tory MP, Patrick Mercer, as he resigned from the Commons - 11 months after being caught bang to rights, on camera, taking money to lobby for the Fijian government. Very open.
6. Honesty. Yeah, yeah, yeah
7. Leadership. 'We not only saved the world...” Gordon Brown told the Commons, on 10 December 2008. Now that is leadership! How sad we never heard what they did in addition, as his words were drowned in laughter.