If you can't defend it, don't do it

It is time there were guidelines governing MPs' interests and outside j obs `The complaint has long been that MPs have too little business knowledge'
Click to follow
"There was more for Vincent Sweeting to boast about than the mere possession of a chocolate-coloured motor car. Henry Hodding had invited him to become joint master of the Grove Hunt. He kept his good news to himself until he sat with his daughter in theback seat of the Daimler travelling through Sherwood Forest at 15 miles an hour."

Thus writes one of the higher-paid backbenchers in the House of Commons. No, not a Tory but the Rt Hon Roy Hattersley, journalist, broadcaster of memoirs, and, of course, author of sagas - from which the above is but a crumb (In that Quiet Earth, Pan Books).

I do not begrudge Mr Hattersley his royalties, nor a Labour MP like Austin Mitchell his weekly Sky TV fees, nor a Labour shadow minister like Jack Straw his journalistic earnings. I do however challenge the view that writing sagas, television presenting and journalism are self-evidently politically correct outside interests for Members of Parliament, while being a company director automatically raises grave ethical questions, if not the presumption of "sleaze".

For as long as I have been in the House of Commons, the complaint has been that MPs have too little industrial and business knowledge. That was, after all, one of the reasons why the Industry and Parliament Trust was set up, with all-party support. The trust exists to improve MPs' knowledge of business and give them practical experience of industrial companies. It would be perverse if MPs were encouraged to have temporary attachments to companies but forbidden to become more permanently involved. It isto be hoped that the Nolan committee will reject outright the extreme calls to ban all such outside interests.

What is clear is that some of those who shout loudest on this issue have not the first idea of the role of a non-executive director. Yet that role was set out clearly and well in 1992 by Sir Adrian Cadbury's committee on corporate governance.

In essence, the non-executive director should bring an independent judgement to bear on the affairs of the company. An MP is well placed to meet the Cadbury criterion that the non-executive should be both independent of management and free from any conflicting business interest.

I would accept, however, that there are extra requirements that the politician must meet before taking up an outside job. The former minister must exercise care and common sense and always be able to defend his or her actions. "If you can't defend it, don't do it," is not a bad rule.

The position of the former minister is not the same as the former civil servant, but the basic aims of the Civil Service code surely apply to the politician also. The civil service rules aim, first, to avoid any suspicion that the advice and decisions ofa civil servant might be influenced by the hope of future employment; and, second, to avoid the risk that a company might gain an improper advantage over its competitors by employing a former civil servant.

There is no difficulty in making that also a statement of aims for former ministers. In the same way, the rules governing civil servants in the two years after leaving the Civil Service can be adapted for ministers.

One suggestion is this. There is already an advisory committee on business appointments. There is no reason why its remit should not be extended. A former minister who wants to take up employment in a company with which he has just had departmental dealings - within, say, the two years after he leaves his job - should have to seek the committee's permission. The relevant date is that when the minister leaves the department, not the government.

To take my own example. In government, I ran three departments: first Transport, then Health and Social Security, and lastly Employment. In 1990 I joined the board of NFC, previously the the National Freight Corporation, which I had helped to privatise. That was nine years after I had ceased to be Transport Secretary. Even Jack Straw conceded on the Today programme yesterday morning that that was "fair enough".

Had I gone instead to a company involved with the work of the Department of Employment, that might have been entirely justifiable; but under my proposal it would require checking by the independent committee.

But of course previous departmental connections are not the only issue that former ministers have to face. Like all other MPs they have to decide whether some forms of activity are best avoided altogether. When I left the Government, I was approached by a number of companies. One of them was a public relations company - highly reputable and run by people I respected.

I came to the conclusion, however, that the difficulty for a politician being in public relations was the wide range of clients and the possible conflicts of interest that could arise. I was never approached by a lobbying organisation, but I would have thought that such organisations have those same difficulties multiplied.

The essence of the lobbyist is that he is a taxi for hire. He is paid to put a case. The case he puts need not be compatible with the case he put a year ago. He can support the campaign for privatisation one month and run a campaign against it the next. That can perhaps be justified action for a commercial lobbying organisation. I cannot see how it can be acceptable for an MP.

The pity about the Nolan debate is that it is being painted in garish party political shades of red and blue when the truth is that it is in the interests of all parties to find solutions. In my view, sensible rules would help both the public and the politicians. They should not be resisted. What should be resisted is the notion that outside interests for MPs ought to be outlawed.

Sir Norman Fowler is MP for Sutton Coldfield. He will be giving evidence to the Nolan committee next week.