LEADING ARTICLE : A short, sharp shock for MPs

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The Independent Online
A QUARTER of a century ago, a parliamentary committee proposed a code of conduct to cover MPs and their financial interests. The matter was never even debated. As William Whitelaw, then the leader of the House, put it, both main parties thought it best "to rely on the general good sense of members rather than on formalised rules".

Such a comment now would be greeted with ribald laughter. Good sense, like duty or compassion, is an unfashionable virtue. It cannot be entered in a company balance sheet, cannot be subject to a performance indicator, cannot be enshrined in contract. We live in a society which, for the past 16 years, has assumed that human beings can and should be motivated only by the pursuit of individual pecuniary advantage. Nobody - teachers, nurses, civil servants - is to be trusted to do a good job out of conscience or obligation or habit. Everybody is assumed to be a scrounger or an idler or a senseless incompetent until proved otherwise. It is not surprising that people's behaviour then conforms to these expectations: they will try to get away with what they can. It is still less surprising that MPs behave much like anybody else.

The Nolan committee report, issued last week, is an attempt to codify a lost culture of shared values and trust. The effect is faintly ridiculous. The report lists "seven principles of public life": selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership - a combination to which even saints might hesitate to aspire. There is to be a sort of ethics policeman. MPs are to receive "guidance and training" on how to behave themselves. These measures are necessary, Nolan argues, because "people in public life are not always as clear as they should be about where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie". This is an extraordinary state of affairs for people who frame laws for for the rest of us.

Most members of the public would have no difficulty defining the boundaries. Like Simon Jenkins, former editor of the Times, who gave evidence to the committee, they would think it "outrageous and amazing" that MPs accept retainers from lobbying firms with multiple clients, offering a helping hand to almost anybody who turns up on the cab rank principle. They would be surprised that it was still necessary to ban such a thing. But they would go further. They would think that MPs, whose pay is comparable to that of the average headteacher, should dedicate themselves to the well-being of their constituents and the scrutiny of legislation. One job is enough for most people, they would say. Why do MPs need more?

Most of the arguments against full-time parliamentary representatives are weak. It is said, for example, that MPs must retain additional employment if they are to keep in touch with "the real world". But the "real world", on this definition, must be confined to company boardrooms, public relations consultancies, the Inns of Court and the broadcasting studios. MPs are not usually found doing a stint on the geriatric ward or in the high street hamburger bar. Such contacts as they make through their outside employment are almost entirely with other members of the lite. Might not they learn more from acquainting themselves better with their constituents: visiting schools or old people's homes, for example?

This is not, however, an argument for placing rigid restrictions on what they may earn. Rules are not going to restore the probity of MPs or the public faith in them. Already, the wiseacres are discussing how MPs might get round the proposed Nolan restrictions: by channelling earnings to their wives, for example. In the end, the only thing that matters about MPs is their relationship with the electors. Tory MPs have become careless about their behaviour because they thought the voters would put up with them for ever. Over the past three years, the public has learnt that many of them are lining their own pockets when they should be minding the public good. It is not the only reason why supporters of the governing party will be thrown out at the next election, but it is one of the main ones. A boot up the backside from the electorate will do more to restore good sense in the House of Commons than any number of Lord Nolan's recommendations.