LEADING ARTICLE: A tonic for Westminster

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Yesterday, Britain's political earth moved. The Nolan committee called for a legally enforceable ban on MPs taking money from lobbyists and a two-year cooling-off period before ex-ministers can take jobs in any industry they dealt with when in office. Even then, they would have to seek the approval of a new independent committee, before taking such jobs. A Public Appointments Commissioner would oversee selection of quango boards and chief officers. A Parliamentary Standards Commissioner would enforce House of Commons rules. If these proposals had been in force at the time, Lord Young would have waited longer before going to Cable and Wireless and Dame Angela Rumbold would never have sat on the board of a firm of lobbyists.

A defining feature of a modern liberal political culture is that its leaders are not a law unto themselves. There must be carefully designed checks and balances between the powers of the elected politicians and the judiciary. For too long British legislators have exempted themselves from the judicial scrutiny that is felt to be essential in other countries. The doctrine of "parliamentary sovereignty," as the Tory constitutionalist Ferdinand Mount has argued, has been used for a century to "hollow out" our constitution, by eroding previous checks and balances.

Nolan begins to reverse this. Yes, we can be reassured that backbenchers, like the Tories David Tredinnick and Graham Riddick, will not now be taking cash for tabling questions to ministers. But the report's significance is much greater than this. The Nolan committee will sit for two more years, simultaneously pressing for the implementation of yesterday's recommendations and opening an investigation into ethical standards in the House of Lords and local government. It is too early to say whether the standing committee should take on a permanent form, but it seems certain that some permanent body will be needed to maintain the pressure for a cleaner, more open political and administrative system. That would amount to an important and overdue step in the evolution of our constitution.

Some backbenchers say Nolan has gone too far. First, they say, Parliament is capable of regulating itself. This is not, regrettably, a credible proposition. Then they argue that able people will not offer themselves as legislators unless their time as MPs and Ministers can be combined with other work, or unless they can use their experience later on. There is justice in this point, but it is a question of balance; it is reasonable, even essential, in a healthy democracy, to expect public office holders to forgo some opportunity for personal reward and career enhancement. There is no defence at all for secrecy in these matters.

The driving principles of the report - transparency, openness and a system of checks and balances - are in tune with the times. Nolan is not an attack on Parliament but a catalyst for its potential reinvigoration. But it is only a start. Enlightened politicians and administrators should give the committee loud and sustained support.