Leading Article: Good sense and Mr Mellor

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The Independent Online
'IT IS A well-established and recognised rule that no minister or public servant should accept gifts, hospitality or services from anyone which would, or might appear, to place him or her under an obligation. The same principle applies if gifts, etc, are offered to a member of their family. This is primarily a matter which must be left to the good sense of ministers. But any minister in doubt or difficulty over this should seek the Prime Minister's guidance. The same rules apply to the acceptance of gifts from donors in this country as to those from overseas.'

LAST May, in a laudable exercise in open government, John Major published the previously confidential Questions of Procedure for Ministers, a binding rule book issued to all ministers on appointment. Paragraphs 126 and 127, concerning gifts and hospitality, are quoted in full above. Paragraph 81 (which might - unless read alongside 126 and 127 - be interpreted as applying only to gifts from official foreign sources) states that 'gifts' should 'in all cases' be reported to the Permanent Secretary.

Consider now the good sense, or lack of it, demonstrated by David Mellor, the Secretary of State for National Heritage. The chauffeur-driven Mercedes, in which he and his family made their much-publicised visit to his parents-in-law immediately after the revelations about his relationship with an actress, was allegedly provided by a friend, the property developer Elliott Bernerd, whom he involved in negotiations over a deal concerning Chelsea football ground. Mr Bernerd had also allegedly made available to Mr Mellor a mews flat in Mayfair owned by one of his companies.

This week, in the course of a libel action brought by Mona Bauwens, a wealthy Palestinian, against the People, she told the High Court that in August 1990 she had paid for airline tickets from Heathrow to Malaga for Mr Mellor - then Arts Minister - and his family. The day after they arrived, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The Mellor family stayed for a month at a villa rented by Mrs Bauwens, whose father is a leading official of the PLO.

It seems that Mr Mellor, and on occasion his family, received 'services and hospitality' from Mr Bernerd and Mrs Bauwens in circumstances that 'might appear to place him . . . under an obligation'. There is no suggestion whatsoever of impropriety, but, having consulted Questions of Procedure for Ministers, the Secretary of State's 'good sense' should have cautioned him against accepting such generosity, or provoked sufficient doubt to have prompted consultation with the prime minister of the day.

If Mr Mellor did not discuss these matters in detail with Margaret Thatcher and Mr Major respectively, his good sense and political judgement - two attributes one might have thought essential in a member of the Cabinet - are limited. If they authorised his actions, it would be interesting to know why. So far the Government has been evasive.

The purpose of publishing the guidelines was to shed light on ministerial practice and standards. In the same spirit of open government, it is necessary that the result of consultations under the code are automatically available to the public. As the procedure document states in its opening paragraph: 'Ministers . . . will wish to be as open as possible with Parliament and the public.'

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