Leading Article: Growing crisis of confidence

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The Independent Online
It is becoming clearer by the day that Britain is drifting into a constitutional crisis of confidence. Standards of behaviour within both the Royal Family and Parliament are under heavy attack at the same time. Silence and time may help to restore the reputation of the House of Windsor, or is it to be Mountbatten-Windsor? For the House of Commons and the Government, however, the situation is pressing. The cash-for-questions episode is the latest in a cumulatively damaging series of improprieties.

The Commons' own Privileges Committee, the body supposed to rule on such issues, was set to investigate two earlier instances of MPs accepting cash for questions. But it has been boycotted by its Labour members, who want its sittings to be public. Now a fast-lengthening list of Tory luminaries, ranging from Sir Norman Fowler and John Biffen to Lord Howe, is urging that the inquiry should be independent.

There is a strong case for such an inquiry being held in public and embracing not just the outside interests of MPs but also the codes, rules and registers that govern the Civil Service and government-appointed quangos. There is a draconian Official Secrets Act but no comprehensive code of conduct for civil servants. The rules laid down in Questions of Procedure for Ministers are not legally binding. The compulsory register of MPs' interests does not require amounts received to be declared. It is a fragmented and confusing picture.

A Royal Commission is probably too unwieldy and slow a mechanism for this task. A committee sitting in public, and including people from outside Parliament, looks more suitable. One option it might favour is being adopted by the Irish government, which has introduced an Ethics in Public Office Bill that gathers together existing codes and rules and puts them on a statutory basis. An independent commission will oversee its operation and investigate complaints.

It is small comfort that the standing of the existing governmental order remains healthier here than in Italy, and probably France, where ministers have been implicated in scandals. In Italy, politicians and big business were enmeshed in a web of bribery and corruption. The public's quest for points of unimpeachability found them in the presidency and the magistracy.

In this country, the legal profession has been restoring its reputation after a string of miscarriages of justice. Much will hang on Lord Justice Scott's skill in dissecting official misdemeanours involved in the illegal export of defence equipment to Iraq. His report is likely to expose the dangers of civil servants having no comprehensive code of ethics and answering to ministers rather than to Parliament.

All of these events underscore the magnitude of the difficulty which now arises. If government and Parliament cease to be trusted, the public must look either to the judiciary or to a Crown-appointed investigator for a remedy. That in turn is why a system of public appointments which relies too much on secret proceedings inside Whitehall is itself part of the problem.

In the short term, Mr Major's priority should be to facilitate the creation of an independent inquiry into cash for questions. In a calmer moment, he will need to reflect on matters more profound.