Leading Article: How to reduce the fallibility of MPs

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT CAN HAVE been little comfort to Michael Mates that he was joined yesterday by Jacques Attali, the astonishingly profligate head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, in blaming the press for an enforced resignation. In reality, the fault lay in both cases not (to adapt Cassius's advice to Brutus) in the press, but in themselves. All the newspapers did, as with David Mellor, was to flush out gross failures of judgement. If press revelations had not struck a chord with the public, they would have had no impact and could have been ignored.

All these episodes have revealed a disjunction between what ordinary people consider to be acceptable behaviour by those who hold public office, and what those in power consider reasonable. The press merely drew that mismatch into the open. A wiser and stronger prime minister would have seen its implications earlier, and taken corrective action sooner.

Ministers and MPs would do ill to underestimate the damage to Parliament's reputation should their standards of judgement and morality continue to be seen to be declining. Now more than ever a compact exists between the public and Westminster: in exchange for our votes and a fair measure of respect, we expect them to represent the interests of constituents and the nation as a whole - and to do so in a manner that justifies respect.

Constituency links are supposed to keep them in touch with the feelings and needs of the public up and down the country. The responsibilities of ministerial office call for a particular sensitivity of judgement. It is not unnatural that MPs should come to think of themselves as rather special. That is what the public wants them to be. But such a feeling, nurtured by the hothouse life and unnatural hours of Westminster, too easily breeds a sense that normal laws and scruples no longer apply.

In quest of extra earnings to boost their basic salary of just over pounds 30,000, many MPs take on half-a-dozen or more (often many more) paid consultancies and directorships. For, say, pounds 10,000 a year and/or the use of a car or other perk, they will press the interests of the company, sector or professional group concerned in the nation's legislative body. Even though all these interests must nowadays be declared, many - perhaps most - people are shocked by such arrangements. Among the numerous impressions they leave are that Parliament is a gravy train, that MPs have a hidden agenda, and that the interests of constituency and nation come well below their own. No one is saying that MPs should not be allowed to work as lawyers, journalists, or in business; nor that they should not be allowed to advise or defend interest groups. But they should not be paid to act as (often covert) lobbyists.

All such emoluments have to be dropped when an MP becomes a minister, however junior. But by then the damage has been done. Habits have been formed, ways of thinking developed, and questionable contacts cultivated. To those professional deformations is added that of isolation - for all the hard work and appointment-filled days - from the rough and tumble of daily life. Chauffeur-driven cars are provided, a measure of deference from civil servants expected and given.

From such a way of life a curious mixture of arrogance and naivety can result. It is a blend that sometimes seems to convince its victims that they can take risks from which even journalists, who represent no one but their newspapers or television/radio stations, would shrink. Hence not so much David Mellor's affair with an actress but his acceptance of free holidays from a potentially interested benefactor. Hence Mr Mates's various manifestations of support for a dodgy businessman who became a fugitive from justice. And hence, too, a level of isolation that prevents ministers from seeing, for example, that a measure like the poll tax goes against all British notions of fair play.

A more genuine danger to political life from the press is that its attentions should foster the feeling among Westminster's denizens that they represent a branch of show business rather than the nation's collective interests. Respect for MPs and ministers would be enormously enhanced if they would more frequently admit their own errors and the force of their opponents' arguments. Regularly to acknowledge their own fallibility would soon have the effect of considerably reducing it.