Leading Article: No longer their own judges

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The Independent Online
It was one of the most dramatic half-hours in the recent life of the House of Commons. Westminster had been awash with speculation about whether Neil Hamilton, the minister for trade, would resign, and there was high interest in whether the Prime Minister would, in his statement on the conduct of public life, at last convey an impression of controlling events, rather than being buffeted by them.

When the moment came, John Major went further on both issues than most people expected. Mr Hamilton's resignation was announced, and with it the creation of something entirely new in British public life: a committee chaired by a Law Lord, Lord Nolan, that will not merely examine the outside interests of all public office-holders and recommend changes to existing practice but will remain in being to advise the government of the day.

On only one count did Mr Major disappoint, by failing to come up with a solution to the deadlock over the Committee of Privileges inquiry into MPs accused of accepting cash for asking parliamentary questions. The committee's Labour members are boycotting it because they believe the proceedings should be public. Mr Major yesterday insisted that, as a matter of justice, precedent should be observed and they should be held in private.

This is not convincing. MPs have allowed themselves to evade proper scrutiny of their private interests for too long; a public examination of the cases to hand is a necessity, if not by the priviliges committee, then by an early investigation by the new body.

Mr Major's sense of fair play also got the better of his political judgement where Mr Hamilton was concerned. Mr Hamilton had transgressed the rules in not registering his stay at the Ritz in Paris at the expense of Mohamed al-Fayed, the Harrods owner. His resignation should have been sought soon after the facts became known last week. Mr Hamilton's subsequent attempts to make light of his behaviour and to invoke Mr Major's own case against Scallywag magazine as a precedent for staying in office while suing for libel showed poor judgement for a minister.

Mr Hamilton's case will come to be remembered chiefly as the catalyst of Mr Major's boldest proposal. Although there are standing Royal Commissions on environmental pollution and historical manuscripts, there is no modern-day precedent for a standing committee with a mandate to invigilate the conduct of public servants ranging from MPs and MEPs to civil servants, local government officers and quango members.

This promises to bring about an even more remarkable prising open of public life than that entrusted to Lord Justice Scott in his examination of the sale of defence equipment to Iraq. It will be all the more important that the committee's membership should, on top of party nominees, be truly diverse; and that with the fewest possible exceptions its proceedings should be held in public. Scott and Nolan will be names more memorable to historians of the Major government than those of most cabinet members.