Leading Article: Nolan is not enough

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Something worrying happened over the weekend. It was revealed that Richard Needham - who until July had criss-crossed the world as Britain's trade minister - will join the board of GEC (one of this country's big exporters) next month. Vast sums were rumoured to be coming Mr Needham's way in the not too distant future. This cued the predictable explosions of wrath from Labour's Brian Wilson and the Lib Dems' Malcolm Bruce, who talked darkly of the lining of pockets and the smells of corruption and sleaze. Not so, returned Mr Needham's colleagues blithely, Richard has done it by the book - it's all been thoroughly Nolaned.

What is worrying is that they are both right. The Nolan report laid down that, in future, ministers should have their appointments treated in the same way as senior civil servants. So they could either wait two years after leaving office before taking up new jobs, or they could choose to have the proposed appointment vetted by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, chaired by Lord Carlisle.

And Mr Needham has apparently done exactly that. He didn't really want to hang about for a couple of years, so he has popped along to Lord Carlisle, explained the situation and Bob's your uncle, he has got permission to take up a lucrative post at GEC (to whose chairman, Lord Prior, he is a former personal assistant). So what precisely - implied the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, in an interview yesterday - are you all complaining about? Eh?

It's this, Michael. The trouble is that the Needham appointment to GEC does not leave a good taste in the mouth. As trade minister, Mr Needham found himself permanently in flight to one or other of the capitals of the developing and newly developed world, touting for business for Britain. He was in Indonesia five times, in Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan and God knows where else besides. He was at the heart of the Government's drive for new and increased markets, privy to the strategy and information of a powerful department and the good acquaintance of foreign dignitaries and rulers. Within weeks of leaving this existence, he turns up to lead the export drive of one of Britain's biggest exporters - and is to be handsomely recompensed for doing so. Which is understandable, because his expertise is very, very valuable indeed.

Now, Michael, can't you see how this appears to the rest of us? At best, it looks as though GEC alone will reap the benefit of work done at the taxpayer's expense. At worst, folk will wonder what Lord Prior and Richard Needham talked about when they sat next to each other on that plane to Tokyo some time back. They will not like it - and with good reason. Lord Carlisle has got it wrong - he should have insisted on a decent interval between Mr Needham's period as trade minister and his appearance on the GEC board.

Which suggests that there is a big problem with simply signing up to Nolan and hoping that he alone will rekindle lost confidence in the ethics of Parliament and government. In several key areas the business of deciding what is acceptable will be given over to bodies such as the Carlisle committee, which may not share the same sense of concern or priorities as the rest of us. The Needham case is a timely reminder to the rest of us that, Nolan notwithstanding, this battle is not yet over.