LEADING ARTICLE:Slow clean-up in Westminster

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The Independent Online
Two months ago Lord Nolan proposed a programme of action to clean up Parliament. After the cash-for-questions row and a series of revelations about unsavoury behaviour, no one could have disagreed. Except, of course, those MPs who appear to think that concern about standards of behaviour in public life is something got up by the press.

Thus, when MPs made their first detailed proposals on how to implement the Nolan report, there was not much sign of contrition or commitment to swift reform.

The committee did the minimum to prevent a public outcry. It accepted the need for a new code of ethics, which has yet to be drawn up. And it agreed to Nolan's request that a new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should police the code. But on other issues the MPs played for time.

They could not agree on Nolan's demand that all earnings for work related to being an MP should be declared in a public register. This is extraordinary. Voters are surely entitled to know how much their representatives are being paid from all other sources.

In a similar vein, the committee failed to back calls for a ban on MPs working for multi-client lobbyists. In short, for now at least, MPs can go on taking money from lobbying firms which might represent any number of interests.

The prevaricators are the Tories. Labour is willing to implement Nolan in toto and the Liberal Democrats seem concerned only to make sure that the wording is so clear that Nolan's recommendations do not perish in a Commons vote because of a technical flaw.

The fuss that Tory MPs are making is remarkable, considering how mild is the dose of probity that Nolan has prescribed. His reforms are modest compared with the strictures facing members of the US Congress. They are banned from receiving gifts, including meals, worth in excess of $20. And they are prohibited from practising in professions such as law, medicine and accountancy. Senators and representatives cannot receive more than an additional 15 per cent of their salaries from sources outside Congress.

In comparison, Parliament, even after Nolan, would still be governed by an easy regime. The proposal for a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, for example, attacked by Nolan's opponents as an independent watchdog who will tear away at the fabric of parliamentary sovereignty, is less than it seems. In practice, the commissioner would merely report to a sub-committee, a committee and the Commons. There would be plenty of time to delay, frustrate and even quash his rulings. And the commissioner could be sacked by a single vote of the Commons.

MPs should recognise that their surest way to restore the reputation of Parliament is to respond speedily and firmly to the reform agenda. And Mr Major, who was responsible for the Nolan committee's establishment, should use his newly reconfirmed authority as leader of the Conservative Party to bring his colleagues into line.