Letter: Making a basic judgement of ministerial morality

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Sir: Even if nobody knows what 'back to basics' means, ministers clearly intended it to be about public morality. But what about ministers' morality, as your leading article (12 January) aptly pointed out? Leaving aside sexual misdemeanours, there is a growing number of claims of breaches of public honesty and ministerial rules of conduct that must call into question their continued right to govern.

It isn't only the Scott inquiry that has prised open the lid on ministerial misconduct and dishonesty, although those revelations alone implicate a quarter of the Cabinet. Apart from the arms-to-Iraq scandal, the National Audit Office has recently chastised Douglas Hurd for wasting pounds 54m of overseas aid money on a pounds 234m hydro-electric project in Malaysia, which was almost certainly used to seal an illegal pounds 1,000m arms deal with Malaysia that Margaret Thatcher negotiated personally. This was in prima facie breach of the Overseas Aid Act 1966, which bans the use of aid to secure defence sales.

There are other areas where public money has been used to benefit the private affairs of ministers, not least in the cases of Norman Lamont (legal fees) and John Gummer (garden landscaping). And now Gyles Brandreth, the PPS to a Treasury minister, has had a company debt written off.

What is really disturbing is not so much the lengthening list of specific cases of ministerial wrongdoing. It is the culture that has become entrenched in Whitehall: that ministers are above the law, that they can break the law with impunity. Secrecy and lying and manipulation in the topmost reaches of government have become endemic. What is needed is a new constitutional procedure whereby ministers acting deliberately in defiance of law, or conspiring to pervert the course of justice, can be brought to book by an outraged nation.

Yours faithfully,

MICHAEL MEACHER MP for Oldham West (Lab)

House of Commons

London, SW1

12 January

The writer is Opposition spokesman on citizens' rights.