Parliament's chickens come home to roost

`Regulation' keeps raising its head in the Nolan Committee and politici ans may not escape it much longer
Click to follow
When the Government set up the Nolan Committee, its aim was to counter the allegations of "sleaze". It little thought that once a committee started to look at the behaviour of politicians, the process might unleash a radical rethink of the whole nature of politics: what is expected of politicians not just in their personal finances, but in the whole conduct of their jobs. Yet if you listen to the committee hearings it is clear that just such a rethink is taking place.

Take yesterday: it was the turn of the chairman and the controller of the Audit Commission to give evidence. They argued that all holders of public office, possibly including government ministers, should be liable to fines for serious misconduct. Such a system of surcharge and disqualification from office existed in local government and, though rarely used, it acted as a powerful deterrent.

It might seem odd to ministers, or indeed MPs, that they might face a fine and disqualification. But it is equally odd that we should enforce standards of behaviour on our local politicians that we do not impose on our national ones. Which is more important: the job of a local councillor or a minister of the Crown?

The Audit Commission went on to argue that a code of conduct should be developed for all holders of public office, and that as in the corporate sector, individuals should be required to confirm annually that they had complied with the code. "A false statement of compliance could result in penalties," it said.

Anyone doing business in the City must abide by the appropriate regulator. Again, why should we expect higher standards of someone selling life assurance than we do of a minister?

The thrust of the Audit Commission's argument is echoed by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance, which wants "a robust system of corporate governance", and by the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts, which wants "a common standard of financial accountability and responsibility throughout all the public service". In short, the whole Nolan Committee exercise is making us realise the extent to which the standards of corporate government have lagged behind other parts of our society.

Since the war, the professions have progressively tightened the standards they impose on their members. For example, neither barristers nor stockbrokers used to have to pass any exam before qualifying. Barristers "ate dinners"; stockbrokers ate City lunches. The eating continues but, in addition, both now have to pass exams.

A parallel path towards improved accountability has been laid down in the newly privatised industries, where outside regulators have been appointed. Where the supplier is in a monopolistic position, the argument goes, there should be a separate body to counterbalance that power. So we have Oftel for the telecommunications industry, Ofwat for water, Ofgas for Cedric Brown, and so on. But there is no Ofpol for Parliament. It is the monopoly supplier of national political services in this country, yet there is no external mechanism for examining its standards of performance.

This suggests that there are two rather different possible approaches towards improving the performance of our public servants and politicians. One would be to regard the work of politics as a profession, where one would seek to apply standards to individuals. The other would be to see the parliamentary process as a business, requiring regulation of its overall performance. Each would lead to a slightly different type of control.

If politicians are professionals, they should follow professional standards. Take the election of MPs. Anyone can stand, provided they pay a deposit: there is no qualification or assurance of competence whatsoever. This is like the Army 150 years ago when officers bought commissions, rather than having to undergo training, or the Civil Service before entry examinations were brought in. It is surely reasonable to expect that anyone standing for public office should have to demonstrate that they are up todoing the job. A simple two-hour exam would suffice.

And after election, there could be minimum standards of professional behaviour. For example, MPs could be required to handle a certain number of constituents' complaints, meeting specific quality standards such as waiting time in their surgeries. They could be required to spend a minimum number of hours making legislation, reach a threshold for giving speeches in the Commons - at least in terms of time on their hind legs, for it would be hard to agree on objective quality standards for parliamentary debate.

Logically, it ought to be possible to establish what the politician's job is, then have some common standards for the performance of that job, and a disciplinary body to enforce those standards.

Of course there would be difficulties of interpretation. One could hardly attack politicians for saying silly things, but you could reasonably require that they were sober when they did so. Thus MPs found to be drunk while on duty in the chamber would bedisciplined.

The alternative would be not to regulate politicians but to regulate Parliament. Here the Ofpol would set out performance standards for the parliamentary process as a whole. For example, it would look at the effectiveness of legislation and its cost control: is, for example, our Parliament cheaper or more expensive to operate than that of other medium-sized developed nations?

Then there is the question of parliamentary procedures. Would performance improve were Parliament to operate a normal working day? How much more does it cost to run the nation's legislature for such unsocial hours? Are the abnormally long holidays appropriate?

Above all, using an outside body to examine performance would focus attention on the entire process, asking not just whether things are being done well, but whether they need to be done at all. Do we really need as much legislation as we are getting? Could there not be a simpler and cheaper alternative? This should not, however, be just a cost-cutting exercise. It should also seek to improve quality of output. Are MPs properly supported by research and administrative facilities?

Whether that body should be a professional one, requiring standards of individuals, or an industry one, imposing performance standards on the business as a whole, is open to debate. I suspect we need both. Whether it should concentrate on all politicians, in and out of office, or merely focus on members of the government, is also open. I suspect that the public would prefer all politicians to be covered, for that would ensure a higher quality opposition, as well as, one would hope, a better quality of government.

To many, the idea of an exam for parliamentary candidates or an Ofpol must seem bizarre. But it shouldn't be. Twenty years ago when the phones were run by the Post Office, it would have seemed odd that there should be an Oftel. But the phone system is vastly better now than it was then, in part at least as a result of pressure from the regulator. Politicians have set up all these bodies; they have required much higher standards from other professionals. Why should they not use similar devices to improvetheir own performance, too?