Self-regulation scores a victory in the House

Evidence on oath should encourage MPs not to cover up for themselves - and each other

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Has the House of Commons done something right for once? There could hardly be a worse time for John Major to lose one of the ablest members of his government. But that isn't really the point. The outcome of the inquiry, the first by the newly formed, post-Nolan Committee on Standards and Privileges, may prove to be at once more important and longer- lasting than the mere fate of a single minister.

David Willetts will probably bounce back in the long term, not least because, unusually and promptly, he resigned yesterday. But there's just a chance that yesterday's brutally succinct report will start to change the culture of the House of Commons. At long last. And for the better.

A unanimous recommendation of the committee is that in future it should hear evidence on oath. If that is accepted - and it should be - it will underpin the authority of the Commons claim to regulate itself. It could, as some Tories were quietly pointing out yesterday, constrain Mohamed Al Fayed if and when he gives evidence on the cash for questions allegations against Neil Hamilton. But it should also encourage MPs not to cover up for themselves and - however loyally - for each other.

There is a human story here. An imaginative political intellectual is propelled, against his natural inclinations, into the introverted clubbiness of the whips' office. Never mind that a government not exactly overburdened with articulate thinkers might have found a more useful role for him. It was an appointment that was supposed to "knock him into shape", to give him a taste of low politics and, no doubt, a sense of his own limitations. Perhaps exactly because he isn't a natural whip, he acts the over-eager new boy and does his best to help the willing chairman of a quasi-judicial committee to deal with an embarrassing scandal in a way the Government would like. Or so it looks from a note that he writes for the Chief Whip immediately after a conversation with the Committee chairman, Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith.

Two years later the note becomes public and Willetts, now a pivotal if middle-ranking minister, denies in evidence to a Select Committee that that's what he was doing, or that it was what Sir Geoffrey wanted him to do. Sir Geoffrey, in evidence, likewise denies that he had been seeking help from the Government. But the committee decides that Willetts' memo was a lot more accurate than either his - or, for that matter, Sir Geoffrey's - evidence to the committee. Willetts is severely censured for "dissembling" to the committee.

No one has complained about Sir Geoffrey's conduct to the committee. But the committee makes it clear that neither man should have had the conversation in the first place, and notes with damning politeness that Sir Geoffrey's own oral evidence was "sincere" if "somewhat confused".

There is more to come. Probably after Christmas it will start to examine the case of Andrew Mitchell, the whip who actually served on the committee, who consulted the Registrar of Members' Interests about his assessment of the Hamilton case, and then passed on the information to the Chief Whip with the comment: "Not very helpful, I'm afraid."

In some ways the Mitchell case will be different - and not just because he enjoys more backbench popularity than Willetts, who suffers from what many Tories regard as the vice of cleverness.

Also a whip at the time, Mitchell was openly a member of the committee. It's surely indefensible for a whip to be on a backbench committee of the legislature. But not a Labour whip, indeed not a single MP of any party, complained at the time he was appointed. If anyone had objected, his appointment would probably have been blocked. It demonstrates how decadent the custom and practice had become, that no one did. And that's part of what may now start to change.

This report won't stop whips being whips, or oiling the wheels of Select Committees to suit the Government. And cynics will say that it will just make them more careful about getting caught. But it will make them more hesitant about trying to suborn inquiries into complaints about MPs.

As it happens, this inquiry wasn't on a Nolan-type issue. This was the new Standards and Privileges Committee acting not on sleaze but on an old-fashioned issue of parliamentary privilege - interference in the independence of MPs. But because it was the first inquiry by a new committee that will deal with sleaze in the future, it was a critically important test. Dale Campbell Savours, the most experienced inquisitor on the Labour side - and a one-time believer in external regulation - certainly thinks the process worked.

The inquiry might not have found as it did if the Tory Quentin Davies had not transformed the atmosphere by his relentless questioning of Willetts. It's very doubtful whether it would have produced a unanimous report at all if it hadn't first been persuaded to hear evidence not just in public but on television - sharply increasing expectations of the inquiry. But it did.

It's tempting to think that the Conservative majority, in what most people see as the closing month of its party's 17-year regime, suddenly decided to do the right thing - a sort of conversion on the political deathbed.

But it would be fairer to say that with the threat of statutory external regulation hanging over them, the committee finally, belatedly, began to demonstrate that it was capable of putting its house in order.

This has been a messy affair. But the most important lesson from yesterday is a frankly unexpected one: having languished in the last chance saloon, self-regulation might now just work.

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