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These are matters of culture and structure, and it is important that we get both right. Our Committee went on a visit to Finland as part of its inquiries because that country usually comes at or near the top in league tables of good governance and lack of corruption. In structural terms, we would find much of the Finnish system unacceptable—for example, the way in which senior civil servants are appointed by politicians. Despite that, the Finnish system is wonderfully uncorrupt. The clue to that success was the remark by someone we met, who
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said that in Finland people only behave badly once. What he meant was that in the Finnish culture bad behaviour puts someone out of bounds. The society was so closed, tight and intimate that everyone knew if someone had behaved badly. In other words, the culture was sustaining the high standards. That is a reminder that structures matter but culture probably matters even more.

There is a danger that, in our preoccupation with seeking yet more structures and rules, we may end up substituting them for the culture that really matters most. We need both, and on the whole this country has been fortunate in having elements of both, not least because we have a civil service that is an in-built check on propriety in the system. It is no wonder that people still come from around the world—I know, because I meet them—to look at the British civil service as an example of independence, neutrality and propriety. I am sure that having such a system at the heart of government acts as permanent propriety check.

We want high standards for their own sake, not for other reasons. We say in our report that we should not have high standards just because we think that they will somehow restore trust in government—something with which we are much preoccupied now. In fact, the reverse may happen. Transparency is a wonderful thing and it is true, as is often said, that sunlight is the best disinfectant. However, it may illuminate areas that were previously unilluminated, and the more one illuminates areas, the more problems may be revealed. I suspect that no Member of Parliament particularly enjoys the annual ritual of the publication of Members’ expenses, accompanied by newspaper reports about snouts in the trough without any explanation in the popular media of what we do with the money that we are paid. Does that transparency contribute to the development of trust? I doubt it. Indeed, it probably works in the other direction, although that is not to say that we should not do it. The point is that transparency of itself will not foster trust: it may work to make trust more difficult.

Our report documents in some detail the recent creation, especially in the past few years, of a considerable apparatus of ethical audit and regulation. We—I mean we generally, not in a party sense—have published and made more robust the ministerial code; we have produced a civil service code, and one for special advisers; we have set up a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards; we have established an adviser on ministerial interests; we have set up the Electoral Commission; we have had a Freedom of Information Act, with an Information Commissioner; we have a House of Lords Appointments Commission to check for propriety; we have a commissioner for public appointments; and we have reformed the honours system.

It often goes unremarked that the previous Prime Minister removed himself completely from the honours system. He said that he would no longer add or subtract any names from the list given to him by the newly independent honours committees, but would pass them directly to the palace. That was a big moment in the evolution of such matters, but it was not widely noticed. I think that the present Prime Minister has said that he will do the same.

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I have given quite a roll call of reforms and institutions that have been introduced in the past few years, designed to strengthen the propriety of our public affairs. Both major parties have had a role in that. I pay great tribute to John Major for setting up the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1994. Yes, he did so against a background of sustained allegations of impropriety, but he did it nevertheless, and it was an important, bold and brave moment. His Government also set up the commissioner for public appointments to answer the charge of the politicisation of quango appointments.

When the Labour Government came to power in 1997, they took the process further. For example, the Major Government had said that they were not prepared to invite the Committee on Standards in Public Life to consider party funding. They would not include party funding in the committee’s terms of reference, despite many requests. One of the first things that the Labour Government did in 1997 was to include party funding in the committee’s terms of reference. That is why the committee produced its great report that led to the 2000 legislation and the commitment to transparency. It was thought at the time that that was the answer to the problem, but as I said a few moments ago, transparency is not necessarily the answer, because people do not always like what they see. Therefore, they want more to be done, which is what we are discussing now.

There is a paradox in the history I have given. We have had a huge explosion in the ethical regulation of government, but trust in government, and perceptions of trust in government, have gone in the opposite direction. That is an interesting conjunction. One might have expected the growth in ethical regulation to produce a growth in trust because all the unregulated areas of public life were now being regulated. That has not happened, which suggests that other factors are at work.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I apologise for not being in my place earlier in the debate. I agree with the changes that have been made, starting in 1994 for the reasons that my hon. Friend has outlined, and extended by the present Government. However, would he agree that we took a step backwards on 18 May, when the House of Commons passed by 96 to 25 votes the wretched private Member’s Bill that would have exempted Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act? Fortunately, no one in the Lords would pursue it. Had that become law, we would have disgraced ourselves, because we would have said that freedom of information should apply to all other public bodies—and it should be extended to the private sector, too, as far as I am concerned—but not to Parliament. We were saved from ourselves by the other place.

Dr. Wright: I very much agree that that was not this House’s finest hour. The Public Administration Committee was involved in examining the draft of the original Freedom of Information Bill, and we can claim to have made it rather more robust by the time it completed its parliamentary journey than it was when it started.

There are a number of explanations for the paradox surrounding the enormous growth in ethical regulation in recent years and the seeming further decline in public
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trust in the system, but one should concern us directly. I am referring to the fact that it has become extremely attractive for one political party to attack the integrity of other parties. We have all discovered in recent times that there are enormous short-term political dividends in doing that: suggesting that our opponents are mired in sleaze plays to existing public perceptions, and brings huge political gains in the short term.

We on this side of the House played that card heavily in the 1990s, with some justice—although, in retrospect, that was exaggerated. Some things needed remedying, but we were wrong to suggest that the Major Government and most members of the parliamentary Conservative party were sleazebags. That was not true, but we found it extremely rewarding politically to say so.

Similarly, the Conservative party found that those attacks had been so damaging that it decided to start making equivalent charges as soon as possible after the new Labour Government came to power in 1997. As a result, the parties became involved in making mutual allegations and charges, with each saying, “You’re sleazier than we are!” To which the answer always comes back, “Oh no we’re not, you’re much sleazier than we are!” That is how the slanging match begins, and some sections of the press love to reinforce it by telling readers every day how corrupt and sleazy we all are.

That is why I was disappointed to hear the Leader of the Opposition say last week that there were questions about the Prime Minister’s integrity when it came to party funding. The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to attack the Prime Minister in all sorts of ways, but that was unfortunate. I do not think that there are any questions about the Prime Minister’s integrity, although many questions can properly be asked about current matters. However, attacking our opponents’ integrity has extremely damaging consequences for our political system and for the perception of public life.

We all have our little lists of scandals that we think that we can throw at opponents in other parties. That is what we do: I gather that there was a splendid debate yesterday when that was all that happened. The point is, though, that such an approach is based on a deception—the lie that our system is mired in sleaze and corruption. I do not believe that, but if that is what we are saying about our opponents, no wonder people in the outside world believe it to be true, and no wonder public confidence and trust evaporate. If we say such things about each other when we know them to be fundamentally untrue, no wonder public engagement in politics vanishes. By seeking advantage in making such accusations, in some measure we are responsible for the consequences that we bring about.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful speech, but does he agree that the problem is that we are in an era of sound-bite politics, with too much interest shown in what the news bulletins at 12, 6 and 10 o’clock report? We need to break our slavish desire to keep in with the media at any cost, regardless of the background of what we say. Does he agree that Parliament and the media pander to each other in a relationship that means that we live in a world of our own creation?

Dr. Wright: I know the hon. Gentleman. He is a distinguished member of the Public Administration Committee, and I can tell the House that he panders to nobody. He is a person of ferocious independence—

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Mr. Winnick: Is that allowed?

Dr. Wright: It is one of his great charms and attractions: it is probably not greatly welcomed by those on the Conservative Front Bench, but it is hugely welcomed by someone who is trying to run a cross-party committee. He does not pander to the media; he tries to tell it like it is, and that is what we all must do. Our responsibility is not to engage in a game that we know will be taken up by sections of the media because it feeds an existing agenda or an existing set of perceptions. We must say things that we think are true, even if that is not politically convenient to our side. If we do not do that, we will deserve everything we get—and we are getting quite a lot at the moment.

Kelvin Hopkins: I want to follow the point made by the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger), our colleague on the Public Administration Committee. It is said that Clement Attlee looked at newspapers only for the cricket results, which suggests that he had a healthy attitude to the news media. Does my hon. Friend agree that we might help our Prime Minister now by suggesting that he should worry less about what is on the front page and perhaps pursue something more harmless, such as the cricket?

Dr. Wright: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do not want to pay huge tributes to all the members of the Committee, but I am happy to pay tribute to him. I yield to no one in my admiration for Clement Attlee, of whom it was famously said that he would never use one word where none would do. He is the antidote to the age in which we live. Some say that he would not survive for a moment now, but I think that he would be a hero, cutting through all the spin-driven, media celebrity nonsense that drives so much of our modern public life.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I may be anticipating a point that my hon. Friend is about to make, but does he agree that the ethical regulators who should be pronouncing on our conduct are simply not on the radar screens of people outside the House? That is the problem, and the result is that the public get their information from what happens in this Chamber. Should we not establish ethical regulators who talk loudly and are listened to?

Dr. Wright: Not for the first time, my hon. Friend anticipates a point that I was going to make. Indeed, much of life on the Public Administration Committee is taken up with him doing just that, and his contributions are always extremely valuable. I was coming to precisely that point—that it is not much good to have an elaborate system of ethical regulation if it does not have a voice, or if people do not know that it exists.

Following the report that we are discussing today, the Committee convened a seminar of all the ethical watchdogs. It was very interesting, but the consistent theme that emerged was that they all believed that they were lacking a champion. The spokesmen for the bodies involved all told us that they did not feel that anyone was there to champion all the good work being done. The fact that that is what we were told emphatically makes the point
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raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), and it is something to which we must turn our attention.

At the heart of the Committee’s interest, and its recommendations, is the fact that it robustly tries to seek solutions to the problems it identifies. That is its hallmark. The Committee is not complacent about standards and conduct, and tries always, in various ways, to strengthen the arrangements. In our report, we argue that the time has come to recognise explicitly that we have created a system of permanent ethical regulation. I have described an array of bodies: they are not here today and gone tomorrow; they are here to stay. As a political system, we have committed ourselves to having standing machinery to regulate conduct in public life.

The problem is that the bodies are often set up in an ad hoc way. In response to a passing crisis, what do we do? We set up a new body, a new commissioner or a new committee. That means that the complete network of such bodies lacks a coherent institutional design. We think it is time to remedy that. There is a rather important constitutional point: if we are serious about the permanent ethical regulation of public life we have to be serious about the status of the bodies that engage in it. The situation seems fundamentally unsatisfactory to us. Indeed, our report notes:

We have reached the point where we should express our commitment to the permanence of those bodies by putting them on a proper statutory foundation. Parliament wants to know that they are part of the permanent political landscape, so the Committee suggested the establishment of a public standards commission, which would be an umbrella organisation for the bodies that have been set up, and ensure that they all took a statutory form.

The Government have not said that they accept our argument, but they have not rejected it either. In their response to our report, they say they will think about the proposals. Given the fact that we have had a number of successes with the Government recently and they are taking a great interest in our previous recommendations, we have some hope that when the constitutional reform Bill is drafted—that omnibus piece of legislation—a place will be found to do something of the kind that we propose. It would provide an explicit constitutional commitment to ensuring that bodies charged with the regulation of public life are permanent, independent and not simply creatures of Government.

In fact, such bodies are not compromised in practice; they do excellent work and are robustly independent, but there is something unsatisfactory about their constitutional status and I think we can put that right. At the same time, we can give coherence to the system and perhaps answer the watchdogs’ charge about the lack of a champion of their role in the overall system.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I have read the report and was taken by the idea for a commission. In Scotland, we have various people—the Auditor General, the ombudsman, the Information Commissioner, the Children’s Commissioner and others—who are all approved
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and appointed by Her Majesty on the nomination of Parliament. Why does the hon. Gentleman think that the commission model would be better than a system in which Parliament, as opposed to the Executive, makes the nominations?

Dr. Wright: We looked carefully at the Scottish model—indeed, we visited Scotland—and we were attracted by aspects of it, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is not entirely without difficulties. It is being reviewed even as we speak, and there are some radical recommendations for the regulatory system in Scotland. Our public standards commission would be set up by Parliament; it would be a parliamentary creation. It would report to Parliament and Parliament would be represented on it. The analogue is the Public Accounts Commission; thus a public standards commission would say that we are as serious about public standards as we are about the regulation of public money. That is the model we advocate, although I do not say that there is not more work to be done or that other models are not available. We need to take on board the essential constitutional point, and I hope that the Government, minded as they are to introduce a variety of measures in that field, will want to go down the road that we suggest.

Stewart Hosie: I should like to explore the hon. Gentleman’s interesting proposal a little further. If the suggested commission were set up, would reports from the various bodies still be put before Parliament directly, or would they come via the commission? How would the mechanics of the commission work?

Dr. Wright: The answer is that the commission would report to Parliament in its turn. Parliament would be involved in setting it up, and all the matters of funding and appointment that flowed from that would go along the parliamentary route. It would be sensible for the Government to be represented on the commission, as they are on the Public Accounts Commission. The reports would come to this place, very much as the Committee that I chair receives reports from the parliamentary ombudsman and the Public Accounts Committee receives reports from the Comptroller and Auditor General. There would be an organic relationship with Parliament, but there would also be independence for the bodies concerned.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes a compelling and most impressive case. His Committee clearly had some influence with the Government in the appointment of Sir Christopher Kelly. One of the Committee’s recommendations was that the names proposed should be agreed by consultation among the parties. Does the hon. Gentleman know whether that particular aspect was taken up by the Government in that appointment?

Dr. Wright: I think the hon. Gentleman may be in a better position to answer that question than I am. I have no idea who was consulted. There is a convention and I hope it was followed in the recent appointment, as it is in certain other appointments. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can tell us a little more about that when she speaks.

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The House has choices. We can do what I have just recommended. The Committee was particularly concerned with Cabinet Office bodies, of which there are about half a dozen. It is not satisfactory that such bodies are ad hoc, or that they can be abolished at the whim of the Government. Whatever model we choose, it is right to put those bodies on a proper constitutional basis. That is one choice for the House and the Government.

There is another choice, too. As politicians and party members we have to decide whether we think that engaging in the politics of sleaze, by which I mean attacking the integrity of one’s opponents, is so alluring and attractive, and brings such political dividends, that we would rather settle for that as a way of handling such matters—or whether we think that the time has come to state jointly, on both sides of the House, our determination not to engage in that kind of game, but to establish a system of regulation and a culture that will ensure that our public life is conducted, and continues to be conducted, to the highest possible standards. That is a real choice for the House, and for the way we do politics. I hope that the report will be a spur for the House to make the choice that I think it ought to make.

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