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5 Dec 2007 : Column 879

By way of background, the behaviour of Ministers is just as much in the limelight as that of MPs, so enforcement of the ministerial code should be as robust as it is for the MPs’ code, but it is not. Three years after the CSPL recommended it in 2003, in March 2006, Tony Blair took off one veil and appointed an independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. That followed the row about loans not declared to the Electoral Commission. Another veil came off a bit later when Tony Blair, who resisted the appointment of an investigator into alleged breaches of the ministerial code, finally conceded that point. But having conceded the principle, he did not make the appointment until some time later. Having made the appointment, he never asked the adviser to investigate any breaches of the code, although there have been, to put it mildly, a number of opportunities to do so.

I welcome the appointment of Sir Philip Mawer as the new adviser on ministerial interests—another inspired appointment—but there is still a serious and indefensible gap. His terms of reference permit him to establish the facts in certain cases concerning the ministerial code and provide private advice to the Prime Minister, but he can do so only if the Prime Minister invites him to. The design principles for a constitutional watchdog in the report make it clear that the ground rules for the ministerial code watchdog are seriously non-compliant with the report’s recommendations. He does not have the freedom to initiate his own inquiries; he is not appointed by the House; he does not have secure funding arrangements beyond the control of the Executive; and he does not have a secure legal foundation. In those four respects, it is a non-compliant appointment. Crucially, he does not have the right to publish his report when he makes an investigation.

The new Prime Minister could have taken a trick, by acceding, in the Green Paper “The Governance of Britain”, to all of the recommendations in the report. But he did not. Paragraph 121 of “The Governance of Britain” makes it quite clear that the adviser can act only on the Prime Minister’s request. Therefore, the regime we have for enforcing the ministerial code is much weaker than the one we have for MPs, and I see no reason why the Government should have a weaker and less effective regime than we in this House do. We have a Parliamentary Commissioner For Standards who can initiate his own inquiries if he thinks that there has been a breach; his report is always published; and he is appointed by the House for a single, non-renewable term. I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies, she will say that there is some room for manoeuvre, and that as the years roll by, some more veils may come off.

I disagree with the report’s suggestion that all the decisions should be subject to judicial review. Making the decisions of the ethical watchdogs subject to the courts and judicial review is a recipe for disaster. If the Select Committee has a moment, it might like to consider the output of the democracy taskforce, which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) chairs. It has produced a readable document entitled “An End to Sofa Government”, which has some exciting comments to make about the ministerial code and how it might be enforced.

The authority of Government and the perception of their integrity is weakened if they continue to fail to respond positively to the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Public Administration Committee.

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3.40 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): We have heard many excellent speeches, notably that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who chairs our Committee. He generously praised not only the members of the Committee but the staff, and I entirely concur. However, he could not mention himself, so let me say that he is exceptional, even among Select Committee Chairs. Although we sometimes disagree about issues, I defer to his skill and energy and his commitment to the Committee and its work. Serving on the Committee has been the most worthwhile, interesting and significant work that I have done in my 10 years in Parliament. That probably reflects the views of many other Committee members.

I hope that I will not upset my hon. Friend by mentioning Plato, which I do from time to time, again. Plato saw the dangers of linking money and politics 2,500 years ago. He suggested that those who governed—the guardians, the philosopher rulers—should be men of gold, entirely separate from money. They should be there merely to enjoy the pleasure of good governance. He said that the civil servants should be men—they were always men, unfortunately, not people—of silver, and that the moneyed people, the merchants, should be men of bronze, very much in third place. I believe that that is where we should keep the moneyed people—they should not govern or be in power. The dangers were therefore recognised a long time ago, and we should remind ourselves that they are not new.

Public trust has decreased. That is partly to do with our attacks on each other and partly to do with the media, but we could do things to regain that trust. Our report contains a graph of the collapse of public trust from a high point in 1987, when 47 per cent. of the population said that they always or mostly trusted the Government, to 26 per cent. in 2005. Public trust halved in that time. It fluctuates between elections, but at each election it is lower than it was at the one before. Even in 1997, when we believed that there was a great renewal, with the Camelot of Tony Blair, and that somehow everything would be all right, it was not. Turnout, too, has been affected.

I believe that people have become confused about and disappointed in politics, not only because some hon. Members and some members of the Government have not always behaved well with money, but through disillusionment in politics. Research by Professor John Curtice and others shows a correlation between the collapse of interest in politics, with lower turnouts, and the apparently diminishing difference between the parties. There is a perception that we all—certainly at leadership level—share a culture and that we have almost fallen into a Francis Fukuyama-like “end of politics” position because we all essentially agree. Let me say that I do not agree with the prevailing philosophy, which appears at times to be shared by the leadership of all three parties. I believe that a division of views still exists. If we who are in politics start to recognise that the people want a genuine choice, and parties that represent different philosophies and ways in which to run society, people might be more interested and begin to trust us a little more.

Our party always had a moralistic streak. It was concerned about equality, social justice and the interests of the poor. The Conservative party was perhaps more concerned with patriotism, the Queen, preserving the
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old order and so on, but the parties were at least identifiable. We have confused everybody by almost eliminating those differences. We should re-establish those differences, so that people have a genuine democratic choice. Democracy without choice is no democracy at all.

It is pleasing that the Government of the new Prime Minister have broadly commended many of our report’s recommendations. However, the Government have not accepted the recommendations detailed in quite a long section on pages 2 and 3 of the response, saying:

One of those issues is who will appoint the ethical regulator or regulators. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase and others have talked about Parliament doing that through a commission. I entirely agree that that is how the appointment should be made. However, although one does not want to cast aspersions on one’s colleagues, we are all influenced to an extent by our Whips. They can have a word in someone’s ear and say, “Well, actually this is the name we want, because they’re basically on our side,” or, “The Prime Minister rather wants this particular person.” We need a body that is slightly separate from the Whips and not prone to their influence.

A conspiracy involving the Whips from the two main parties is even a possibility. The Opposition might not want too energetic, strong, robust or independent-minded a regulator, just in case they ever get into power and suffer the irritation of having to face them, so there is always the possibility of a conspiracy of the Whips on both sides, as well as the risk from Government Whips. What our report recommends is sound.

I do not want to say very much more, because most of what I had wished to say has been said by others. I wholeheartedly support the report. I would have liked it perhaps to go a little further in driving a wedge between money and politics, but that might have to wait for another day. Such reports are necessarily consensual and I am happy with the consensus that we achieved; but perhaps in time we will go further in driving that wedge between mammon and politics, to the benefit of our politics and in order to rebuild higher levels of trust among our electors.

3.47 pm

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): I read the report with great interest, and it is a timely report. The public feel growing concern about the standards in public life, and they have every right to be concerned. They increasingly regard politicians as remote and sleazy, and Members of Parliament as belonging to an aloof political class.

To some extent the public are right to feel disillusioned. Some of the loss of trust in politics and in the political process is merited. I would not want to go overboard, however, despite recent examples of rather squalid and tawdry deals. Most people whom I have come across in politics in my short career here are decent and well-meaning people; indeed, most of those whom one comes across in public life at almost any level in Britain are well-meaning, honest people trying to do the decent thing.

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People’s real concerns are not so much about what politicians may or may not do with this private donation or that source of private funding; rather, they are about what the political class does with taxpayers’ money—with public money, not private money. The real scandal is not caused by hidden donors paying for this or that leadership, and does not involve private money so much, but rather public money. The concern felt by the public is caused when big corporate interests meet big government. When we examine standards in public life and consider what structures we can put in place to regulate them, I very much hope that we will consider how public money is spent.

I want to talk about three areas where I have concerns. First, I hope that a future watchdog will examine the awarding of defence contracts and the influence of the defence lobby in Westminster and Whitehall. Some £32 billion a year is spent on defence. I believe that it is increasingly possible to prove that it is spent largely in the interests of defence contractors and not of our armed forces. I am not some sort of left-wing, hippy peacenik; I am not against the arms trade. But I am against a few big corporate interests controlling the public policy agenda and shaping it in their interests.

I do not allege overt corruption—I am sure that the Agusta scandal that occurred in Belgium a few years ago is not being repeated by Agusta-Finmeccanica in the UK today. I merely note the following. Contractors spend large sums of money buying influence in Westminster and Whitehall. There is not always full disclosure as to how that money is spent. BAE Systems has admitted to me that it engages a number of consultants with passes that give them access to Parliament. It will not say precisely who they are.

The armed forces parliamentary scheme, which is a great scheme of which I am part, and which has the aim of educating Members of the House about the armed forces, is largely funded by a few privileged defence contractors. Again, they refuse to disclose who is paying what. At the same time, the armed forces parliamentary scheme has very definite views on defence procurement, or rather on MPs who make a song and dance about certain procurement issues, as I found out.

The defence contractors put a lot of money into various forums and lobby groups, and it is only fair that we have proper disclosure. Contractors have a vested commercial interest in the defence industrial strategy and a protectionist policy that precludes a broad-based supply base. The taxpayer and the armed forces pay a very high price for that protectionist policy and lack of full disclosure. I would like a future watchdog to have an inquiry into how defence contracts are made and the interests and influence of lobbyists in this institution and Whitehall.

Secondly, I would like a new watchdog to be able to investigate what one might call certain elements of the British establishment’s indulgence of tyrants who happen to be very rich. Why do we treat Saudi Arabia as our key ally in the region? When we impose sanctions on Burma or Zimbabwe, why do we parade the Saudi elite down the Mall? Why has our judicial process been traduced by halting an inquiry into whether BAE Systems bribed Saudi princelings? Has Saudi Arabia bought a large section of our foreign policy establishment? Could it be that there are those in public life, perhaps at the Foreign Office, hoping one day to take their places on
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the boards of Saudi-funded companies? Again, I would like an inquiry into standards in public life to look at why the Serious Fraud Office investigation was halted and the inquiry into BAE Systems abandoned, and to examine the role of officials and retired officials.

Thirdly—this is not a partisan point; it is a critique of the Executive, not of the party that happens to be in office—I want us to look carefully at how public money is spent in marginal constituencies. In this country, we like to think that we do not do pork-barrel politics; we like to be able to sneer at those Americans who do it differently; we like to think that we are not some sort of third-world, third-rate grubby country where public resources are allocated on the basis of political calculation. Really? Local government funding formulas seem to me to favour certain parts of the country with certain political complexions rather than others. In some parts of the country, a largesse with public money seems to have created a class of people dependent on high state funding.

I do not know whether this is in order, but in relation to the Abrahams affair and the question of what Wendy Alexander knew at what time, it seems to me that the real outrage is not what a few individuals do with private money, but what is being done with our public money. Standards in public life do not mean investigating only how private money is spent. We need to examine not merely how private money relates to the political class, but how public money and its expenditure relates to that class.

The lazy assumption that the UK is somehow uniquely incorruptible is, I think, dangerous. We have not yet reached European levels of corruption in public life, but I think we are not far behind. I would like to see us focus more in future on improper behaviour between big corporations and big Government. I hope that any new commissioner appointed to investigate will look at those areas, because when big Government meets big corporate interests, the taxpayer almost always loses out.

I begin to draw my comments to a close by responding to a point raised by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). Politicians on both sides seem to be aware of voters’ growing contempt for the political process. We recognise that voter turnout is falling and that the “none of the above” party seems to be doing ever better. Many of us will recognise on the doorsteps that voters increasingly despise politicians, but I think that the political establishment needs to stop blaming the voters for holding its politicians in contempt. We also need to stop blaming the press, which I believe reflects rather than shapes what its readers think. We need to recognise that it is we, not the voters, who are at fault.

It is not so much that MPs are corrupt with private money; our failure is that we are no good at holding the Executive to account for what they do with public money. We are monumentally useless at holding the quango state to account. If MPs were better at holding the Executive to account for how they spend public money, there would be no need for a public standards commission, and we MPs would be less despised.

How, then, can we ensure that MPs have the appetite to hold the Executive to account? I shall touch on a point raised by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). Part of the problem
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is that there are too many “safe seats”, as they are termed by political academics. Very many people in the House stand no realistic chance of ever losing their seat in a general election. That is what makes them more accountable and answerable to what the Whips and the party system tell them to think and say than to the voter. I have been changing my mind during my two and a half years as an MP, and I have come to recognise that we need a more competitive system that will ensure that people elected to this House are held to account more by the voters and less by the Whips. That might best be done by some form of open primary selection, and possibly some form of multi-member competitive constituency system.

I finish by saying that elected MPs currently have little appetite to hold the Executive to account. That is because they are inclined to act as cheerleaders either for the existing Executive or for some future one. That means more talk of regulation by ethical watchdogs, but if we rely purely on such ethical regulators and watchdogs to hold the political system to account, we will replace conscience with compliance. The best way of regulating public life is to have a House of Commons that is accountable to the electorate, and a political system in which the legislature holds the Executive to account.

3.58 pm

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): The debate has been a good one, rather better tempered than yesterday’s exchanges. That is appropriate, because the truth is that the vast majority of people who come into public life—whether they be in Parliament, local government, the civil service or other public bodies—do so for the best of motives, and never lose sight of that during their careers. Indeed, every day in this House, we start proceedings with a prayer for ourselves and others in positions of authority within Government. The prayer says:

Irrespective of whether people are religious, that is a pretty good code of conduct for Members. I am certain that all who speak those words mean them, whether or not they have any religious faith. I do not believe that they have their fingers crossed behind their backs. The very first line of the Committee’s marvellous report makes the point very clearly. It states:

Whatever reforms of procedures and institutions we may discuss, we must never lose sight of the importance of that culture.

I do not believe—many hon. Members have said this—that in general standards are not high, but that is clearly not the public’s perception. As the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) said, trust in Government, and indeed in politicians more specifically, has declined. In the first line of her brilliant 2002 Reith lecture, Professor Onora O’Neill, now a peer, said:

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That is very important in our civic life. If we are losing the trust of the people who send us here we need to do something about it, because it is a major problem.

We should also note that this loss of trust has taken place during a period in which—as the appendix to the report makes clear—14 ethical regulators have been established, half of them during the last five years. The Committee has done us a service by focusing on this issue, 12 years after John Major established the Committee on Standards in Public Life. While we are discussing the origins of that Committee, I think it appropriate to record our condolences to the family of Lord Nolan, its first chairman, who died earlier this year.

The Committee has made suggestions for reform, many of which we consider sensible. We hope that the Minister may be able to associate herself with them more clearly than the Prime Minister has so far, but I think we should now pause to consider, in overview, whether our present system is working. I was struck by evidence given to the Committee by Professor Dawn Oliver of University College London, who said in one of her contributions:

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