An ethics policy that works
One of the biggest challenges facing whoever forms the next government will be to rebuild public confidence in the integrity of those involved in politics.
The majority of people in all three political parties are honest. But the minority who are not have done a huge amount of damage and everyone involved in public life has been tarred with the same brush.
During the last Conservative government, a few ministers and MPs who fell short of the high standards we should expect of ourselves gave the whole party a reputation for sleaze. And under the present government, elected on the promise to be "Whiter that White", the level of sleaze has been much worse - not least because most of it leads back to people close to the Prime Minister.
I'm taking for granted that most people reading this will agree that the present government is far less ethical than its Tory or Labour predecessors going back at least 40 years: if you don't share that view please feel free to post a comment and I'll reply with chapter and verse. Or alternatively you can read The Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze.
So I'm very pleased that David Cameron is aware of these issues and has asked the Conservative Democracy task force chaired by Ken Clarke to consider and refine a number of proposals. These include
• Reversing the trend towards Tony Blair's Presidential-style "Department of the Prime Minister".
• Creating an independent mechanism to investigate breaches of the Ministerial Code.
• Introducing tighter caps on the number of paid and unpaid ministers and a statutory limit on the number of special advisers.
• Ending the practice of MPs setting their own salaries.
• Considering a reduction in the size of the House of Commons.
• Passing a Civil Service Act to re-establish and entrench the independence of the Civil Service.
All these ideas are well worth looking at. I'm particularly pleased that most of them are simple, practical, and easy to implement, so much so that several such as limiting the number of ministers and special advisors would be likely to actualy save money rather than cost more.
At least one of these, preventing MPs from being in the position of voting on their own remuneration, should not only be adopted at once but extended to councillors as well.
I'm pleased that Cameron is focussing on simple and practical measures to improve confidence in public ethics, because some of the earlier attempts to reform public life have set up systems which are, frankly, part of the problem. Each successive parliamentary commissioner for standards has been deluged with accusations from one politican against another: genuine ones have been mixed up with a whole load of muck-throwing. One of the worst aspects of this is that MPs who were on the receiving end became very jaundiced about the whole process. That is probably one of the reasons why people who should have known better went along with the disgraceful constructive dismissal of Elizabeth Filkin as parliamentary commissioner for standards. It may also be part of the reason so many Labour MPs were willing to circle the wagons and help defend people like Keith Vaz.
The same problem has happened at local government level to such an extent that, sadly, nobody should consider standing for public office unless they can cope with the possibility that at some stage they will be wrongly accused of improper conduct. Over the past five years I have seen far too many false and trumped up complaints made against councillors of various parties. Usually they come either from people who are unhappy about a planning application or from political opponents looking to score points. I've been on the receiving end of two myself, one in each of these categories. Both complaints were dismissed by the Standards Board for England as not worth investigation because the complainants had not established that there was even a case to answer.
However, it is not the completely baseless charges which are the most pernicious aspect of the present ethics system: two thirds of complaints are dismissed without an investigation, like the ones against me, and in my experience the great majority of politically motivated or malicious complaints are not upheld if they do get investigated.
The worst problem with the system is that, as councillors and council officials alike are paranoid about the possibility that someone will report them for breaking the ethics code, far too frequently councillors who would have had a valuable contribution to a debate are advised to stay away. The most extreme example of this was when nearly a third of Cumbria County Council's members, including nearly all of those elected to represent the most affected wards, were prevented from voting on the council's policy on nuclear issues because council officers advised that any councillor with a friend who works at Sellafield had a prejudicial interest. That catches just about every adult in West Cumbria.
I'm pleased that David Cameron is putting forward simple and effective ideas to improve public ethics which should be less vulnerable to the kind of abuse that I've described above. I hope to see many of these ideas implemented.