Sunday, 24 July 2011

Selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – yeah, right

The committee on standards in public life has been sidelined at the time we need it most, writes Peter Preston in the Observer.

Take a few fine words. Say, selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Then wonder where you've heard them before. Ah yes! They're the seven principles of public service, as promulgated by the committee on standards in public life, the standing commission of the great and good set up by John Major – in a "cash for questions" tizz – in order to sweep Britain's grubby cupboards clean. And, by and large, from the founding chairman Lord Nolan to the current chief Christopher Kelly, that's been done: local government has been a sight less seedy and scandal-prone.

48 Paul O’Grady

But pause, there's something missing here. Another squalid crisis; more dilemmas, this time involving prime ministers, top policemen and big, bruising newspapers; a judicial inquiry into almost everything anybody can think of; and no mention, start to finish, of the committee supposed to keep us safe. Where are honesty, openness and the rest when we need them? Come to think of it, where is Sir Christopher Kelly?

One dead bat answer suffices. His committee is toiling over a mammoth report on political party funding, due to be delivered in the autumn. Perhaps David Cameron doesn't want to distract it by lobbing in Andy Coulson? But on closer examination, such defences don't wash. The watchdogs are being allowed to fade from sight. Governments can't abolish "standards in public life". Think of the horrendous headlines. But letting a mist of obscurity drift over them is politics by the playbook.

And this is a lesson for our times. The committee started with a rush of reports that made a difference. But in 2000 a Cabinet Office review pronounced the "ethical environment" cleansed. Now the committee could step back, go quiet, stop making waves. But enter, as the next chairman, Sir Alistair Graham, a master wavemaker. He took on No 10 over crucial questions (such as whether Tony Blair, prime minister at the time, was ministerial misconduct supremo of last resort) – but he lost. He started to deliver annual verdicts on New Labour Britain. He found sleaze seeping back, and promptly failed to get reappointed.

Has Sir Christopher Kelly, a tough ex-permanent secretary, fared better? Well, he doesn't have Graham's love of the limelight, but he didn't let vital elements of his report on MPs' expenses vanish into the long grass without a fight. The test of his performance isn't in the headlines of two years ago, but in the attention and authority the committee now attracts. Has that report on expenses won clear endorsement from the coalition? No. Not on critical issues such as MPs employing family members. And, worse, the achievements of yesterday are being rolled away.

Eric Pickles' Localism bill, for instance, attacks the central core of what's arguably the committee's best achievement: instead of a national code and independent monitoring (on matters such as expenses) Pickles' plans put local weaselling first. Ludicrous, at a moment when other wings of government are flapping over tougher central regulation for the press – but typical of the way an uncomfortable reform agenda slithers from view.

So now, as sundry inquiries into every conceivable aspect of hacking mushroom, the one longstanding organisation eminently fit for inquiry purpose has no role and no attention. It is out of sight and out of mind. And that, alas, would seem to signal a put-up or shut-up time for its long, distinguished journey through the world of standards. The ethical environment isn't clean at all. There's no constant interrogation, no watchful presence. And, alas, the seven alternative principles of British public life emerge as clearly as ever. Say, forgetfulness, evasiveness, sloth, slipperiness, convenience, bluster and buckpassing.

The Observer