High ideals into practice do not go

May 26, 1995

How long will it take for "Nolanism" to enter our political vocabulary? Lord Nolan's report has been widely welcomed outside the house if not in it and its philosophical starting point or watchwords - selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership - have passed without comment. While the last, the emphasis on leadership, is interesting (and might be thought to vie a little with the other watchwords in that it can involve some risk-taking) in essence, the seven are pure motherhood-and-apple- pie values.

Who would repudiate them? Of course no one would - in words. The problem facing the Government is that rather too many ministers, MPs, quango members and officers may be doing so in deeds.

One has to feel a little sorry for John Major that on the eve of the Commons debate on Nolanism a senior MP stood accused of impropriety in seeking to amend legislation in which he seemed to have an interest through an amendment in the name of another.

Before that news had gone cold, BBC2 ran an expose of what was claimed to be scant regard for natural justice in dealing with sexual assault allegations at St Austell College. This last farrago has already led the local MP to question how far college corporations and similar quangos and semi-quangos should be allowed to be judge and jury in employment matters.

While most public attention focuses on Lord Nolan's proposals seeking to regulate and restrain the activities of MPs and ministers, the really radical parts of the report concentrate on quangos and that plethora of semi-quangos - like colleges which derive whatever accountability they can demonstrate, from their accountability to other quangos (eg, the funding councils).

Lord Nolan puts forward five important reforms for quangos. First, ministerial appointments should be subject to advice from a panel having one third of its members who are "independent".

Second, a Commissioner for Public Appointments should monitor, regulate and approve Government procedures and practice in making appointments.

Third, there should be an annual commissioner's report on how the quangos have operated.

Fourth, each quango should have a code of conduct and finally whistleblowers should be protected.

In the further education service the funding council has acted in advance of Nolan in respect of self regulation and the colleges themselves are now adopting governors' codes of conduct.

The Shattock report on Wilmorton understood the principle of a "whistleblowers' charter". But the idea of a commissioner is new. No doubt there will be great debate about how far the commissioner's powers will need to stretch - just to the funding councils or the college and universities themselves?

We should welcome the latter, if it happens, but it may not be too churlish to suggest that if the commissioner's powers are to overlay the inspectorial machinery of the funding councils and the investigations of the National Audit Office. We have a right to see some integration and common approaches. Otherwise, what seems like incontestable motherhood-and-apple-pie values now feel like intrusion and over-control when words turn to deeds.

Keith Scribbins is chair of governors at South Bristol College.

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