Clear case for transparency

PROMISES made in the heat of an election campaign all too often create hostages to fortune. Tony Blair was adamant that - in the dog days of a Conservative government that had long outstayed its welcome and had become mired in a succession of sleaze allegations ranging from Neil Hamilton’s serious misconduct to the low farce of Piers Merchant’s affair with a 17- year-old nightclub hostess - public life in Britain had to change for the better.

"It’s vitally important that we restore the public’s confidence [in politicians]" he said a month before his landslide victory. "We should start by cleaning up the sleaze in the way parliament works and MPs behave," he continued before going on to criticise John Major’s government for seeking to water down the Nolan Committee’s recommendations on standards in public life.

Can this be the same Blair who allowed the suspicion to gain ground that Bernie Ecclestone’s 1m donation to the Labour party influenced a government U-turn on tobacco advertising in Formula One? The same Prime Minister who has done all he can to cling on to a series of discredited ministers and who made the mistake of bringing Peter Mandelson back into the cabinet after only a brief spell in purdah on the backbenches? And, most damagingly of all, the same Blair who allowed his ministerial colleagues to undermine the commissioner for parliamentary standards, Elizabeth Filkin?

The answer, alas, is yes. The Ecclestone affair highlighted the dangers implicit in Labour’s long courtship of wealthy and influential businessmen. The impression given, and one that has been reinforced this week with the furore over Lakshmi Mittal’s connections to the party and the support he received in buying a Romanian steelworks, has been that, however subtly, government, or at least access to government support, is for sale. That impression can only be strengthened by this newspaper’s revelations today that another wealthy businessman and generous donor to the Labour party, Paul Drayson, has benefited from a series of lucrative government contracts. In those circumstances Blair’s promise to be "purer than pure" appears increasingly fanciful.

It is unsurprising that Blair is said to be warming to the superficially attractive idea of state funding for political parties. That, however, would deprive electors of their fundamental right to financially support the political party of their choice. The vexed question of political party funding has no satisfyingly complete solution, but greater transparency, accountability and scrutiny would be a start.

Filkin sadly concluded this week that she had mistakenly thought MPs "were serious about wanting a scrutiny system... so I regret that the independence of the post was not properly protected." Even more damagingly Filkin believed that certain ministers - including Peter Mandelson, Dr John Reid, Keith Vaz and Nigel Griffiths - had been shielded from proper scrutiny and received preferentially lenient treatment. The entire system of scrutiny at Westminster, she concluded in remarks that should shame MPs, was dangerously "vulnerable to corruption."

Thankfully there are signs that Holyrood has learnt from the mess the House of Commons finds itself in. Earlier this month the parliament’s Standards Committee published a bill to establish its own Standards Commissioner. Crucially he or she will have statutory powers to both summon witnesses and compel evidence - luxuries, or rather twin essentials, denied to Filkin at Westminster. Equally importantly the Commissioner will only be able to be removed from office with the agreement of at least two-thirds of MSPs.

In theory at least, therefore, Holyrood’s Commissioner will have more teeth than Westminster’s. Even then, however, it will be the parliamentary committee which will decide, subject to a further vote by the full parliament, on whether or not sanctions are imposed. In those circumstances MSPs must ensure they put the dignity and integrity of parliament before party political interests if the ludicrous situation of a member of parliament being found guilty by the Standards Commissioner but going unpunished by a jury of their peers is not to be repeated. When ministers in particular fall short of the required standard the legislature must be ruthless in holding the executive to account. Failure to do so would represent a fundamental dereliction of duty.

It is not only in upholding the highest possible standards of probity that the Blair government has been found wanting. Alastair Campbell’s recognition that the messenger was getting in the way of the message is why he no longer holds lobby briefings. However, the fact that he is now responsible for the government’s multi-million pound advertising campaign suggests that Blair still believes that the electorate can be persuaded of the righteousness of the new Labour message by the means in which it is transmitted rather than by the intrinsic substance of the message itself .

It is, of course, only natural that the government should seek to present its policies in the best possible light, but Labour’s continued dependence upon spin suggests it has yet to digest the lessons of previous PR debacles.

In fact, the unrelenting spin cycle does more to damage politics than aid it, since it ferments the suspicion in the public mind that voters are not being told the whole truth. In that light Jack McConnell’s decision to scrap Henry McLeish’s expensive - and largely ineffectual - team of spin doctors and instead rely on career civil servants to conduct briefings is a welcome step forward.

Jo Moore, of course, was a special advisor not a spin doctor but her witless conduct highlighted the lack of substance at the heart of too many new Labour projects. Rather than advising the hapless Stephen Byers on how best to repair Britain’s crumbling transport infrastructure she seemed hell-bent on fighting turf wars with civil servants and, infamously, on ensuring that bad news could be "buried" whenever possible. No wonder that with advice like that Byers has become a lame-duck minister. Just as McConnell has pledged to "do less, better", government special advisors should remember the limits of their positions and concentrate on the core policy issues that really matter.

For it is the ease with which the Blair administration is blown off course by the latest whiff of sleaze, misjudgment or scandal that is most dispiriting. Five years into a Labour government we still wait to hear either what Labour’s true attitude to the euro is or how exactly reform of the public services is to be achieved.

The government’s addiction to spin and its failure to clean out Westminster’s Augean stables are the principal reasons why suddenly, and absurdly for an administration with such a rampant majority, the government has a strangely tired and directionless look about it.