If you’ve been following the Chris Pincher story in the national press, you’ve probably heard ministers refer to the “Nolan Principles.” But what are Nolan’s Principles, and are they enough to curb sleaze and backtracking in Westminster?
Who was Nolan and why did he write the Principles?
In 1994, Conservative Prime Minister John Major was faced with a problem. The integrity of his party was being undermined by revelations that MPs were being paid cash to ask questions in the House of Commons. The press called it the “cash-for-questions” row. Meanwhile, in the background (and sometimes foreground), some male MPs seemed unable to keep their trousers on and every week brought a fresh revelation of extra-marital affairs.
These scandals brought the word “sleaze” into our vocabulary and contributed to the landslide Conservative defeat in May 1997.
Three years before the defeat, John Major saw what was going wrong and tried to stop it by establishing the Committee on Standards in Public Life. This cross-party committee’s first ever chair was Lord Nolan, who was a judge, not a politician. In 1994, under his leadership, the Committee defined its terms of reference and created seven principles which those in public life should adhere to.
What are Nolan’s Principles?
Also called the Seven Principles of Public Life, Nolan’s Principles are as follows:
Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
Holders of public office should be truthful.
Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
Are Nolan’s Principles still fit for purpose?
Nolan’s Principles were created in response to the cash-for-questions scandal back in the nineties and their wording reflects that. However, I feel that what they do not cover is moral conduct. If I read them with Chris Pincher’s recent behaviour in mind, I see that he has not breached them by getting drunk and groping people. But if I read them with Boris Johnson’s behaviour in mind, I see that the Prime Minister has broken them because he has not acted with transparency.
Sexual predation is not acceptable. Neither is lying. But if sexual predation is not a breach of the principles our government is supposed to abide by, and lying is, then I would argue that Nolan’s Principles are in serious need of refinement.
Above all, there is only value in having any principles of conduct if ministers are going to abide by them. And if the Prime Minister himself has flouted them, why should anyone else try to do the right thing? As for us, the people at the mercy of Westminster decisions, we have to hope that if written standards won’t protect us, MPs’ consciences will.