The man who exerted the greatest influence on lobbying in the past 20 years was not himself a lobbyist. Nor did he concern himself directly with the way in which lobbyists behaved. But anyone working in PA today operates within the framework that he created.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the ‘Nolan Rules’ for public appointments, and the code of the Association of Professional Political Consultants – all owe their existence to Michael Nolan, who died on 22 January after a long illness.
Nolan was already a distinguished law lord when he was asked to head the new Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1994. It was the era of ‘cash for questions’ and parliamentary sleaze, and a panicky John Major took the classic way out of a press firestorm – hand the whole issue over to a pillar of the establishment.
But if Major hoped that the result would be a dull report, he picked the wrong man. Nolan was not a showy or demonstrative figure. He had a powerful moral sense and felt that – to use his phrase – ‘a certain slackness’ in behaviour had crept in.
I worked for him at the Standards Committee. The first sign that this would not be a conventional piece of political bromide came with his decision to take evidence in public. MPs, peers, lobbyists, journalists and others turned up for courteous but firm questioning. Had standards in public life declined? Were many legislators on the take? What should be done to restore trust?
Nolan’s report recommended a serious tightening of the rules on disclosure for MPs, and a much tougher regime on paid advocacy for outside interests. The role of ministers in deciding public appointments was restricted, and their code of conduct was to be expanded. Civil servants were to be given a route for raising concerns about improper political pressure.
Virtually all the recommendations were adopted without argument.
The irony was that Nolan did not believe the system to be corrupt or rotten. But he felt that without a visible clean-up, the perception of things gone bad would cripple public life.
Did he succeed? It is true that he could not stem the decline in public confidence. What he did do was to erase many of the grey areas that had been exploited. Moreover, he prompted PA professionals to properly regulate themselves. For that, we owe Nolan an enormous debt.
Martin Le Jeune, formerly assistant-secretary of the Committee on Standards in Public Life from 1994-1997.