Lord Nolan has been given the Herculean task of cleaning the Parliamentary Stables. Cristina Odone profiles the devoutly Catholic man with a mission.
WHEN I TOLD HIM who I was interviewing, my taxi driver turned completely around endangering both himself and me: "Ah, him what's going to give 'em MPs a rough time?" he barked, delighted. Proving, in so doing, that the fame of the man some refer to as Mr Clean and Mr Sleaze-Buster has percolated through the layers of media hype and parliamentary sleaze to the man in the street.
As Law Judge, Lord Nolan has sat in judgement on everyone from teenage thieves to racist thugs. Now he together with his committee of ten sits in judgement on the affairs of Parliament.
Rather a tall order. But then, something had to be done. From Neil Hamilton to "Cash for questions", from quangos to the spectre of Iraq-gate, the something was very rotten indeed in the State of the nation.
Hoi polloi have turned their thumbs resolutely down when it comes to the men and women in public office, and as recently as last month a survey undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Founda tion showed that suspicion of politicos prevails.
When as notable a figure as Lord Blake
the most distinguished historian of the Conservative Party says we are living in the most corrupt era since Edwardian times, no one can afford to play the ostrich game any more.
Enter Lord Nolan. With his Committee on Standards in Public Life, this mild-mannered, almost avuncular man, has sent shivers down the spines of some of the country's most powerful and wealthy public figures.
His brief was to clean up their act and in his quiet dignified way he set about doing just that. Everyone has come under his scrutiny: ministers, civil servants, MPs and Euro MPs, quangos and NHS bodies. A tax specialist, (an expertise he has carried through to the Law Lords) he could be trusted to be scrupulously thorough as he examined the financial and commercial activities of MPs and civil servants.
Last month, following months of consultation and public hearings, he issued his recommendations for that is all the Committee may do. His task is by no means done he will continue the
great inquiry into public life, but already the core of his recommendations have affected tremendous change in the workings of Parliamentarians. Ministers, the Report recommends, should be under the same requirements as civil servants when they retire — they can't, as they have been doing to date, slip into sixfigured salaries on the Board of some huge corporation whose path to profit they have smoothed whilst in Parliament. Quango appointments from now on will require a regularised proceeding. Most important of all, the Report finds Parliament unable to regulate its own affairs, and calls for the appointment of an Ombudsman who will do so.
The Report was described as "remarkable and infinitely valuable" by Vernon Bogdanor, Constitutional Expert. One of the witnesses called before the Committee, Bogdanor went on to praise Lord Nolan's "expert handling of the inquiry, and of the witnesses."
Whether Major had planned it or not, Lord Nolan had no intention for his Committee to indulge merely in a glorified public relations exercise. For, though he assures me with a grin that "Some of my best friends are MPs", one need only take a brief look at his track record to see that this Lord is not for being fobbed off. His bravery has been tested many times before. He was one of the two judges in the Court of Appeal who, in an unprecedented ruling in 1991, found Kenneth Baker, then Home Secretary, guilty of contempt of court when he decided to deport a Zairean asylum-seeker in defiance of a court order.
Rejecting Government arguments that ministers were above the law because they were protected by Crown immunity, they ruled that both ministers and civil servants are accountable to the law and to the courts for their personal actions. The judgment was upheld in the Lords.
One of his first pronouncements upon becoming head of the Committee was that it should sit in public, contradicting the Prime Minister, who moments earlier had told the Commons the Committee would probably wish to deliberate in private.
His reputation, according to one habitually jaundiced Westminster reporter, is that of "a man above reproach fair, moral and brave."
Lord Nolan is too modest to bask in the light of such flattery. If he claims to have any great gifts, it is "the amazing gift" of being married "to a superb wife (daughter of poet Alfred Noyes) who is a tremendous source of happiness and truth. I have been tremendously lucky." He also gives the impression of being tremendously "good": in the course of our one hour discussion, words such as "kindness", "justice" and "discipline" come up time and time again. He speaks about the "seven virtues" and about "idealism". And it would seem that in Lord Nolan's case at least, goodness has paid off: a look at his condensed biography shows his life to be a seemingly seamless tapestry of successful moments. After an Ampleforth education, he went to Wadham College in Oxford, then went straight to the Bar. He rose quietly but steadily through the ranks and was a High Court judge from 1982-1991. He served in the Appeal Court before entering the Lords, and was made a life peer last year His Catholicism is an integral part of his life. Both his parents ("the first and foremost influence on my life") were "great Catholics". A "happy simple loving couple", they ensured their son went to Ampleforth for a schooling he obviously loved: "It was a happy time, steeped in the Pre-Vatican II mentality. Priests told you how to march, left-rightleft-right, it was dead simple. In its way, it proved a good rule for life."
Lord Nolan feels recent events have placed the Church in this country not only more in the limelight, but also under a better light than it had enjoyed before. "I believe the Catholic Church has it about right at the moment. Our Church is as much respected at this time as it ever has been. People have a high regard for it and for its Churchmen." He tells me that one of the best bits of television he's seen was the Good Friday Service that Cardinal Basil Hume held at Westminster Cathedral.
He seems disparaging only when he refers to "armchair cynics".
To this low life form, he would advise the following: "to see the Courts, sit through an entire case; then I'd bring
them along to Parliament, make sure they met MPs, sit through a select committee. I'd say see for yourself."
He worries lest these cynics affect the young, though he maintains that "I have been struck going round the country by the very large number of voluntary organisations you should see the bulletin board in my local library... people of all ages doing marathons, running fund-raising; I do think that because good new is boring, the emphasis is on bad news. "
Well, we know whose fault that is, of course. And I ask about his views of the press, and whether he thinks there ought to be either a more toothy Press Complaints Commission or even
some form of media censorship. Though he admits to wondering "at what can only he described as cruelty towards families", Lord Nolan is quite up-beat about the Fourth Estate. "I think that they have been supportive and genuinely helpful to the committee. We rely on the media for information and advice. People's demands for improvement are based on what they see, read or hear in the media. The Committee, too, has relied on the press. "
As for censorship, never: "We can't afford censorship. Free press is important in a free society."
Does Lord Nolan think Britain should adopt a written constitution? "I don't somehow see it happening. I saw in India how it got longer and longer." Worst of all, a written constitution "would involve the politicisation of the Judges, which we have avoided here."
Ask Lord Nolan what service he hopes to have rendered with his on-going inquiry and last month's report, and his eyes fill with emotion: "I hope that we can encourage respect for the institutions we have... especially among the young."
Lord Nolan remains sanguine about the state we are in, despite his careful scrutiny of public life, and his recognition that many mechanisms are flawed. When I ask whether he thinks Britain will change as a result of his Committee's work, he smiles: " I hope not".