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Sir Alistair Graham: 'Tony Blair and the Government are open to the charge they want to control everything'

The Monday Interview: Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life
By Marie Woolf, Chief Political Correspondent

07 February 2005

Some broad-shouldered Russians have just visited Britain's sleaze-buster-in-chief. They are Moscow political standards enforcers, and they wanted to know all about cronyism. How to tackle it, that is. "We are happy to pass on any lessons we have learnt to places like Russia where they are grappling with some very difficult issues," Sir Alistair Graham says carefully. "The whole issue of accountability is a big issue in the Russian context."

It is not surprising Moscow has come to Britain for tips on how to root out sleaze. Since the Committee on Standards in Public Life was established in 1995, Britain has led the way in setting standards for integrity among politicians world-wide.

Sir Alistair, an urbane former trades union boss who has a flat in a stately home, is the latest to take the helm of the sleaze-busting committee. When he became chairman last year, some people dismissed the former chairman of the Police Complaints Authority as an establishment figure who would balk at criticising ministers.

But nine months on, Whitehall feathers have been ruffled and ministerial egos bruised. Salvos about the corrosiveness of spin and lack of trust in government have hit their mark. Most recently, Sir Alistair rebuked David Blunkett, when he was home secretary, for hand-picking the head of an inquiry into allegations of misconduct involving the visa of his former lover's nanny.

"The danger for the Prime Minister and the Government is that they are open to the charge they want to control everything," Sir Alistair says pointedly. The standards watchdog, who headed the Northern Ireland Parades Commission at the time of the Good Friday agreement, says he is unfazed about wading into controversial territory.

But some ministers had been hoping for a tamer sleaze-buster than Sir Alistair, who once stood as a Labour parliamentary candidate, and have been stung by his uncompromising messages about the need to observe "the seven principles of public life", including honesty. He says: "The public said to us they wanted politicians to tell the truth as it is, in the commonsense meaning of that."

Soon after taking the powerful post, Sir Alistair published a unprecedented survey of attitudes towards politicians and the government. It showed public trust had plummeted in the wake of the Hutton inquiry and Tony Blair's statements' about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Only 27 percent of people trust MPs. It also showed most people think ministers still award sought-after public appointments to friends.

Sir Alistair says: "Our survey showed that in key areas, for example, cronyism in public appointments, there was a perception that things had got worse rather than got better. "

His most recent report - the one scrutinised by the Russians - set out proposals to ensure ministers cannot appoint friends and cronies to lucrative jobs. "You want there to be a genuine belief in the integrity of the government of the day even if they may not have voted for them and be of a different political persuasion," he says.

Although, he stops short of referring to Iraq and WMD, he hints that trust is eroded if ministers' assertions turn out to be wrong. He is also clear that politicians should be open "if something goes wrong" and "willing to come out at an early stage, not have it dragged out after a lot of questions. You want the population to trust the Government and to trust them to explain their difficulties and to own up to mistakes when they arise".

With the media highlighting a constant "diet of things that have gone badly wrong" in government it is hardly surprising this "doesn't engender the sort of trust in senior people in any public institution". He adds: "All of us in our role as citizens have the right to ask tough questions and be sceptical about what people in authority may tell us"

One way of rebuilding trust would be for the Government to be more open about releasing its policy papers. "I think governments should be as open as possible, he says. "I have argued strongly that one way to restore trust in politicians and government is to publish things such as risk assessments so politics becomes less about just selling policies all the time and genuinely more about explaining the thinking and research processes they have gone through to come to a policy conclusion."

Sir Alistair cautiously crosses his arms when asked about whether the Attorney General's legal advice on the invasion of Iraq should be published. In general, he says, legal advice should not automatically be secret, and publishing it can boost confidence in a government.

"We all know politicians, before they put out policies, will go through risk assessments which may include seeking legal advice," he says. "I think they would build confidence in the public if they were to publish some of those risk assessments which may include technical advice such as legal advice to show they have thought about the downsides of a policy as well as the upsides."

Sir Alistair chooses his words carefully, hardly surprising since most of his career has been spent on the boards of public bodies. His CV suggests he is something of a quango king. One of his many public positions is as a board member of Opera North (he is also a keen music and theatre buff, with a taste for 17th-century Spanish comedy). Sir Alistair, knighted five years ago, is also on the management board of the Information Commissioner, the watchdog of the Freedom of Information Act.

With controversy over the Government's interpretation of the Act, he warns departments not to block requests for documents cynically. "I am very anxious that the government should respond positively to the Freedom of Information Act," he says. The Act offers ministers a chance to prove they are not obsessed with spin, as voters strongly suspected when Labour came to power.

"Introduction of the Act shows the Government may well have learnt the lessons from this strong public perception that spin was more important than substance," he says. The use of clear language is another way of restoring trust, and one Sir Alistair wants to pursue. "We are going to have another look at one of those seven principles of public life, the one relating to honesty, to see if more straightforward language might be helpful," he says.

The Hutton inquiry observed the Prime Minister's fondness for making policy decisions on his sofa with a few key advisers. But Sir Alistair warns Downing Street of the danger of being too informal. "I have always thought the standard arrangements senior civil servants apply to ensuring proper minutes and a proper audit of ministerial decision makings were an essential part of good government," he says.

Tony Blair would be foolish to scrap such "arrangements", he says, and the report raises "issues for the Government and the Prime Minister they have to think carefully about". He goes on: "It raised issues of the current style of the Prime Minister and whether issues were dealt with too informally rather than following established practices that have applied with previous prime ministers."

Lack of trust in the Government is affecting turnout at elections, he says. "All of us with any interest in civic society have got to be desperately worried about that. I am certainly worried because one of the tests of the quality of our democracy is whether people care enough to turn out to vote for their favourite candidate or party."

One of his committee's highest priorities is to persuade the Government to bring in a Civil Service Act that will "establish these values of impartiality and integrity which are essential parts of the Civil Service of this country". He says: "When this issue of trust in government and politicians is such an pressing issue, I think being seen to bring this Bill on to the statute book will be seen as at least one measure to address it."

With a general election looming, the issues of trust, standards and integrity will be high on the political agenda, and there are no signs that Sir Alistair is prepared to step back from the debate. He says he wants to "engage" with politicians, even if that means delivering an uncomfortable message. "I am used to dealing with issues in a robust way and having major arguments and debate about it," he says. "That is part of the cut and thrust of public life. "I am used to it, but I am always concerned to genuinely try to win hearts and minds."

With rumours rife in Whitehall of a ministerial whispering campaign against him, is he worried by the Government's spin machine? The Geordie sleaze-buster shrugs and smiles. "I am not worried," he says. "It comes with the territory."


Born 1942

Family Married Dorothy Wallace in 1967; son and daughter

Education Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne; honorary doctorate, Open University

Career Legal department, TGWU; general secretary, Civil and Public Services Association; various posts

1984-92 Visiting fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford

Member, BBC Education Broadcasting Council

1993-99 Chief executive, Leeds Training and Enterprise Council

1997-2000 Chair, Northern Ireland Parades Commission; knighted

2000-04 Chair, Police Complaints Authority

2003 Non-executive director, Information Commission

2004 Chair, British Transport Police Authority; chair, Committee on Standards in Public Life