As the History of Parliament Oral History Project continues to go from strength to strength following a two-year hiatus, here volunteer interviewer Peter Reilly reflects on his recent interview with Lord David Hunt, MP for Wirral and later Wirral West 1976-1997. A member of cabinet under both Margaret Thatcher and John Major, throughout his career- and interview- Hunt proved committed to a topic still making headlines today: parliamentary privileges and standards. Here Peter reflects on their interview…
Scandals are nothing new for the House of Commons. Just take the twentieth century: there was Lloyd George and the Marconi scandal, the Crichel Down affair, the Profumo resignation or the Poulson fraud trail – cases I remember from A level British Constitution or lived through. More recent generations have also been no strangers to claims of corruption, epitomised by the 2009 expenses scandal, or the allegations of ‘sleaze’ which plagued John Major’s government. History of Parliament interviewee, Lord David Hunt, was charged by Major with finding a way to investigate the claims. This resulted in the formation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life chaired by high court judge Lord Nolan.
As David Hunt explained in our interview, he was well-placed to take on this task. Since 1969 he had been a partner in a law firm which became DAC Beachcroft, combining the roles of solicitor and parliamentarian from 1976 when he became Conservative MP for Wirral. Even from his student days Hunt was interested in public ethics: achieving a balance between rights and responsibilities. Moreover, he recalls Lord Denning (Master of the Rolls) shaking his hand on his qualification as a solicitor and enjoining him to adhere to the highest professional standards. He also held firm views about avoiding potential conflicts of interest: something he formally committed to when he entered the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Wales in 1990 whilst continuing legal practice.
In 1995 Lord Nolan found no evidence of sleaze but widespread perceptions of sleaze in government behaviour. Even this mild conclusion upset Hunt’s Cabinet colleagues. Worse for them and for many MPs was Nolan’s proposal for MPs to agree to follow certain standards in their parliamentary life. Objections came from all quarters, not least from Ted Heath. Opponents of Nolan’s proposition were affronted by the idea that the government should tell them how to behave and to foist its definition of behavioural standards on them: they knew how to conduct themselves according to their own precepts of good practice. In the end Hunt managed to secure Cabinet and parliamentary agreement to Nolan’s code of conduct. This was called the Seven Principles of Public Life which detailed such seemingly uncontentious principles as integrity, honesty and accountability. Hunt reflected that this sort of injunction should be nothing strange to those who were working or had worked in other professional occupations, including the law.
The code has since been widely applied, including being incorporated into the Ministerial Code and the Civil Service Code. As Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Public Service & Science) Hunt was involved in the development of the Civil Service Code believing that civil servants, apart from themselves adhering the highest professional standards, should be protected from undue party political influence. The arrival of special advisers to ministers has created trickier boundaries for civil servants to navigate between public administration and the partisan interests of politicians. Hunt is a keen supporter of the quality of the UK civil service as his experience is that it manages to give independent, impartial, quality advice. He sees the proliferation of unelected SPADs as an unhelpful development in intruding in the relationship between Ministers and their senior civil servants.
Hunt continued to pursue his interest in good governance in his later career, commissioned in 2009 by the Law Society of England and Wales to update the regulation of legal services, and after being raised to the peerage in 1997, serving as a member of the House of Lords committee on Standards and Privileges between 2007 and 2012. In fact, Hunt’s move to the upper chamber itself could be linked to the public backlash against perceived sleaze and MPs exploiting their position for personal gain. In the interview he highlighted the impact of the ‘cash for questions’ scandal involving Tatton MP, Neil Hamilton, and the damage it caused to Conservative prospects in the North-West of England in the 1997 general election. The sight of white-suited BBC journalist, Martin Bell, campaigning against Hamilton and corruption was a visual the contrast in propriety. Hunt lost his West Wirral seat with a near 14% swing to Labour. (Hamilton also lost but by a much bigger margin.)
Boris Johnson’s ousting as Conservative leader following a series of scandals and resignations since the 2019 general election reinforces Hunt’s argument that upholding of personal standards is a perennial Parliamentary requirement and failure to do so has electoral consequences. Yet Hunt acknowledges that the pressure on MPs is these days greater than when he was in the Commons because of the intrusive nature of social media. As chair of the Press Complaints Commission during its closure in 2014 (to be replaced by the Independent Press Standards Organisation) Hunt sought to rein in journalistic excess, but he believes some protection of MPs’ private lives is necessary if they are to lead reasonable lives.
Hunt remains committed to the notion that being given the privilege of representing one’s constituents depends upon MPs ‘making a difference’ and improving their lives, individually and collectively. In his political philosophy this centres on facilitating decent employment, giving choice in housing and securing equal opportunities irrespective of gender, colour or creed. He ended our interview with a final reference to Nolan and the need for ethical standards in serving the public in this way.