Editorial: Hope has a bit part in a controversy the standards body should examine

The news that Phil Hope, Minister for the Third Sector, employed his children to work in his office was something of a one-day wonder last week.

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

After the scandal of Tory MP Derek Conway paying his two sons considerable sums of public money to do nothing, it was no doubt politically useful for The Daily Telegraph to finger a Labour minister as well. But in Hope's case the sums were hundreds rather than thousands of pounds, and there is no suggestion that the junior Hopes did no work. So the story had no legs: the other national papers took no interest, and the view of Hope's local paper was that if 'the parliamentary authorities' had approved it, then it was fine by them. Hope's Conservative opponents had nothing to say, and sector leaders mostly kept their counsel, although some permitted themselves a wry smile and words to the effect of "they're all doing it, aren't they?"

So Hope has a bit part rather than a leading role in the unfolding drama of whether 'the parliamentary authorities' have paid sufficient attention to the question of MPs using their various parliamentary allowances and expenses to employ members of their families. Some will feel that some of the shine has come off his reputation; others that he did no more than any parent would do in the same or a similar situation: string-pulling of this kind happens in most walks of life, and nepotism tends to be in the eye of the beholder. Our online poll, for what it's worth, comes out roughly 60:40 in Hope's favour.

Meanwhile, the Speaker is setting up an inquiry, which is the Prime Minister's preferred way of dealing with the matter, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life is waiting to see what the Speaker's inquiry amounts to before deciding whether to get involved. Tony Wright, the Labour MP who chairs the all-party Public Administration Select Committee, has urged the standards committee not to back off, and surely he is right: this is exactly the sort of thing that committee was set up to do when the Conservative government was embroiled in sleaze nearly 14 years ago. John Major called it "an ethical workshop called in to do running repairs", and MPs' allowances and expenses, including their use for employing family members, should be backed into this workshop for a thorough MOT. A Speaker's inquiry will look like just another inside job.

- Last week, four voluntary sector umbrella bodies united in opposition to a Ministry of Justice proposal that third sector organisations that deliver public services should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Their main reason was that this requirement would be a significant addition to their administration costs and make it harder for them to put in cost-effective bids.

An equally important reason concerns the level playing field the Government says it wants to establish. It would be fair to make third sector contractors subject to the act only if private sector contractors, whose deals and prices are protected by the concept of 'commercial in confidence', were also in the frame. But movement on this by the Government is about as likely as a squadron of Gloucester Old Spots appearing in tight formation over The Mall on the Queen's next birthday.

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