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Inquiry declares an interest in interests

Public appointments, payments to MPs and the role of quangos are under scrutiny. The TES examines the likely impact of the Nolan inquiry on the world of education.

The aim of John Major is to squeeze out the sleaze; and to do it he has appointed a committee. The chairman, Lord Nolan, is expected to produce a code of conduct for those who wield power in the public domain, in response to the recent spate of Government embarrassments relating to the MPs' "cash for questions" affair and controversy over Government appointments to public bodies.

The activities of MPs, councillors and members of quangos will come under the scrutiny of his team.

Lord Nolan's remit is: "To examine current concerns about the standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities, and make any recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements which might be required to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life."

The committee's members are: Sir Clifford Boulton, Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir Martin Jacomb, chairman of the British Council, Professor Anthony King, Essex University, Tom King, Conservative MP for Bridgewater, Peter Shore, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Stepney, Lord Thomson of Monifieth (Liberal Democrat), Sir William Utting, National Institute for Social Work, Dame Anne Warburton, former president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and Diana Warwick, Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

Professor Anthony King, professor of government at the University of Essex and a member of the Nolan committee, said: "We have not had a meeting yet, but our brief is wide ranging and political bias in appointments to public bodies is something I'm sure we'll look at."

The main focus of the committee in the short term will be to look at MPs' interests and the activities of lobby groups; the appointments to quangos will also come under scrutiny. In the long term its brief will extend to all public bodies which in theory could include further and higher education institutions and in extreme cases school governing bodies.

A quick look at the register of MPs' interests shows the Government's education team to be an almost freebie-free zone; Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, and ministers Robin Squire and Eric Forth have declared "nil" interests. Tim Boswell, the higher and further education minister, lists being a self-employed partner in a farming business, an annual study visit to Europe under the auspices of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a study trip to Germany and a small quantity of land in Essex.

The husband of the Education Secretary, Thomas Shephard, is the non-executive member of a NHS trust, earning around Pounds 5,000 a year. He is one of 24 spouses of Tory MPs who are quango members, according to new research by the BBC. Former education minister Michael Fallon is a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The National Audit Office does have some powers of scrutiny of public bodies. It carries out an annual audit for the funding agencies for school and higher and further education, the Teacher Training Agency, Department for Education and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. It also has the right to look at the books of grant-maintained school (to report to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee) and can inspect FE and HE institutions and training enterprise councils.

John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said he did not think financial impropriety was a problem on education quangos such as the SCAA and funding councils: "The main worry is that these bodies appear to be stuffed with Rabbit's friends and relations."

Peter Kilfoyle, a Labour education spokesman, said he did not think too many people would be quaking in their boots. He said: "It should be an open season on all quangos. Between Pounds 50-60 billion of public money is spend by them and there have been many examples where this money has been misspent. A local authority comes under the scrutiny of the district auditor.

"Few of the people who have been involved in mismanagement of money on quangos have been brought to book. Labour wants the Nolan inquiry to look at specific instances rather than generalities."

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