Tory MPs succeed in bid to block suspension of Owen Paterson

Tory MPs succeed in bid to block suspension of Owen Paterson

November 3, 2021

Tory MPs vote to BLOCK suspension of Owen Paterson over lobbying scandal as cries of ‘shame!’ echo though Parliament and Labour accuses the Government of ‘wallowing in sleaze’

  • Ex-minister Owen Paterson was facing a 30-day suspension from Parliament
  • A standards probe found he had breached House of Commons rules on lobbying 
  • Mr Paterson blasted way the probe was conducted and denies any wrongdoing
  • His allies, backed by Boris Johnson, today succeeded in blocking the suspension
  • Tory MPs voted to review Mr Paterson’s case and to overhaul standards process 

Tory MPs have voted to block the suspension of Owen Paterson from the House of Commons and to overhaul Parliament’s disciplinary processes as Labour accused the Government of ‘wallowing in sleaze’.

Mr Paterson, the Tory MP for North Shropshire, was found to have committed an ‘egregious’ breach of standards rules as he lobbied for two companies paying him more than £100,000 per year.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone conducted an investigation and the Committee on Standards then recommended Mr Paterson be banned from the Commons for 30 sitting days.

A vote on that recommendation was due to take place this afternoon but allies of Mr Paterson brought forward an amendment to block the suspension and see his case reviewed.

The amendment was backed by 250 votes to 232, a majority of 18, as Labour opposed the move. Labour MPs could be heard shouting ‘shame’ and ‘what have you done to this place’ after the result was confirmed. 

The amendment, tabled by ex-Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom, will create a new committee with a Tory majority which will make recommendations for a shake-up of the current standards system.

Boris Johnson had signalled at PMQs at lunchtime that the Government intended to support the amendment as he was grilled by Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner.

Mr Johnson had questioned whether Mr Paterson had the ‘opportunity to make representations’ during the investigation as the premier backed calls for reform of the system.

Ms Rayner hit back and said that blocking the suspension of the former minister would show it is ‘one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us’.

Mr Paterson has angrily disputed the findings of the standards report, claiming the investigation was unfairly conducted.

Tory MPs were reportedly instructed by Government whips to vote for the amendment but there was opposition from some Conservative backbenchers who were concerned about the way it could look to voters.

Downing Street said in a statement issued this morning that the standards process needed to change as Number 10 insisted ‘this isn’t about one case’.

The passage of the amendment could prompt the resignation of Ms Stone who some Tory critics accuse of being biased against Conservative MPs and Brexiteers.

Allies of Mr Paterson admitted this morning the plan to block the suspension and overhaul the standards system ‘looks terrible’.

But they insisted there was ‘no alternative’ because the current ‘hopeless’ system ‘doesn’t respect natural justice’.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, a friend of Mr Paterson, said there has been a ‘bad system for years and years and years’ and the crunch vote in the Commons was an ‘opportunity to fix it’.

Tory MPs voted this afternoon to block the suspension of former minister Owen Paterson from the House of Commons  

Mr Paterson was found to have committed an ‘egregious’ breach of standards rules as he lobbied for two companies paying him more than £100,000 per year. Mr Paterson, pictured with his late wife Rose, claimed the ‘biased’ way the standards inquiry was carried out was a major factor in her suicide last year

Former Commons leader Andrea Leadsom tabled a parliamentary amendment that will pause Mr Paterson’s potential suspension, pending a review

Owen Paterson was censured by the Commons standards watchdog last week for a series of breaches of lobbying rules on behalf of two companies he was paid to advise. 

Why do Mr Paterson’s supporters think he has been wronged? 

Allies of Mr Paterson have slammed the investigation, claiming it was ‘so amateurish it failed to interview witnesses’. 

They believe the current standards system is flawed and must be overhauled to give MPs the ability to appeal. 

Former Brexit secretary David Davis said there are flaws that ‘should not be allowed in any system of justice, let alone one that is central to the operation of our democracy’.

He said MPs currently have ‘no effective right of appeal’ because ‘this is a standards system where one person is chief investigator and prosecutor combined’.

Tory MPs want to replace the current standards system with a quasi-judicial process and a ‘proper’ appeal system. 

Who is supporting him and what are they trying to achieve? 

Dame Andrea Leadsom, the Tory former Cabinet minister, has tabled an amendment which would block the suspension of Mr Paterson and overhaul the House of Commons’ standards process.  

The amendment has been signed by dozens of Tory MPs. They are: Andrea Leadsom, Sir Bernard Jenkin, Robert Halfon, Richard Drax, Anne Marie Morris, Dr Jamie Wallis, Bob Stewart, Gary Sambrook, Duncan Baker, Damian Green, David Jones, Pauline Latham, Julian Sturdy, John Howell, Richard Bacon, James Gray, Laurence Robertson, Sir Robert Neill, Craig Mackinlay, Mark Menzies Philip Dunne, Shailesh Vara, Sir Robert Syms, Dr Liam Fox, Sir Roger Gale, Dehenna Davison, Derek Thomas, Julian Knight, Jeremy Hunt, Sir Paul Beresford, Sheryll Murray, David Morris, Andrew Mitchell, Crispin Blunt, Sir William Cash, Simon Baynes, Robert Buckland, Sir Desmond Swayne, Lee Anderson, Chris Grayling, Huw Merriman, Nusrat Ghani, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Caroline Dinenage, James Duddridge, Mark Francois, Jake Berry, Chris Green, Sir Graham Brady, Sir Edward Leigh, Karl McCartney, Ben Bradley, Greg Smith, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Bob Blackman, Steve Brine, Fiona Bruce, Neil Parish, and Sir Greg Knight. 

Who was he working for? 

Mr Paterson became a consultant to clinical diagnostics firm Randox – which sponsors the Grand National horse race – in August 2015, a year after he left Government after serving as Secretary of State for northern Ireland and the Environment under David Cameron.

He has carried out a similar role for Lynn’s Country Foods, a processor and distributor of meat products including ‘nitrite-free’ items, since December 2016.

Both firms are based in Northern Ireland and between them him more than £112,000 a year on top of his £80,000 annual MP salary. 

What is he said to have done? 

Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone found that he breached paragraph 11 of the 2015 MPs’ Code of Conduct that prohibits ‘paid advocacy’ – when he made three approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Randox and testing for antibiotics in milk in November 2016 and November 2017

Emails to the FSA read like marketing pitched on behalf of the firm, mentioning ‘Randox’s superior technology’ in helping identify problems. 

He went on to suggest that ‘once established the application of the technology could be discussed not just within the FSA but across the whole dairy industry,’ something from which the company stood to make large sums of money. 

The hardline Brexiteer broke the same rules by making seven approaches to the FSA for Lynn’s Country Foods in November 2017, January 2018 and July 2018 regarding a rival ‘global food producer (who) was acting in breach of EU law by mislabelling a product’.

And the same rules were breached in in October 2016 and January 2017 when he made four approaches to ministers at the Department for International Development relating to Randox and blood testing technology.

Ms Stone also found that Mr Paterson had breached paragraph 13 of the 2015 MPs’ Code of Conduct, on declarations of interest, by failing to declare his interest as a paid consultant to Lynn’s Country Foods in four emails to officials at the FSA on 16 November 2016, 15 November 2017, 8 January 2018 and 17 January 2018.

Lastly, she found that Mr Paterson breached paragraph 15 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct, on use of parliamentary facilities, by using his Westminster office on 16 occasions for business meetings with his paying clients between October 2016 and February 2020; and in sending two letters, on 13 October 2016 and 16 January 2017, relating to his business interests, on House of Commons headed notepaper.

What punishment is he facing? 

After receiving her report the Commons Standards Committee, made up of a cross-party group of MPs, recommended he serve a 30-day suspension that could trigger a recall petition in his seat. 

What does he say? 

Mr Paterson continues to deny any wrongdoing, saying he was acting on genuine concerns for public safety.

Ahead of the release of the investigation last week he made an astonishing attack on the Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone, claiming her ‘cruel’ probe in to his activities contributed to the death of his wife, Rose, who took her own life last year.

The 65-year-old North Shropshire MP believes the investigation against him was ‘biased’ and ‘an absolute denial of justice’.

‘On a personal level, the cost to me and my three grown-up children from the manner of this investigation has been catastrophic,’ he said in a statement last week.

‘Last summer, in the midst of the investigation, my wife of 40 years, Rose, took her own life. 

‘We will never know definitively what drove her to suicide, but the manner in which this investigation was conducted undoubtedly played a major role.’

Responding to his allegation, the committee’s report said: ‘Mr Paterson’s wife took her own life in June 2020. The committee consider it very possible that grief and distress caused by this event has affected the way in which Mr Paterson approached the commissioner’s investigation thereafter.’  

The row over this afternoon’s vote dominated PMQs as Ms Rayner, who was standing in for Sir Keir Starmer who is still in Covid self-isolation, accused the Tories of ‘wallowing in sleaze’. 

Labour’s deputy leader grilled Mr Johnson on whether he is going to support the Leadsom amendment. 

The PM replied: ‘Paid lobbying, paid advocacy in this House is wrong and let me make absolutely no bones about that and members who are found guilty of that should apologise and pay the necessary penalties.

‘But that is not the issue in this case or this vote that is before us today. It is not.

‘The issue in this case which involved a serious family tragedy is whether a member of this House had a fair opportunity to make representations in this case and whether as a matter of natural justice our procedures allow for proper appeal.

‘That I think is something that should be of interest to members across this House and should be approached properly in a spirit of moderation and compassion.’

Ms Rayner hit back and said: ‘Let me put this to him simply. If it was a police officer, a teacher, a doctor, we would expect the independent process to be followed and not changed after the verdict.

‘It is one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us.’

Ms Rayner said of the Tories that ‘when they break the rules, they just remake the rules’. 

Earlier, Sir Bernard had told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that there are ‘long standing problems’ with the standards system as he defended the move to reform it. 

He admitted the circumstances mean it ‘looks terrible’ but he insisted there is ‘no alternative’. 

He said: ‘This looks terrible. We have had a bad system for years and years and years. I just see this as an opportunity to fix it.

‘We are not letting Owen Paterson off. We are not exonerating him. We are not condemning him.

‘We are going to put his case in front of a proper judicial style panel where there can be proper hearing and proper cross-examination of witnesses and natural justice.

‘Our present process doesn’t respect natural justice. No where else in business would that be allowed.’ 

Sir Bernard said the current process is ‘very unsatisfactory’ because it requires the House of Commons as a whole to ‘give a final opinion on whether this case has been handled properly’.

He added: ‘That is a hopeless system. It looks terrible. I don’t want to be here. But there is no alternative because that is the system we have got.’

Asked if he expects the Government to back the amendment to reform the system, he said that ‘nothing has been decided’.

The Leadsom amendment would see the creation of a new committee that would examine – among other issues – whether the case against Mr Paterson should be reviewed. 

Downing Street signalled its support for the amendment as it said in a statement that the current standards system should be reformed. 

A Number 10 spokesman said: ‘It is essential that all in Parliament uphold the highest standards in public life. There must be tough and robust checks against lobbying for profit. There must be a proper process to scrutinise and – if necessary – discipline those who do not follow the rules.

‘As in any normal workplace and all walks of life, people should be entitled to the right to appeal. This is sacrosanct in providing fairness and natural justice, and ensuring there is an opportunity to check due process and that the right procedures were followed.

‘This isn’t about one case but providing Members of Parliament from all political parties with the right to a fair hearing.

‘Therefore the Commons should seek cross-party agreement on a new appeals process whereby the conclusions of the standards committee and the Commissioner can be looked at. This could include judicial and lay member representation on the appeals panel.’

A separate amendment proposed by Tory Julian Lewis said no further action should be taken ‘on compassionate grounds’ and this had been supported by fellow Conservatives William Wragg and Peter Bone, with a total of 13 MPs backing it as of last night.

Mr Paterson has said the manner in which the investigation was carried out had ‘undoubtedly’ played a ‘major role’ in the decision of his wife Rose to take her own life last year. 

The Commons Speaker did not select the Lewis amendment.     

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg yesterday expressed sympathy for the MP’s claim that the commissioner did not speak to 17 witnesses who came forward to support him, describing that decision as ‘interesting’.

Mr Rees-Mogg told his ConservativeHome podcast: ‘It is always very important that systems appear to be fair, and therefore if somebody has witnesses, it would normally appear to be fair that those witnesses should be heard.

‘The commissioner in her report that was adopted… said the witnesses weren’t needed because their evidence they gave wasn’t relevant to the inquiry.

‘And that is an interesting view to come to, because other people might say: ‘How do you know whether it was relevant to the inquiry until you’ve taken their evidence and have found out the precise context of how things were done?’

As part of Dame Andrea’s proposals, MPs on a Conservative-majority committee led by former culture secretary John Whittingdale would examine whether the standards system should mirror that of investigations of misconduct in other workplaces, including the right of representation, the examination of witnesses, and the right of appeal.

The committee would comprise of Mr Whittingdale and eight other MPs – four Tories, three Labour and one SNP. 

Mr Whittingdale would have the casting vote in the event of a tie. 

The Leadsom amendment will be opposed by Labour, with the party warning against trying to overhaul the system.

Thangam Debbonaire, shadow Commons leader, said: ‘Let’s not forget that the cross-party standards committee, including three Tory MPs, endorsed the commissioner’s 30-day sanction for a breach of the rule around paid advocacy.’

She said that ‘the Tories want to jettison the system that has served us well and which has been a vital part of rebuilding public trust after the dark days of Tory sleaze this Government seems determined to return to’. 

Mr Rees-Mogg said there was ‘precedence’ for amending a motion to suspend an MP, saying it was last done in 1947. 

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said the Tory move showed it is ‘one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us’

Should the amendment pass it could prompt the resignation of Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone who some Tory critics accuse of being biased against Conservative MPs and Brexiteers

Sir Lindsay’s spokeswoman did not deny a report in The Times that suggested he believes blocking the suspension would bring the House into disrepute. 

Ms Stone’s investigation found Mr Paterson repeatedly lobbied on behalf of two companies for which he was acting as a paid consultant – Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods.

But the MP struck back, saying the investigation finding he breached rules on paid advocacy by MPs was a ‘biased process and not fair’.

Committee on Standards chairman Chris Bryant urged MPs to ‘read the report in full, with a fair and open mind’ and warned against voting it down in what would be an unprecedented move in the committee’s roughly 36-year history.

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