Government rejects suspension of Tory MP for “egregious” lobbying breach

© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Conservative MPs have refused to implement a 30-day suspension of Owen Paterson as recommended by the independent parliamentary standards committee after their Tory colleague was found guilty of an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules.

The amendment, tabled by Andrea Leadsom and signed by 59 Tories, was backed by 250 MPs. It passed by a slim 18-vote majority, as 232 voted against. 14 of the 59 signatories have previously been found to breach standards rules themselves.

Paterson was found by the Commons standards committee to have broken rules by making approaches to officials and ministers on behalf of Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods, which paid the MP almost £112,000 a year combined.

The amendment, which forms a new committee to review the standards system, was made to a motion to accept the report of the committee. The motion passed with the support of 248 MPs, with 221 voting against. Labour voted against both Leadsom’s amendment and the amended motion.

Taking to social media after the vote, Angela Rayner tweeted that Labour will be boycotting the new committee, to which the party would be able to appoint three MPs to sit alongside a Tory chair, four other Conservatives and one SNP MP.

“Their plan is to permanently weaken the structures that hold MPs to high standards. They’ve appointed their own man to oversee the process – a Tory MP who not long ago was the Prime Minister’s wife’s boss – and gifted themselves a majority on a committee to set the new rules,” Keir Starmer said.

“It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious. The Labour Party won’t have anything to do with this complete and utter sham process.”

The new committee has been tasked with proposing changes to the system. Tory MP John Whittingdale, who has himself been reprimanded for breaching standards, is the chair of the new committee established today.

Boris Johnson’s partner, Carrie Johnson, worked in Whittingdale’s office while the longstanding Conservative MP served as the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport between May 2015 and July 2016.

Labour’s Lucy Powell told Politics Live viewers earlier today that the new committee will be “weighted towards the Conservatives” and “chaired by one of Owen Paterson’s mates [Whittingdale], who would also have the deciding vote”.

Speaking for the government this afternoon, Jacob Rees-Mogg expressed what he described as cross-party objections to the current system, including the lack of examination of witnesses, the unused mechanism for the appointment of an investigatory panel and the length of time taken.

He argued that the amendment today was about “the process and not the individual case”, but added: “How can one not consider the great sorrow my Rt Hon. Friend has suffered considering this report? The suicide of his wife is a greater punishment than any House of Commons committee could inflict.”

Paterson, responding to the commissioner and committee’s ruling, has said that “the manner in which this investigation was conducted undoubtedly played a major role” in the suicide of his wife, who took her life last year.

Rees-Mogg backed Paterson’s claim that the inquiry was flawed as the Tory MP was acting as a whistleblower over milk safety. But the committee ruled that this could only be said of the initial approach, and that follow-ups with officials “were intended to benefit his clients rather than to raise a serious wrong”.

Shadow House of Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire pointed out to her parliamentary colleagues that rules passed in 1695 state that “the offer of money for any promotion of any matter whatsoever is a high crime and misdemeanour”.

Debbonaire argued that passing the Leadsom amendment “sends the message that when we don’t like the rules, we just break the rules, when someone breaks the rules, we just change the rules”.

“Just changing the system when somebody doesn’t like a result is not acceptable. If the government wishes to debate the merits of the standards system, the leader of the House can get up to tomorrow and schedule time to do so,” she said.

“The government is sending the message that paid advocacy, MPs selling their offices, their position as an elected representative – that it’s fine to do that.”

Debbonaire rejected claims from the minister that the investigation process is one without an appeal, highlighting that the standards commissioner makes recommendations to the cross-party standards committee, which has a majority of Tory members, that decides whether to approve those recommendations.

“The committee process is in effect a process of appeal. The committee upheld the commissioner’s report and recommendations and so must this House. For the public to maintain their trust in us, it is crucial that our independent standards system is not undermined,” she added.

As well as being found in breach of rules relating to paid advocacy, Paterson was also found by the standards committee to have broken the rules on using facilities and services funded by taxpayer.

The independent commissioner concluded that the Tory MP used his parliamentary office and meeting facilities in parliament 25 times for his work for paying clients, and that there were two letters sent on parliamentary paper.

The 30-day suspension rejected by the MPs in parliament this afternoon would have automatically resulted in a recall petition that, if signed by 10% of his constituents, would have triggered a by-election.

“Why does he think the new committee is somehow better than the old committee, and does he not realise this just looks to everyone as if he simply doesn’t like the conclusion the old committee has come to?” Yvette Cooper asked Rees-Mogg today.

13 Tories voted against the amendment: Aaron Bell; Jackie Doyle-Price; Richard Fuller; Kate Griffiths; Mark Harper; Simon Hoare; Kevin Hollinrake; Nigel Mills; Jill Mortimer; Holly Mumby-Croft; Matthew Offord; John Stevenson; and Will Wragg.

Below is the full text of the amendment passed today.

Line 1, leave out from “House” to the end and insert:

“(1) notes the third report of the committee on standards (HC 797);

(2) notes concerns expressed about potential defects in the standards system and therefore declines to consider the report at this time;

(3) and resolves:

(a) that a select committee be appointed to consider and make recommendations by 3 February 2022 on the following matters:

(i) whether the current standards system should give Members of Parliament the same or similar rights as apply to those subject to investigations of alleged misconduct in other workplaces and professions, including the right of representation, examination of witnesses and appeal;

(ii) the extent to which the procedures under Standing Order Nos 149, 149(A) and 150 should be made consistent with the principles of natural justice;

(iii) whether the case against Mr Owen Paterson should be reviewed or whether the Third Report of the committee on Standards (HC 797) should be reconsidered by the House;

(iv) and such other matters as appear to the committee to be connected with the matters set out above, and calls on the government to bring forward a motion to give effect to any recommendations of the committee within five sitting days of the publication of the committee’s report;

(b) That the committee consist of nine members;

(c) That Mr John Whittingdale be chair of the committee and be given a casting vote in the event of a tie;

(d) That the committee shall consist of eight other backbench members; to be nominated by parties in the proportion of four Conservative, three Labour and one SNP; nominations shall be submitted to the committee of Selection no later than 15 November, after that date motions for nomination can be made notwithstanding any gaps in membership, and any motion made in the House on behalf of the committee of selection by the chair or another member of the committee shall be treated as having been made in pursuance of standing order no.121(2) for the purposes of Standing Order No.15(1)(c);

(e) That the committee have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House; to adjourn from place to place, to report from time to time, to appoint legal advisers, and to appoint specialist advisers either to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee’s order of reference.”

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