The U-turn over Paterson isn’t nearly enough to restore trust in the system

Morgan Jones
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Owen Paterson was elected as the Conservative MP for North Shropshire in 1997. He served as Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland under then opposition leader David Cameron, a brief he held onto as the Conservatives entered government in 2010. Between 2012 and 2014, he served as Environment Secretary, during which time he memorably told an interviewer that “the badgers moved the goalposts” when asked about the tuberculosis-related culling of the animals.

On the backbenches since 2014, Paterson has more recently become known for two things: his admirable campaigning on mental health issues in the wake of the tragic suicide of his wife, Rose, in June of 2020; and his involvement in a paid lobbying scandal, which saw the parliamentary standards commissioner recommend a 30-day suspension from the Commons. In addition to his MP salary, Paterson takes more than £100,000 a year from two private companies, and it was found that he had lobbied ministers on their behalf in an “egregious” breach of the rules.

Conservative MPs yesterday refused to implement this suspension, voting for an amendment proposed by former House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom that also sought to trigger a broader review into parliamentary standards procedures. These are overseen, at present, by the parliamentary standards commissioner Kathryn Stone. In advance of the vote, the Tory MP Bernard Jenkin wrote of his support for the amendment in a piece for PoliticsHome, saying that the system as it stands is “preoccupied with the application of rules and enforcement”, and that it holds MPs to higher standards over breach of privilege than their accusers and the media (well, you might think: yes).

Bernard Jenkin was one of the Leadsom amendment’s 59 sponsors, all Conservatives. Of these 59, six have themselves had complaints against them upheld by the standards commissioner since last year. Owen Paterson voted to overturn his own suspension; another vote in favour of changes to the complaints procedure came from Rob Roberts, the MP for Delyn who was found to have sexually harassed two members of his staff in spring of this year. His Conservative Party membership has been restored.

I hate the phrase “marking their own homework”. It carries with it the implication of a schoolboy offence, something with unserious outcomes, deserving of unserious punishment. There are 650 MPs, including 361 government MPs, and between them they run the country. These are, by any definition of the word, powerful people. When they abuse their power – whether for financial gain, like Paterson, or in pursuit of sexual gratification, like Roberts or former Labour MP Mike Hill, or because they are workplace bullies, as in the case of Priti Patel according to hundreds of Home Office staff – the consequences are serious. They are serious for those who suffer as a result, and they are serious for the way our country is run. 

These 650 MPs are powerful people, but they are also just people, who can be petty and venal, in the wrong some of the time, in the right some of the time, people whose loyalties and consciences do not always align. To greater or lesser extents, there is nobody alive of whom this is not true, though the character-warping potential of personal power as it acts on the egos and self-perceptions of those we choose to rule us makes it all the more true of them. Elected office comes with the responsibility to ensure these impulses are checked, and an independent parliamentary standards commissioner is a means of doing this.

The Paterson affair is not happening in a vacuum; it cannot be considered adrift from the wider behaviours and reactive patterns of the government and government MPs. Last month, an MP was murdered attending his constituency surgery – the second in five years. The reaction to this tragedy has had some deeply perturbing aspects, most notably attempts by Mark Francois to ban anonymous accounts online. Recent weeks have also seen the government state its intention to ban “Twitter pile ons”. The case of Owen Paterson treads some similar, deeply uncomfortable territory, where profound tragedy mixes with solutions (if you can call them that) that are at best reactionary and at worst unabashedly self-serving. The overall picture is one of a governing party in retreat from accountability, and willing to be breathtakingly crass as it does so.

Parliament’s independent complaints and grievance scheme (ICGS) is a thorough system. Those wishing to use it to raise a complaint about an MP’s conduct will not find an easy path from A to B. Its verdicts are slow; its powers are limited. Anecdotally, as someone who has worked in parliament for several years, I know of more cases of alleged misconduct dismissed by the service than I am aware of cases upheld. There is a lot you can say about this. All I will say is that the system as it currently stands does not commit itself to spurious allegations.

‘Good faith’ covers all manner of sins, but I do not think anyone could in good faith describe the charges against Owen Paterson as spurious. But, if they were, would it matter? Would it make the fact that the government yesterday reached into the machinery to ensure the outcome of an allegedly independent process was to its liking any better? For all that they may be trying to take it back today, some things cannot be reset. Their interference has wrecked the mechanism.

Institutions rely on trust. This is particularly true of institutions that broker between those with positions of power and those without. In doing the legislative equivalent of taking their toys and going home, yesterday government MPs revealed that the game has been rigged all along; that we were only ever playing for so long as the terms suited them. The fact that the government has this morning U-turned on Paterson’s case – with Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg announcing that changes will not be retrospective – will do next to nothing to restore the necessary trust. For those of us seeking a fair hand in our dealings with the people who run the country, it is hard not to feel not just let down but in some ways deeply stupid. Of course: why would it ever not be one rule for them, and another for everyone else?

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