Owen Paterson: Former minister avoids suspension as Tory MPs back standards process overhaul

A Conservative former minister has avoided a suspension after Tory MPs backed a government-sanctioned amendment to stop it in a Commons vote, despite anger at a decision Labour claim will inflict “enduring damage” upon parliament’s reputation.

Owen Paterson was facing a 30-day suspension from the House for breaching lobbying rules over his paid consultancy work on behalf of two companies.

But Conservative colleagues backed an amendment to the motion to suspend Mr Paterson which will instead see a new committee set up to examine the current standards system and take another look at the case against him.

It was passed by 250 votes to 232, a majority of 18.

Tory MPs were ordered to back it on a three-line whip, but a total of 13 voted against and no vote was recorded for a further 98.

There were cries of “shame” and “what have you done to this place” as the result was announced.

A vote on the overall motion as amended was backed by 248 votes to 221

Mr Paterson, a former environment secretary, strongly denies allegations that he broke lobbying rules.

The move by Conservative MPs was supported by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In a statement released before the vote, a Number 10 spokesman said: “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.”

Sky News also saw a letter from Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg urging Conservative MPs to support the amendment, which was tabled by senior Tory Dame Andrea Leadsom.

Opening the debate in the Commons, Mr Rees-Mogg said concerns over the investigation into Mr Paterson had become “too numerous to ignore”.

The Commons leader claimed he came “not to defend” Mr Paterson but to “consider the process by which he has been tried”.

He added: “It is not for me to judge him, others have done that, but was the process a fair one?”

Dame Andrea said her amendment was “not about letting anyone off, stitching anything up or any of the other accusations flying around the chamber”.

Labour hit out at the move, accusing the PM of encouraging ministers to “vote for a return to the worst of the 1990s sleaze culture”.

Shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire said: “If today the amendment passes or if the motion falls entirely, it 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.”

She added: “The enduring damage that this would do to Parliament’s reputation is something that none of us should be prepared to consider.”

The issue was raised at Prime Minister’s Questions, with Mr Johnson defending the government’s stance.

“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 in this House allow for proper appeal,” he told MPs.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner, standing in for Sir Keir Starmer while he isolates after catching COVID, accused the PM of hypocrisy and “making it up as he goes along”.

“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,” she said.

“It is one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us.”

Referring to the case of Delyn MP Rob Roberts, who was found by an independent panel earlier this year to have sexually harassed a member of his staff, Ms Rayner said: “They can’t change the rules to stop sexual harassment, but they can change the rules to allow cash for access.”

Now that the amendment has been passed, a nine-person committee with a Conservative majority and led by Tory ex-cabinet minister John Whittingdale will review the current standards system and reconsider the case against Mr Paterson.

Following a two-year investigation, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, said Mr Paterson had breached rules prohibiting paid advocacy by making multiple approaches to government departments and ministers for two companies.

The North Shropshire MP was found to have “repeatedly used his privileged position” to benefit Randox, a clinical diagnostics company, and Lynn’s Country Foods, a meat processor and distributor.

Mr Paterson earns more than £110,000 per year in total for his consultancy roles for the two companies.

The allegations against Mr Paterson, who was environment secretary from 2012 to 2014, relate to his conduct between October 2016 and February 2020.

A Commons committee, including four Tory MPs, supported Ms Stone’s findings and recommended Mr Paterson should be suspended from the Commons for a month.

But Mr Paterson accused Ms Stone of admitting to him she “made up her mind” before the allegations were put to him and claimed none of his 17 witnesses were interviewed.

In a lengthy statement, in which he declared he was “not guilty”, the 65-year-old also said he was raising serious issues about food contamination in his contact with officials.

And he claimed the investigation “undoubtedly played a major role” in his wife, Rose Paterson, taking her own life in June last year.

A suspension from the Commons has to be approved by MPs, hence Wednesday’s vote.

If MPs had approved the suspension, Mr Paterson would have been subject to a recall petition.

This could have seen a by-election triggered in his constituency if more than 10% of local voters signed the petition.

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