Key questions answered in row over Tory MP’s lobbying rule breach

·6-min read
The Houses of Parliament (Anthony Devlin/PA) (PA Archive)
The Houses of Parliament (Anthony Devlin/PA) (PA Archive)

MPs have voted to review the case of a Tory MP found to be in breach of lobbying rules while also looking into an overhaul on Parliament’s standards system.

The Commons was due to vote on whether to uphold a recommendation to suspend MP Owen Paterson from the Commons for six weeks after he was found to have broken lobbying rules.

But allies of the North Shropshire MP tabled an amendment which called for a review of his case, and the wider standards system.

This was approved by 250 votes to 232, a majority of 18.

The amended motion then passed 248 to 221, a majority of 27.

– What did Owen Paterson do wrong?

Owen Paterson MP (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Archive)
Owen Paterson MP (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Archive)

An investigation by Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone found he repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials on behalf of two companies for which he was acting as a paid consultant – Randox, and Lynn’s Country Foods.

The Commons Standards Committee said his actions were an “egregious” breach of the rules on paid advocacy by MPs and recommended that he should be suspended for 30 sitting days.

– Why has Mr Paterson rejected the conclusions?

The Conservative MP accused Ms Stone of making up her mind before she had even spoken to him.

He called the process “biased” and “not fair” and said the Commissioner had refused to hear from 17 witnesses who would have supported him.

Mr Paterson 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.

– What does the Commissioner for Standards do?

File photo of the Houses of Parliament. (PA Wire)
File photo of the Houses of Parliament. (PA Wire)

The current Commissioner is Kathryn Stone. She independently investigates any allegations that MPs have breached Commons rules.

If the Commissioner finds a minor breach, it can be rectified through an apology.

For more serious breaches, the Commissioner refers the matter to the Committee on Standards, made up of MPs and members of the public, who can then recommend what sanctions may be applied.

– Who is Kathryn Stone?

The current Commissioner – the sixth since the role was established in 1995 – took up the role in 2018 and previously worked as the commissioner for victims and survivors of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Ms Stone, who was awarded an OBE in 2007, was also the chief legal ombudsman of England and Wales, and has also worked for the Independent Police Complaints Commission and spent 11 years as chief executive of the charity Voice UK.

– What are allies of Mr Paterson proposing?

Andrea Leadsom (PA) (PA Archive)
Andrea Leadsom (PA) (PA Archive)

Critics of the standards process say there is no appeals process, and those investigations take too long.

In the amendment put forward by former Commons leader Dame Andrea Leadson, 59 Conservative MPs called for a new select committee to be set up to consider whether Mr Paterson’s case should be reviewed.

But it would also look at whether the standards system should give similar rights to MPs as those on offer in other workplace disputes “including the right of representation, examination of witnesses and appeal”.

The committee would have a Conservative majority and would be chaired by former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale

A senior Tory MP told the PA news agency that Conservative MPs were told there was a three-line whip to support the amendment.

– Who else has fallen foul of the Commissioner?

John Whittingdale, (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Wire)
John Whittingdale, (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Wire)

The proposed chairman of the new committee, for one.

Under previous Commissioner Kathryn Hudson, Mr Whittingdale was found in 2016 to have not declared in time a £1,500 visit to the MTV awards in Amsterdam which he took in November 2013 with his then-girlfriend.

A number of those Tory MPs who signed the Leadsom amendment have also had allegations made against them upheld by the Commissioner.

Over the past 13 years – the period for which upheld allegations are published online – complaints have been upheld against amendment signatories Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford), Karl McCartney (Lincoln), Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green), Crispin Blunt (Reigate), Sir Robert Neil (Bromley and Chislehurst), Richard Drax (South Dorset), Fiona Bruce (Congleton), Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley), Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury), and Craig Mackinley (South Thanet).

The Prime Minister himself was found to have breached the MP’s code by the Commissioner over his luxury holiday in Mustique in 2019, but this was later overturned by the Committee on Standards. He also had a complaint upheld in 2008 while MP for Henley over undeclared shares in a firm which made history documentaries which he presented.

Government Chief Whip Mark Spencer also had a complaint upheld by the Commissioner in 2017.

– Which other MPs have been suspended from the House of Commons?

Committee chairman Chris Bryant (PA) (PA Archive)
Committee chairman Chris Bryant (PA) (PA Archive)

Chairman of the Committee on Standards, Labour MP Chris Bryant, listed some previous examples of where members had been suspended.

He told the Commons: “Patrick Mercer was suspended for six months, Ian Paisley for 30 days. Jonathan Sayeed 14 days, George Galloway 18 days, when Geoffrey Robinson failed to provide proper responses to the Commissioner and committee, he was suspended for a month.

“These are the precedents. This case is just as serious because it involved at least 14 instances, it was a pattern of behaviour.”

– Did any Conservative MPs oppose the amendment?

Yes, 13 of them, according to the division list.

They were Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme), Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock), Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire), Kate Griffiths (Burton), Mark Harper (Forest of Dean), Simon Hoare (North Dorset), Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton), Nigel Mills (Amber Valley), Jill Mortimer (Hartlepool), Holly Mumby-Croft (Scunthorpe), Matthew Offord (Hendon), John Stevenson (Carlisle), and William Wragg (Hazel Grove).

No vote was recorded by 98 Conservative MPs.

The longest-serving MP Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) said he could either support going through the normal conduct process, or giving Mr Paterson a compassionate waiver for his behaviour, but could not support the Leadsom amendment.

The division list recorded him as not voting either way on the amendment, but he did then vote against the amended motion.

– What has Labour said?

Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire (PA) (PA Archive)
Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire (PA) (PA Archive)

Shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire said rules on paid advocacy have been in place since 1695, telling MPs the 17th century motion stated: “The offer of any money or other advantage to any Member of Parliament for the promotion of any matter whatsoever in Parliament is a high crime and misdemeanour.”

She added: “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.

“It turns the clock back to before 1695. That wasn’t acceptable then and it’s not acceptable now.”

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