Downing Street confirms Boris Johnson won't be in Commons for emergency debate on standards amid sleaze row

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson will not be in the Commons for an emergency debate on standards, Downing Street has confirmed.

It comes after Sir Keir Starmer called on the PM to apologise to the country for his handling of the Owen Paterson sleaze row.

The Labour leader said Mr Johnson must also confirm that Mr Paterson, a former cabinet minister, will not be nominated for a peerage.

Ahead of the Commons debate on standards at Westminster, Sir Keir said Mr Johnson needed to act to clean up politics.

However, Number 10 has said Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay will be responding for the government in the debate as Mr Johnson is visiting a hospital in the northeast.

The PM's spokesman said it was a "long-standing plan for him to go up there and see the importance of NHS staff getting their boosters" adding that the visit was planned before the debate was scheduled.

A cabinet minister earlier told Sky News that the PM was unlikely to be in the chamber for the debate this afternoon.

"These sorts of debates are usually led and fronted by the ministers who are doing it," International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said.

"I imagine, but I'm afraid I don't know as I'm up in Glasgow [at the COP26 climate summit], that [Commons leader] Jacob Rees-Mogg and the leader's team will probably be covering it."

She added: "My opinion would be that no, he shouldn't be there.

"He will no doubt, as we all do, have the House of Commons on in his office as he's dealing with many, many other issues that only a prime minister can deal with and he will get a briefing of the key issues raised by colleagues from across the House later."

On the question of MPs having second jobs, Ms Trevelyan said lobbying should be looked at.

But she added there should not be a "removal of the ability to maintain or have a second job because it brings a richness to our role as MPs as well as the work we do day to day with our constituents".

It comes as former Tory deputy PM Michael Heseltine told Sky News he cannot "disagree" with Sir John Major's assessment that recent behaviour of Mr Johnson's government could be considered "politically corrupt".

Lord Heseltine spoke after cabinet minister George Eustice played down the sleaze row as a "storm in a teacup", insisting the government was focused on "big, important decisions" like those posed at COP26.

Sir Keir has also called for action against disgraced MP Rob Roberts, who was readmitted to the Conservative Party despite breaking parliament's sexual misconduct policy.

Although he is back in the party, the Delyn MP sits as an independent in the Commons as the Conservative whip remains suspended.

A Commons debate last Monday was granted by Speaker Lindsay Hoyle following Tory attempts to block an immediate 30-day suspension for Mr Paterson over an "egregious" breach of lobbying rules.

Conservative MPs were ordered to back the creation of a Tory-led committee to look again at Mr Paterson's case and the whole standards system.

But after a backlash over the plan, the government performed a U-turn and Mr Paterson subsequently quit as an MP, leaving what he called the "cruel world of politics".

Labour MP Chris Bryant, chair of the Commons committee on standards, told Kay Burley that last week's events had done "terrible, terrible reputational damage" to parliament.

He said some alterations could be made to standards rules but cautioned against "making sudden changes", adding: "One of my principles is that the government should stay clear of independent disciplinary processes."

Mr Bryant also told Sky News that there had been attempts to "lobby" and "bully" committee members over its ruling on Mr Paterson.

But fellow committee member Alberto Costa, a Conservative MP, said no member told him that they had been bullied.

He told Kay Burley: "It is important members of the committee are able to do their job and wherever the commissioner has done a good job we uphold that, but what we can do is make sure we have proper rules and a system.

"We need to change the rules, make it more transparent, bring in members of the judiciary."

Sir Keir said: "Boris Johnson needs to attend this debate, answer for his mistakes, apologise to the country and take action to undo the damage he has done.

"The country is yet to hear a word of contrition over his attempts to create one rule for him and his friends and another for everyone else. He must now come to the House and say sorry."

Sir Keir, who will lead Labour's response in the Commons debate, said Mr Johnson should confirm he will not nominate Mr Paterson "or any other MPs who have been handed suspensions from parliament" for a peerage.

He also urged Mr Johnson to work together on plans to throw Mr Roberts out of the Commons - a loophole meant the Delyn MP's six-week suspension could not trigger the recall process which leads to a by-election.

Mr Roberts voted with Tory MPs for the plan to spare Mr Paterson an immediate suspension.

Sir Keir said: "It is disgraceful that Mr Roberts has been welcomed back as both a member of parliament and the Conservative Party despite having been found to have sexually harassed a junior member of staff.

"That he was able to aid and abet the prime minister in his attempts to corrupt British politics last week should be a source of shame to the Tories.

"The prime minister was prepared to rip up the system to save one of his disgraced MPs - why will he not take action to protect others from this one?"

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Sir Keir also demanded a "full, transparent investigation" into how Randox - one of the firms that paid Mr Paterson - came to win COVID-19 testing contracts.

He said it was "vital the public has confidence that Owen Paterson's paid advocacy did not influence these decisions".

The parliamentary commissioner for standards' investigation into Mr Paterson's activities covered from October 2016 and February 2020, before the pandemic struck.

Conservative heavyweights have also attacked Mr Johnson's government over the lobbying row.

Asked about Sir John's comments, Lord Heseltine told Sky News: "I don't think you can disagree with that."

The Liberal Democrats, who secured the emergency debate, have called for an independent statutory public inquiry into sleaze and corruption allegations.

The inquiry, which would have the power to summon witnesses and take evidence under oath, would examine not only the Paterson row but also the awarding of coronavirus contracts, whether Mr Johnson's holidays were properly declared, and the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat.

The party also said that any MPs being investigated by the parliamentary commissioner for standards should not be able to vote or propose amendments to motions related to disciplinary issues.

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