Tories accused of ‘wallowing in sleaze’ as Paterson spared immediate suspension

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Owen Paterson (PA) (PA Archive)
Owen Paterson (PA) (PA Archive)

Tory MPs voted against the immediate parliamentary suspension of former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson over an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules and instead supported plans to overhaul the Commons’ disciplinary process.

In an unprecedented move, MPs voted not to back the cross-party Standards Committee’s call for a six-week ban from Parliament for Mr Paterson after it found he repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials for two companies paying him more than £100,000 per year.

MPs backed an amendment calling for a review of his case after Conservatives were ordered to support the bid and Boris Johnson questioned whether the investigation into Mr Paterson was fair.

Mr Paterson said the move would allow him to clear his name after “two years of hell”, but anti-corruption campaigners, unions, political observers and Opposition MPs condemned the decision, with the Tories accused of “wallowing in sleaze”.

Mr Paterson, the MP for North Shropshire, could have faced a possible by-election if the suspension had been approved.

He said: “All I have ever asked is to have the opportunity to make my case through a fair process.

“The decision today in Parliament means that I will now have that opportunity.”

Mr Johnson had placed Tories under a three-line whip to support the amendment tabled by former Commons leader Dame Andrea Leadsom.

There were shouts of “shame” and “what have you done to this place” from Opposition MPs as the House voted by a narrow majority of 18 to approve the amendment.

The division list showed 13 Tories voted against the Leadsom amendment, while no vote was recorded by 98 others.

Some 246 Conservatives were listed among the 250 MPs who backed the motion, as was Rob Roberts, who lost the Tory whip after he was found to have sexually harassed a member of staff.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner accused the Tories of being “rotten to the core”.

As well as reviewing Mr Paterson’s case, the amendment calls for a Conservative-majority committee led by former culture secretary John Whittingdale to examine the standards system.

The committee was intended to include four other Tory MPs, three Labour MPs and one SNP MP.

But Ms Rayner said Labour will “not be taking any part in this sham process or any corrupt committee”, with the SNP and Lib Dems also saying they would boycott it.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, writing in the Guardian, said “the rot starts at the top” and “we have a Prime Minister whose name is synonymous with sleaze, dodgy deals and hypocrisy”.

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone had recommended a ban from the Commons of 30 sitting days for Mr Paterson in a report approved by the Standards Committee.

Ms Stone’s investigation found he repeatedly lobbied on behalf of two companies for which he was acting as a paid consultant – Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods.

Mr Paterson claimed the investigation was unfairly conducted and argued the manner in which it was carried out had played a “major role” in his wife Rose’s suicide last year.

The Prime Minister, who voted for the amendment, said paid lobbying in the Commons “is wrong” and those “who are found guilty of that should apologise and pay the necessary penalties”.

“But that is not the issue in this case or this vote that is before us,” he added to MPs.

“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.”

Ms Rayner accused the Conservatives of “wallowing in sleaze” and claimed they were demonstrating it was “one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us”.

The Father of the House, Tory MP Sir Peter Bottomley, refused to support the move to consider tearing up the standards system during the middle of Mr Paterson’s case.

“We chose the system we are now using,” he said. “If we want to consider changing it, we do it in a proper way instead of considering it in the way we are now.”

Daniel Bruce, chief executive of anti-corruption campaigners Transparency International UK, said: “With this vote MPs have sent a clear signal that they believe there should be one set of rules for them, and another set for everyone else.

“This is hugely damaging for trust in our democracy and the rule of law.”

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA representing senior civil servants, said there had been a “vicious and orchestrated campaign of personal attacks against the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards”.

Tim Durrant, associate director of the Institute for Government think tank, told the PA news agency the Government’s decision to impose a three-line whip to back the Leadsom amendment was “reducing the independence of these kinds of standards processes rather than increasing them”.

While the standards regime should “change with the times”, doing it in the middle of a disciplinary process against a Tory MP “is not a great look for the Government”.

Standards Committee chairman Chris Bryant, a Labour MP, had warned that if the Leadsom amendment won then “the public would think that we would be the Parliament that licensed cash for questions”.

There had never been a successful amendment to reduce the suspension of an MP since the Second World War while the House had never voted down a disciplinary sanction since the creation of the modern standards system.

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “Sometimes to do the right thing one has to accept a degree of opprobrium.”

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