Senior Tory MPs last night launched a last-ditch attempt to spare Owen Paterson from a 30-day Commons suspension for an ‘egregious’ breach of lobbying rules.
In an unprecedented move, allies of the ex-minister will today refuse to accept the findings of a report by the anti-sleaze watchdog and instead call for a reform of the system.
Former business secretary Andrea Leadsom has tabled a parliamentary amendment that would see Mr Paterson’s potential suspension paused pending a review.
Tory whips will back the Leadsom amendment when it comes to the vote today. Last night, a Government source said the amendment would get the PM’s backing if it is selected.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards last week found Mr Paterson guilty of an ‘egregious case of paid advocacy’ on behalf of two companies, Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods, for which he was acting as a consultant.
The plan being considered by the plotting MPs would ultimately be to disband the Commons committee on standards and replace it with a new body, and force the resignation of Commissioner Kathryn Stone, who some accuse of being biased against Tories and Brexiteers.
Reports suggest former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale is then being discussed as a potential chair for a new Government-nominated committee, set to redraw the rules on MPs’ conduct.
Owen Paterson, pictured with his late wife Rose, claimed the ‘biased’ way the inquiry was carried out was a major factor in her suicide last year.
Former business secretary Andrea Leadsom has tabled a parliamentary amendment that would see Mr Paterson’s potential suspension paused pending a review
Boris Johnson also supports the efforts to reform the House of Commons standards watchdog
In a damning report, Commissioner Kathryn Stone recommended Mr Paterson should be suspended for 30 days, which could trigger a by-election in his North Shropshire constituency.
Mr Paterson has maintained his innocence and claimed the ‘biased’ way the inquiry was carried out was a major factor in the suicide of his wife Rose last year.
His allies have since called for changes to be made to the system so politicians can appeal.
The Leadsom amendment will only be put to a vote if selected by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.
Last night, it was revealed that Government whips would tell Tory MPs to back the amendment that would effectively lead to the standards watchdog being disbanded.
It was suggested this could even lead to the resignation of Miss Stone. Sir Lindsay is reportedly concerned that overturning the Commissioner’s recommendations risks bringing the House into disrepute.
But his predecessor, John Bercow, has said the process leading to the ban was ‘indefensible’ and was not ‘conducted in accordance with natural justice’.
In a letter to Mr Paterson, Mr Bercow said: ‘You have experienced a protracted, Kafkaesque process.’
And he said it was ‘wrong and indefensible, 14 months after launching her investigation, that [Miss Stone] should write her first memorandum to you to announce that she considers you guilty of transgressions when she has not troubled to interview you’, according to The Times.
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg yesterday questioned the fairness of a probe into Mr Paterson. He expressed sympathy for the MP’s claim that the Commissioner did not speak to 17 witnesses who came forward to support him, describing that decision as ‘interesting’.
He told his Conservative Home podcast: ‘It is always very important that systems appear to be fair, and therefore if somebody has witnesses, it would normally appear to be fair that those witnesses should be heard.
‘The Commissioner in her report that was adopted… said the witnesses weren’t needed because their evidence they gave wasn’t relevant to the inquiry.
‘And that is an interesting view to come to, because other people might say: ‘How do you know whether it was relevant to the inquiry until you’ve taken their evidence and have found out the precise context of how things were done?’
In a damning report, Commissioner Kathryn Stone recommended Paterson should be suspended for 30 days, which could trigger a by-election in his North Shropshire constituency.
The plan being considered by the plotting MPs would ultimately be to disband the Commons committee on standards and replace it with a new body, and force the resignation of Commissioner Kathryn Stone, who some accuse of being biased against Tories and Brexiteers
Labour’s shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire said: ‘The amendment tabled undermines the independent standards process including the Commissioner and the committee.
‘The cross-party standards committee, including four Tory MPs, endorsed the Commissioner’s 30-day sanction for a breach of the rule around paid advocacy.
‘If the Government votes through this amendment, it sends a message to the public that Tory MPs are above the rules and just don’t care.’
Standards Committee chairman Chris Bryant also defended the current process, writing in the Telegraph: ‘Parliament has rightly banned MPs using their position to benefit those paying them in various forms ever since 1695.
‘Voting down the report, or watering down the sanction, for such a serious breach would do great damage to Parliament. Our report was agreed unanimously. It is thorough and comprehensive. We urge everyone to read it with a fair and open mind.’
Downing Street refused to be drawn on whether Boris Johnson viewed the report as flawed, as Mr Paterson and his allies have claimed.
The Commissioner found that between November 2016 and November 2017 Mr Paterson made three approaches to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) relating to Randox and antibiotics in milk, in breach of the ban on paid advocacy.
He was also found to have made four approaches to ministers at the Department for International Development relating to the company and blood testing technology between October 2016 and January 2017.
And Mr Paterson was found to have made seven approaches to the FSA between November 2017 and July 2018 relating to Lynn’s Country Foods.
The Commissioner further found that he failed to declare his interest as a paid consultant to Lynn’s Country Foods in four emails to FSA officials and that he used his parliamentary office for business meetings with his clients on 16 occasions between October 2016 and February 2020.
He also sent two letters relating to his business interests on Commons headed notepaper – the only breach of the rules which he accepted.
The proposed Whittingdale Committee that senior Conservatives want in place of the current body would include nine members – four Tory MPs, three Labour representatives and one from the SNP.