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Politics

Owen Paterson lobbying scandal: What’s it all about?

Former cabinet minister Owen Paterson is at the centre of a storm over corruption, sleaze, rule bending and more. So what’s really going on?

The media and political elite have been up in arms about parliamentary standards, allegations of corruption, motions, amendments and more, all centred around former cabinet minister Owen Paterson.

So what’s really going on? Let’s break it down.

Who is Owen Paterson?

Owen Paterson is a paid lobbyist, former cabinet minister and was the Conservative MP for North Shropshire, a position he held from the 1997 general election until his resignation on November 4. He held two cabinet positions in David Cameron’s government, first as Northern Ireland secretary then as secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs.

He grew up on his family farm and worked for his family business before entering politics, taking on significant paid consultancy work with businesses since leaving government in 2015.

Paterson has been a paid consultant to Randox, a clinical diagnostics company, on £8,333 a month (more than his salary as an MP) since August 2015 and also to meat producer Lynn’s Country Foods since December 2016, who pay him £12,000 a year for 24 hours worth of work.

And that’s where the trouble starts.

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What’s all the fuss about?

On October 26, at the end of an investigation started in 2019, the Commons standards committee, a group of MPs from different parties and “lay members” which upholds the standards of behaviour for MPs, published a near-200-page report on Paterson’s recent business and political dealings.

They found him to have “breached the rule prohibiting paid advocacy” in the code of conduct for MPs in the way he represented Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods in meetings with government departments, as well as breaking rules on the declaration of interests and the use of parliamentary facilities.

These breaches relate to ten approaches to the Food Standards Agency representing the companies, and four approaches to ministers at the Department for International Development, according to the report, which accuses him of furthering the interests of the companies.

Paterson has always insisted that he was acting in the public interest and that the benefits to companies who pay him more than £100,000 a year were secondary.

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The report also says “Mr Paterson told the commissioner that the only occasions on which he has engaged with ministers or public officials on behalf of Randox and Lynn’s are those which were the subject of her investigation”.

That was from a letter from Paterson to the commissioner dated 15 January 2020. But the pandemic changed matters.

In March 2020, Randox was awarded a £133 million contract to produce coronavirus tests. No other firms were invited to bid for the work. Despite testing kits being recalled in the summer of 2020 of contamination fears, Randox received a new £347 million contract that November, with the Guardian reporting that Paterson had been involved in a call between the company and James Bethell, the minister in charge of coronavirus testing supplies.

This matter has not been investigated by the standards committee. Yet.

So did Owen Paterson break the rules or not?

The standards committee, led by commissioner Kathryn Stone, was clear in its report that Paterson had, in fact, broken numerous rules about how MPs should behave. And they were unequivocal.

“This is an egregious case of paid advocacy,” reads the report, saying he had “repeatedly failed to perceive his conflict of interest and used his privileged position as a Member of Parliament to secure benefits for two companies for whom he was a paid consultant… He has brought the House into disrepute. We therefore recommend that Mr Paterson be suspended from the service of the House for 30 sitting days.”

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Paterson, for his part, has pushed back strongly.

“This is a biased process and not fair,” he said when the report was released on October 26. “It offends against the basic standard of procedural fairness that no one should be found guilty until they have had a chance to be heard and to present their evidence including their witnesses.”

He added in his statement that the investigation had played a part in the tragic death of his wife, Rose, in June 2021. Her body was found in woodland near the family home and a coroner’s report ruled she had died of suicide at age 63.

“We will never know definitively what drove her to suicide, but the investigation undoubtedly played a major role,” Mr Paterson wrote.

Is that the end of it?

Far from it. A week after the report was released, the government pushed back stronger, putting forward a motion on November 3 to overturn Paterson’s suspension, the report from the committee and, indeed, the committee entirely. An amendment from senior Tory Andrea Leadsom proposed a new committee with four Conservative MPs, three Labour MPs and one member from the Scottish National Party (SNP).

A statement from Downing Street on November 3 insisted: “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. This could include judicial and lay member representation on the appeals panel.”

MPs voted 250 to 232 in favour of the amendment, scrapping Paterson’s suspension and proposing a new committee. Thirteen Conservatives abstained, including Angela Richardson, who tweeted that she lost her job at Michael Gove’s housing department as a result.

Analysis from Insider found that 22 of the Tory MPs who voted for the Leadsom amendment have been investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards — the very watchdog they voted to abolish. Paterson also voted. If they had abstained the motion would not have passed.

Labour and the SNP said they wouldn’t recognise the new watchdog if it gets set up.

So it’s going well already then?

The vote has been met with uproar by opposition MPs and most of the media. Here’s a handful of headlines.

The Mail: “Shameless MPs sink back into sleaze.”

The Times: “Tories rebel over vote to block MPs suspension.”

The Guardian: “PM accused of corruption as rules on sleaze torn up.”

The i: “Tories rip up Britain’s anti sleaze rules to save guilty MP,”

The Metro: “the sleazy way out”

Labour leader Keir Starmer wrote in the Guardian that his party “won’t have anything to do with this complete and utter sham process” acccusing the Conservative Party of “wallowing in sleaze”.

Financial Times writer Robert Shrimsley argued: “By his actions Johnson has shown contempt for the system and swept away another check on the power of the government and its friends. It is a shameful and damaging day for British politics.”

One Tory abstainer reportedly told PoliticsHome: “It gives the impression that MPs can change rules to help themselves. If rules do need changing then we should do it in an orderly way, not in this shambolic manner.”

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has been out on TV morning and night defending the government, calling for the parliamentary standards commissioner to resign and telling ITV’s Robert Peston: “The vote today wasn’t to say whether Owen was in the right or in the wrong … it was to try and bring some due process.”

Thangam Debbonaire, shadow Leader of the House, responded: “Having already ripped up the rules policing MP’s behaviour to protect one of their own, it is appalling that this corrupt government is now trying to bully the standards commissioner out of her job.

“Boris Johnson must immediately distance himself from these latest attempts to poison British politics. And all decent people of all political beliefs must stand against these naked attempts by Tory MPs to avoid scrutiny of their behaviour.”

By lunch time on November 4, the government had signalled a u-turn. Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Commons that the “link needs to be broken” between the Paterson case and the vote to change the rules.

“While there is a very strong feeling on both sides of the House that there is a need for an appeals process, there is equally a strong feeling that this should not be based on a single case or applied retrospectively,” he said.

“I fear last night’s debate conflated the individual case with the general concern. This link needs to be broken. Therefore, I and others will be looking to work on a cross-party basis to achieve improvements in our system for future cases.

“We will bring forward more detailed proposals once there have been cross-party discussions.”

So what happens next?

Well, it sounds like the government has realised it’s attempt to change the rules has gone down as well as karaoke night at the party conference, and that it doesn’t stand a chance of pushing things through without cross-party support.

Paterson resigned as an MP on the afternoon of November 4, describing the period of the investigation as an “indescribable nightmare for my family and me”.

“I intend to devote myself to public service in whatever ways I can but especially in the world of suicide prevention,” he wrote in a statement released on Twitter.

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