Downing Street has refused to comment on whether the Prime Minister is in favour of the potential 30 day suspension of Conservative MP Owen Paterson after it was announced earlier today that he broke parliament’s code of conduct regarding lobbying.
Under a 2015 law brought in after the expenses scandal, any MP suspended for 10 plus days can face a petition in which constituents can request that a by-election be held.
The support of ten per cent of electors in Paterson’s North Shropshire seat would be required to prompt an election in the constituency. A similar process led to a by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire in 2019 in which the Conservative Party subsequently lost the seat to the Liberal Democrats.
Mr Paterson had a majority of 22,949 in North Shropshire over Labour in the last 2019 General Election. The constituency has long been one of the Conservative Party’s safest seats in England.
Owen Paterson served in the Cabinet under David Cameron between 2010 and 2014, first as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and then as Secretary of State for the Environment.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists this afternoon that: “The standards regime is a matter for the House of Commons. The Prime Minister is mindful of the pain faced by the Paterson family.
“The suicide of Mrs Paterson was sad and tragic and the Prime Minister’s sympathies remain with his family following this loss.”
He went on to say that: “The committee is an independent body, we’d expect them to abide by the rules and regulations that individuals themselves would apply to as well but beyond that I don’t have anything to add.”
Former Brexit secretary and backbench MP David Davis signalled his support for Paterson earlier today, tweeting: “This system of investigation would not be acceptable for our constituents, as it does not meet the rules of natural justice, or even ACAS rules.
“I note that none of the 17 critical witnesses appear to have been interviewed by the Commissioner. And of course, there is no appeal process.”
Mr Paterson said in a statement today that the probe “does not comply with natural justice” and played “a major role” in his wife’s suicide.
The report arises from a detailed inquiry the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards opened on her own initiative in October 2019 following media reports alleging that Mr Paterson had lobbied for two companies for which he was a paid consultant.
Mr Paterson has been a paid consultant to Randox, a clinical diagnostics company, since August 2015, and a paid consultant to Lynn’s Country Foods, a processor and distributor of meat products including ‘nitrite-free’ products, since December 2016.
The Commissioner found that Mr Paterson had breached the rule prohibiting paid advocacy, set out in paragraph 11 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct, in making three approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Randox and the testing of antibiotics in milk in November 2016 and November 2017; in making seven approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Lynn’s Country Foods in November 2017, January 2018 and July 2018; and in making four approaches to Ministers at the Department for International Development relating to Randox and blood testing technology in October 2016 and January 2017.
The Commissioner also found that Mr Paterson had breached paragraph 13 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct, on declarations of interest, by failing to declare his interest as a paid consultant to Lynn’s Country Foods in four emails to officials at the Food Standards Agency on 16 November 2016, 15 November 2017, 8 January 2018 and 17 January 2018.
Lastly, the Commissioner found that Mr Paterson breached paragraph 15 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct, on use of parliamentary facilities, by using his parliamentary office on 25 occasions for business meetings with his clients between October 2016 and February 2020; and in sending two letters, on 13 October 2016 and 16 January 2017, relating to his business interests, on House of Commons headed notepaper.
Following further evidence from Mr Paterson, the Committee accepted that the number of meetings in question was 16, not 25 – though the Committee questioned why Mr Paterson could not have made this further evidence available to the Commissioner during her investigation.
Mr Paterson acknowledged that his use of headed notepaper for two letters relating to his business interests breached the rules of the House and apologised to the Commissioner and to the Committee for doing so. Mr Paterson maintained that he had not breached the Code in any other respect.
On the conclusion of the investigation the Commissioner’s draft memorandum was made available to Mr Paterson, in December 2020.
The Committee noted at the beginning of its report that it was “painfully conscious that Mr Paterson lost his wife in tragic circumstances in June 2020; and we wish to express our deepest sympathy to him for his loss. This last year must have been very distressing for him and we have taken these circumstances fully into account in considering Mr Paterson’s conduct during the period of the investigation”, and recorded that it had “striven to ensure that Mr Paterson has had every opportunity to represent himself as fully as possible before the Committee, in person and in writing. We have extended deadlines at his request and we have accepted his request to be accompanied by his legal advisers and to make a formal opening statement to us”. However, the Committee noted that the allegations against Mr Paterson, which are the subject of the Commissioner’s memorandum, relate to his conduct between October 2016 and February 2020, before Mrs Paterson’s death. The Committee stated that “it is these allegations on which we are required to adjudicate, impartially, without fear or favour, and with a sole eye to the rules of the House and the requirements of natural justice”.
The Committee found that Mr Paterson repeatedly used his position as a Member to promote the companies by whom he was paid, and therefore breached paragraph 11 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct.
The report noted that there was no immediate financial benefit secured by Randox or Lynn’s, but that Mr Paterson’s approaches could clearly have conferred significant benefits on Randox and Lynn’s in the long term and even in the short term secured meetings that would not have been available without Mr Paterson’s involvement.
The Committee commented that it does not doubt that Mr Paterson sincerely believes that he has acted properly. Mr Paterson is clearly convinced in his own mind that there could be no conflict between his private interest and the public interest in his actions in this case. But it is this same conviction that meant that Mr Paterson failed to establish the proper boundaries between his private commercial work and his parliamentary activities, as set out in the Guide to the Rules. The Committee concluded that being able to judge the difference between one’s private, personal interest and the public interest is at the very heart of public service and a senior member of the House with many years standing should be able to make that distinction more clearly.
The Committee found that Mr Paterson’s actions were an egregious case of paid advocacy, that he repeatedly used his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant, and that this has brought the House into disrepute.
In line with previous cases of a similar severity, the Committee recommends that Mr Paterson be suspended from the service of the House for 30 sitting days.