Conservative MPs will tomorrow launch an unprecedented attempt to overthrow an independent inquiry that found former Minister Owen Paterson had committed a “cruel” breach of lobbying rules.
They will try to avoid imposing an immediate 30-day suspension on the North Shropshire MP by arguing that the initial inquiry from the parliamentary parliamentary commissioner was deficient. Instead, they will call for a new committee to be set up to review the evidence.
It will be led by Tory background John Whittingdale and will consist of four other Conservatives, three Labor MPs and one from the Scottish National Party tasked with exploring ways to change the standard process, including giving the accused appeal and making it more consistent with the “principles of natural justice”.
Andrea Leadsom, the former Commons leader, will propose the change during a debate on Wednesday on Paterson’s behavior, and it is understood that the chief whip, Mark Spencer, has expressed interest and is investigating the details. “He wants her to do this,” a source said.
Last week, a study by Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone concluded that Paterson “repeatedly” used his position as a Member of Parliament in favor of two firms that paid him as a consultant. Her report said he worked for Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods and had approached the Food Standards Agency and the Department of International Development ministers about the companies.
Paterson said he was not guilty and “a fair trial would acquit me”. He described the process as “a significant contributing factor” in the death of his wife, Rose, who committed suicide last year.
A number of MPs support Paterson and try to overturn or dilute the standard committee’s recommendation of a 30-day suspension from parliament.
The change to be proposed by Leadsom tomorrow will mean that a new committee will report its findings in early February 2022, with a proposal proposing changes to the standard committee system, which will be presented to the Commons within five days.
Other bids will also be launched to spare Paterson a long exclusion from parliament that could trigger a by-election. Tory MPs Dr. Julian Lewis, William Wragg and Peter Bone have suggested that he face no sanction “for compassionate reasons” in connection with his wife’s death.
Whether the amendments will be chosen will be a question for the Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. He will announce on Wednesday afternoon who – if any – will be voted on when MPs begin a 90-minute debate on the report for Paterson, which was released last week.
Bernard Jenkin, one of four Tory MPs sitting on the standard committee, rejected himself from discussions during the inquiry as he is a close friend of the Patersons. Jenkin is said to have played a role in mobilizing MPs to vote to prevent his suspension. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative party leader, has also sought to create support for Paterson among the 2019 inclusion of Tory MPs.
Chris Bryant, a Labor MP and chairman of the Standards Committee, said Leadsom’s change would be unfair. He told the Guardian: “The definition of injustice is that you change the rules in the middle of the process. This would create a special system for one person and is completely unfair.”
His committee found that Paterson broke several rules when he lobbied the government on behalf of Randox, a clinical diagnostics firm, and Lynn’s Country Foods, a processor and distributor of meat products. The committee’s report said: “No previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many violations or such a clear pattern of behavior by failing to separate private and public interests.”
Paterson claimed he was acting as a whistleblower when he raised concerns about bacon and milk standards with the Food Standards Agency and the Department of International Development, but the commissioner said his remedy “did not meet the conditions for this exemption”.
Only twice since World War II have suspensions been challenged in the Commons, I thought, but never has one been downgraded or removed. A senior Tory MP said: “It is a matter of curbing justice with mercy. I wonder – in the context of what he has been through – whether it is an appropriate sanction to trigger a recall.