Sun, 19 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Tories Have Voted To Overhaul Rules For MP Standards Despite Frustration Among MPs

6 min read

A vote has passed in favour of reforming parliament’s standards watchdog as part of a wider effort to prevent Tory MP Owen Paterson from facing a 30-day suspension from the Commons.

This afternoon MPs voted 250 – 232 in favour of overturning Paterson's suspension, and reforming current standards procedures. 

On the Tory benches 13 MPs rebelled and voted against the amendment, they were: Aaron Bell, Kate Griffiths, Kevin Hollinrake, Holly Mumby-Croft, William Wrag, Jackie Doyle-Price, Mark Harper, Nigel Mills, Matthew Offord, Richard Fuller, Simon Hoare, Jill Mortimer and John Stevenson

Cries of "shame, shame" could be heard from the Commons benches as speaker Lindsay Hoyle read out the result. 

Ahead of the vote, the move to reform parliament's standards committee was described to PoliticsHome by one Tory MP as “appalling”, while another labelled it “shit”.

Last week, following a two-year investigation, Paterson was found guilty of an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules by the parliamentary watchdog.

The MP for North Shropshire, who has been accused of using his role as a paid consultant to the diagnostics firm Randox and the meat supplier Lynn’s Country Foods, was recommended a 30-day suspension from the Commons by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone.

Stone found that Paterson had breached advocacy rules between October 2016 and February 2020 by approaching ministers and government departments on behalf of the two companies.

Paterson firmly rejects Stone’s finding and denies any wrongdoing. He argues he only ever reached out to ministers to raise good faith concerns about food standards.

Later this afternoon, MPs will vote on an amendment tabled by ex-Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom, that would reject the verdict of parliamentary standards commissioner and form a new committee of MPs – half of which would come from the Conservative Party, with the other half from opposition parties – tasked with rewriting rules for parliamentary standards.

In a letter sent to Conservative MPs, seen by PoliticsHome, Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg has urged them to support the amendment.

"This is not about any one case, but about providing all Members of Parliament with the right to a fair hearing," Rees-Mogg wrote.

"The current system stands in contrast to the Independent Complaints and Grievances Scheme, which has an appeal panel chaired by a high court judge, so all parties referred to the Scheme have total faith in it.

"Many members do not believe the current standards system follows natural justice. It is vital that a reformed standards systems commands the confidence of the House and the wider public."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has backed the amendment, and Tory MPs have been issued with a three-line whip on voiting in its favour, a move that has caused disquiet among some Conservative MPs. 

“I think it’s appalling,” one Tory MP told PoliticsHome.

“If we don’t like the system reform it, but not before this case is sorted. Owen will be found guilty eventually – the evidence is damning – and this will make the subsequent by election much harder.

“Better to do mea culpa now, apologise and get through this before the public really catch up. There is very little support on the backbenches."

Another Conservative MP was more frank in their objection to the amendment.  

“Well it’s shit, isn’t it?," they told PoliticsHome.

Paterson is a well-liked veteran of the Conservative party, a factor that one more junior Tory MP believed was critical in the government throwing so much weight behind this amendment. 

“Can guarantee if it was one of the [2019 intake] we'd be out on our arse,” they said. 

A former Tory Party advisor said they were surprised that senior MPs like Leadsom, who initiated the amendment to back Paterson, had put their names to the plan, describing the optics as “murky”.

PoliticsHome understands that some are considering abstaining.

But many in the party, including Tory veteran and friend of Paterson, Bernard Jenkin, have been vocal in their support of the amendment and standards reform.

A staff member to a current minister told PoliticsHome: “There is a feeling that the whole system needs to be looked at and reviewed.

“If it’s the case that the commissioner failed to speak to all the witnesses, people think that doesn’t seem fair and that’s why they want a review of the whole system, to see what needs to be changed, before making a judgement on Owen Paterson.”

Speaking on the BBC radio programme The World At One, father of the house Sir Peter Bottomley confirmed he wouldn't support Leadsom's amendment. 

"The underlying point is that if you want to change a process you don’t do it mid-game… and you don’t do it as a result of a 90 minute debate,” Bottomley said. 

During a Commons debate on the motion to suspend Paterson, Conservative MP Aaron Bell told Leadsom he couldn't support her amendment because "that reform can only work if it's across the House, and by bringing her amendment today, it looks like we are moving the goalposts".

Labour MP Chris Bryant, who chairs the Committee on Standards, told the Commons that Patterson "has brought the house into disrepute". 

"This case... involved 14 instances. It was a pattern of behaviour and the member has said time and again over the last week that he would do the same again tomorrow.

"So if the House were to vote down or water down the sanction, or carry the amendment, it will be endorsing his action. We would be dismantling the rule on paid advocacy, which has been around in some shape or form since 1695. 

"I'm afraid the public would think that we would be the parliament that lisenced cash for questions."

Downing Street has dismissed criticism that the proposed reforms would compromise the independence of the parliamentary watchdog. 

“This is absolutely not a case of MPs marking their own homework,” a No.10 spokesperson said. 

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