Owen Paterson (65) has been the Conservative member of parliament for North Shropshire since 1997. He was appointed Northern Ireland secretary in the 2010 coalition government, and from 2012 to 2014 the climate change sceptic was secretary of state for the environment. He left following his botched handling of the summer floods and the badger cull and has rightly been on the backbenches ever since.
One might see why that is so, from the recent report by the House of Commons committee on standards. The former managing director of the family leather business is clearly one on the dimmest MPs ever elected to parliament.
The committee found that he had brought the House into disrepute, something that many cynics might have thought impossible, but Paterson has managed to do it.
Paterson was being paid £112,000 a year by two companies
In 2016, Paterson was being paid as a ‘consultant’ by two Northern Ireland registered companies: Randox Laboratories Ltd, a clinical diagnostics outfit; and Lynn’s Country Foods Ltd, a processor and distributor of sausages. Randox paid him £8,333 for 16 hours work every month (£100,000 a year) while Lynn’s handed over a more modest £2,000 for 4 hours every other month – a grand total of £112,000 a year on top of his MP’s salary. Not bad, eh?
He set to work straightaway and between 2016 and 2018 Paterson made ten ‘approaches’ to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) – three relating to Randox and the testing of antibiotics in milk, and seven relating to Lynn’s Country Foods (LCF) about the mis-labelling of ham by a competitor. He also made another four ‘approaches’ to ministers at the Department for International Development relating to Randox and blood-testing technology.
All the time he was being paid by both companies.
The commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, investigated and found that Paterson had breached the 2015 MPs’ Code of Conduct on paid advocacy in contravention of paragraph 11, which states: “No Member shall act as a paid advocate in any proceeding of the House”.
Separately, she also found he had failed to declare his interest in LCF to officials at the FSA and had used parliamentary facilities on 25 occasions for business meetings with his clients. All contrary to the code. Paterson only admitted using House of Commons headed paper, but nothing more.
The rule that Paterson broke?
The guide to the code explains that:
“[No MP should engage in lobbying by initiating a proceeding or approach which seeks to confer, or would have the effect of conferring, any financial or material benefit on an identifiable person from whom or an identifiable organisation from which they, or a family member, have received, are receiving, or expect to receive outside reward or consideration, or on a registrable client of such a person or organisation.”
That’s clear enough.
But as a ‘whistleblowing’ exception, MPs are allowed to break that part of the code if they have “evidence of a serious wrong or substantial injustice even if the resolution of any such wrong or injustice would have the incidental effect of conferring a financial or material benefit” [our emphasis] on them or anyone connected to them or any “identifiable organisation” from which they or a family member has or expects to receive any “reward or remuneration”.
Paterson argued that he used that exception and his approaches to the FSA on behalf of Randox (on antibiotic levels in milk) and on behalf of LCF (on a competitor, Kerry Foods mis-labelling ham) were somehow righting a ‘serious wrong’ and any money he received for doing so was ‘incidental’.
His actions were entirely altruistic apparently, although there was no evidence of him doing anything similar for companies not paying him handsomely. Strange that. Plus, the FSA apparently needed a lot of warnings about these ‘serious wrongs’.
In the case of one meeting at the FSA, which Paterson himself initiated, he talked about “Randox’s superior technology” and afterwards in a follow up email he had suggested it would be good if they “could liaise with Randox and discuss further how their latest technologies might help on grain and meat”.
This, he told the commissioner, was about “selling an idea” rather than Randox’s products, something she thought incompatible with the whistleblowing exception for ‘serious wrongs’ in any case. He also seemed to claim the £8,333 a month thudding into his bank account was incidental to it all, rather than the prime motivation. Neither she nor the committee accepted this claim.
Randox in other circumstances might have thought someone paid £500 an hour and sat in front of a potential client who is NOT selling might be regarded as a bit of a waste of space.
Paterson wrongly claims he was ‘fully aware’ of the rules
At one point in giving evidence, Paterson said he was “fully aware” of the rules before making the approaches, and when asked if during these meetings he was consciously using the ‘serious wrong’ exception he said:
“Yes. In my discussions with ACoBA at the beginning and the exchange of letters – they sent me the rules, and I obviously read them – I was fully aware of two things. One, always declare an interest – which I have done – and I was aware that there were exceptional circumstances. Something really serious came up. I did not go back and look at the rulebook before I rang up the FSA. I was absolutely clear, according to my judgment, and Iain Duncan Smith makes this point: we are elected for our judgment as MPs. I thought this was a really serious issue. The other two are as well, so I am very confident that I am covered by this.”
The commissioner was not convinced about his ‘judgment’, not least because as she drily observed, ACoBA (Advisory Committee on Business Appointments) is not even the body which is responsible for the MPs Code of Conduct rules!
In other words, he was not aware of the rules he was breaking or who was responsible for enforcing them or advising on them, despite sitting in the House for 24 years.
ACoBA is an advisory non-departmental public body based in the Cabinet Office that advises former ministers and senior civil servants on their obligations under the business appointment rules and the ministerial code.
Ms Stone said as a serving MP Paterson was required to abide by the code of conduct for members, and AcoBA was not expected to “tender tailored advice on Members’ obligations under the House’s Code of Conduct”.
Paterson tried to smear the commissioner
The committee said that during the course of the investigation, in both written and oral evidence, Paterson made “serious and personal allegations reflecting on the integrity of the Commissioner and her staff”.
He apparently made direct allegations of bias, prejudice and predetermination against the commissioner, which the committee rejected saying they had seen no evidence that Stone had deviated from her normal process or treated Paterson any differently from any other MP, or displayed any evidence of bias or predetermination.
The “extremely serious” allegations seemed to “spring from incomprehension that the commissioner could place an interpretation on the rules and the evidence which differed from his own”, said the committee, adding that it was “completely unacceptable to make unsubstantiated, serious, and personal allegations against the integrity of the Commissioner and her team, who cannot respond publicly”.
This is about a member of the Privy Council permitted to put ‘Right Honourable’ in front of his name.
Paterson has also suggested the investigation “played a massive role in creating the extreme anxiety” that led to his wife taking her own life in 2020.
The committee on standards agreed with the standards commissioner
The committee on standards is a cross-party group of seven MPs and seven lay members. They endorsed the commissioner’s findings and said that “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”.
Because of that, the committee said, he “failed to establish the proper boundaries between his private commercial work and his parliamentary activities, as set out in the Guide to the Rules”.
Paterson told them multiple times in oral evidence that he was elected for his judgment, and that he judged that he was right to make the approaches he did. But the committee members thought otherwise and described his “multiple breaches” as an “egregious case of paid advocacy”.
They recommended that Paterson be suspended from the service of the House for 30 sitting days.
MPs may block the 30-day suspension of Owen Paterson
His supporters in the Conservative Party are mounting a campaign to force a free vote in the House of Commons to avoid the 30-day suspension.
Some think the commissioner and the committee represented a kangaroo court, while others say he was caught “bang to rights”. The party is keen to avoid a possible by-election if 10 percent of constituents in his North Shropshire seat sign a recall petition. Opposition parties have called on him to resign.
Graeme Currie, who stood for Labour against Paterson in 2019, said, “I know people will get behind a recall petition and I am confident that 10 percent of local voters will support a by-election to remove him. He has brought disgrace on himself and must resign now”.
Paterson had a near 23,000 majority in the 2019 general election.
If there is a by-election and he is returned to parliament, even with a reduced majority, it will say a lot about what voters expect from their politicians in the 21st century, i.e. not very much beyond lining their own pockets.
Paterson still claims he is innocent and said, “The 30-day recommendation is really shocking and absurd. I cannot accept this; I have to clear my name if it means going to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg”.
This, from a lifelong Eurosceptic.