A furious reaction to the case of Conservative MP and former government minister Owen Paterson has prompted the UK government to take a U-turn on plans to overhaul the process through which MPs are held accountable for lobbying . Even the Daily Mail branded the episode “Sink Back in Sledge” and Patterson eventually resigned.
The uproar erupted when, for the first time in its history, the House of Commons effectively blocked the recommendations of a committee on the Standard Report in Conduct by one of its own MPs.
An investigation into the allegations against Patterson for lobbying on behalf of clients prompted the committee to recommend a 30-day suspension, which it called a “serious case of paid advocacy”. However, the government brought an amendment that meant Patterson would avoid the suspension, which was voted on by lawmakers.
The amendment called for the creation of a new committee to review the existing standard system, the case against Patterson and connected matters. It was considered by its detractors to be partly insidious because it appears to contribute to a wider pattern of declining standards and increased impunity when rules are broken. Labor deputy leader Angela Renner described the vote as an “absolute humiliation” and there were screams of “shame” throughout the chamber when the votes were called.
The government, which then lashed out at its lawmakers for voting in favor of the amendment, had an unexpected change of heart and now appears to be planning to re-vote lawmakers on the matter. However, Patterson has resigned, therefore eliminating any question of a temporary suspension.
The new proposals will be explained in more detail by House Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, but it appears the government will seek cross-party support for a review of the standard system, and in particular an appeals process.
Under the current system, parliamentary commissioners are responsible for monitoring the code of conduct for standard parliamentarians and investigating alleged violations. He began his investigation in October 2019 after the Guardian newspaper disclosed that Patterson was lobbying on behalf of two companies for which he was a payments consultant.
The investigation found that Patterson had made a total of 14 approaches to ministers from the Food Standards Agency and the Department for International Development; Failed to make an adequate declaration of interests; and used their parliamentary offices and stationery for commercial purposes.
The work of the commissioner is overseen by the Committee on Standards, a select committee of parliamentarians and ordinary members, which, after investigation, submits its report on the findings and recommends approval for parliamentary approval.
Usually, these recommendations are supported without difficulty. But Patterson alleges bias in the investigation and decision-making process. He claimed that it did not follow natural justice as he was not given enough opportunity to defend himself.
The committee responded to these allegations in detail in its report and found that Patterson was given “extensive opportunities to provide evidence and to fully respond to the allegations against him”.
In the Commons debate before the vote, Rees-Mogg details several alleged failures of the investigation. He noted the lack of an appeals process and suggested that the commissioner had a narrow interpretation of the whistleblower exemption – which, in exceptional circumstances, allows lawmakers to uncover any “evidence of grave wrongdoing or substantial injustice”, Even if it includes “the incidental effect of benefiting an organization or individual” from which they may receive a reward. Patterson claims the whistleblower exemption applies as part of his approach to ministers includes “serious mistakes” on the part of companies other than the companies he works with.
The committee gave a detailed response as to why the whistleblower exemption was not applicable in this case, no matter how serious the mistakes uncovered.
The Committee on Standards emphasized that the rule should remain “a narrow exemption, not a broad loophole” because there is a risk that broadening its application could mean that any breach of the rules – those Involved regardless of intention or personal gain made by people – may be justified in the context of some public interest concern after the event.
question of fairness
A serious issue – which led to backlash and subsequent U-turns and resignations – was that the new committee was expected to be dominated by members of the Conservative Party and include any independent members to balance the deliberations. will not be done. In this respect, it would have had a weaker integrity mechanism than the Commissioner and the Committee on Standards, which it was assigned to review. So there were clear question marks on its ability to be impartial when dealing with sensitive standards issues.
Those opposing the amendment were concerned that it was motivated less by a desire to improve standards and more in the interests of protecting Paterson and undermining the committee’s authority on standards. This is precisely at a time when serious questions are being raised about COVID contracts.
There is agreement across the political spectrum that reforms are needed. The Committee on Standards in Public Life published a report earlier this week with recommendations on a range of issues, including lobbying.
But reforms require trust in the institutions that implement them, and the partisan manner in which this amendment was initially adopted, along with its timing and its lack of balance in its formulation, meant that the reform process was considered a failure in several respects. .
After the plan changes were announced, Rees-Mogg told the Commons that there was a “strong feeling” that any changes to the standards process should not be based solely on Patterson’s case, and that the original vote addressed two issues ” united”. It seems the government has a lot of work to do to win back the trust.