Yesterday was a momentous one for Parliament. The government instructed its MPs to vote to suspend punishment for a Conservative MP who had broken the lobbying rules, and appoint a Conservative committee to review the disciplinary procedures. The MP would then have his case considered under the new rules. Many Conservative MPs chose not to vote, and a few voted against. But enough swallowed their consciences and did what they were told, for the government to win. This included three who have previously been found in breach of the rules, and one currently under investigation. The Opposition and the media erupted in anger, accusing the government of corruption. A day later, the government reversed its position, leaving its own MPs looking foolish and unprincipled.
Owen Paterson, a Conservative MP, was accused of serious breaches of the Parliamentary rules, by lobbying Ministers and the Food Standards Agency on behalf of two firms who were paying him more than three times his MP’s salary to represent them.
The Parliamentary Commissioner
The case was considered, under the normal rules, by the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who concluded that Owen Paterson had lobbied on behalf of the companies on 14 separate occasions, used Parliamentary premises for commercial meetings on 25 occasions, and had failed to declare his interests. All these are breaches of the rules, some of which have been in place for 300 years.
The Committee on Privileges
The Commissioner’s report was passed, in the normal way, to the Parliamentary Committee on Standards, which includes 4 Conservative, 2 Labour and one SNP MP, and 7 ‘lay members’ from outside Parliament, with expertise in issues of rights and professional conduct.
The Committee considered the evidence and his appeal against the Commissioner’s findings. They considered evidence from his supporters and explained why it did not change their decision. They then concluded that
Mr Paterson’s actions, in particular those relating to paid advocacy, constitute a serious breach of the rules.
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.
The Committee then reported to the House of Commons which normally accepts and implements their recommendations.
The government intervenes
At this point, unusually, the government stepped in. They claimed that the procedure, which has been in place since 2012, was contrary to natural justice and should be reviewed. Instead of supporting the recommendation of the Committee in the normal way, Andrea Leadsom, a leading Conservative MP and former Minister, proposed an amendment to set up a Select Committee to review the procedure for dealing with such cases. The Committee would consist only of MPs, with a Conservative majority and a Conservative chair, and no external experts or lawyers. The House of Commons would then vote on their recommendation. In the meantime, Owen Paterson would remain a sitting MP, and if their proposals for change were adopted, his case would be reconsidered under the new rules.
Votes on reports from the Committee on Standards are not normally treated as party issues, but on this occasion the Conservative Party instructed its MPs to vote for the amendment. During the debate the opposition parties spoke against the amendment, as did a small number of Conservatives. Although the government won the vote, its majority was cut from 40 to 17.
The public reaction
The Opposition parties condemned this decision as corrupt, Keir Starmer, the leader of the Opposition, called on the prime minister to apologise to the whole country for the “chaotic” past 24 hours, and for his “grubby attempt to cover up for the misdemeanour of his friend”.
The media response has been almost unanimously hostile to the government position. There is a widespread view that the government, and MPs, should not be able to rewrite their own disciplinary rules, and especially that they should not use a Conservative majority to retrospectively change the rules as they affect one of their own MPs.
There is a Parliamentary convention that Select Committees are created by cross party agreement, and have cross party membership. The two principal Opposition parties refused to take part.
Less than 24 hours later, in response to the surge of public anger and media hostility, the government reversed its position. The plans for a Select Committee, agreed the previous day, will be reconsidered, and a cross party agreement will be sought on the reform of the disciplinary process. The Paterson case will be considered separately under the existing rules.
This left all those MPs who had swallowed their consciences and supported the government looking, at best, foolish and unprincipled.
In the light of this, Owen Paterson has announced his resignation as an MP. There will now be a byelection.
What have we learned about our MPs’ principles?
There are 58 MPs in the Eastern Region. Five are Labour and one LibDem. The remaining 52 are all Conservatives.
Three have had previous judgments against them from the Committee on Standards. They are:
Mark Francois – Rayleigh and Wickford
George Freeman – Mid-Norfolk
Chloe Smith – Norwich North
James Cleverley – Braintree, is currently under investigation by the Commissioner.
All four voted for the amendment.
The full voting pattern on the amendment to suspend the punishment of Owen Paterson in the Region was as follows.
Against the amendment (i.e. for imposing the punishment)
All six Opposition MPs in the region (five Labour and one LibDem) voted against the amendment.
They were joined by two Conservatives:
Jackie Doyle-Price, Thurrock, Essex
Richard Fuller, NE Bedfordshire
12 Conservatives from this Region did not vote. Some may have decided not to support the government, but since there is no procedure for recording an abstention, there is no way of knowing whether they were actively refusing to support the government or simply absent.
|Essex||Basildon and Billericay||John Baron|
|Cambs||South Cambs||Anthony Browne|
|Suffolk||Suffolk Coastal||Thérèse Coffey|
|Suffolk||West Suffolk||Matthew Hancock|
|Essex||South Basildon and East Thurrock||Stephen Metcalfe|
|Suffolk||Central Suffolk and North Ipswich||Dan Poulter|
|Essex||Epping Forest||Eleanor Laing|
For the amendment
The following East Anglian MPs voted for reviewing the rules and suspending the punishment for Owen Paterson. They may be disappointed by how the government’s u-turn rewards their loyalty.
|Beds||Mid Bedfordshire||Nadine Dorries|
|Beds||South West Bedfordshire||Andrew Selous|
|Cambs||North East Cambs||Stephen Barclay|
|Cambs||North West Cambs||Shailesh Vara|
|Cambs||South East Cambs||Lucy Frazer|
|Essex||Brentwood and Ongar||Alex Burghart|
|Essex||Castle Point||Rebecca Harris|
|Essex||Harwich and North Essex||Bernard Jenkin|
|Essex||Rayleigh and Wickford||Mark Francois|
|Essex||Rochford and Southend East||James Duddridge|
|Essex||Saffron Walden||Kemi Badenoch|
|Herts||Hemel Hempstead||Michael Penning|
|Herts||Hertford and Stortford||Julie Marson|
|Herts||Hitchin and Harpenden||Bim Afolami|
|Herts||North East Hertfordshire||Oliver Heald|
|Herts||South West Hertfordshire||Gagan Mohindra|
|Herts||Welwyn Hatfield||Grant Shapps|
|Norfolk||Great Yarmouth||Brandon Lewis|
|Norfolk||Mid Norfolk||George Freeman|
|Norfolk||North Norfolk||Duncan Baker|
|Norfolk||North West Norfolk||James Wild|
|Norfolk||Norwich North||Chloe Smith|
|Norfolk||South Norfolk||Richard Bacon|
|Norfolk||South West Norfolk||Elizabeth Truss|
|Suffolk||Bury St Edmunds||Jo Churchill|
|Suffolk||South Suffolk||James Cartlidge|