The personal tragedy and drama surrounding Owen Paterson (Conservative MP) is high. He has been accused of using his position to gain personal wealth.
A former Cabinet Minister and MP for over 20 years, Mr Paterson is now in danger of political ruin due to an amateurish investigation by the Standards Commission into the House of Commons.
Mr Paterson has already lost his wife Rose, who committed suicide last year – a death that he firmly believes was linked to the stress of the investigation. The wrong-headed report’s conclusions will be up for vote by MPs this week. If they approve it Mr Paterson could be out of work.
It is a disturbing story that has exposed the flaws in the system Parliament has set up to enforce its standards of conduct. These flaws are unacceptable in any system that deals with justice, and especially one that is so central to the functioning of our democracy.
It is also a system which, to many of my Conservative colleagues appears stacked against Tories or Brexiteers.
My first worry was caused by a case that affected Ken Livingstone, a Tory colleague. The former Left-wing hero was forced to address the House of Commons, apologizing for his inadequacy in declaring his outside earnings.
Tragedy. Owen Paterson with Rose, Rose’s wife. He linked Rose’s suicide to the lobbying investigation.
It felt to me as if he was being publicly humiliated over something that wasn’t his fault. Although Mr Livingstone had sought advice from Commons officials regarding the proper process, this crucial point was ignored by the House authorities.
Although the standards system has seen many changes over the years it has remained inconsistent. I’ve seen innocent people lose their reputations and villains get away without any consequences.
But that shouldn’t surprise anyone. This is because it is a standard system in which one person is chief investigator, prosecutor, and that leaves MPs without any effective right to appeal.
The allegations against Mr Paterson as Shropshire North MP seem serious. He has been accused of paid lobbying – contacting the Government on behalf of companies that were his clients – which is forbidden under House of Commons rules unless there is an overriding public interest.
David Davis: It is a troubling saga that has thrown into stark relief the failings of the system that Parliament has put in place to police its standards of conduct
It might seem odd, however, that the first contact between the Commissioner and Mr Paterson was via email. The process ended with a memorandum being sent to him last December.
Stranger still was the admission made by Kathryn Stone to the clerk of Standards Committee that she had made a decision about the substance before sending him the memorandum. She even admitted ‘the dispute is one of interpretation’ – not one of fact.
It might seem a fragile process when Mr Paterson’s reputation as well as his career are at stake.
An impartial investigator would have checked every aspect of the case, especially where interpretation is involved. Ms. Stone did not interview any of the witnesses Mr Paterson presented, including the Chief Vet Officer and heads of various Government departments. Rory Stewart, the former International Development Minister, was even present, which Mr Paterson is believed to have lobbied. Mr. Stewart is a staunch Remainer and is not an ally for Mr. Paterson.
Her committee should have instructed Stone to visit the witnesses when it became apparent that she had refused to do so. Or interviewed the witnesses herself. They didn’t. This failure alone would have resulted in the case being dismissed if it had been referred to the courts for review. Unfortunately, parliamentary rules prevent any recourse to justice.
Owen Paterson is seen outside the Cabinet Office in London on February 4, 2019,
There was also the unusually harsh dismissal by Mr Paterson’s defense, which relied partly on compelling evidence that he was trying raise the alarm about serious threats to public safety. To alert Ministers to the dangers of carcinogenic products in milk or ham, he wrote to them. The Standards Committee accepted that his account was correct – that Mr Paterson had been calling for action that, among other things, would have led to the removal of risks from antibiotics in milk and from nitrites used as preservatives in ham. It would have saved lives.
The Committee confirmed that Mr Paterson’s intervention had not resulted in any immediate financial gain. It is therefore strange that the committee refuses to accept the public interest argument, interpreting rules so narrowly as to render this crucial defense practically worthless.
The judgment against Mr Paterson isn’t the only one that has been against Tories or Brexiteers. Take, for instance, the 2018 Standards investigation against Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay because he failed to declare a shareholding in a company.
The company in question was set up to develop a low-cost airline. However, the project was abandoned after the attacks on September 11, 2001. There were no employees or assets. The company did not have a bank account or capital of 2p. It was basically dead. Mackinlay had not declared the shareholding and had thus committed a technical violation. It had zero real meaning.
The proper response of the Standards Commissioner should, at most, have been a correction in the Register of Interests with – possibly – a letter of apology from the MP. Ms Stone instead demanded that Mr Mackinlay apologize publicly in the Commons.
The same Commissioner was able to take a different approach in her investigation of the case involving a Labour MP who attempted to get a vulnerable constituent to give him diazepam. It is illegal to get this tranquilliser without a prescription. Criminal offenses are automatically punishable by the parliamentary Code of Conduct.
The Commissioner decided that the Labour MP had not violated the rules.
British law follows a rigorous and adversarial process. The case is investigated by the police, presented to the court by a prosecution lawyer and challenged by a defence lawyer – all following strict rules of evidence. In serious cases, a jury decides the verdict. If the defendant is found guilty, a judge decides the punishment. The whole process is open to appeal.
This is what we, as MPs, would insist on for all our constituents. However, none of these protections apply to how MPs are treated. Instead, we have an inquiry, where the Commissioner acts both as an investigating officer and prosecutor.
True, her decision could be reviewed by the House of Commons Standards and Prerogatives Committee. However, as a means of delivering justice, this is not appropriate. It is time to replace this amateurism by a quasi-judicial system and an appeals system. There is no reason why we cannot appoint three retired Lords judges. This panel could have severe powers of punishment, including disqualification form the Commons.
It is perfectly appropriate that MPs face severe penalties for abuse of their positions, including losing their position as MP. You need a functioning system of justice to achieve this. Palpably, this is not what MPs have today – as Owen Paterson has found to his very great cost.