The Committee on Standards report into Owen Paterson has divided people into predictable camps. His supporters have criticised the report or, more specificially, condemned the process that produced it. His opponents have targeted Paterson or, more narrowly, denounced the conduct that it censures. Could both have a point?
It’s important to fling away a red herring at the start: namely, the claim that Kathryn Stone, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, is responsible for Paterson’s proposed suspension from the Commons for 30 days.
Whatever might be said of the Commissioner – clearly plenty – she has no power to suspend anyone from anything. She can only make a recommendation to the committee, which has a majority of MPs as members, four of whom are Conservatives: Andy Carter, Alberto Costa, Mark Fletcher and Bernard Jenkin (who, as a friend of Paterson, recused himself from the report).
Blame the committee, if you like, for rubber-stamping Stone’s findings. Or praise it for backing her up. But, either way, pin responsibility for its recommendations where it belongs.
So, to the report itself. The committee says that Paterson breached Commons rules against paid advocacy. Paterson’s replies that he was using a whistle-blowing provision under which, in exceptional cases, an MP can make representations to Ministers and officials if there has been “serious wrong or substantial injustice”, even if he also has an interest as a paid advocate.
Logic is on Paterson’s side. Why, he argues, does the committee accept that the first approach to government that he made was covered by the provision, but follow-up ones, as he sees them, not covered?
But sense may be on the Committee’s. Paterson made three approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Randox, a client; seven approaches to it relating to Lynn’s Country Foods, another client; and four to Ministers at the Department for International Development relating to Randox. There is a point at which the balance of an approach can tilt from public welfare to private interest.
The Committee argues that Paterson crossed it – for example, in writing to FSA officials that it should “liaise with Randox and discuss further how their latest technologies might help on grain and meat”.
Next, the process – and the presumption behind it, which is that MPs shouldn’t act as paid advocates. The bar on them doing so goes back to the “sleaze” of the Major years and the Nolan Report that followed, the inheritance of which includes the Commissioner, the committee, the separate Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Nolan Principles.
A Parliamentary purist might say that the ban is absurd. Why, he might say, should Paterson be barred from making representations, whether he had a paid interest or not – especially if people will benefit as a result?
(For Paterson’s case is founded on his aim having been to protect the public in Northern Ireland from concealed, banned and carcinogenic substances in some milk and meat products; that he set up the Milk Quality Forum to further this aim, and that “both the Chief Vet and representatives of the National Milk Laboratory confirm that I have improved milk safety”. The committee doesn’t contest this view.)
Meanwhile, the opposite of a Parliamentary purist, whatever that is, could say that what’s really absurd is MPs sitting in judgement on each other in the first place.
But even if one believes that only MPs can rule on each other, if we’re to have Parliamentary government, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the process under which Paterson was judged was fair. His supporters claim that the Commissioner acted contrary to natural justice, unfairly, abnormally and in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The committee replies that Paterson had “extensive opportunities to provide evidence and to respond fully to the allegations against him”, including a meeting with the Commissioner (though, note, at his request) and an oral evidence session with the committee.
What to make of all this? My take is that, while the process is inquisitorial rather than adversarial, and though I can’t remember organised protests from Conservative MPs when Iain Paisley was also sanctioned for 30 sitting days, it doesn’t follow that an inquisitorial process should exclude oral evidence sessions with the Commissioner herself, the person investigated, and witnesses, as was the case here.
Paterson offered 17 of the latter. None were called. All in all, the smoke clears to reveal a flawed process and harsh sanction, given the context: which is that Paterson evidently did the people of Northern Ireland a service.
The Paisley case helps to set out the context of the Paterson one more fully. The sanction left him vulnerable to a recall petition – since an MP can face one if suspended from the Commons, “following report and recommended sanction from the Committee”, for “at least 10 sitting days”.
Paisley didn’t face one in the end, because the petition didn’t gain the signatures of ten per cent of his constituents. That’s the trigger at which his North Antrim consituency would have been declared vacant. A by-election would then have taken place.
So there is more to this week’s vote on Paterson’s suspension than might at first meet the eye. This story began with the Guardian reporting that he might have broken Parliamentary rules. It could finish with his career ending with a successful recall petition and a by-election loss for the Conservatives, whether or not he is their candidate.
And in between the Guardian story and the committee’s report has come the harrowing suicide of Paterson’s wife, Rose. He says now that the whole affair was a factor in her death. (Read our interview with him about the Rose Paterson Trust here.)
MPs will vote on the committee’s recommendation on Wednesday. It would be no slight to it were they to conclude before doing so that the post-Major arrangements, initiated in the mid-1990s, and the right to recall, legislated for in 2015, have got tangled up.
The latter is at once too lax and too tight. It’s too lax, in that constituents are only able to initiate a recall ballot if their MP has either committed certain criminal offences or been suspended for at least ten sitting days. If there is to be a right to recall, constituents should have wider opportunities to trigger a ballot, as Zac Goldsmith wrote on this site at the time.
It’s also too tight, in that the signatures of a mere ten per cent of eligible registered voters are required. The 90 per cent who haven’t signed may take a different view.
For the fact is that lots of people dislike the by-products of by-elections: the media jamboree, the door-knocking, the rising tide of “winning here” leaflets. Some who have canvassed in them will remember the taped-up letterboxes and handwritten signs pleading no canvassers (or advertising the presence in the home of a large dog).
It isn’t clear as I write whether the vote will be whipped, either officially or unofficially; or whether the motion suggesting a 30 day suspension will be amended.
But either way, the sensible course to take would be not to suspend anyone or anything until the right to recall and the investigations process are in better order. If, say, a quarter or a third of Paterson’s constituents want to recall him, they should have the right to trigger a ballot, regardless of what a Parliamentary committee may rule. And the same should apply to every other MP.
Donations to the Rose Paterson Trust can be made via this link.