This article was written before Paterson resigned. The points it raises go far beyond the egregious failings of one MP – the Prime Minister’s fingerprints are clearly visible. Please read the article and write to your MP.
The phrase ‘paid lobbying’ sounds rather innocuous. It is not. An MP who accepts money to lobby for a wealthy donor is corrupt. MPs are elected to represent their constituents’ interests – that is their job – and if they are instead secretly representing the interests of their paymasters, they are not only failing to do that job but simultaneously corrupting the foundations of our democracy.
As we have previously written, corruption is difficult to prove: even if you find evidence of both bribe and payback, it is still hard to demonstrate that they are directly connected. That is why anti-corruption rules insist that those in positions of power must be seen not to be corrupt: they should be whiter than white.
As a safeguard to UK democracy, Parliament has an independent Standards Commissioner to make sure that our MPs will be whiter than white. And now we have a case which is testing that safeguard to breaking point:
- Owen Paterson broke the rules;
- His paymaster, Randox, received non-competitive contracts worth over one third of £1 billion, despite previous failures;
- Johnson is trying to rip up the safeguards.
Paterson broke the rules on paid lobbying
Owen Paterson, the Member of Parliament for Shropshire North, was found guilty by the independent Parliamentary Standards Commissioner of egregious breaches of the lobbying rules. Paterson convinced himself that he was innocent and made numerous accusations of improper process against the Commissioner.
The House of Commons Committee on Standards reviewed both the Commissioner’s findings and Paterson’s criticism of them. On Paterson’s claims that the commissioner’s investigation had been biased, the committee was forthright:
“Mr Paterson’s allegations seem to us to spring from incomprehension that the Commissioner could place an interpretation on the rules and the evidence which differed from his own. A Member is entitled to contest, even vigorously contest, the Commissioner’s interpretation of the rules and her findings. We do not mark down any Member for doing so. It is, however, completely unacceptable to make unsubstantiated, serious, and personal allegations against the integrity of the Commissioner and her team, who cannot respond publicly.”
And on the central issue, the Committee – a cross-party committee – concluded that not only had he broken the rules, but that if behaviour like his were routinely permitted, “the lobbying rules would be of little value.” In other words, he had been guilty of breaking the rules on paid lobbying and if such behaviour were permitted in future, UK MPs would, effectively, be for sale:
“Mr Paterson has an evident passion for dairy and farming matters, based on his undoubted expertise. We do not doubt that he sincerely believes that he has acted properly. Mr 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.
But it is this same conviction that meant that Mr Paterson failed to establish the proper boundaries between his private commercial work and his parliamentary activities, as set out in the Guide to the Rules. Mr Paterson told us multiple times in oral evidence before us that he was elected for his judgment, and that he judged that he was right to make the approaches he did. But no matter how far a Member considers that the private interest of a paying client coincides with the public interest, the lobbying rules rightly prohibit Members from initiating approaches or proceedings which could benefit that client. If such approaches were routinely permitted, the lobbying rules would be of little value.”
The Committee, having weighed up the severity of Paterson’s offences, recommended a 30-day suspension from Parliament:
“This is an egregious case of paid advocacy. Previous instances have led to suspensions of 18 days, 30 days and six months. Each of Mr Paterson’s several instances of paid advocacy would merit a suspension of several days, but the fact that he has repeatedly failed to perceive his conflict of interest and used his privileged position as a Member of Parliament to secure benefits for two companies for whom he was a paid consultant, is even more concerning. He has brought the House into disrepute. We therefore recommend that Mr Paterson be suspended from the service of the House for 30 sitting days.”
In simple terms, Paterson received £100,000 per annum for several years from his paymaster Randox (and smaller amounts from others), which he did not declare, and lobbied on their behalf to help them secure government contracts. The Commissioner and the Committee determined that this was an egregious breach of the rules and that he should be suspended.
Randox received £347m in non-competitive contracts
Paterson’s major paymaster was a company called Randox Laboratories. Randox received, in one contract alone, £346,500,000 (excluding VAT) without having to undergo a competitive tender. And this was an extension to a previous contract, in which Randox had not covered itself in glory. As The Guardian reported:
“The UK government has awarded a new £347m Covid-19 testing contract to Randox, the Tory-linked private healthcare company whose testing kits had to be recalled over the summer because of concerns about contamination. The deal is a six-month extension of an existing contract and was agreed without other companies being invited to bid.”
Randox is also under investigation for serious data manipulation offences in relation to processing of drug test results.
The potential for corruption in these ‘emergency’ contracts is something we have highlighted before and has cost the taxpayer many £ billions.
From the point of view of the paymaster, as we pointed out before, bribery can be an extremely good deal: the bribe may be only a tiny fraction of the payback. If this case is one of bribery, the ratio of payback to bribe would be around 1,000:1.
Johnson wants to rip up the scrutiny
Normal procedure in such cases is for the House to vote and confirm the Committee’s recommendation and for, in this case, Paterson to serve his 30-day suspension. But these are not normal times.
This simple motion is what would normally have been approved by the House:
Motion made and Question proposed, That this House— (1) approves the Third Report of the Committee on Standards (HC 797); (2) endorses the recommendation in paragraph 212; and (3) accordingly suspends Mr Owen Paterson from the service of the House for a period of thirty sitting days.
The government decided instead to support Paterson against the independent Commission and against the cross-party committee. Part of the reason may be that Johnson himself has been investigated – and found non-compliant, for example in failing to declare who paid for his holidays – already, and is due to be investigated again. The Paterson case gives him the opportunity to replace the current system, which is independent and is prepared to find against the government with one which is not. So Andrea Leadsom proposed an amendment which attacks the whole standards system:
No. 66 Votes and Proceedings: 3 November 2021 3
Amendment moved, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add—
“(1) notes the Third Report of the Committee on Standards (HC 797);
(2) notes concerns expressed about potential defects in the standards system and therefore declines to consider the report at this time;
(3) and resolves:
(a) that a Select Committee be appointed to consider and make recommendations by 3 February 2022 on the following matters:
(i) whether the current standards system should give Members of Parliament the same or similar rights as apply to those subject to investigations of alleged misconduct in other workplaces and professions, including the right of representation, examination of witness and appeal;
(ii) the extent to which the procedures under Standing Orders Nos. 149, 149A and 150 should be made consistent with the principles of natural justice;
(iii) whether the case against Mr Owen Paterson should be reviewed or whether the Third Report of the Committee on Standards (HC 797) should be reconsidered by the House;
(iv) and such other matters as appear to the Committee to be connected with the matters set out above”
The strength of Johnson’s feeling on this issue is such that when the vote was put to the House, the Conservative members were whipped (a 3-line whip), members of the government were told they would be sacked if they did not toe the line, and some MPs were told “they would lose funding for their constituency” if they failed to toe the line.
As a result, the amendment was carried: Ayes: 249; Noes: 232. Owen Paterson himself was one of those who voted for the amendment.
In fact, despite the whip, 13 Conservative MPs had the courage to vote against the amendment to protect our democracy from corruption. Their names are on this Roll of Honour.
All but one of the 249 whose votes make them complicit in corruption were Conservatives: their names are on the Roll of Dishonour.
As the Committee says, if behaviour like Paterson’s goes unpunished, the lobbying rules will be meaningless. We might as well allow MP’s to advertise their prices and accept that they represent their paymasters rather than their constituents.
The stakes are high – please write to your MP.
If they voted against the amendment, congratulate them (especially if they are Conservatives who defied the whip) for standing up for democracy and explaining how important you feel their action was.
If they supported the amendment, explain that you feel that this vote makes them complicit in legalising corruption and that you will not vote for them until they have found a way to drive a complete U-turn (including protecting the independence of the Commissioner). This website makes it easy for you to do that.
If you think you might like to help more generally, or just to keep informed, please do sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.