Politics

Tory MP Owen Paterson faces 30-day suspension for 'egregious' breach of Commons rules



A Tory MP looks set to be suspended from the House of Commons over “egregious” breaches of ethics rules.

A standards report found Owen Paterson repeatedly used his position as an MP to promote two companies that paid him a combined £112,000 a year.

The former Environment Secretary breached four separate parts of the MPs’ code of conduct and brought the House of Commons “into disrepute”, the Commons Standards Committee found.

The breaches are so serious they caused “significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole”, the report added.

Despite the mitigating factor of his wife’s tragic suicide in June 2020, the Committee recommended a 30-sitting-day suspension – which due to Commons calendars can run to several months.

The report found Mr Paterson made several approaches to the Food Standards Agency regarding Randox, a clinical diagnostics firm, and meat firm Lynn’s Country Foods. Randox paid him £100,000 a year while Lynn’s paid him £12,000 a year.

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Mr Paterson sought to implicate the way the probe was run in his wife Rose’s tragic suicide last year
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Image:

Alan Davidson/REX/Shutterstock)



Mr Paterson – who declared the payments on the MPs’ register of interests – has vehemently denied wrongdoing after the probe, which began in October 2019.

He insisted most of his approaches were allowed under rules that let MPs approach public officials to highlight a “serious wrong or substantial injustice”. He said these included identifying antibiotics in milk, nitrites in bacon and concerns over the calibration of lab equipment.

He sought to implicate the probe in his wife’s suicide, saying: “We will never know definitively what drove her to suicide, but the manner in which this investigation was conducted undoubtedly played a major role.

“Rose would ask me despairingly every weekend about the progress of the inquiry, convinced that the investigation would go to any lengths to somehow find me in the wrong.

“The longer the investigation went on and the more the questions went further and further from the original accusations, the more her anxiety increased.”

But the scathing report said: “No previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of confusion between the private and public interest.”

The Committee said it had addressed and rejected each of Mr Paterson’s arguments about how the inquiry was run. It added only one approach to the FSA in 2016 fell within the serious wrong exemption.




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The report found 14 approaches by Mr Paterson in total were in breach of rules on “paid advocacy”, which it said “has long been banned”.

It added: “It stretches credulity to suggest that 14 approaches to Ministers and public officials were all attempts to avert a serious wrong rather than to favour Randox and Lynn’s, however much Mr Paterson may have persuaded himself he is in the right.”

In one email to FSA officials on 16 November 2016, he said Randox’s “superior technology” on testing had uncovered “shocking” levels of antibiotics in milk.

The Committee found that even though his initial approaches to the FSA on the antibiotics issue were within the rules, this email was a breach because the phrase “superior technology” “sought to confer benefits” on the testing firm.

The report said: “There may have been no financial benefit to Randox arising immediately from his approaches, but Mr Paterson sought assistance with accreditation for Randox’s technology; he promoted other, unrelated, Randox technologies; and he sought to promote Randox testing by government agencies.








Mr Paterson told FSA officials Randox’s “superior technology” on testing had uncovered “shocking” levels of antibiotics in milk
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REUTERS)



“These were all attempts to confer a benefit on Randox, to whom he was a paid consultant.”

In another e-mail to the FSA on 15 November 2017, he highlighted claims that a global food producer was breaching EU law by mislabelling a product.

Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone found: “Had these approaches been successful, a competitor product would have been removed from the UK market, or relabelled, with consumer choice and sales of “clean label” bacon being directed towards Lynn’s new product.”

Mr Paterson hit back: “This was of no benefit whatsoever to Lynn’s whose primary product range is bacon and sausages. The Commissioner, without any evidence whatsoever, asserts that I was seeking to clear a competitor’s product to benefit Lynn’s. Not only is there no evidence of this, it is with the greatest respect a figment of the Commissioner’s imagination and not based on any facts whatsoever.”

But the final report today backed Ms Stone and ruled Lynn’s “did stand to benefit directly from his approach”.

In total, the report said the breaches of the Code of Conduct were as follows:

  • Mr Paterson made three approaches to the FSA on Randox and antibiotics in milk in 2016 and 2017 – breaching paragraph 11, which says MPs must not be a “paid advocate” in Parliament.
  • He made seven approaches to the FSA regarding Lynn’s Country Foods in 2017 and 2018, breaching paragraph 11.
  • He made four approaches to Department for International Development ministers relating to Randox and blood testing technology in 2016 and 2017, breaching paragraph 11.
  • Mr Paterson failed to declare his interest as a paid consultant to Lynn’s in four emails to FSA officials between 2016 and 2018, breaching paragraph 13 which says MPs must “openly and frankly” draw attention to financial interests.
  • He used his parliamentary office for meetings with clients between 2016 and 2020, and sent two letters relating to his business interests in 2016 and 2017 on Commons notepaper – breaching paragraph 15, which says public resources can only be used for “parliamentary duties”. Mr Paterson apologised for a breach in sending the two letters on headed notepaper, but insisted he had not breached the code in any other respect.
  • Finally, he breached paragraph 16 of the Code because his actions caused “significant damage” to the reputation of the House of Commons overall.

The report went on: “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.”

Mr Paterson issued a 1,458-word statement defending his actions and condemning how the “tortuous and inadequate” report was put together by the Commons Standards Commissioner.

He said the Commissioner “didn’t speak to me until after she had made up her mind”, which was “a biased process and not fair”.

He said: “I raised serious issues of food contaminated with unlawful carcinogenic substances, to protect the public. I did not gain any benefit, financial or otherwise, either for myself or for either of the two companies that I advise. Neither has any evidence of gain by those companies been suggested.”

He added: “I reject completely the findings of the Committee for Parliamentary Standards. The methods of the investigation do not create a just and fair outcome.

“Most importantly, not one of my 17 witnesses have been interviewed during the course of the investigation despite the passage of 24 months – not by the Commissioner, and not by the Committee.

“These highly reputable and reliable witnesses are the very people who say I am not guilty. What court, what work-place investigation, would ignore such evidence and call its procedures fair?”

The Standards Committee report said: “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.”


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