“Stretching credulity” Commons watchdog’s responses to embattled politician’s claims

He convinced the government and some backbenchers, does he convince you? – Owl

Aubrey Allegretti www.theguardian.com 

At the final hour the Tory MP Owen Paterson escaped an immediate 30-day suspension from the House of Commons for an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules, and avoided a possible byelection.

He convinced the government and some fellow backbenchers to vote to spare him from the sanction, which was recommended by the standards committee watchdog, and to instead refer his case to a new committee chaired by a Conservative former cabinet minister, John Whittingdale.

Although Paterson, the MP for North Shropshire, protested his innocence, several of those who backed reform of the standards system still believe he broke the rules and should be punished. It will now be up to the new committee to assess the evidence and make recommendations about what should happen to him.

Here are the claims Paterson made, along with analysis of how they stack up.

Paterson’s claim: He made approaches to government bodies about two firms, Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods, which employed him as a consultant. The MP said he was acting as a whistleblower in raising concerns about milk and pork standards and that this meant he could claim an exemption from the rules regarding paid advocacy because he was raising a “serious wrong”.

Watchdog response: While this excuse would have been permissible for an initial approach, Patterson’s investigators said it did not cover his follow-up letters and meetings. “What might have been permissible in a single exceptional case, became Paterson’s standard practice,” said the standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, adding that 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 Paterson may have persuaded himself he is in the right.”

The committee agreed. It said Paterson’s follow-up approaches “sought to promote Randox products” by praising their “superior technology” and that he promoted other unrelated products from the company. “These were all attempts to confer a benefit on Randox, to whom he was a paid consultant,” it found. “At best, Paterson was relying on an exemption he thought probably existed but of whose terms he was unsure. At worst, Paterson was knowingly in breach of the lobbying rules.”

The committee also agreed that Paterson’s attempts to get one of Lynn’s Country Foods’ competitors to relabel their product so as not to compete with Lynn’s own nitrite-free goods, as well his asking for this to be promoted in the press, was not incidental.

Paterson was paid more than £100,000 for his work for Randox and Lynn’s, and the committee was clear. “The paid advocacy rule does not distinguish between lobbying for good causes and lobbying for bad causes. It only applies to lobbying for reward or consideration.” It added that Paterson “went beyond presenting evidence of a serious wrong” in his follow-up approaches to the Food Standards Agency about milk testing.

Paterson’s claim: Paterson said the investigation against him was biased because the commissioner did not interview 17 witnesses who wanted to defend him and provide testimony about what was discussed at various meetings.

Watchdog response: The 17 witnesses provided written statements, which the standards committee said they received and read. However, the committee said that they “do not see what further relevant information could usefully be gleaned by inviting oral evidence from the witnesses concerned”.

Paterson claimed the witnesses would testify that his intentions were good. But the committee said “subjective motivation is not the test under the lobbying rules” and that seven of the 14 approaches found to be in breach of paid advocacy rules were emails or letters from Paterson personally, meaning oral evidence from those who supported him was unlikely to materially alter its conclusions.

Paterson’s claim: His only admission of wrongdoing was having written two letters on Commons-headed taxpayer-funded notepaper. But the major misuse of facilities he denied was hosting meetings in his parliamentary office 16 times between October 2016 and February 2020. He admitted holding the meetings but said the use of his office was “occasional”, and whips told MPs to remain on the estate because parliamentary business at that time was unpredictable.

Watchdog response: It came down to a matter of interpretation but the committee said the number of meetings clearly “went beyond the latitude normally afforded under the rules”. Paterson claimed he “kept his commercial interests entirely separate from his parliamentary activities” but the committee said he should not have used his parliamentary office to conduct business meetings with his paying clients, and that it was trying to take a proportionate and consistent approach with previous rulings on similar issues.

Paterson’s claim: Paterson said the “manner” of the standards commissioner’s pursuit of the inquiry played a major role in driving his wife, Rose, to take her own life last summer at the age of 63.

Watchdog response: While this was his belief, the committee called it an “unsubstantiated, serious and personal” allegation against the integrity of the commissioner and her team, who were unable to respond publicly.

Sleaze – it’s more than just the Patterson case

Is worry over future inquiries driving PM to change watchdog?

Three times Boris Johnson has been investigated by the Commons’ standards watchdog, which is more than any other UK MP in the last three years.

Rowena Mason www.theguardian.com 

And now the prime minister is facing a fourth possible inquiry by Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary standards commissioner, this time over the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment.

With a decision on a fresh investigation due within a matter of weeks, some are raising eyebrows about the timing of Johnson’s move to undermine and overhaul the whole standards system. Others are saying that the system is ripe for reform but it it needs to be stricter or to outlaw lobbying by MPs altogether.

Ostensibly, the Tory plan which emerged this week to introduce a new body for MPs to challenge decisions by the standards committee is to save Owen Paterson’s bacon. The veteran backbencher was facing 30 days suspension from parliament for lobbying government bodies on behalf of firms which paid him more than £100,000 – as revealed by the Guardian two years ago.

No 10 argues that the plan is simply about trying to create a fair system which allows an MP the right of appeal.

But one Tory MP believed the motivation for a shake-up was worry in Downing Street about further standards investigations coming down the track – particularly potential inquiries into lobbying over the award of Covid contracts, and into the prime minister’s loans from a Tory donor for the redecoration of his flat at No 11 Downing Street.

For years there have been warnings that the government has been going in the wrong direction when it comes to tackling inappropriate lobbying and transparency standards, all issues associated with the whiff of corruption and “Tory sleaze”.

As recently as Monday a report by the committee on standards in public life, led by the former spy chief Jonathan Evans, argued that sweeping changes to the system were needed, particularly when it came to oversight of ministers’ behaviour and lobbying by those formerly in power.

The report did not make any recommendations on the standards system for MPs, which is widely seen as imperfect but relatively effective, even though some would like to see the rules tightened further to ban parliamentarians’ second jobs altogether.

Paid advocacy by MPs has been banned in some form or other since 1695, according to Chris Bryant, chair of the standards committee. The ban on direct lobbying was formalised after the cash for questions scandals of the 1990s. The standards commissioner and the standards committee of MPs and independent members, have repeatedly enforced those rules when breaches, such as in the case of Paterson, have been brought to their attention.

But even with the prohibition in place, MPs can legitimately have second jobs advising companies on politics and policy. As an example of the revolving door, Sajid Javid, now the health secretary, was paid £150,000 a year by the investment bank JP Morgan shortly after leaving office as chancellor of the exchequer.

The list of Tories, in particular, with second jobs in areas of their policy expertise is long, with many former ministers now working in the sectors they used to govern. Some advise hotel chains, investment companies, property developers; one link is with a gambling firm.

The fine print also allows some wriggle room. MPs can engage in lobbying if it is “six months after the reward or consideration was received”. They are not allowed to speak in the Commons, make approaches to ministers, vote, or initiate parliamentary proceedings, in return for direct payment in cash or kind.

However, they are allowed to participate in parliamentary proceedings and conversations with ministers that would financially benefit their client as long as they did not start the interaction, the interest is declared and is not for the sole benefit of their client.

Former ministers and public officials can also engage in lobbying just two years after leaving office, under the rules of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba). In practice, some are suspected of doing so under the radar before then, since the watchdog for enforcing lobbying prohibitions has no power to sanction them.

The Greensill scandal, in which the former prime minister David Cameron pestered senior ministers for favours on behalf of his new employer, the supply chain financier Greensill Capital, shows the extent to which intensive lobbying is still permitted. An official parliamentary inquiry found Cameron showed a “significant lack of judgment” but did not breach lobbying rules.

While scandals about lobbying and financial interests of politicians are nothing new, a number of experts, academics – and some MPs themselves – believe standards are being further eroded under the present government. Bryant warned that the public “will think we are the parliament that sanctioned cash for questions”.

Robert Barrington, professor at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, at the University of Sussex and a former government adviser, said on Wednesday that the Paterson case only “illustrates the crisis of standards that is currently undermining democracy in the UK”.

He concluded: “[It is] hard to avoid the conclusion that there is an effort to change the rules when it suits, with arguments based solely on party or tribal loyalty and not any basis of principles or standards. Perhaps that is the luxury of an 80-seat majority.”

Daniel Bruce, chief executive of Transparency International, also said the “direction of travel” had to change in light of recent cases where the prime minister and government had overridden decisions by standards bodies.

Bruce said: “Coming into this year we have a vacuum of oversight on the ministerial code after the Priti Patel [bullying] case when the independent adviser resigned. We’ve had the commission on the appointments to the upper house overruled by the prime minister when the commissioner took a view that a Conservative donor should not get a peerage. We’ve got this woefully inadequate picture of lobbying of the government. We’ve got a decade of decline in FoI [freedom of information] requests being granted in full. Those are four very concerning areas.

“And yet what do we have this week? We now have government-backed attempts to dismantle a system of oversight set up in the height of 1990s sleaze and further strengthened after the MPs expenses saga of 2009 … The very obvious timing of this proposed review to suspend a suspension suggests this is very partisan.”

Bruce said Transparency International had monitored suspected breaches of parliamentary conduct rules and the ministerial code, finding 30 breaches that were not investigated or where no action was taken in 2020.

“The number of cases where questionable behaviour goes un-investigated has intensified in the last few years under this current administration,” he said. “That is the concern, and I await with keen interest the government’s full response to the committee on standards report because as far as I am concerned there is no turning away from that.”

Rising sea levels would flood major towns

As global leaders discuss tackling climate change at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, a map shows how rising sea levels could change the shape of Devon’s coastlines forever.

Edward Oldfield www.devonlive.com

The map produced by Climate Central using the latest sea level predictions shows the land which would be below the annual flood level in 2050.

The projections do not take into coast and river defences, which are designed to hold back the waters to protect homes and businesses.

The map shows how an expected increase in the sea level of up to 29cm (11 inches) over the next 30 years could see unprotected land underwater from flooding. It shows how the sea could inundate low-lying coastal areas, and the vital importance of defences to protect homes and businesses.

Low-lying areas of the Devon coast are particularly at risk from tidal flooding, and an increase in storms from climate change could also speed up erosion. Changing weather patterns are seeing more rainfall, which increases the flood risk from rivers.

Coastal features including Northam Burrows near Bideford, and Dawlish Warren, could be at risk from extreme weather, as both appear below the predicted annual flood level for 2050.

The government is funding a series of schemes across Devon as part of a new £5.2billion six-year programme of investment in flood and coastal defences announced in July to protect the most at-risk properties, doubling the amount spent in the previous six years.

Key flood defence schemes include a completed £32million scheme alongside the River Exe at Exeter, and plans for a flood wall along the seafront at Paignton and Preston on the south Devon coast. The effect of storms has already been widely seen, including a major breach of the railway line at Dawlish in 2014, and the main A379 road partly washed away at Slapton in 2018.

The government has set out a strategy to reach Net Zero by 2050 – the point when the output of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming like carbon dioxide is reduced and equals the measures to take them out of the atmosphere.

Around Devon, the Climate Centre map shows that along the coast and estuaries, the land including roads and beaches would be below the 2050 annual flood level.

The map uses the latest predictions of global future sea levels agreed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, released in August.

Totnes

The map shows land alongside the River Dart which would be below the annual flood level by 2050.

Slapton

The red area shows the land forecast to be below the annual flood level in 2050, including the stretch of the A379 coast road.

Dawlish and Exmouth

The red area includes most of Dawlish Warren, a sandy headland in the mouth of the River Exe, where a £14million beach management scheme to strengthen defences has been carried out. The map also shows the parts of Exmouth at risk from flooding, which have been protected by a recent £12million tidal defence scheme.

Exeter

Low-lying land alongside the River Exe and estuary is at risk, as is land alongside the River Clyst. Recent flood defence works have taken place to protect homes and businesses from river flooding at Exeter and Clyst St Mary. A tidal defence scheme is in development for Topsham, and repairs planned at Bowling Green Marsh.

Newton Abbot

Large areas of land alongside the River Teign are forecast to be at risk from flooding, including Newton Abbot racecourse.

Torquay

Torquay seafront already sees flooding at some high tides, particularly the low-lying land in front of Torre Abbey, and parts including Princess Gardens are on land reclaimed from the sea.

Paignton

Plans are being drawn up for a new sea wall to protect the low-lying town centre from predicted flooding due to rising sea levels.

Teignmouth

Sitting at the mouth of the River Teign, stretches of the estuaryside are predicted to be below the annual flood level by 2050.

Budleigh Salterton

Land alongside the River Otter experiences flooding, and a £15million project is underway to restore the flood plain, allowing the land to flood naturally.

Barnstaple and Bideford

The estuaries of the Taw and Torridge feature on the map where land is predicted to be below the 2050 annual flood level, including Northam Burrows, a sandy headland in the mouth of the estuary. A tidal flood scheme is in development at Bideford, and a defence scheme is being drawn up at Westward Ho!

Dartmouth

The River Dart is forecast to see riverside land below the annual flood level, including parts of the town centre nearest the water.

What is Cop26 Glasgow all about?

The UK Environment Agency says the impact of global warming and climate change is expected to result in the sea level rising by up to 29cm around the UK over the next 30 years, as polar ice melts and seas expand. It warns if temperatures rise by 2 degrees C, the rise would be 45cm (18 inches) by the 2080s, or 78cm (31 inches) if the world heats up by more.

Aerial photo of Dawlish Warren at the mouth of the Exe Estuary, opposite Exmouth

Aerial photo of Dawlish Warren at the mouth of the Exe Estuary, opposite Exmouth (Image: Environment Agency)

120 world leaders have gathered in Glasgow for the Cop26 summit , with the goal reducing greenhouse gases to limit global warming to 1.5C, or at worst 2C, by 2100. But there is a warning that we are on track for 2.7C which the UN says would result in “climate catastrophe”.

In Glasgow, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Cop26 summit the world’s “addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink”. Pointing to melting glaciers, relentless extreme weather events, sea level rise and overheating oceans, he warned: “We are digging our own graves”.

Prime minister Boris Johnson warned of the dangers of rising temperatures, jeopardising food supplies for hundreds of millions of people, more wildfires and eventually the loss of whole cities such as Miami, Alexandria and Shanghai. “The longer we fail to act and the worse it gets and the higher the price when we are forced by catastrophe to act,” he said.

What does the Environment Agency say about climate change?

The Environment Agency says that adaptation – becoming resilient to the already inevitable effects of climate change – is just as important as actions to cut greenhouse gases.

It is a case of “adapt or die”, the Agency’s chairwoman Emma Howard Boyd said, warning that deadly events such as the flooding in Germany this summer would hit here if the country did not make itself resilient to the more violent weather the climate emergency was bringing.

In a report to the Government, the EA said climate change would exacerbate the pressure on England’s water environment, which is suffering from problems such as pollution and increased water demand, and make it harder to ensure clean and plentiful water.

The agency alone cannot protect everyone from increasing flood and coastal risks, and traditional flood defences will not be able to prevent all flooding and coastal erosion, the report said.

There will be more and worse environmental incidents, such as flooding, water shortages and pollution, regulation is not ready for climate change and the natural world cannot adapt as fast as the climate is changing, the EA said.

What is the government doing to build flood defences?

In July 2021, six months after the nation was battered by Storm Christoph, environment secretary George Eustice announced £5.2 billion of investment in a new six-year flood and coastal defence investment programme in England from for 2021 to 2027.

This will fund around 2,000 new defence schemes to better protect 336,000 properties. The investment is double the £2.6billion of the first six-year programme which ended in 2021, protecting more than 300,000 homes and businesses.

The programme includes 2,000 new defence projects, as well as maintaining existing schemes, and in total is predicted to avoid around £32billion of economic damage.

The report says: “The risks from flooding and coastal erosion are significant and continue to grow.”

It adds: “Flooding and coastal erosion can be devastating. As well as the potential for loss of life and damage to property, they can impact our businesses and livelihoods, and affect our health and wellbeing. The risks we face are significant and continue to grow.

“Climate change is leading to rising sea levels and warmer and wetter winters, together with an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as heavy rainfall, coastal erosion and landslips.”

Sleaze: How did your MP vote?

Before we get to that here is the Daily Mail comment:

Owen Paterson scandal is proof this overmighty government is content to twist rules www.dailymail.co.uk 

This where you can find how Simon Jupp MP and Neil Parish MP voted (one recorded no vote the other voted aye)

https://votes.parliament.uk/Votes/Commons/Division/1124#ayes

Here are their email addresses should you be inclined to give them your views on the subject.

simon.jupp.mp@parliament.uk

neil.parish.mp@parliament.uk

Sleazy does it

So we’re back in the Tory sleazy 90s. Remember Neil Hamilton?

His political downfall came in 1996, after the Guardian reported under the headlines “A liar and a cheat” that he had taken money in brown envelopes from Mohamed Al Fayed in the “cash-for-questions” scandal. His libel suit against the paper collapsed, leading to this infamous headline and his resignation from government. He went on to lose his Tatton seat to journalist Martin Bell in 1997’s general election.

Thirty years on:

5 Times MPs Angered The Public With Their ‘Sleazy’ Scandals

Kate Nicholson www.huffingtonpost.co.uk 

As Tories MPs have been accused of dragging politics back to the “worst of 1990s sleaze culture” with the latest controversy in parliament, here’s a glance back at some of the most jaw-dropping times MPs have breached the rules.

1. Paterson gets away with lobbying breach

Tory MP Owen Paterson divided Westminster after an inquiry found he had breached parliamentary lobby rules last week.

Paterson was accused of using his position as an MP to the benefit of two separate companies which paid him £100,000 a year to act as a consultant.

Paterson rejected the inquiry and said he was only mentioning safety benefits to other MPs – but the cross-party committee which organised the inquiry swept his protestations aside and claim there is a lot of evidence to suggest otherwise.

Then on Wednesday, MPs – most of whom were Tory – voted in parliament and rejected the committee’s suggestion he should be suspended for 30 days amid attempts to create a completely new watchdog for the MPs.

This has caused widespread controversy, with Labour calling it a return to the worst of the “sleaze” seen in the 90s.

2. Ongoing cronyism

Matt Hancock, then health secretary, was found to have acted unlawfully after of not disclosing the full details of the contracts signed during the Covid pandemic in 2020.

He also broke ministerial code by failing to declare that he had a stake in a family company which won a Covid contract.

Similarly, Michael Gove was found in 2021 to have acted unlawfully when he awarded a contract to a polling company run by one of his associates.

Neither minister left cabinet after such details were revealed.

Contracts worth close to £3.5 billion have been awarded firms with links to the Tory Party, according to Labour.

3. One rule for the public, another for us

Hancock did actually resign after The Sun published security camera photographs capturing the then health secretary kissing one of his married aides in an office in 2021.

While the affair alone stunned the public, it was actually the flouting of the social distancing rules which Hancock himself had advocated for which ground everyone’s gears. Even so, the prime minister did not fire Hancock – he stepped down on his own accord in June this year.

Boris Johnson has recently faced further accusations that he has not followed his own rules after it was claimed that his friend, Nimco Ali, spent Christmas with him last year when mixing was not permitted between households.

However, Downing Street defended the prime minister and said she was part of Johnson’s “childcare bubble”.

4. Expenses scandal

The expenses’ scandal of 2009 saw MPs claim money on a range of ridiculous items which stunned the nation, but many of them did lose their jobs when their claims were revealed.

Sir Peter Viggers, for instance, was paid more than £30,000 for gardening expenses across three years – he admitted claiming £1,645 for a ‘duck island’ alone alone and put in claims for 28 tonnes of manure.

He was told to step down when the revelations came to light.

Another Tory MP Anthony Steen also stood down after claiming the cost of a forestry specialist to inspect 500 trees on his estate.

Senior Tory MP Bill Cash claimed more than £15,000 in expenses to cover his daughter’s rent for her London flat while Labour MP Rosie Winterton tried to put in a triple-digit claim for soundproofing her bedroom – the list went on and on and left the country furious.

5. Robert Jenrick and the planning row

Former housing secretary Robert Jenrick faced calls to resign after he was found to have been involved in a controversial £1 billion development led by a Conservative Party donor.

Jenrick went against the recommendations of a planning inspector and approved the building of 1,500-home development in the Isle of Dogs –  even though the local council had also rejected the idea because it did not include enough affordable house.

He did not resign but was pushed out of the role in Boris Johnson’s recent cabinet reshuffle.