“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.

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