Owen Paterson: Minister defends U-turn over MP’s conduct probe

A cabinet minister has apologised for the government’s botched attempt to rewrite MPs’ conduct rules.

No 10 initially backed an overhaul of the system, alongside blocking the suspension of Tory MP Owen Paterson for breaking lobbying rules.

But it later made a dramatic U-turn, amid an outcry from opposition MPs and some Tories.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said backtracking on the “mistake” was the “grown-up thing to do”.

However, he said it was right for the government to continue with one part of its proposals – introducing a “right of appeal” for MPs under investigation.

He told the BBC that allowing MPs to formally appeal the published conclusions of the MPs’ standards watchdog “speaks to British values”.

Mr Zahawi also denied claims Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted the system changed to avoid an investigation into the redecoration of his Downing Street flat.

The row began after the government initially ordered its MPs to oppose a 30-day suspension for Mr Paterson and review the whole process of investigation.

The Commons Standards Committee had proposed the sanction after a damning inquiry by Parliament’s standards commissioner found he had misused his position as an MP to benefit two firms he worked for.

But after fierce criticism from opposition parties and some Conservative MPs, who refused to vote for the move, Downing Street backtracked, meaning Mr Paterson would face suspension after all.

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said there was anger among some Tories that they had been ordered to vote for the controversial plan only to see it dropped the following day, with one telling her it had “destroyed a lot of goodwill” with Downing Street.

After Thursday’s U-turn, Mr Paterson, who denies wrongdoing, announced he would stand down as MP for North Shropshire and seek a life “outside the cruel world of politics”.

He has insisted his approaches to ministers had been to alert them about defects in safety regulations, and that the probe into his behaviour was unfair.

Labour has confirmed it intends to stand a candidate in the by-election to replace him – after initially exploring the idea of teaming up with other opposition parties to back an “anti-sleaze” candidate in the contest.

Image source, PA Media

Speaking on Friday, Mr Zahawi said the government still wanted to change the standards system, but it had “made a mistake” in attempting to “conflate” this with Mr Paterson’s case.

He said the government now wanted to “separate those things out” and “do this properly”.

“To admit a mistake, I think, is the right thing to do, and the grown-up thing to do,” he added.

He insisted ministers would continue to put forward plans for a “fairer system” for investigating MPs, including giving them the right to appeal the watchdog’s findings.

However, it remains unclear whether opposition parties will collaborate with the government over its plans for reform.

Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats had all vowed to boycott a special committee Tory MPs had wanted to set up to conduct a review.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said Prime Minister Boris Johnson “must explain how he intends to fix the immense harm he has done to confidence in the probity of him and his MPs”.

Labour and the SNP have also insisted the Commissioner for Standards must be allowed to continue her work scrutinising other MPs.

And on Friday, Labour called for the commissioner to investigate whether the prime minister needs to declare a free holiday he received last month in the MPs’ register of interests.

On Thursday, Mr Johnson declared his stay at a Spanish villa owned by the family of Tory minister Lord Goldsmith in a separate list of ministers’ interests.

Image source, House of Commons

Mr Paterson has been a paid consultant for clinical diagnostics company Randox since 2015 and to meat distributor Lynn’s Country Foods since 2016, earning a total of £100,000 a year on top of his MP’s salary.

MPs are allowed to have these jobs, but are not allowed to be paid advocates – using their influence in Whitehall for the company’s gain.

The committee concluded that Mr Paterson had breached this rule on paid advocacy by:

Making three approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Randox and the testing of antibiotics in milk Making seven approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Lynn’s Country FoodsMaking four approaches to ministers at the Department for International Development relating to Randox and blood testing technology

Mr Paterson was also found to have broken conduct rules by:

Failing to declare his interest as a paid consultant to Lynn’s Country Foods in four emails to officials at the Food Standards AgencyUsing his parliamentary office on 16 occasions for business meetings with his clientsAnd in sending two letters relating to his business interests, on House of Commons headed notepaper

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