Home » The Owen Paterson affair is damaging public trust in Parliament
Comment Matthew Paul

The Owen Paterson affair is damaging public trust in Parliament

However destructive Guido Fawkes’ intentions when concealing thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in an undercroft beneath the Houses of Parliament, he ended up doing the institutions of our democracy no harm at all.

Where Fawkes failed, Boris Johnson may yet succeed. In the run up to this year’s commemoration of gunpowder, treason and plot, Boris let off a bomb under the House of Commons that could prove more damaging. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister ordered his MPs to let Owen Paterson MP off a 30-day suspension. The Standards Commissioner, Kathryn Stone had recommended this sanction as Paterson’s punishment for an ‘egregious’ breach of the prohibition on paid advocacy.

Debating the suspension, some Conservatives claimed that the process of Paterson’s investigation was unfair or even rigged. Kathryn Stone was slated as a Labour stooge. The suspension would be put on hold while a new disciplinary system (coincidentally with a Tory-dominated and Tory-led committee) was put in place.

To observe that this gambit was poorly received outside Paterson’s immediate circle of friends is understating the matter a bit. Parliament –the bits of it that weren’t biting their tongues and doing what Boris ordered– cried ‘Shame!’. The press responded with a degree of vitriol traditionally reserved for French trawler captains.

Does Boris have a point about Parliament’s disciplinary system being flawed? Put yourself, for a moment, in Paterson’s position. You are facing an investigation where the prosecutor and the judge are the same person. You have no right of appeal against the judge’s decision. You can’t challenge any conclusion in the judge’s report by asking the High Court to judicially review it. And before even looking at the evidence, the judge says he thinks you’re guilty.

Sound fair? Probably not. And there is a certain amount of sympathy for Owen Paterson on the Tory benches. The Commissioner’s investigation dragged on for nearly two years (some of this delay was at Paterson’s request). Paterson’s wife killed herself, and he believes that the stress of the investigation was a significant cause of the distress that led her to do it.

The problem is that Owen Paterson does look just a tiny bit guilty, in much the same way that beagle puppies next to shredded furniture look guilty.

Randox Laboratories, a company based in Northern Ireland which deals in analytical and testing technology, pays Paterson a hundred thousand pounds a year for –what? Being as generous as one can, Owen Paterson doesn’t have a reputation as one of Parliament’s biggest hitters. Neither his history degree nor his experience of managing the family’s leather tannery afford him much insight into Randox’s areas of specialisation.

The assumption Paterson’s detractors leapt to is that Randox are paying Paterson to project influence on their behalf into the corridors and committee rooms of Whitehall. That is what lobbyists are usually paid for. And when Paterson emailed Food Standards Agency officials on 16 November 2016, promoting ‘Randox’s superior technology’, reminding them that they were ‘interested in using the Randox technology within the FSA’, and inviting them to ‘liaise with Randox and discuss further how their latest technologies might help on grain and meat’, that is exactly what Kathryn Stone’s investigation concluded that he was doing.

This, and another intervention to the FSA on behalf of a food processing firm that pays him £500 an hour for –what? was slammed in Stone’s report as a clear and serious breach of Parliament’s rules on paid advocacy. ‘No previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of confusion between the private and public interest.’

Paterson doggedly maintains that he has done nothing wrong. Interviewed on Wednesday evening after his apparent reprieve, he said he was only acting to protect the public from unsafe food, and would do exactly the same again. He believes that he was stitched up by a kangaroo court, where Stone was judge, jury and executioner.

Owen Paterson’s stay of execution didn’t last long. Seeing the front page of Thursday’s Daily Mail (and the near-universal public excoriation of the decision to pardon Paterson), No. 10 went into a flat spin. Labour had a field day, chucking the word ‘sleaze’ –Kryptonite to John Major’s government in the mid-nineties– around at every opportunity.

Poor Kwasi Kwarteng was sent like a sacrificial lamb into BBC studios to defend the decision, only to find –immediately after his round of car-crash interviews– that Boris had changed his mind. Paterson is back in the soup, and any changes to Parliament’s disciplinary processes will only be agreed on a cross-party basis.

The case against Paterson must not simply be dropped. If he’s guilty, he deserves a sanction at least as serious as the one Stock recommended. Undeclared paid lobbying fundamentally undermines the integrity of Parliament and shatters public faith in the democratic process. Indeed, it’s hard to see why the practice of allowing MPs to be retained as paid corporate lobbyists –declared or undeclared– should be permitted at all.

At the same time, the disciplinary procedure that convicted Paterson does not meet a gold standard of fairness. Owen Paterson’s case should never have become the casus belli for this reform, but it is right for Parliament to look to see if the system could be improved. Heads need to be bashed together in the Commons, to demonstrate that this is not just a shabby stitch-up to get a guilty man off the hook.