Sunday, January 16, 2022

Boris backs Tory push to scrap sleaze watchdog after ex-minister’s lobbying sanction

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Boris Johnson
The prime minister supports overhauling the standards process which investigated him earlier this year (Picture: PA)

Boris Johnson’s government looks set to support a move to abolish the House of Commons standards watchdog and block the suspension of a Tory MP.

The prime minister was himself investigated by the commissioner earlier this year – and a senior Tory MP has admitted the move ‘looks terrible’.

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Owen Paterson is facing a 30-day ban from Parliament, a sanction which would leave him facing a recall petition and a by-election.

He was found to have lobbied on behalf of two companies paying him more than £100,000 a year by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

The cross-party panel accused him of an ‘egregious’ breach and recommended MPs approve a ban, a process which is usually a formality.

The 65-year-old, who has represented North Shropshire since 1997, strenuously denies any wrongdoing.

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He has also claimed the stress created by the long-running investigation may have contributed to his wife’s suicide in June 2020.

Former cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom has proposed an amendment to the vote on Mr Paterson’s suspension which would disband the standards panel and shelve the proposed punishment.

The amendment would set up a new watchdog, which would be able to review Mr Paterson’s case and reform how sleaze investigations are handled.

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Boris Johnson has backed the change and Tory MPs have reportedly been ordered to vote in favour of it, prompting Labour to compare the PM to Donald Trump.

A damning report into the activities of Owen Paterson has prompted a pushback after Tory MPs claimed the process is unfair and does not allow for appeals (Picture: PA)

My Johnson said he supported the move in the Commons after Downing Street confirmed reports ministers could get behind the backbench motion.

A Number 10 spokesperson had earlier cited the need for a wider appeals process and insisted the change is about ‘providing MPs from all political parties with the right to a fair hearing’.

Mr Johnson was himself investigated by the commissioner over who paid for his New Year 2020 holiday in the Caribbean but avoided any sanction.

Bernard Jenkin, a senior Tory MP backing the bid, admitted to the BBC: ‘This looks terrible, we’ve had a bad system for years and years and years. I just see this as an opportunity to fix it.

‘We’re not letting Owen Paterson off, we’re not exonerating him, we’re not condoning him, we’re going to put his case in front of a proper judicial-style panel where there can be a proper hearing and proper cross-examination of witnesses and natural justice.’

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone found Mr Paterson repeatedly lobbied on behalf of two companies for which he was acting as a paid consultant – Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods.

epa09419079 A handout photo made available by the UK Parliament shows British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a debate on the Afghanistan crisis, in the House of Commons in London, Britain, 18 August 2021. Prime Minister Johnson had recalled parliament from recess to discuss the ongoing situation in Afghanistan. EPA/UK Parliament / Roger Harris HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
The amendment to overhaul the standards process was launched from the backbenches but has won government support (Picture: EPA)

The damning report concluded: ‘The breaches, taken together, reflect a pattern of behaviour where Mr Paterson failed to observe a clear boundary between his outside commercial work and his parliamentary activities. 

‘No previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of confusion between the private and public interest.’

She accused Mr Paterson of making ‘serious, personal, and unsubstantiated allegations against the integrity of the commissioner and her team’.

The shadow foreign secretary has described the government’s attempt to save Tory MP Owen Paterson from suspension in the House of Commons as ‘the most appalling double standards’.

Outlining her response to Andrea Leadsom’s amendment, Lisa Nandy told Sky News: ‘The problem for Owen Paterson, for Andrea Leadsom and for all these Tories and, including now, it appears, the prime minister, who was saying that they don’t want the system to apply, is that it is one rule for everybody else and another rule for them. That’s just simply unacceptable.’

She added: ‘Owen Patterson has had three chances to make his case. Nobody is disputing the fact that he broke the rules and there has to be sanctions for that.

‘It matters. It matters to trust in politics, it matters to trust in government, and what the government is doing at the moment is undermining that.’

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