Boris Johnson backs Tory plan to rip up parliament sleaze system

Move marks “a return to the worst of the 1990s Tory sleaze culture”, says Labour

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 03 November 2021 14:18
For better or worse, the public’s perception of MPs is not much moved by recent scandals
For better or worse, the public’s perception of MPs is not much moved by recent scandals

Boris Johnson has confirmed he backs plans to rip up parliament’s procedures for punishing MP sleaze following a finding against Conservative former minister Owen Paterson, in a move which Labour said marked “a return to the worst of the 1990s Tory sleaze culture”..

Government whips are said to be telling Tory MPs to today vote against imposing a 30-day suspension on Owen Paterson by backing an amendment motion arguing the independent probe into his behaviour was flawed.

Mr Paterson was found to have committed an “egregious” breach of standards rules as he lobbied ministers and officials for two companies paying him more than £100,000 per year.

The move was denounced by anti-corruption academics who described it as consistent with the kind of “state capture” used by governments to undermine democratic checks and balances on their activities.

In a statement, 10 Downing Street said that Mr Johnson backs changes to the parliamentary system to create an appeals system for MPs who are found guilty of wrong-doing.

Under the current system, allegations are investigated by an independent Standards Commissioner, who reports to a 14-member Standards Commission made up of seven MPs and seven lay members. Any sanction against MPs found to have breached the rules must then be approved by the House of Commons.

But an amendment put forward by Tory MP Dame Andrea Leadsom ahead of a planned vote on the case today would see the creation of a new committee examining – among other issues – whether the findings against Mr Paterson should be reviewed.

As part of Dame Andrea’s proposals, MPs on a new Conservative-dominated committee led by former Tory minister John Whittingdale would examine whether the system should mirror misconduct probes in other workplaces – including the right of representation and the right of appeal.

The No 10 spokesperson confirmed that Mr Johnson backed the change, saying: “As in any normal workplace and all walks of life, people should be entitled to the right to appeal. This is sacrosanct in providing fairness and natural justice, and ensuring there is an opportunity to check due process and that the right procedures were followed.

“This isn’t about one case but providing Members of Parliament from all political parties with the right to a fair hearing.

“Therefore the Commons should seek cross-party agreement on a new appeals process whereby the conclusions of the standards committee and the Commissioner can be looked at. This could include judicial and lay member representation on the appeals panel.”

A Downing Street source later insisted that Mr Johnson’s action was not prompted by the Paterson case but was a response to long-standing concerns from MPs at the absence of an procedure for appeal against the commissioner’s findings.

The current system lacked “natural justice”, said the source, adding: “This is absolutely not a case of MPs marking their own homework. This is about setting up an appeals process to strengthen the system.”

But Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner accused the PM of “wallowing in sleaze”.

“As we can see, it’s one rule for everybody else and one rule for the Conservatives, Ms Rayner told MPs at prime minister’s questions in the Commons.

“When they break the rules, they just remake the rules.

“If it was a police officer, a teacher, a doctor, we would expect the independent process to be followed and not changed after the verdict - it’s one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us.”

Ms Rayner pointed out that Tories had previously said it was impossible to change parliamentary rules in order to allow a recall petition on former Conservative MP Rob Roberts from Westminster after he was found to have sexually harassed staff.

The director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex, Prof Elizabeth David-Barrett said: “In a case where evidence that the rules have been breached is so clear, this attempt to undermine the process is another example of those in power acting like the rules don’t apply to them. And if the rules threaten to constrain them, they try to change the rules.

“That is behaviour consistent with state capture, which we see around the world from several governments who are deliberately moving away from democracy by undermining the checks and balances on power which are fundamental to democratic government.”

The Centre’s lecturer in corruption analysis, Dr Sam Power, said the attempt to overturn the findings of the Paterson inquiry was “incredibly worrying”.

“It is essential in any democracy that MPs uphold basic standards, and are sanctioned if they have not,” said Dr Power.

“This amendment would confirm a pattern – including the proposed changes to the Electoral Commission in the Elections Bill – that rules regulating political behaviour are being unpicked. And, importantly, the independence of those in charge of regulating said behaviour is now in question.”

The chair of the UK Open Government Network, Kevin Keith, said the move was “shocking”, coming just days after a report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life found that more than 40 per cent of voters view MPs’ ethical standards as “low or very low”.

“The only possible inference to take from this action is that the government holds the public in utter contempt when it comes to ethical standards,” said Mr Keith.

And the Prospect union, which represents many parliamentary workers, said that Tory MPs risk “shattering the fragile trust” that staff have in the system for dealing not only with financial sleaze but also bullying, sexual harassment and abuse.

“If MPs are allowed to sit as judge and jury to themselves we risk returning to the bad old days where parliamentary staff suffer in silence as unaccountable MPs bully their way around Westminster with little fear of comeback,” said the union’s deputy general secretary Garry Graham.

“Parliamentary staff who have been bullied, sworn at or sexually harassed by MPs must not be collateral damage in this latest attempt by some MPs to erode the standards of public life they are elected to observe and uphold.”

The investigation by standards commissioner Kathryn Stone found Mr Paterson broke the rules by repeatedly lobbying on behalf of two companies for which he was acting as a paid consultant – Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods – in an “egregious case of paid advocacy”.

Mr Paterson angrily disputed the findings of the report – claiming he had not been given a fair hearing. He also said the manner in which the investigation was carried out had “undoubtedly” played a “major role” in the decision of his wife Rose to take her own life last year.

A senior Tory MP backing the bid to reform the Commons disciplinary rules and possibly spare colleague Mr Paterson from suspension admitted the move “looks terrible” but insisted there is “no alternative”.

Bernard Jenkin, who sits on the standards committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve had a bad system for years and years and years. I just see this as an opportunity to fix it.”

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