Thanet MPs Craig Mackinlay and Sir Roger Gale have defended their vote in favour of changing the way the standards system for MPs operates – which also meant halting the suspension of a former Tory minister found to have broken lobbying rules.
Yesterday (November 3) MPs voted 250 – 232 in favour of overturning Owen Paterson’s suspension and reforming current standards procedures.
Today, there has been a government U-turn on the remit of the vote.
A detailed inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone OBE found that Mr Paterson had breached the MPs Code of Conduct by lobbying on behalf of two companies that he was being paid by.
He did this by approaching the Food Standards Agency and Ministers at the Department for International Development relating the firms and did not declare he was being paid by them as a consultant.
He also used his parliamentary office on 25 occasions for business meetings with the clients. These actions break lobbying rules and the standards committee imposed a 30 day parliamentary ban on Mr Paterson.
Those recommendations have to have a backing vote of MPs but yesterday the majority of Conservative MPs voted for an amendment to halt Mr Paterson’s case and to bring in changes to the standards system.
Labour, SNP, Lib Dems and 13 Conservative MPs rejected the amendment and a number of Tories abstained but the vote was carried.
The vote meant Mr Paterson’s suspension was put on hold and a new Tory-majority committee to look at how investigations are carried out was proposed.
North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale says he was not voting in support of Mr Paterson but for an overhaul to the standards system.
In July the MP was suspended from sitting in Parliament for one day and ordered to write a letter of apology following an investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
Sir Roger was one of five Members of Parliament who were under investigation in connection with an allegation they attempted to lobby judges ahead of a court hearing for disgraced Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke.
The parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, also investigated Adam Holloway, Bob Stewart, Theresa Villiers and Charlie Elphicke’s estranged wife, Natalie, who currently holds the Dover and Deal seat.
The allegations were that the group used official Commons stationery to write to judges in a bid to get intervention so references of support could be admitted when former MP Charlie Elphicke was sentenced on sexual assault charges last September.
The disgraced Tory was jailed for two years after he was found guilty of sexual assault against two women.
A letter from the MPs objected to the committee’s findings saying: “Our actions were taken in defence of the rights of ordinary and innocent citizens and not of Mr. Elphicke.”
Talking of yesterday’s vote Sir Roger said: “As one who has experienced at first hand the workings of the Standards Commissioner and the Committee I am afraid that I have come to the sad conclusion that the system is deeply flawed and in need of thorough overhaul. That is why I have supported Andrea Leadsom`s reasoned amendment to the report.
“Contrary to lurid newspaper reports I am not one of the “Friends of Owen Paterson”, an MP that I do not know well and for whom I hold no brief either for or against, but I do believe that the time has come for the system to be reviewed and necessary changes made,
“I trust that following this week’s vote the committee chaired by John Whittingdale will deliver a system that, while holding Members to account when necessary, is fair and just.”
South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay also voted with government. He said: “It is essential that all in Parliament uphold the highest standards in public life. There must be tough and robust checks against lobbying for profit. There must be a proper process to scrutinise and – if necessary – discipline those who do not follow the rules.
“Those rules and the process must be clear, unambiguous and sensible. Having been through a low level investigation myself in years past, I can tell you, based upon hard experience, that the process does not have those vital tenets.
“As in any normal workplace and all walks of life, people should be entitled to a fair process and the right to appeal. This is broadly what we would called ‘Natural Justice’. We all know it when we see it and I have long had my doubts as to whether the current system under the Commissioner for Standards meets that criteria.
“Parliament had recently established a panel, with members of the judiciary at its heart, to consider breaches of the code of behaviour, particularly sexual misconduct, called the Independent Expert Panel. It seems reasonable to me that similar professional judicial oversight should form a vital part of the Standards system that it currently lacks.
“The vote on November 3 was not, therefore, about Owen Paterson, this was about the robustness of the process and providing all MPs with the right to a fair hearing, particularly when judgments and sanctions could destroy lives and reputations. What the investigation into Mr Paterson has highlighted is that the process has flaws that nobody would accept in any other walk of life.
“That is why I want the Commons to 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 and in my view, should, include judicial involvement on the appeals panel.
“The vote in no way exonerates Mr Paterson. It may be that the appeals process upholds and re-affirms the original decision. Many MPs are also concerned about the length of time that this report and others have taken. In order to remain credible, the Standards Committee’s investigations must be timely.
“I do not believe the current standards system follows natural justice. It is vital that a reformed standards system commands the confidence of the House and the wider public. I am convinced that it shall and on that basis I backed the backbench amendment in the vote.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the Conservatives of ‘wallowing in sleaze’ and ‘letting off one of their own.’ Opposition parties say they will not be involved with the new Tory-led standards committee.
It has emerged today (November 4) that the resulting outcry over the vote will force a U-turn with Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg saying cross-party involvement was necessary for any standards process.
He said the debate had conflated an individual case with general concern over the system and that link needs to be broken.
Rees-Mogg said government would now aim to work on a cross-party basis to achieve improvements for future cases – indicating the Tory-led panel idea has been ditched. He did not say what the U-turn would mean for Owen Paterson.
UPDATE: Owen Paterson has today announced he will resign his MP seat.