Committee on Standards publish report on the conduct of Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP
26 Oct 2021 01:38 PM
The report arises from a detailed inquiry the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards opened on her own initiative in October 2019 following media reports alleging that Mr Paterson had lobbied for two companies for which he was a paid consultant.
The Committee is grateful to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone OBE, for her investigation and memorandum, which is appended to the Committee’s full report.
The Committee on Standards’ report briefly summarises the Commissioner’s findings before setting out the Committee’s own analysis and conclusions.
The Commissioner’s findings
Mr Paterson has been a paid consultant to Randox, a clinical diagnostics company, since August 2015, and a paid consultant to Lynn's Country Foods, a processor and distributor of meat products including 'nitrite-free' products, since December 2016.
The Commissioner found that Mr Paterson had breached the rule prohibiting paid advocacy, set out in paragraph 11 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct, in making three approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Randox and the testing of antibiotics in milk in November 2016 and November 2017; in making seven approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Lynn's Country Foods in November 2017, January 2018 and July 2018; and in making four approaches to Ministers at the Department for International Development relating to Randox and blood testing technology in October 2016 and January 2017.
The Commissioner also found that Mr Paterson had breached paragraph 13 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct, on declarations of interest, by failing to declare his interest as a paid consultant to Lynn's Country Foods in four emails to officials at the Food Standards Agency on 16 November 2016, 15 November 2017, 8 January 2018 and 17 January 2018.
Lastly, the Commissioner found that Mr Paterson breached paragraph 15 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct, on use of parliamentary facilities, by using his parliamentary office on 25 occasions for business meetings with his clients between October 2016 and February 2020; and in sending two letters, on 13 October 2016 and 16 January 2017, relating to his business interests, on House of Commons headed notepaper. Following further evidence from Mr Paterson, the Committee accepted that the number of meetings in question was 16, not 25 – though the Committee questioned why Mr Paterson could not have made this further evidence available to the Commissioner during her investigation.
Mr Paterson acknowledged that his use of headed notepaper for two letters relating to his business interests breached the rules of the House and apologised to the Commissioner and to the Committee for doing so. Mr Paterson maintained that he had not breached the Code in any other respect.
On the conclusion of the investigation the Commissioner’s draft memorandum was made available to Mr Paterson, in December 2020.
The Committee’s findings
The Committee noted at the beginning of its report that it was “painfully conscious that Mr Paterson lost his wife in tragic circumstances in June 2020; and we wish to express our deepest sympathy to him for his loss. This last year must have been very distressing for him and we have taken these circumstances fully into account in considering Mr Paterson’s conduct during the period of the investigation”, and recorded that it had “striven to ensure that Mr Paterson has had every opportunity to represent himself as fully as possible before the Committee, in person and in writing. We have extended deadlines at his request and we have accepted his request to be accompanied by his legal advisers and to make a formal opening statement to us”. However, the Committee noted that the allegations against Mr Paterson, which are the subject of the Commissioner’s memorandum, relate to his conduct between October 2016 and February 2020, before Mrs Paterson’s death. The Committee stated that “it is these allegations on which we are required to adjudicate, impartially, without fear or favour, and with a sole eye to the rules of the House and the requirements of natural justice”.
The Committee found that Mr Paterson repeatedly used his position as a Member to promote the companies by whom he was paid, and therefore breached paragraph 11 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct.
The report noted that there was no immediate financial benefit secured by Randox or Lynn’s, but that Mr Paterson's approaches could clearly have conferred significant benefits on Randox and Lynn's in the long term and even in the short term secured meetings that would not have been available without Mr Paterson’s involvement.
Mr Paterson argued that the majority of his approaches fell within the ‘serious wrong’ exemption in the lobbying rules, which permit an MP to approach a responsible Minister or public official with evidence of a “serious wrong or substantial injustice” which would otherwise breach the lobbying rules, as long as any benefit conferred is “incidental”. With the exception of his meeting on 15 November 2016 with the Food Standards Agency regarding milk testing, the Committee doesn’t accept that Mr Paterson's approaches fell within the ‘serious wrong’ exemption. Mr Paterson argued that the remaining approaches, namely his contact with the Food Standards Agency in 2018, were not in breach of the rules because the FSA had raised an issue with him. The Committee concluded that Mr Paterson had in fact raised the issue with the FSA and therefore breached the rules. Approaches under the 'serious wrong' exemption may only be made "exceptionally". The Committee report concluded that “it stretches credulity to suggest that fourteen approaches to Ministers and public officials were all attempts to avert a serious wrong rather than to favour Randox and Lynn’s, however much Mr Paterson may have persuaded himself he is in the right.”
Mr Paterson told the Commissioner, and the Committee, that he was fully aware of his obligations under the paid advocacy rules when he acted, but was relying, having neither consulted the rules nor sought advice, on a recollection that the rules made provision for "exceptional circumstances". The Committee concluded that, at best, Mr Paterson was relying on an exemption he thought probably existed but of whose terms he was unsure and at worst, Mr Paterson was knowingly in breach of the lobbying rules.
The Committee agreed with the Commissioner that Mr Paterson's breaches of the paid advocacy rule are of sufficient seriousness also to have caused "significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole", and therefore also conclude that Mr Paterson breached paragraph 16 of the 2015 Code of Conduct.
The Committee also concurred with the Commissioner that Mr Paterson breached paragraph 13 of the 2015 Code of Conduct in failing to declare an interest in four emails to officials at the Food Standards Agency. The Committee accepted that Mr Paterson was more punctilious in declaring his interest in meetings, and those with whom Mr Paterson dealt were probably aware of the capacity in which he was acting, and therefore also agreed with the Commissioner that, taken alone, this was a minor breach of the Code.
The Committee found, following additional written evidence from Mr Paterson, that he breached paragraph 15 of the 2015 Code of Conduct, on use of parliamentary facilities, in holding 16 meetings relating to his outside business interests in his parliamentary office between October 2016 and February 2020.
The Committee also agreed with the Commissioner that Mr Paterson breached paragraph 15 of the 2015 Code of Conduct in sending two letters relating to his business interests on House of Commons headed notepaper. The Committee noted that Mr Paterson promptly acknowledged the latter breach and apologised. Taken alone, the Committee regards this as a very minor breach of the rules.
Mr Paterson made a number of arguments and allegations about the process followed in this case. The Committee addressed each of Mr Paterson’s arguments in detail in the report and set out its reasons for rejecting them.
In an article on 19 October 2021, the Daily Mail claimed that it had received a leaked copy of Mr Paterson’s statement to the Committee and proceeded to relay a series of allegations Mr Paterson had made. The only people known to have access to the information were Committee members, a small number of House of Commons staff and Mr Paterson and his advisers. Every member of the Committee and staff who had access to the transcript has stated on record that they did not leak the transcript. The Committee condemns this leak, and considers that it was probably an attempt to bounce the Committee or seek parliamentary privilege for potentially actionable comments.
The Committee’s conclusions and recommended sanctions
The Committee commented that it does not doubt that Mr Paterson sincerely believes that he has acted properly. Mr Paterson is clearly convinced in his own mind that there could be no conflict between his private interest and the public interest in his actions in this case. But it is this same conviction that meant that Mr Paterson failed to establish the proper boundaries between his private commercial work and his parliamentary activities, as set out in the Guide to the Rules. The Committee concluded that being able to judge the difference between one’s private, personal interest and the public interest is at the very heart of public service and a senior member of the House with many years standing should be able to make that distinction more clearly.
In accordance with normal practice, before considering sanctions the Committee noted any aggravating or mitigating factors in the case. Aggravating factors included:
- No previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behaviour in failing to separate private and public interests.
- Mr Paterson’s financial remuneration from Randox and Lynn’s amounted to nearly three times his annual parliamentary salary.
- Mr Paterson's actions demonstrate a failure to uphold the Seven Principles of Public Life.
- Mr Paterson has made serious, personal, and unsubstantiated allegations against the integrity of the Commissioner and her team.
- Mr Paterson is a former Minister, and an experienced long-serving Member of the House.
The Committee also noted mitigating factors, including:
- Mr Paterson's wife took her own life in June 2020. The Committee consider it very possible that grief and distress caused by this event has affected the way in which Mr Paterson approached the Commissioner's investigation thereafter.
- In respect of the breaches relating to use of his parliamentary office, Mr Paterson had suffered a period of ill health which made him less able easily to leave the parliamentary estate.
- Regarding the breaches of paid advocacy rules, Mr Paterson has an evident passion for and expertise in food and farming matters which, in itself, is admirable, as long as it is channelled within the rules of the House.
The Committee determined that Mr Paterson’s actions, in particular those relating to paid advocacy, constitute a serious breach of the rules.
The Committee found that Mr Paterson’s actions were an egregious case of paid advocacy, that he repeatedly used his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant, and that this has brought the House into disrepute.
In line with previous cases of a similar severity, the Committee recommends that Mr Paterson be suspended from the service of the House for 30 sitting days.
As the Government Deputy Chief Whip confirmed on 9 September 2021, it is the usual practice for the relevant motions to be tabled by the Government and debated as soon as possible. The Committee recorded its expectation that this should be within five sitting days of the publication of the report.