MPs have voted in favour of overhauling their own watchdog after its decision to ban a senior Tory backbencher from the House of Commons. The committee on standards found that former minister Owen Paterson had breached lobbying rules and recommended he be suspended from the House for 30 days.
However, the government backed an amendment to the vote on his suspension — normally treated as a formality — that will now see a new committee set up to fix 'potential defects' in the way the current disciplinary system works. Detractors of the cross-party body have accused the standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, of anti-Tory bias. Paterson himself has said that the protracted two-year investigation contributed to his wife's suicide in June last year, making the debate particularly sensitive
But that doesn’t mean the result was uncontroversial. There were shouts of 'shame' as the result was read out, with MPs voting to back the amendment by 250 to 232. Given MPs were under a three-line whip to back the amendment, the close nature of the vote suggests a degree of unrest among Tory MPs, a number of whom spoke during the debate against the amendment. There were 98 abstentions and 13 votes against among the Conservative benches. Meanwhile, the SNP pledged to boycott the new committee, with Pete Wishart suggesting that the Conservatives were undermining the 'pillars of democracy'.
Part of the issue for the government is that Paterson is viewed by some Tory MPs as a problematic case to base reform around. The commissioner found that the MP for North Shropshire was employed by two firms as an adviser, receiving over £100,000 a year. The investigation concluded he had lobbied both ministers and departmental bodies on behalf of his clients on at least 14 different occasions. The final report, which runs to over 170 pages, stated: ‘No previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of confusion between the private and public interest.’
However, as Katy Balls explained on Coffee House this morning, there has been persistent talk of a 'stitch-up' among Tory backbenchers. Conservatives have long complained of bias within the disciplinary process after the commissioner accused Boris Johnson of having an ‘over-casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the House’ after he failed to declare details of a Caribbean holiday.
Andrea Leadsom, who brought the amendment, said there were multiple flaws in the current system, arguing that MPs who were under investigation needed to be able to bring their own evidence, put forward their own witnesses, and have access to an appeals process.
Chris Bryant, the Labour chair of the standards committee, rejected those criticisms. He told the House: 'It is the very definition of injustice that one should change the rules or the processes at the very last moment and to do so for a named individual.' He said that accused MPs already had access to an appeals process within the committee itself.
Expect Labour to push the Tory sleaze line over the coming days. As Labour's shadow leader of the house Thangam Debbonaire said: 'The enduring damage that this would do to parliament's reputation is something that none of us should be prepared to consider.' This row is far from over.