Just how dodgy is the UK government’s plan to rewrite parliament’s procedure for dealing with breaches of standards?
In response to the commissioner for parliamentary standards Kathryn Stone’s finding that Owen Paterson, the former cabinet minister and incumbent Conservative MP for North Shropshire, breached guidelines on lobbying after he contacted government departments, Conservative MPs have been ordered to back an amendment that would transfer Paterson’s case to a new committee of MPs – one in which the Conservatives would have a majority – that would also be tasked with examining, and potentially rewriting, the complaints process from top to bottom.
The government’s line is that the current process is flawed, lacks a proper appeals process and falls short of the standards and rigour that other professional bodies have – such as the Bar Council, which regulates barristers, and the General Medical Council, which performs a similar role for medical professionals.
This may well be true, but it’s beside the point. The plain fact is that Paterson wrote to two government departments, mentioned and extolled the benefits of two companies he was being paid by, and did not disclose that he was in their employ. Although Paterson and his allies have complained that the standards commissioner Stone did not interview witnesses who would have provided context to Paterson’s defence, there is no suggestion on either side that there is written, documentary evidence that would make the absence of disclosure in Paterson’s emails anything other than a clear breach of the rules.
It’s worth noting that Stone’s report accepted that Paterson did not believe he was in breach of the rules, but this is also beside the point. I can honestly and sincerely believe that I am driving responsibly while going at 60 miles per hour in a 30mph zone: that does not make my driving any safer, and would not change the number of points put on my licence as a result.
There is no process that would conclude that Paterson’s failure to disclose the financial relationship between him and the two companies in question was not a breach of the rules. What the government has done is blur together four distinct issues – was the inquiry into Paterson’s conduct handled well, does the current process work properly, did Paterson’s conduct break the rules, and did he do so knowingly – in a way that makes it harder to reasonably discuss any of them.