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4 November 2021

MPs are trying to overhaul a system that is finding them increasingly guilty

Breaches of MPs standards are at their highest level since the expenses scandal.

By Michael Goodier

The government has undergone a screeching U-turn after it whipped its MPs to effectively abolish the independent system dealing with parliamentary misconduct yesterday (3 November), initially blocking a 30-day Commons suspension handed to former minister Owen Paterson for “egregious” breaches of lobbying rules in the process. Following a backlash from across the political spectrum, Paterson’s case was to be put to a separate vote next week, and he has now resigned.

The government still plans to overhaul the system, and one reason that is controversial (aside from the original proposition looking like it was designed to protect a Conservative MP from being held accountable) is that it risks looking like a reaction to a trend that is seeing increasing numbers of complaints against members being upheld by the commissioner for parliamentary standards.

An analysis of investigation notices shows that MPs’ standards have been slipping for several years. The independent commissioner ruled against 31 MPs last year – the highest figure since 2009-10, which saw the expenses scandal that led to some MPs going to prison.

When an MP is accused of misconduct, an investigation is taken up by the commissioner, currently Kathryn Stone. If she decides there has been a breach of standards, she can choose to either refer the case to the standards committee of MPs (which happens in the more serious cases), or to allow the MP to rectify the breach (which happens in minor cases).

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So far this year the number of MPs found by the commissioner to have breached parliamentary standards stands is 19, with a further eight still under investigation. Seven of those have been referred to the committee.

It may be because they simply have more MPs, but Conservatives have increasingly been found wanting in recent years, with 66 findings against them since 2014-15 – more than any other party. 

Of these, 19 were serious findings, which were then referred on to the standards committee (Paterson was one of these). Over the same period, Labour had 44 investigations upheld, with seven referred to the committee.

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The high number of rulings against Tory MPs means that many of those who have been found guilty of misconduct ended up voting with the government to change the rules, with Insider reporting that 22 of them joined the vote to overhaul the current system.

Although Paterson is currently making the headlines for lobbying, he is not the most frequent offender when it comes to breaching standards, looking at investigation notices since 2014-15.

That title goes to three MPs: Geoffrey Cox, Neil Coyle and, most seriously, the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Coyle’s were all rectified, while one of Cox’s was, but all three of Johnson’s were passed on to the committee.

[See also: Boris Johnson faces Tory backlash after U-turn in Owen Paterson sleaze row]