Owen Paterson avoids suspension as MPs vote to overhaul standards system

Cries of shame echoed around the Commons as the result was announced and Owen Paterson could escape suspension, ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener reports

Tory MP Owen Paterson, who was found to have breached lobbying rules, has escaped a Commons suspension after his colleagues voted to overhaul the system which recommended it.

In an unprecedented move, a majority of MPs chose not to back the cross-party Standards Committee's call for a 30-day ban from Parliament after it was ruled that he repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials for two companies paying him more than £100,000 per year.

Most Tory MPs agreed with Mr Paterson - who denies wrongdoing - that the investigation process was unfair, as it did not give him the option to appeal the ruling, and should be reviewed.

MPs voted to reform the system for scrutinising standards by a narrow margin of 250 votes to 232, as Labour members shouted "shame" and another asked "what have you done to this place?"

'I hope no other MP goes through the horrors that I and my family have been through for the last two years, because this is a very unjust system,' says Owen Paterson

The bid to review the Common's Standards Committee was fiercely contested by opposition MPs, who said it amounted to Tory MPs "marking their own homework" by rejecting an outcome they did not like.

The committee said Mr Paterson should be suspended from the House of Commons for 30 days over an "egregious case of paid advocacy" while a paid consultant for health tech firm Randox and meat producer Lynn's Country Foods.

But the government is understood to have issued a three-line whip ordering Tory MPs to reject the suspension and back an amendment seeking to overhaul the entire system.

The vote means a Conservative-majority committee, led by former culture secretary John Whittingdale, will now examine whether the standards system should mirror that of investigations of misconduct in other workplaces, including the right of representation, the examination of witnesses and the right of appeal.

The new committee will also look into whether Mr Paterson's case specifically should be reviewed - Labour and the SNP have said they will boycott it.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said by rejecting a punishment recommended by the Standards Committee, that the Tories were giving a "green light to corruption".

A small number of Tories did reject the amendment, including Aaron Bell, who said he opposed it because it looked "like we're moving the goalposts".

Others among the 13 Tories to oppose it were Jackie Doyle-Price, Richard Fuller, Kate Griffiths (Burton), Mark Harper, Simon Hoare, Kevin Hollinrake, Nigel Mills, Jill Mortimer, Holly Mumby-Croft, Matthew Offord, John Stevenson, and William Wragg.

MPs later voted 248 to 221, majority 27, to approve the motion as amended - therefore confirming the proposal to consider reforming the standards system and prevent the immediate suspension of Mr Paterson.

Former minister Mr Paterson has angrily disputed the committee's findings, claiming the investigation was unfairly conducted, and argued the manner in which the investigation was carried out had "undoubtedly" played a "major role" in the decision of his wife Rose to take her own life last year.

He released a statement following the vote, thanking his colleagues for "ensuring that fundamental changes will be made to internal Parliamentary systems of justice".

"All I have ever asked is to have the opportunity to make my case through a fair process," he said, "the decision today in Parliament means that I will now have that opportunity".

He added: "I hope that no other MP will ever again be subject to this shockingly inadequate process."

Watch the ITV News' full interview with MP Owen Paterson:

The investigation into his conduct found that between November 2016 and November 2017 Mr Paterson made three approaches to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) relating to Randox - a clinical diagnostics company - and antibiotics in milk in breach of the ban on paid advocacy.

He was also found to have made four approaches to ministers at the Department for International Development relating to the company and blood testing technology between October 2016 and January 2017.

And Mr Paterson was found to have made seven approaches to the FSA between November 2017 and July 2018 relating to Lynn's Country Foods.

The former Northern Ireland secretary says he was raising "very serious issues" in his lobbying, adding that "milk in supermarkets was found to contain an antibiotic residue" and thanks to him, products are "safer than before".

But chair of the committee, Chris Bryant, said if Mr Paterson was really concerned about the issues, he could have raised them in a public forum, rather than privately with ministers.

"He did the one thing he was banned from doing - lobby ministers in a way that conferred direct benefit on paying clients. That is forbidden. It is a corrupt practice."

He also said it is 'morally offensive' that Tories voted to reject Mr Paterson's recommended suspension and overhaul the standards watchdog.

At Prime Minister's Questions, Boris Johnson said "paid lobbying, paid advocacy in this House is wrong".

But he added: "The issue in this case, which involved a serious family tragedy, is whether a member of this House had a fair opportunity to make representations in this case and whether, as a matter of a natural justice, our procedures in this House allow for proper appeal."

Watch as Owen Paterson's situation is debated at PMQs:

It is understood there has not been a successful amendment to reduce a period of suspension of a member since the Second World War, while the Commons has never voted down a disciplinary sanction since the modern standards system was created.

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, the shadow mental health minister, said "the amendment was Trumpism on speed", as she accused former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland of voting to tear "up the rulebook to save his mates".

"If somebody had broken all of the work rules and had been found to do exactly what Owen Patterson did. Would you then get rid of the HR department? No," she said while being interviewed by ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana on ITV's Peston Show.

Mr Buckland hit back, accusing Dr Allin-Khan of playing partisan politics, as he insisted today's vote was "the right one" and helped make the standards system more "resilient".

However, Mr Buckland acknowledged it would have been better to seek reform to the standards system without it happening against the backdrop of the Paterson case.

“I can understand the strength of feeling today but these difficult moments do allow us a chance to make a meaningful reform which I think will be better in the long run,” he told ITV’s Peston.

Mr Buckland, a former member of the Standards Committee, added: “In a perfect world we should be doing this without events like the one of today. But this is how Parliament sometimes works, it’s imperfect.”