The Tory MP Owen Paterson faces a 30-day suspension from the House of Commons for an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules, raising the possibility he could lose his seat if enough constituents trigger a byelection.
The former cabinet minister was found to have breached paid advocacy rules, two years after the Guardian published documents revealing how the former environment secretary helped lobby for two firms he was paid to advise – Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods.
Paterson claimed the investigation by Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary standards commissioner, did “not comply with natural justice” and had played a “major role” in the death of his wife, Rose, who took her own life in June 2020.
Stone’s investigation, which was launched in October 2019, found Paterson had worked as a consultant to Randox, a clinical diagnostics company, since August 2015, and Lynn’s Country Foods, a processor and distributor of meat products, since December 2016.
She said he made three approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Randox and the testing of antibiotics in milk; seven approaches to the same agency relating to Lynn’s Country Foods; and four approaches to ministers at the Department for International Development relating to Randox and blood testing technology.
Following her investigation, the standards committee – which contains MPs from different political parties, including several Conservatives – launched its own investigation, and the results of both were published on Tuesday.
The committee revealed Paterson had failed to declare his interest and used his parliamentary office on at least 16 occasions for business meetings with his clients between October 2016 and February 2020, and sent two letters relating to his business interests on taxpayer-funded Commons-headed notepaper.
Paterson was also found to have committed “an egregious case of paid advocacy”, “repeatedly used his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant”, and brought the Commons into disrepute. It said: “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.”
The committee recommended Paterson be suspended from the Commons for 30 sitting days.
Under a law introduced in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, any MP suspended for more than 10 days can face a trigger ballot where their constituents decide whether to force a byelection by supporting a recall petition. Ten per cent of the electors in Paterson’s seat would need to support the petition for a byelection to be called.
Paterson, a former Northern Ireland secretary and prominent Brexit campaigner, claimed the investigation was biased and “offends against the basic standard of procedural fairness that no one should be found guilty until they have had a chance to be heard and to present their evidence including their witnesses”.
He said Stone did not speak to him to get his side of the story until after she had “made up her mind” and did not seek oral evidence from 17 witnesses who wanted to testify in his support. “I am not guilty and a fair process would exonerate me,” he added.
Last summer Paterson’s wife of 40 years killed herself. “We will never know definitively what drove her to suicide, but the manner in which this investigation was conducted undoubtedly played a major role,” he said in a statement responding to the commissioner and committee’s ruling.
“Rose would ask me despairingly every weekend about the progress of the inquiry, convinced that the investigation would go to any lengths to somehow find me in the wrong. The longer the investigation went on and the more the questions went further and further from the original accusations, the more her anxiety increased.
“She felt beleaguered as I was bound by confidentiality and could not discuss this inquiry with anyone else. She became convinced that the investigation would destroy my reputation and force me to resign my North Shropshire seat that I have now served for 24 years.”
However, the standards committee said there was no evidence Stone had shown any evidence of bias and called it “completely unacceptable” for Paterson to have made “unsubstantiated, serious, and personal allegations” against the work of his scrutineers.
Questions were raised about Paterson’s business dealings in April 2019, when the Guardian revealed he was being paid nearly £100,000 by Randox to act as a consultant, while helping lobby the government to seek contracts for the same multinational firm.