Sir David Davis writes on flawed Commons investigation into Owen Paterson MP


As published by The Mail on Sunday:

The case of Conservative MP Owen Paterson, who has been accused of abusing his position for personal gain, is shot through with high drama and personal tragedy.

An MP for more than 20 years and a former Cabinet Minister, Mr Paterson faces political ruin, thanks to a one-sided House of Commons investigation by the Standards Commissioner that was so amateurish it failed to interview witnesses.

Mr Paterson has already lost his wife Rose, who committed suicide last year – a death that he firmly believes was linked to the stress of the investigation. And this week, MPs will vote on this wrong-headed report and its conclusions. If they endorse it, Mr Paterson’s career could well be over.

It is a troubling saga that has thrown into stark relief the failings of the system that Parliament has put in place to police its standards of conduct. These are flaws that should not be allowed in any system of justice, let alone one that is central to the operation of our democracy.

It is also a system that, to many of my Conservative colleagues, appears stacked against Tories and Brexiteers.

I first started to worry some years ago thanks to a case affecting, not a Tory colleague, but Ken Livingstone. The then darling of Left-wing politics was forced to stand up in the House of Commons and make a public apology for having made an inadequate declaration of his outside earnings.

It seemed to me he was being publicly humiliated for something that was not his fault. Mr Livingstone had actually taken advice from Commons officials about the correct process to follow, but this rather crucial point was casually ignored by the House authorities.

However much the standards system has changed over the years, it has always been erratic. I have seen innocent people have their reputations trashed and comparative villains get away scot-free.

But no one should be surprised. Because this is a standards system where one person is chief investigator and prosecutor combined and that allows MPs no effective right of appeal.

The allegations against Mr Paterson, MP for Shropshire North, appear to be serious. He has been accused of paid lobbying – contacting the Government on behalf of companies that were his clients – which is forbidden under House of Commons rules unless there is an overriding public interest.

It might seem strange, then, that the Commissioner’s only engagement initially with Mr Paterson was by email, a process that finally concluded with a memorandum sent to him in December last year.

Stranger still, the Commissioner, Kathryn Stone, admitted to the clerk of the Standards Committee that she had made up her mind about the substance of the case before sending him that memorandum. She even admitted ‘the dispute is one of interpretation’ – not one of fact.

A flimsy process, you might think, when Mr Paterson’s reputation and the rest of his career are at stake.

Surely an impartial investigator would check every aspect of the case, particularly where questions of interpretation are involved. Yet Ms Stone failed to interview any of the witnesses that Mr Paterson put forward, including the Chief Veterinary Officer and various heads of Government departments. They even included the then International Development Minister, Rory Stewart, who Mr Paterson is supposed to have lobbied. Mr Stewart, a staunch Remainer, is no ally of Brexiteer Mr Paterson.

When it was apparent Ms Stone had refused to see the witnesses, her committee should either have instructed her to see them or interviewed the witnesses themselves. They did not. For this failure alone, the case would have been struck down had it gone to the courts for review. Unfortunately, parliamentary rules mean no such recourse to justice is available.

Then there is the unusually harsh dismissal of Mr Paterson’s defence, which relied in part on compelling evidence that he was trying to raise the alarm over serious threats to public health. In writing to Ministers on behalf of the companies he represented, he did so to alert them to carcinogenic products in milk and ham. The Standards Committee accepted that his account was correct – that Mr Paterson had been calling for action that, among other things, would have led to the removal of risks from antibiotics in milk and from nitrites used as preservatives in ham. Lives would have been saved.

The Committee confirmed that no one had made an immediate profit from Mr Paterson’s intervention. It is mystifying, then, that the committee should refuse to accept this public interest argument, taking such a narrow interpretation of rules as to render this very important defence virtually worthless.

The ruling against Mr Paterson is not the only example of judgments that have gone against Tories and Brexiteers. Take, for example, the 2018 Standards investigation into Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay for failing to declare a company shareholding.

The company in question had been set up to create a low-cost airline but the project had been abandoned after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. There were no employees and no assets. The company had no bank account and capital of 2p. In a word, it was moribund. So in failing to declare the shareholding, Mr Mackinlay had committed no more than a technical breach. It had zero real meaning.

The proper response of the Standards Commissioner should, at most, have been a correction in the Register of Interests with – possibly – a letter of apology from the MP. Instead, Ms Stone insisted on a public apology from Mr Mackinlay in the Commons.

This same Commissioner took a different approach when she investigated the case of a Labour MP who tried to get a vulnerable constituent to supply him with the drug diazepam. It is illegal to obtain this tranquilliser without a prescription. And criminal offences are automatically in breach of the parliamentary Code of Conduct.

Yet, somehow, the Commissioner ruled that the Labour MP had not in fact broken the rules.

Normally in British law, we have a thorough and adversarial process. The case is investigated by the police, presented to the court by a prosecution lawyer and challenged by a defence lawyer – all following strict rules of evidence. In serious cases, the verdict is decided by a jury and, if the defendant is guilty, the punishment is decided by a judge. The whole process is then subject to appeal.

This is what we as MPs would insist on for our constituents. Yet none of these protections applies to the way MPs themselves are treated. Instead, we have an inquisition, in which the Commissioner acts as investigating officer, prosecutor and judge.

True, her decision might be reviewed by the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee. As a method of delivering justice, however, this is not fit for purpose. It is long past time that we replaced this amateurism with a quasi-judicial process and a proper appeal system. I see no reason why we could not appoint a trio of retired judges from the Lords. Such a panel could have serious powers of punishment, including disqualification from the Commons.

It is entirely appropriate that MPs should face severe penalties if they abuse their positions, including the loss of their position as an MP. But to do that, you need a proper system of justice. Palpably, this is not what MPs have today – as Owen Paterson has found to his very great cost.