Ministers U-turn on plans to reform standards process for MPs

Civil service unions dubbed proposals 'absolutely extraordinary' and 'shameful'
North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson Credit: PA

By Jim Dunton

04 Nov 2021

The government has U-turned on plans to reform the way MPs’ conduct is scrutinised after a backlash that saw their proposals attacked by civil service unions and the former head of the Government Legal Department.

MPs yesterday voted narrowly in favour of reforming parliament’s standards process after Conservative MP and former minister Owen Paterson was found guilty of an “egregious case of paid advocacy” by the current Standards Committee and recommended for suspension from the Commons.

The plans sparked anger from opposition parties – and unions including the FDA and Prospect, as well as from some Conservative MPs. Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg this morning confirmed the government would rethink its approach to the reforms approved by MPs less than 24 hours earlier. 

Wednesday’s decision paved the way for the creation of a Conservative-led parliamentary committee to examine reform of the standards system. The 30-day suspension from parliament proposed by the Standards Committee in response to Paterson’s lobbying on behalf of Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods would also have been shelved.

However, the move prompted renewed allegations of sleaze and disrespect for standards in government, following on from prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision to stand by home secretary Priti Patel after his standards watchdog found her guilty of bullying staff last year.

Johnson himself has also faced investigations into his own conduct – in particular relating to the refurbishment of his Downing Street living quarters, while investigations into the Greensill Scandal have shone new light on lobbying culture in Westminster.

Paterson, who was Northern Ireland secretary from May 2010 to September 2012 and environment secretary from September 2012 to July 2014, this afternoon announced his intention to stand down as an MP.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said the government’s approach to the Paterson case was “absolutely extraordinary” given that the process that drove the recommendation to suspend him from parliament was introduced in the wake of 2009’s MPs expenses scandal.

“The Standards Committee is served by an independent commissioner,” he told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme. “It's critical that that's independent of parliament. It's got seven cross-party MPs and seven independent members.

“So we have an independent process there just now. It's clear that the government's agenda's not about greater scrutiny. It's not about a stronger process. It's about protecting one of their own and about diluting oversight.  

“And we've got the unedifying spectacle this morning of government ministers and trying to force Kathryn Stone, the independent parliamentary commissioner, to resign because they know what's coming down the line – which is further investigations of MPs and the prime minister himself.”

Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham dubbed yesterday’s vote “shameful” and said it effectively enabled MPs to “mark their own homework”. 

“It was the closing of ranks by the party of government to protect one of their own,” he said.

“That is how it will be perceived and it will be deeply damaging to public confidence in those who are meant to serve us.”

Former head of the Government Legal Department Sir Jonathan Jones said yesterday’s moves showed a willingness on the part of ministers to adopt dysfunctional approaches to the regulation of MPs’ behaviour.

“Parliament had a system for regulating the conduct of its members. The procedure ran its course. It found an MP guilty of serious misconduct. His party voted to overturn the finding and change the rules,” he wrote on Twitter. “This is not a functioning system of regulation or justice.”

Labour MP Chris Bryant, who chairs parliament’s Standards Committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that changing rules at the last minute in a case relating to a named individual was “what they do in Russia”.

“It’s a perversion of justice,” he said. “By definition the rule of law is that you do not have retrospective legislation.”

Rees-Mogg seeks “cross-party” approach

Announcing the government’s U-turn, Rees-Mogg told MPs this morning that it was clear the proposals did not have cross-party support and ministers wanted to proceed on a cross-party basis.

“The House voted very clearly yesterday to show that it is worried about the process of handling these complaints and that we would like an appeals system, but the change would need to be on a cross-party basis and that is clearly not the case,” he said.

“While there is a very strong feeling on both sides of the House that there is a need for an appeals process, there is equally a strong feeling that this should not be based on a single case or apply retrospectively.

“I fear last night's debate conflated an individual case with the general concern. This link needs to be broken.”

Rees-Mogg said the government would bring forward more detailed proposals on improvements to the standards system for MPs following cross-party talks.

This story was updated at 15:15 on 4 November 2021 to include Owen Paterson's decision to step down as an MP

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