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The Owen Paterson Scandal: Standards, Trust and Democratic Norms
*The views expressed in this blog post do not reflect the view of PSA Parliaments
The resignation of Owen Paterson as Member of Parliament for North Shropshire, following revelations that he had been paid half a million pounds to lobby ministers has highlighted what may be an uncomfortable truth, that many MPs supplement their parliamentary salary with taking on second or indeed third jobs. The extent of this practice has been forced into the open, with newspaper reports highlighting that the former Attorney-General Sir Geoffrey Cox had spent substantial time undertaking paid work (earning £700,000) for the British Virgin Islands.
The focus on this blog will be the Paterson scandal. The blog will outline the events that gave rise to the controversial attempt by the government to protect Paterson from sanction, and in doing so revealed the problems with regulating the conduct of Members of Parliament and holding them to account for engaging in lobbying. The blog will then place the scandal within a broader context.
In response to the revelation in The Guardian that Paterson had been paid £500,000 to lobby ministers, an investigation was commenced by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, Kathryn Stone, who found that Paterson had breached the rules relating to paid advocacy, declaration of interests, and the use of parliamentary facilities. Her findings were considered by the House of Commons Standards Committee—comprising four Conservative MPs, two Labour MPs, one Scottish National Party MP and seven lay members—who concluded:
It is customary for the recommendations of the Standards Committee to be approved by MPs without a vote. Ahead of the vote on the suspension of Paterson, however, the former Leader of the House of Commons, Dame Andrea Leadsom, tabled an amendment, signed by 59 MPs, to the motion, declining to endorse the suspension until and if by a specially-formed select committee reviewed the “clearly flawed” standards system for MPs. The Government enforced a three-line whip on the vote and Dame Andrea’s amendment was passed by 250 to 232 Members of Parliament, with only two non-Conservative MPs voting in favour (one of whom was Rob Roberts MP, who had been elected as a Conservative prior to losing the Whip when he was suspended for a separate breach of standards rules). (It is important to note, however, that from the Conservative backbenches, 98 MPs did not vote and thirteen voted against the government).
Any celebrations for ministers were short-lived, however, as the Government was forced into a U-turn almost immediately when the opposition parties made clear that they would not serve on the proposed new select committee. Just hours after the Leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, pledged to work on a “cross-party basis to achieve improvements in our system for future cases”, Paterson resigned as a Member of Parliament, triggering a by-election for December 2021. The Government’s initial approach was heavily criticised and it was seen by opponents and many commentators as shielding one of its own supporters and undermining the accountability of members for breaches of parliamentary rules. Ministers have acknowledged the Government’s mistake and described the U-Turn as the ‘grown-up thing’ to do (Nadhim Zahawi MP, BBC News). The Government has formally asked the Commons to rescind the motion establishing the new Committee, and Paterson’s resignation has meant that he will avoid any suspension.
Paterson has resigned, the government has apologised and conceded its mistake. However, this does not negate the sense of double standards and the concern that the Johnson administration is further tarred with the taint of corruption. It has further reignited debate over the number of Members of Parliament who have second jobs. While MPs are barred from acting as “a paid advocate in any proceeding of the House”, there is no universal restriction on second jobs. Just under a third of all Members of Parliament have additional income to their official parliamentary salary, and although this does not just affect one party (the Leader of the Official Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer reportedly received £70,000 for legal advice from private companies), the party with the highest proportion of MPs with second jobs is the Conservative Party (It should be noted that neither Sir Geoffrey Cox nor Sir Keir Starmer are accused of engaging in lobbying on behalf of their clients). A study by Weschle shows that Conservative MPs with a second job ask more parliamentary questions, and that these questions are targeted at larger ministries with more procurement spending and often concern internal policies (such as the state or planning of projects).
There have been some defences of outside interests: Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay argued that there is “value in MPs having a continued connection with the world outside of politics”. Legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg has defended Sir Geoffrey Cox, partly due to the need to attract practicing lawyers to serve both in Parliament and as law officers—the ministerial roles of attorney general, solicitor general and advocate general for Scotland. Such arguments have often caused past efforts to bar MPs from holding certain outside interests to fail to gather sufficient support (e.g. the Private Members’ Bills tabled by Peter Bradley in 2002 and Martin Salter in 2007 and the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recommendations in 2018). Following the Paterson scandal, however, Sir Keir Starmer’s intention to table a motion to ban MPs from paid consultancies or directorships may prove more successful.
The broader decline of trust in parliamentarians and Parliament itself is a matter of concern. New polling by the Committee on Standards of Public Life found that 44% of people rated the standards of conduct of MPs as quite or very low, compared to only 20% taking a positive view, and noted the progressively lower scores reported since 2002. The Hansard Society’s latest Audit of Political Engagement found that 72% of the public believe that our system of parliamentary government needs ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of improvement.
In their book How democracies die: What history tells us about our future, Levitsky and Ziblatt remind us that “[d]emocratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box” (p. 5). In other words, nowadays it is more often elected governments than men with arms who seek to undermine democracy, and often “democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps” (p. 3). Democracy is safeguarded by institutions such as parliament and written laws and rules upheld by independent courts, but, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, at least as important are unwritten democratic norms:
When applying these arguments to the parliamentary setting, we can make a strong case that parliament as a democratic institution and the norms that underpin parliamentary democracy need to be defended first and foremost from within. And this task does not fall merely on the shoulders of the Speaker of the House of Commons as the highest representative of parliament and ‘conductor’ of parliamentary proceedings, but is a responsibility that should be shared by all parliamentary actors.
The main problem was not Owen Paterson. (There will always be some bad apples among the bunch.) The key issue was that the government – with the help of their Commons majority and key parliamentary figures such as the current and former Leaders of the House – (a) denied the legitimacy of the outcome of the parliamentary procedure to investigate and sanction MPs’ rule-breaching behaviour and (b) proposed to overhaul the institutional system for evaluating parliamentary standards, also retrospectively for the Paterson case.
Lord Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said on 4 November:
The two important norms at play here are the acceptance of outcomes of democratic processes (in this case the standards inquiry system) and what Levitsky and Ziblatt call ‘institutional forbearance’, that is the exercise of self-restraint and acting not only in the letters of the law but also in its spirit. The government’s actions in parliament undermined both these values. By imposing a three-line whip on its MPs, the government did not only interfere in what is generally seen as parliamentary business but also signalled that defiance would be considered a serious breach of party loyalty with potential consequences. (Angela Richardson, who abstained, lost her job as a Parliamentary private secretary – before being reappointed after the government’s U-turn.)
High levels of party unity are a key feature of a well-functioning parliamentary system. But a parliamentary party group cannot always be perfectly cohesive in their viewpoints, and when divergence emerges, party leaders usually have an array of institutional tools at their disposal to impose discipline. During every MP’s time in office, occasions will arise when their constituency interests and/or personal views and convictions will stand at odds with the official party line. Those are the moments when an MP needs to decide whether to stay silent for the sake of party loyalty or publicly communicate and act on their dissent, in full awareness that a roll-call vote stays in the historical records. When the issue at stake is not a specific policy but essential democratic norms and procedures, the option to stay silent is a particularly serious one, as MPs fail to fulfil their role as guardians of parliamentary democracy.
On 3 November, 248 Conservative MPs voted in favour of the Leadsom amendment, 13 voted against and a few more abstained and publicly voiced their objection such as the ‘Father of the House’, Sir Peter Bottomley. The government’s U-turn indicates that the broad public outrage and presumably conversations among members of the Conservative Party behind closed doors (and sometimes apparently in semi-public view) have succeeded in safeguarding parliamentary democracy in this instance. But this was not the first time and is unlikely to be the last time that the Johnson government seeks to tighten the executive grip on parliament, and that Conservative MPs must decide when the defence of the role of parliament, democratic norms and ethical principles is more important than party-political goals and personal ambitions.