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Owen Paterson breached MP's code of conduct over lobbying for two Northern Ireland firms

Owen Paterson. Picture by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Owen Paterson has been found to have breached the MP's code of conduct over lobbying for two Northern Ireland companies for which he was a paid consultant.

An investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone found he repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials on behalf of two companies for which he was acting as a paid consultant – Randox, and Lynn’s Country Foods.

The Parliamentary Committee on Standards has recommended the Conservative MP be suspended for 30 days over an “egregious case of paid advocacy” after investigating his lobbying.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards opened the investigation in October 2019 following allegations Owen Paterson had improperly lobbied for clinical diagnostics company Randox and meat processor Lynn’s Country Foods.

The commissioner found the North Shropshire MP had breached a rule prohibiting paid advocacy in the MPs’ Code of Conduct in making three approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Randox and the testing of antibiotics in milk in November 2016 and 2017.

He was also found to have breached the rule over making seven approaches to the same agency for Lynn’s Country Foods between November 2017 and July 2018, and four approaches to ministers in the Department for International Development relating to Randox and blood testing technology in October 2016 and January 2017.

He also breached the Code of Conduct over declarations of interest by failing to declare his role as a paid consultant to Lynn’s in four emails to the Food Standards Agency between November 2016 and January 2018.

Mr Paterson also breached the code over use of parliamentary facilities by using his parliamentary office for business meetings with clients on 25 occasions between October 2016 and February 2020 and by sending two letters relating to business interests on House of Commons headed notepaper in October 2016 and January 2017.

After analysing the commissioner’s findings, the Committee on Standards recommended he be suspended for 30 days.

Its report said: “The committee found that Mr Paterson’s actions were an egregious case of paid advocacy, that he repeatedly used his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant, and that this has brought the House into disrepute.”

The Committee on Standards acknowledged there were mitigating factors around the investigation into Mr Paterson, including the death of his wife Rose in June 2020.

The report said: “Mr Paterson’s wife took her own life in June 2020. The committee consider it very possible that grief and distress caused by this event has affected the way in which Mr Paterson approached the commissioner’s investigation thereafter. ”

Relating to the breach of use of his office, the committee also acknowledged Mr Paterson had been suffering from ill health which “made him less able easily to leave the parliamentary estate”.

The committee added Mr Paterson’s “passion and expertise” in food and farming matters was “admirable, as long as it is channelled within the rules of the House”.

However, in a defiant statement the MP said the process to which he had been subjected did not comply with natural justice.

He said he had been pronounced guilty without being spoken to by the commissioner and that 17 witnesses who came forward to support him were ignored.

Mr Paterson said the investigation had left his wife feeling “beleaguered”, fearing that his reputation would be destroyed and that he would be forced to resign as MP for North Shropshire.

“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.

“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.”

Mr Paterson said the inquiry had not created a “fair and just outcome” and called on MPs to waive Parliamentary privilege so he can challenge it in the courts.

If, however, the Commons backs the committee’s recommendations, it could lead to recall proceedings, resulting in a by-election if 10% of his constituents sign a petition demanding one.

In his evidence to the commissioner, Mr Paterson said he had been trying to raise concerns about the contamination of milk and ham with banned carcinogenic substances.

He argued that the rules allow an MP to raise a “serious wrong or a substantial injustice” even if their external associates benefit incidentally.

However this was rejected by the committee, which said: “What might have been permissible in a single exceptional case became Mr Paterson’s standard practice.

“It stretches credulity to suggest that 14 approaches to ministers and public officials were all attempts to avert a serious wrong rather than to favour Randox and Lynn’s, however much Mr Paterson may have persuaded himself he is in the right.”

The chairman of Mr Paterson’s local Conservative constituency party, Peter Shellard, gave the MP his backing, saying he has “serious concerns” about the conduct of the inquiry.

“He is a trustworthy, decent and honest man,” he said.

“He has my unwavering support and that of the North Shropshire Conservative Association.”

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