Owen Paterson case reveals crisis over standards in UK public life

Photo by Savvas Stravinos from Pexels

In light of the Owen Paterson case – a former Minister found guilty of breaching the lobbying rules while sitting as an MP and acting on behalf of a company paying him £100,000 pa – Professor Robert Barrington‘s twitter thread examines key aspects of the case

What should we make of the Owen Paterson case?  In many ways, it seems to illustrate the crisis of standards that is currently undermining democracy in the UK.

Mr Paterson has been found guilty by two stages of the standards system (the House of Commons is still to approve or reject this). The behaviour of which he is accused – and has twice been found guilty – demonstrates the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. If true, it is corrupt: a gross, snout-in-the-trough breach of standards.

Mr Paterson has denied guilt and criticised the process. This seems to show a) at minimum a complete misunderstanding of the rules or b) a deliberate flouting in the hope not to get caught or c) a sense of impunity – the rules don’t matter and getting caught won’t be too painful.  In one sense, it is remarkable that he actually managed to break the rules.  They are so lax that it is only really egregious behaviour that seems to cross the line.

The deterrent is 30 days’ suspension and possibly a constituency recall vote in a constituency where Mr Paterson has a safe seat with a majority of 22,000. The incentive is a salary of £100,000 pa. Which would you choose?

Individuals can be greedy or make poor judgements. The system of standards is designed to adds checks and balances to individual behaviour. Our UK system depends on a) the Nolan Principles b) a patchwork of standards rules and bodies c) people mostly doing the right thing but resigning honourably if found not to.

The astonishing thing in the Paterson case is not therefore the rotten apple, but the response of his very high-level ‘supporters’ and failure of leadership to put a lid on his and their behaviour. 

There are two ironies here: a) the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) report came out this very week, warning of decline in standards and proposing improvements to system b) the same ‘supporters’ seem to have been arguing the opposite a few days ago in the Rob Roberts case.

To these, we might add a third irony: that just as the CSPL has rejected strengthening the system too much by adding independent and unelected elements as adjudicators and investigators in case it is seen as undemocratic – Mr Paterson’s supporters are arguing in favour of taking the decision away from the elected representatives and demanding an unelected independent decision-maker.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is an effort to change the rules when it suits, with arguments based solely on party or tribal loyalty and not any basis of principles or standards.  Perhaps that is the luxury of an 80-seat majority.

What would ‘good’ look like? Here are four suggestions:  a) the PM should immediately accept the CSPL’s recommendations b) the PM and senior MPs/former Ministers should publicly deplore Mr Paterson’s behaviour – kindly but firmly due to his personal circumstances c) in this and other cases, the guilty MP should be permanently out of parliament, whether through suspension, ejection or resignation d) in future, no sitting MP should be able to act as a paid lobbyist.

Finally…what of Randox, a company which won £347 million of Covid contracts without a bidding process? An employee broke the rules of democracy on the company’s behalf. Did they know? Did they care? What did they do? Randox should also be investigated, and if the result is unsatisfactory, Randox should face debarment from public contracts.  Those who employ lobbyists are part of the picture, just as much as those who lobby and those who are lobbied.  There must be transparency at all stages, with proper deterrents when the rules have been broken.

If anyone needed convincing that the UK’s adherence to the Nolan Principles is a) in decline and b) in need of a strengthened system of education, enforcement and sanctions, the Owen Paterson case should clear up any doubts.

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