Conservative Owen Paterson escapes punishment for now as the government orders its MPs to back a review of standards investigations.
MPs have voted to rip up standards rules to block the suspension of a Tory MP who was found to have used his position to lobby for two private companies.
Ex-Environment Secretary Owen Paterson had been facing a 30-day suspension from the Commons after the Standards Committee found he repeatedly used his position as an MP to promote two companies that paid him a combined £112,000 a year breaching lobbying rules. But Conservative colleagues have backed an amendment that will instead see a new committee set up to examine the standards system and take another look at the case against him.
One rule for us and one rule for them and if they don’t like it they will just change it.
The ex-minister was found to have misused his position as an MP to benefit two companies he worked for.
But he said the probe into his conduct was unfair and his Tory allies proposed changing the system.
With Boris Johnson ordering his MPs to back an amendment to reform the Commons standards system and to save Mr Paterson from sanction it was seen as little more than a “grubby stitch-up” the vote on the amendment passed by 250 votes to 232, a majority of 18.
Some MPs shouted “shame” as the result was read out.
246 Conservative MPs were listed as having supported the amendment along with Independent MP Rob Roberts – who recently lost the Tory whip over his behaviour – and DUP MP Sammy Wilson.
Labour, the SNP and Lib Dems voted against the plans, along with 13 conscientious Tory MPs who found this travesty just too bitter a taste for their vote.
Mr Paterson, a former environment secretary, strongly denies allegations that he broke lobbying rules.
The move by Conservative MPs was supported by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In a statement released before the vote, a Number 10 spokesman said: “This isn’t about one case but providing members of parliament from all political parties with the right to a fair hearing.
“Therefore the Commons should seek cross-party agreement on a new appeals process whereby the conclusions of the standards committee and the Commissioner can be looked at.”
Ahead of the vote, the committee’s Labour chairman Chris Bryant told MPs Mr Paterson had lobbied ministers “time and again, in a way that conferred a direct benefit on his paying clients”.
“That is expressly forbidden. It is a corrupt practice,” he added.
He said Mr Paterson was given “every opportunity” to put his case across – and his case was heard “respectfully and fairly”.
The committee found that the North Shropshire MP had used his parliamentary office on 16 occasions for meetings relating to his outside business interests and sent two letters relating to business interests on House of Commons headed notepaper.
It described the MP’s actions as “an egregious case of paid advocacy”.
However, Mr Paterson, a former Northern Ireland minister, denied any wrongdoing and argued his approaches were within the rules because he was seeking to alert ministers to defects in safety regulations.
He said the investigation was “a major contributory factor” in the death of his wife, Rose, who took her own life last year.
He claimed he was pronounced guilty “without being spoken to” and that “no proper investigation was undertaken”.
Mr Paterson’s case will now be reviewed and a Conservative-majority committee led by former culture secretary John Whittingdale is due to be set up to examine the standards system.
The unprecedented move comes after the Standards Committee found that Mr Paterson had breached four separate parts of the code of conduct, which were so serious they caused “significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole”.
Shadow Commons Leader Thangam Debbonaire warned of a “return to Tory sleaze” and said the Government was pushing a message that paid advocacy for MPs was fine.
“For the public to maintain their trust in us, it is crucial that our independent standards procedure is not undermined, or worse still, systematically dismantled altogether,” she said.
Tory Owen Paterson who was found to have misused his position as an MP ( Image: SWNS)
“We cannot have a return to the Tory sleaze of the 1990s.”
Committee chairman Chris Bryant defended the investigation in a powerful speech – and said Mr Paterson’s name risked becoming “a byword for bad behaviour”.
Ahead of the vote, Downing Street insisted the PM was not trying to block Mr Paterson’s suspension.
The Prime Minister’s press secretary said: “This isn’t about one individual case and we’re not having a view on the ruling or looking to overturn the ruling.