Many people have rightly contacted me about the vote this week on the Standards Commissioner Report on Owen Paterson and the subsequent amendment.
Like all things in Parliament there have been many things said, reported, and put on social media sites. Where much is true, a significant amount is not true.
When we vote in Parliament, we try to do so with all the facts before us. Here is my process in coming to the conclusion why voting for the amendment was justified:
The first thing I need to say is that the vote in no way exonerated nor changed the standards commissioners report on Owen Paterson.
As a Government Minister in the Whips Office, I can tell you that more and more complaints are received from MP colleagues who are investigated and feel they were either not listened to, not given the chance to physically present evidence, or fear they have not had a fair hearing. I personally can’t testify that this is actually the case as I’ve never been through the process; however, more and more colleagues report this from across the whole House.
In Parliament, MPs are rightly expected to hold high standards. As such, we have two processes which investigate us. One is the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (more on this in a minute) and the other is the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. The latter of the two will deal with anything that tends to relate to bullying, harassment and sexual harassment (so, for example, a complaint of sexual abuse against an MP). The former process looks at anything else from misusing letterheaded stationery to serious allegations which Owen Paterson faces.
The difference between the two is that the ICGS process investigates the allegations and then, if the MP is not happy with the process or outcome, he/she then has the ability (if they so wish) to appeal the decision to an appeals panel which is chaired by a High Court Judge. The outcome is final and respected.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards process has no appeals process. The Standards Commissioner is Researcher, Investigator, Judge, Jury and Executioner with no ability to appeal the process at all.
To be fair, this is the system which MPs themselves initially set up.
The ICGS process was overhauled recently to include an appeals process, the Standard Commissioner process hasn’t yet been done.
With all of the above in mind, enter Owen Paterson, who has been through the Standards Commissioner process and bitterly complained that he hasn’t had a fair hearing.
Whether that is true or not, I genuinely cannot form judgement. But what I do know from the history of this process, there is no right of appeal.
Owen Paterson claims he had 17 eminent witnesses who were not interviewed. He claims the Standards Commissioner told him when he was eventually interviewed that she had already made up her mind. He claims that the only investigation that was done was the use of a newspaper article. He claims and feels he was declared guilty before the proof of innocence was established.
Again, I do not know whether this is true or not but there are allegations of a similar pattern from others who have been through the process.
If there was an appeals process, like the ICGS process where an appeals process was in place led by a High Court Judge, then these issues and allegations could be tested. If after being through that process he was found guilty, there could be no cries of foul play and the process and systems are robust.
It is my view that they are not.
The amendment put forward was to set up a committee to advise on how best to do this and whilst NOT exonerating or letting Owen Paterson off what the Standards Commissioner concluded, it would have given him the opportunity to take his case to appeal.
Why him and not others before? Well, the reality of the matter is Owen’s case is one of the more serious of the cases put through this process. His wife also committed suicide over the affair. It seemed to me, without coming to a conclusion on whether he was guilty or not, the seriousness of the allegations warranted the process to be given the opportunity to be tested.
The Standards Commissioner deemed that Owen faced a 30-day suspension from the House, recall to parliament and having to fight a by-election in his own seat. That still stood despite the amendment.
The difference being he would have had the opportunity (as would all colleagues) of the same democratic rights of appeal that every employed person in the UK has. Something this process that MPs go through, doesn’t.
It is for all of the above reasons that I voted for the amendment.
Of course, like most things in parliament, things progress and move on at pace.
It rapidly became clear once the Opposition parties chose not to sit on the committee established, that the amendment as voted on and passed in parliament couldn’t progress. That, and the personal abuse and fire Owen and his whole family came under overnight, he felt he had no further option but to resign as an MP with immediate effect, which he did yesterday.
So, was this the right time to bring forward the amendment. From a duty of care point of view – yes it was. From a political point of view – the timing and attachment to a particular case, it was not.
With hindsight the government should have separated these two distinct matters more clearly.
The view on Monday was that there was a duty of care for MPs generally and Owen and his family who have had to endure the pain of his wife and his children’s mother’s death and the price of taking a ‘hit’ politically was worth the risk. For Owen, that abuse, pain, and risk to the whole family became too much and he resigned.
Not only has this man been denied an appeal (something everyone else is this Country is afforded) but reform of this process which will give others that right, has probably also been lost. Kicked into the long grass, I fear.
Craig Whittaker MP