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Suzanne Townley

News Editor, Solicitors Journal

News special: MPs' lobbying law

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News special: MPs' lobbying law

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News special written by guest writer, barrister M. A. Muid Khan, on the resignation of Owen Paterson MP

This news special was written by guest writer M. A. Muid Khan, barrister of the Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn and Chartered Legal Executive Lawyer.

Conservative MP Owen Paterson has resigned as an MP. 65-year-old Paterson, who had been an MP for 24 years, was last month (October) found by parliament's independent investigator to have broken lobbying rules while undertaking  private sector work.

Paterson earned a total of £110,000 a year on top of his MP's salary by working as a paid consultant for clinical diagnostics company, Randox, as well as for meat distributor, Lynn's Country Foods. MPs are allowed to have these jobs. However, they are not allowed to use their influence in Whitehall for the gain of companies where they work as paid consultants.

Investigation

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards concluded Paterson had breached the rule on paid advocacy by making three approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Randox and the testing of antibiotics in milk. He also breached this rule by making seven approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Lynn's Country Foods and four approaches to ministers at the Department for International Development relating to Randox and blood testing technology.

In addition, he did not declare his interest as a paid consultant to Lynn's Country Foods in four emails to officials at the Food Standards Agency. He used his parliamentary office on 16 occasions for business meetings with his clients. In breach of conduct rules, he sent two letters relating to his business interests on House of Commons headed notepaper.

When the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards concluded Paterson had breached this rule on paid advocacy, initially it was recommended he be suspended for 30 days from the House of Commons.

Twist

However, Conservative MPs, with the encouragement of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, were whipped to block the suspension, while parliament's standards system was overhauled. Downing Street reversed its decision lass than 24 hours after a furious backlash over the government’s action.

A cabinet minister on Friday admitted it was "a mistake" for Conservative MPs to have attempted to overhaul parliament's disciplinary processes in combination with blocking Paterson's suspension.

MPs’ lobbying law

It is to be noted that the MPs’ code of conduct dictates their ethical standards. Their lobbying is also bound by law – specifically, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014.

Lobbying has two elements. Firstly, there should be a person or a group. Secondly, they would try to persuade someone in parliament to back a policy or campaign. Under the law, MPs must never take payment for this. To do so is “strictly forbidden” by their code of conduct.

The code states that, MPs may not enter into “any contractual arrangement” which fetters their “complete independence” in parliament. It is further stated that “... nor may an outside body (or person) use any contractual arrangement with a Member of Parliament as an instrument by which it controls, or seeks to control, his or her conduct in Parliament.

But the rules do not prevent an MP from holding a paid interest as a director, consultant, or adviser, “whether or not such interests are related to membership of the House”. The Act introduced a statutory register of consultant lobbyists with a view to keep a transparent record of those seeking to lobby ministers and top officials on behalf of a third party.

It is the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who considers any allegations that an MP has breached the code of conduct. If they have seen sufficient evidence, the commissioner has the power to launch an inquiry. If they find that there has been a breach, they report this to the cross-party Committee on Standards. The committee will then consider the case and make its own conclusions, including any recommendations to the House on what should happen next.

If the committee agrees with the commissioner there has been a breach, it can suggest certain penalties for the person in question. These could include a written apology, an apology on the floor of the House, or even suspension from the House for a specific number of sitting days. It is up to the House to decide whether to implement these recommendations.

Conclusion

The committee concluded Paterson had breached this rule on paid advocacy by making three approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Randox and the testing of antibiotics in milk,  seven approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Lynn's Country Foods and four approaches to ministers at the Department for International Development relating to Randox and blood testing technology. As well as his resignation as an MP, Paterson has quit his consultancy work amid the lobbying scandal. Paterson's resignation means there will shortly be a by-election for his safe Conservative seat.

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