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Political editor Paul Francis explains 'sleaze' allegations against former minister, Owen Paterson, as latest vote halted by MP Christopher Chope


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MPs have finally voted to accept the findings of a report by a standards watchdog that recommended the former Tory minister Owen Paterson be suspended for 30 days over ‘sleaze’ claims.

In what amounted to an embarrassing u-turn, Conservative MPs accepted the findings of the standards watchdog which barely a fortnight ago they had, on government orders, tried to block.

The Houses of Parliament
The Houses of Parliament

It caused a major backlash and triggered a tussle that ended today when MPs finally got a chance to debate the issue of Mr Paterson's breach of the code of conduct.

The Labour MP Chris Bryant said that every MP he had spoken to who had read the report believed that he was guilty.

“Yet here we are again: if at first you don’t succeed, try try and try again. I am completely mystified as to why the Prime Minister moved heaven and earth to prevent him being sanctioned.”

He added that he wished it could be different and expressed his sympathy for Mr Paterson over the death of his wife who took her own life. “This House has done him no favours and we should be ashamed.”

He went on to list each of the steps taken by the Prime Minister in his bid to persuade the Commons that this was a hugely important moment.

"If at first you don't succeed, try try and try again..."

Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said he had made a “mistake” by conflating his support for reforming the standards system with the result of the two-year investigation into Paterson.

The row cast a spotlight on MPs and there second jobs, which in many cases earned them thousands of pounds on top of the annual salary.

An examination by KentOnline of declarations made by Kent MPs in the Register of Interests reveals five have other jobs.

Last night, efforts to reverse the vote was frustrated by a Conservative MP late last night.

The government had tabled a proposal to overturn a previous vote to block a ruling by a standards watchdog that the ex-minister Owen Paterson should be suspended for 30-days for lobbying which breached the code of conduct.

But after a backlash from opposition MPs, which triggered multiple disclosures of other MPs with second jobs, the government stepped back from trying to block the ruling.

However, the intervention in the Commons by the Conservative MP Christopher Chope, who used a parliamentary procedural device to halt the vote, has left the government in limbo.

It is understood that it will try to reverse the original vote possibly later today.

When the lid was lifted on MPs’ expenses more than a decade ago, it led to far-reaching changes to a system that had become discredited.

Headlines over how MPs had claimed for the cleaning of a moat; purchasing a new duck house and furnishing their second homes on the basis of a ‘John Lewis’ list fuelled public anger.

Owen Paterson
Owen Paterson

The result was that the loopholes in the system were closed and tougher rules introduced.

Ten years on, however, another controversy has erupted, with revelations about second jobs some have.

This was triggered by the case of former Conservative MP Owen Paterson, who was found to be in breach of rules on lobbying for companies who paid him hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Our political editor, Paul Francis, has explained what you need to know and why the latest controversy matters.

Owen Paterson Photo: PA Media
Owen Paterson Photo: PA Media

Question: What is the Register of MPs’ Interests?

All MPs must provide information on any financial or non-financial benefit they have received which might “reasonably be thought by others to influence their actions, speeches or votes in Parliament or influence their actions taken in their capacity as a member.”

Question: What kind of interests have to be declared?

There are a number of categories: among them are ‘gifts, benefits and hospitality’ which covers donations, tickets for events such as concerts or sporting fixtures.

Another category is employment or earnings, which is at the centre of this latest controversy.

MPs must register any payment for any outside jobs they have and the hours they work.

Common jobs are roles as non-executive directors of companies or other organisations.

Former ministers are supposed to wait three months after leaving Cabinet before taking on an outside job.

Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford
Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford

Five Kent MPs have additional jobs: Damian Green (Ashford); Damian Collins (Folkestone); Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford); Natalie Elphicke (Dover); Rehman Chishti (Gillingham).

Many MPs also register payments for newspaper articles and TV appearances - the going rate for an appearance on BBC’s “Question Time” appears to be £200.

The Conservative MP Michael Fabricant received around £1,000 in total for appearing on television shows The Mash Report, The Wright Stuff, and Pointless Celebrities in 2017 and 2018.

MPs must also register details of property they own where the value is above £100,000.

MP Rehman Chishti during PMQs in the House of Commons. Picture: ParliamentTV
MP Rehman Chishti during PMQs in the House of Commons. Picture: ParliamentTV

Question: Where can you find out about your MP’s interests?

Parliament publishes the register which requires MPs to register any interests within 28 days.

At the start of a new Parliament, MPs have one month in which to make their first registration.

It is maintained by The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and is updated on the parliamentary webpages every two weeks during sitting periods and once a month at other times.

Entries remain for twelve months after they have expired.

Folkestone and Hythe MP Damian Collins
Folkestone and Hythe MP Damian Collins

Question: What happens if an MP breaches the rules and fails to declare an interest?

It depends on the circumstances. Anyone can ask the Commissioner For Standards to investigate a claim and if it is upheld, a committee of MPs and lay members recommends whether any sanctions should be imposed and finally MPs approve or reject those sanctions.

The case involving Owen Paterson, who was paid more than £100,000 for lobbying, led the standards watchdog to propose a 30-day suspension from the Commons - a serious and significant penalty.

More minor breaches could be dealt with by requiring the MP in question to apologise in the Commons, coupled with a day-long suspension.

South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay was in 2018 required to apologise for failing to declare his interest in Mama Airlines when speaking in Parliament in support of the reopening of Manston Airport.

He said the company he set up with the intention of running flights from Manston, to Malaga, was dormant.

Question:Why are some MPs suggesting changes are needed?

Some say there is no way in which they can appeal any ruling made by the Commissioner for Standards, making the system flawed.

Critics contend that this omission potentially deprives individuals of natural justice. However, others argue that those investigated have opportunities to present their case during the investigatory process.

Mrs Elphicke at the Houses of Parliament. Picture: Office of Natalie Elphicke MP
Mrs Elphicke at the Houses of Parliament. Picture: Office of Natalie Elphicke MP

Question: What happens now?

Conservative MPs, having been ordered by party chiefs to support a call for a review, which would have also put in limbo the thirty day suspension of the minister Owen Paterson, now have the embarrassment of having to vote against the very thing they supported fortnight ago.

When the lid was lifted on MPs’ expenses more than a decade ago, it led to far-reaching changes to a system that had become discredited.

Headlines over how MPs had claimed for the cleaning of a moat; purchasing a new duck house and furnishing their second homes on the basis of a ‘John Lewis’ list fuelled public anger.

The result was that the loopholes in the system were closed and tougher rules introduced.

Ten years on, however, another scandal has erupted, involving initially allegations about the second jobs some have.

This was triggered by the case of ex-former Conservative MP Owen Paterson, who was found to be in breach of rules on lobbying for companies who paid him hundreds of thousands of pounds.

But the controversy has now spread much wider involving damaging allegations about other abuses of the system.

Head to our politics page for expert analysis and all the latest news from your politicians and councils.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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