MPs have been warned not to rush into changing Westminster’s disciplinary procedures in the wake of the row over Owen Paterson.
The Commons is staging a three-hour emergency debate after the dramatic collapse last week of the Government’s attempt to overhaul the system amid bitter recriminations.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called on Boris Johnson to apologise to the nation as renewed charges of Tory “sleaze” threatened to engulf his administration.
Ministers were accused of seeking to rewrite the rule book after Mr Paterson – a Conservative former Cabinet minister – was found to have repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials on behalf of two companies he worked for as a paid consultant.
The attempt failed after opposition parties refused to co-operate, while Mr Paterson announced he was quitting as MP for North Shropshire blaming the “cruel world of politics”.
He has insisted throughout that he did nothing wrong.
While ministers have acknowledged it was a mistake to conflate his case with efforts to change the system, they argue that there is still a need for reform.
In particular they have pointed to concern among some MPs about the need for a more robust system of appeals when they are found to have breached the rules.
However Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who chairs the cross-party Commons Standards Committee which found Mr Paterson guilty of an “egregious” breach of the ban on paid lobbying by MPs, cautioned against a rush to change.
He said Mr Paterson had had a “very fair hearing” by the independent Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone and had been found “bang to rights”.
Mr Bryant said the Government should not become involved in Commons disciplinary procedures which were a matter for MPs.
“I don’t think we should leap into making sudden changes. One of my principles is that the Government should stay clear of independent disciplinary processes,” he told Sky News.
“We agreed that he (Mr Paterson) had broken the rules, not just once but on 14 occasions, and it saddened me that the Government got this completely and utterly wrong.”
However a Tory member of the committee, Alberto Costa, said that change was needed and that MPs should not be sitting in judgment on other MPs.
He said the findings of the standards commissioner should go to an independent expert panel, including members of the judiciary, to consider what action to take.
“I don’t think MPs should be adjudicating on issues against other MPs. Let the commissioner present her face to judges and let them be the ultimate arbiters,” he told Sky News.
“We need to change the rules, make it more transparent, bring in members of the judiciary.”
Meanwhile International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan indicated Mr Johnson would not be in the Commons for the debate and that the Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg would lead for the Government.
“My opinion would be that no, he shouldn’t be there,” she told Sky News.
“He will no doubt – as we all do – have the House of Commons on in his office as he’s dealing with many, many other issues that only a Prime Minister can deal with.
“He will get a briefing of the key issues raised by colleagues from across the House later on, I believe that the Leader and other ministers will be well placed to take the despatch box this afternoon.”
The Liberal Democrats, who secured the emergency debate, said it would be a “shocking failure of leadership” if Mr Johnson failed to appear.
Chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “A fish rots from the head down, and it’s the same with Boris Johnson’s corrupt and sleazy Government.
“From the redecoration of his flat to holidays reportedly paid for by Tory Party donors, the Prime Minister has serious questions to answer about his own integrity and allegations he has breached parliamentary standards.
“It looks very much like Boris Johnson was trying to use Owen Paterson’s case to get himself off the hook, which would be a new low even by his standards.”
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