Following the announcement of the resignation of Owen Paterson from the House of Commons made this afternoon, Michael Fabricant says:-
“I do hope that all the major political parties can now work together to reform the deeply flawed system which investigated Paterson’s case. Justice must always be seen to be done and that was not in this case with a one woman judge and jury.
“The amendment passed yesterday, and which I voted for, allows for a Select Committee to be set up to investigate how future enquiries should be undertaken. These should include the right for witnesses to appear in person and to be cross examined, for there to be no one individual being judge and jury, and for a right to appeal. None of these were available to Owen Paterson and others – of all parties – who have previously been investigated.
“Now that reform of the Commissioner’s role and the processes of investigation are freed of conflation with Owen Paterson’s case, the Opposition parties no longer have a reason not to constructively engage in this inquiry into how future investigations might be held.
“In the meantime, my thoughts go out to Owen Paterson’s family and to his late wife, Rose.
“I informed the Deputy Chief Whip last Saturday that I could not vote for the Motion of Censure because it had become clear that Owen Paterson’s “trial” was deeply flawed.
“The Commissioner who had found him guilty had publicly stated before the inquiry began that she already thought he was guilty. In a court of law, had a judge done that, he would have been dismissed from the case and severely censured. Moreover, the Commissioner failed to interview 17 witnesses directly linked with the case, and there were a number of factual errors in her subsequent report which was badly botched.
“The one and only Commissioner was both Judge and Jury and that is not the way we do justice in this country. The whole process was deeply flawed. The Commissioner has no legal background. Her formal education was a degree in Sociology from the Polytechnic of North East London in 1985 and an MA in Women’s Studies in 1990 from Loughborough University.
“Yesterday, I voted for a House of Commons Select Committee to be established to find ways by which the system can be reformed. To reiterate: none of us voted one way or another on whether Owen Paterson is guilty and whether or not he should be severely punished.
“As I said in the House of Commons yesterday, ‘Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done’.
“Personally, I would have much preferred this inquiry not to have been linked to a single case, but the distorted process in the Paterson case has caused the need for changes to be made to maintain the probity of Parliament. Both Labour and Conservative MPs are under investigation for various alleged misdemeanours: it is important that the investigative process is transparent, effective, just, and with a right to appeal. None of these was the case with the Paterson inquiry. Now that Owen has resigned, I hope we will be able to reform the system.”
The respected journalist, Charles Moore, wrote about this case eloquently in The Telegraph last October. He said:
Kathryn Stone, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, has found against Owen Paterson on serious charges of “paid advocacy” which “brings the House into disrepute”, and other, more minor breaches of the rules. If true, these could ruin his career. The Parliamentary Committee on Standards has strongly backed the Commissioner and recommended an unprecedentedly severe 30-day suspension.
But in what sense has she “found” anything? To find, you must first seek. Yet, as she herself admitted in a letter to the clerk of the relevant parliamentary committee on September 2, “It is correct that I had decided Mr Paterson had breached the rules by the time I sent him my first memorandum.” How could she have legitimately decided this without properly collecting evidence and without meeting Mr Paterson? This would appear to be prejudice in the literal meaning of the word – passing judgment before knowing the facts.
The whole thing began almost exactly two years ago, but Mr Paterson received Ms Stone’s first memorandum only on December 1 2020. By that time his wife Rose, deeply worried by the growth of the Commissioner’s accusations and her refusal to engage with her husband’s answers, had killed herself. Ms Stone chose to describe this tragic event as “a close family bereavement”.
Mr Paterson informs me that her memorandum contained numerous factual errors. For example, it criticised Mr Paterson for never having met the Chief Vet, Dr Christine Middlemiss. Yet he had met her on several occasions, in pursuit of his anxieties about carcinogens in supermarket milk.
At last shown Ms Stone’s accusations, Mr Paterson asked her to speak to named witnesses, including the Chief Vet, Professor Chris Elliott, the leading authority on food standards, and several relevant Ministers who had attended the meetings she had queried. Eventually, this produced 17 witness statements. All of them confirmed Mr Paterson’s account of events. Although, when she finally met him at his insistence in March this year, she asked for their contact details, Ms Stone did not get in touch with a single one of them. Inevitably, therefore, her second draft memorandum, on June 11 this year, still contained serious factual errors and misunderstandings.
The Commissioner is supposed to follow the rules of natural justice – that the tribunal, or person, inquiring should be independent, impartial and unbiased; and that the person investigated should know the case against them and be able fully to answer that case before any decisions on the merits are made. If Mr Paterson’s account is correct, the Commissioner clearly did not follow these rules, or Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights, or even the normal standards for workplace investigations.
The concept of “parliamentary privilege” is intended to protect Parliament from coercion by the state, but in this case the doctrine is twisted round. The Commissioner’s work is given parliamentary privilege. Therefore its processes cannot be challenged by any external authority. This means that Mr Paterson has no redress against Ms Stone’s actions. She is judge and jury, and the parliamentary Committee, which has established the perplexing tradition that it must almost always uphold the Commissioner’s findings, is executioner, a task it is performing with sanctimonious relish, castigating Mr Paterson for daring to question the Commissioner’s methods.
And although party political feelings are not the main problem here, it has not passed unnoticed that most Labour MPs who come under Ms Stone’s notice have been let off lightly, whereas Conservative ones – especially pro-Brexit Conservatives such as Mr Paterson and Boris Johnson himself – have been treated much more harshly.
Very late in the day, the Government shows signs of waking up to the problem of a system – and a person – who cannot command the confidence of the whole House. This judgment attacks a man who was trying to act for the public good over food safety. It should be challenged by MPs, not meekly accepted.