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Sensemaker: British corruption

Sensemaker: British corruption

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Ethiopia’s government declared a state of emergency as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front advanced on the capital, Addis Ababa (more below).
  • UK MPs voted to stop Owen Paterson’s suspension from parliament after a public standards committee found he breached lobbying rules (more below).
  • Metal detectorists found England’s largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold coins yet – 131 coins – in a field in west Norfolk.

British corruption

Blink and you’ll have missed the latest turn in the story of Owen Paterson’s alleged corruption and his friends’ efforts to turn a blind eye. This morning those efforts hit a roadblock. Mud is sticking on Paterson and his party. But we shall begin at the beginning. 

The cross-party parliamentary Committee on Standards last week reported that Paterson, a Conservative MP and former minister, broke lobbying rules multiple times. It recommended that MPs vote to suspend him for 30 sitting days. Normally, MPs vote through the Committee’s recommendations, but yesterday something extraordinary happened.

The government, with a personal intervention by Boris Johnson – who’d been lobbied himself the previous evening on Paterson’s behalf at a private dinner at the men-only Garrick Club in London – ordered its own MPs to put the suspension on hold and said its position was really about shaking-up the rules on standards and lobbying. 

They won: 250 votes to 232. It’s worth noting that 98 Conservative MPs abstained. 28 Labour MPs didn’t record a vote because they were paired with Conservative MPs.

The backlash was immediate and strong. Yesterday’s vote was announced to cries of “shame” in the chamber where Paterson sat quietly. One Labour MP waved £10 notes around. The following morning’s newspapers were full of it. Some frontpage headlines: “PM accused of corruption as rules on sleaze torn up”, The Guardian; “The sleazy way out”, Metro; and “Shameless MPs sink back into sleaze”, The Daily Mail. The Financial Times called it “A shameful day for British politics”. Opposition parties told the press they will boycott the sham committee, making it a situation of Conservatives sitting in judgement of themselves. 

So furious was the backlash that, this morning, Conservative MP and leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg told MPs the government will now rethink its plans for a new committee. He said the link between Paterson’s case and the need for new rules on lobbying and standards “needs to be broken”. He promised to seek cross-party consensus on the new plans.

And Paterson? His fate is now unclear. As it stands, he will remain not suspended. But the Labour MP and chair of the Committee Chris Bryant proposed tabling the report into Paterson again, so that MPs could vote on its recommendation again. It’s a creative idea.

Paterson, meanwhile, is completely unrepentant. He did a press round after yesterday’s vote, telling journalists he regrets that nothing and would do it all over again. It’s important to remember what that would look like, based on the Committee’s original findings:

  • Paterson breached the rule against paid advocacy in MPs’ Code of Conduct. As a paid consultant to Randox, a clinical diagnostics company, he approached the Food Standards Agency three times and the Department for International Development four times. As a paid consultant to Lynn’s Country Foods, a processor and distributor of meat products, Paterson made seven approaches to the Food Standards Agency.
  • He breached the rule on declarations of interest. He failed to declare his role with Lynn’s Country Foods in four emails to officials at the Food Standards Agency.
  • He breached the rule on use of parliamentary facilities and used his parliamentary office on 16 occasions for business meetings with Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods. He sent two letters relating to his business interests on House of Commons headed notepaper.

The Committee called it “an egregious case” that brought parliament into disrepute, and said that “no previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behaviour in failing to separate private and public interest”. For Paterson, the risks were worth taking: his financial remuneration from Randox and Lynn’s amounted to nearly three times his annual £79,000 parliamentary salary.

In his defence, Paterson said he only approached officials to warn them of safety defects – an exemption under lobbying rules called averting ”serious wrong”. But the Committee noted that “it stretches credulity to suggest that fourteen approaches to Ministers and public officials were all attempts to avert a serious wrong”. He then claimed that he was pronounced guilty “without being spoken to” and that “no proper investigation was undertaken”. 

But the committee said it gave him “every opportunity to represent himself as fully as possible” both in person and in writing, including extending deadlines at his request and accepting his request to be accompanied by his legal advisors. Paterson even made, the Committee said, “serious, personal, and unsubstantiated allegations against [their] integrity”.

Corruption is the explanation for this behaviour and the government’s response. If the government wanted a new committee and new rules, it could have proposed them without saving Paterson’s neck – as it is trying to do this morning. If MPs voted to support Paterson just because Johnson ordered them to, then parliament is not serving its function as overseer of government. If MPs genuinely think Paterson’s behaviour was acceptable, then we should be even more worried. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Tigray report
A joint report by the UN human rights office and the Ethiopian government’s human rights commission found that all sides in the country’s Tigray war committed abuses of “extreme brutality”, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The conflict began in November 2020 after Tigray forces fell out with the national government, and has claimed thousands of lives. Tigrayans say they’ve been targeted with arbitrary detentions while civilians in the region describe gang rapes, human-caused famine and mass expulsions. The UN told the  AP it had to collaborate with the Ethiopian commission to get access to Tigray, but still found the government to be obstructive – failing to disclose evidence and blocking visits to some of the deadliest war sites – over the course of the investigation. The government, meanwhile, just declared a state of emergency as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front approach Addis Ababa. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, and still has it.

New things technology, science, engineering

Pegasus ban
The US Commerce Department has blacklisted NSO Group, the Israeli military spyware company whose Pegasus software was used by repressive regimes to monitor journalists and human rights activists around the world. American companies now face restrictions on exports of their hardware and software to NSO. But many American firms will likely choose to avoid the company completely so as to eliminate any risk of a blacklist violation and to cut the costs of complex legal analyses. Eitay Mack, an Israeli human rights lawyer, tells the FT the blacklisting could mean that NSO is “finished”.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Another vaccine
A study published in the Lancet showed the NHS human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination programme, which was launched 13 years ago, has prevented thousands of women developing cervical cancer. Rates of cervical cancer in women who were offered the vaccine when they were aged 12 and 13 – and are now in their 20s – were 87 per cent lower than in the unvaccinated population. ​​“Assuming most people continue to get the HPV vaccine and go for screening,” Peter Sasieni, a professor at King’s College London who led the study, told the Guardian, “cervical cancer will become a rare disease”.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Irish cow cull
1.3 million cattle would have to be culled for Ireland’s agricultural sector to meet its anticipated greenhouse gas emissions targets, a KPMG study finds. The taoiseach, Micheál Martin, described the report as “scaremongering”. He’s due to unveil sector-by-sector climate emergency plans today. Irish agriculture accounts for over a third of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is the highest share in Europe. Almost two-thirds of that comes from animals belching. “Farming will have to change,” Martin said. But how? The editor of the Irish Farmers Journal tells the Guardian farmers recognise the need for change but desperately hope it doesn’t come to the culling.

For the latest from Cop26, just opt in to our daily Net Zero Sensemaker.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Bank of England
Britain’s central bank decided to hold its base at 0.1 per cent. Traders expected a rise of 0.15 percentage points, taking the Bank’s base rate back to pre-pandemic levels. A rise would have increased the cost of mortgages that track the Bank’s rate and of servicing many other forms of debt. But the biggest concern was that a high rate would have derailed the UK’s still-fragile economic recovery. Financial markets thought a rate rise was needed to control inflation, which is expected to run between 4 and 5 per cent – when the Bank’s target is 2 per cent – next year. Elevated inflation is due to global supply chain issues and elevated energy prices.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia

Produced by Phoebe Davis and edited by Giles Whittell.

Photographs Getty Images, Alamy Images