Talking candidly about his ‘dedicated and loving’ wife Rose’s suicide on an episode of Women’s Hour, Owen Paterson hinted at a possible link between her inner turmoil and his sometimes bruising role on the political front line.
‘Of course, there are pressures in my life. She hated, hated, and became much more sensitive actually to Press criticism,’ he told the BBC’s Emma Barnett in April, ten months after her death.
‘We knew she was anxious… she was certainly anxious.’
Tory MP Owen Paterson has been suspended by the Common Standards Committee for 30 days
The Tory MP expanded on this theme in more detail last month, via a heartfelt written statement to Parliament’s anti-sleaze committee.
The committee was considering whether he’d broken strict Commons rules by lobbying repeatedly for two Northern Irish companies that were, between them, paying him more than £100,000 per year.
One of the firms, Randox, had simultaneously been paying vast sums to sponsor the Grand National race at Aintree, where Rose, who he’d met at Cambridge and married 40 years earlier, happened to be chairman.
‘No one will know for sure why my wife hanged herself. But my family and I are in no doubt that the way this investigation has been conducted played a massive role in creating the extreme anxiety which led to her suicide,’ read Paterson’s letter to the Commons Standards Committee.
‘She thought it would carry on until it somehow found a punishment that forced me to resign as an MP.
‘She would have to step down as Aintree chairman and from other senior racing positions.’
Yesterday, those words began to look eerily prescient after the Committee recommended suspending Paterson for 30 days.
Should MPs agree with the 173-page report’s findings, the 65-year-old former Northern Ireland and Defra minister can expect to face a recall petition giving his constituents in North Shropshire the right to force him out via a by-election.
Just such a process has in recent years been used to eject from Parliament such rotters as Fiona Onasanya, the Labour backbencher who was sent to prison for perverting the course of justice to escape a speeding fine, and Chris Davies, a Tory convicted of fiddling his expenses back in 2019.
Whether Paterson deserves to be mentioned in the same breath is a matter of opinion.
Talking candidly about his ‘dedicated and loving’ wife Rose’s suicide on an episode of Women’s Hour, Owen Paterson hinted at a possible link between her inner turmoil and his sometimes bruising role on the political front line
To critics, this is an old-fashioned scandal: an MP on the make who repeatedly used his office, contacts book and even headed Commons notepaper to peddle influence for his commercial paymasters in a way that will massively undermine faith in Parliamentary democracy.
Supporters, along with Paterson himself, argue that he’s committed only minor technical breaches of arcane rules, and is being stitched up ‘without due process’ by an investigation that ‘did not comply with natural justice’ – and that those who passed judgment on him did so without knowing about, or seeking to properly establish, the full facts.
A third point of view is that Paterson – who is affectionately nicknamed ‘wooden top’ in Westminster for being pleasant but not overburdened by intellect – blundered his way into a mess that has had tragic and utterly unforeseeable consequences thanks to a mixture of carelessness and naivety.
To decide which version of events is correct – and it’s possible they may all be partly true – one must wind the clock back to 2015 when the MP was twiddling his thumbs after being sacked as Defra secretary on account of his allegedly poor handling of summer floods and the contentious issue of badger culling.
Late that year, he was hired as a ‘consultant’ by Randox, a medical firm that makes diagnostic equipment and tests, on a salary of £50,000 per year, for eight hours of work per month – or around £500 an hour.
The news attracted some controversy, since he’d dealt with the company in his ministerial role just a few years earlier when, as Northern Ireland Secretary, he’d pushed for corporation tax to be devolved to Belfast.
In 2017, Paterson also started being paid a further £4,000 every other month for ‘consultancy services’ by Lynn’s Country Foods Ltd, an artisanal venison and processed meat company.
That also looked a bit odd, since the appointment came shortly after he spoke in support of a bid by the firm to sue the World Health Organisation for branding British sausages ‘dangerous’ to public health.
Mr Paterson (left) with Randox MD Dr Peter Fitzgerald. The former Cabinet Minister was hired as a ‘consultant’ by the firm in 2015
‘I am a huge fan of the great British banger and I am fully behind Lynn’s call for a WHO public clarification,’ read a quote from Paterson that had been added to the firm’s press release.
‘I urge everyone go out and buy some quality British sausages.’
By then, Randox had decided to double the amount it was paying for his help, meaning that Mr Paterson’s remuneration from the two Ulster-based firms amounted to almost twice his Parliamentary salary.
The medical firm was also donating to his pro-Brexit think-tank UK2020, which in turn funded some of the MP’s trips abroad.
Cynics began to wonder what exactly these companies thought they might get for all that money.
Or if Paterson might be tempted to prioritise their interests over those of his constituents.
Fast forward to 2019, and a potential answer emerged via the front page of the Guardian newspaper.
It was reported that Paterson had actively lobbied ministers and senior public officials on account of the two firms on multiple occasions, using several meetings and a series of emails to encourage them to take steps that would benefit both Randox and Lynn’s.
Paterson had also repeatedly used his Commons office to conduct business for the companies and twice used House of Commons stationery to write to ministers on behalf of Randox.
Supporters, along with Paterson himself, argue that he’s committed only minor technical breaches of arcane rules, and is being stitched up ‘without due process’
All of which immediately caught the attention of Parliament’s authorities. For while MPs are perfectly entitled to take outside jobs, they are not generally allowed to lobby Government on behalf of an employer.
The only exceptions to that rule come in circumstances where there is no financial benefit to the employer from the lobbying, or when the MP is seeking to right a ‘serious wrong’ or ‘substantial injustice’ as a sort of whistle-blower.
To establish what exactly had gone on, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, launched an investigation in October 2019.
But then came Covid, placing Randox, and its web of political influence, under significant public scrutiny.
The Irish firm had originally been founded in 1982 by one Dr Peter Fitzgerald, in a chicken shed behind his family farm in County Antrim, when he was working as an academic at Queen’s University, Belfast.
It slowly but surely became a leading medical testing company, and by last year was involved one in eight of the world’s cholesterol tests, was employing 1,300 people and sold its wares to 145 countries, with offices in India, Brazil and the US.
Fitzgerald had meanwhile become UK’s 475th richest person with a £255million personal fortune, according to the Sunday Times rich list, and hobbies that included polo and horse racing.
The Pandemic would further turbo-charge Randox’s fortunes. Last May, it emerged that the firm had won a £133m contract to produce Covid testing kits.
Controversially, the contract was awarded ‘without prior publication of a call for competition, in light of the extreme urgency.
Questions perhaps inevitably began to be asked about the company’s links to the Conservatives, to whom it had donated around £160,000 since 2010.
It was around this time that Rose Paterson was dragged into proceedings.
For it was noted that, back in 2016, her husband had persuaded the firm to sign a lucrative five-year sponsorship deal with the Grand National.
Crucially, one person who may have been affected by the sponsorship deal was businesswoman Dido Harding a friend of the Patersons who sat on the board of the Jockey Club, which in turn owned Aintree
The arrangement had first been mooted by Owen Paterson while out riding with Fitzgerald. ‘He said, “Have you ever thought of sponsoring the Grand National?” We talked a bit more,’ the businessman later recalled.
‘It all happened very fast. I suppose I felt it was time we came out. The Grand National is the greatest horse race in the world and it is a privilege to be associated with it.’
Crucially, one person who may have been affected by the sponsorship deal was businesswoman Dido Harding a friend of the Patersons who sat on the board of the Jockey Club, which in turn owned Aintree.
She, of course, went on to run the Government’s Test and Trace programme, which was in turn responsible for buying hundreds of millions of pounds worth of testing services from Randox.
Although there is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Harding, to some, the whole thing looked a little too cosy.
And critical headlines appear to have added to the anxiety being felt by Rose.
According to friends, the mother of three grown-up children became horrified by the prospect of the story tarnishing her reputation or affecting her ability to continue working for Aintree or continuing as a steward at the Jockey Club. She took her life on June 24 last year.
‘We knew Rose was anxious about things, anxious about stuff in my political life,’ Paterson said in a later newspaper interview.
‘There were lots of things to be anxious about, but to take this extraordinarily, violent, final step… if only we had an inkling, we could’ve talked.’
At the time of Rose’s suicide, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards was asking a host of awkward questions about the work her husband had carried out for both Randox – which last November bagged another £374m Government contract – and Lynn’s.
In 2016 and 2017, for example, he had made a series of approaches to the Food Standards Agency and its chairman Heather Hancock concerning the suggestion that antibiotic residues had been found in milk being sold in supermarkets.
In meetings and via emails, Paterson said that Randox had invented a test for such residues and urged the FSA to adopt it.
Elsewhere, he wrote to then International Development Secretary Priti Patel asking if she would meet with representatives of the medical firm so they could discuss using its technology to help with aid projects that involved blood testing.
In January 2017, he met with junior Dfid minister Rory Stewart to discuss ‘potential commercial opportunities Randox may wish to explore’.
He also sent a series of emails to the Food Standards Agency on behalf of Lynn’s Foods without declaring that he was a paid consultant, in an apparent breach of the rules.
And in one initiative he sought to have one of Lynn’s competitors forced to re-label their product so as not to compete with Lynn’s own ‘nitrite-free’ products.
Over this period, his Parliamentary office was used 25 times for meetings with representatives of the firms.
In his defence, Paterson argued that his lobbying work was allowed under the rules because it was seeking to right what he believed was a ‘serious wrong’ or a ‘substantial injustice’ or to improve public policy.
The Commissioner for Standards concluded, however, that in the vast majority of instances he over-stepped the mark.
Members of the Committee agreed. It didn’t help that at no stage did he appear to have sought guidance from the Commons authorities to ensure that he stayed on the right side of the rules.
Adding to the gravity was the fact that, on most occasions, he initiated contact with the Government, rather than vice versa.
Paterson claimed that he was forced to hold business meetings in Parliament in order to be present for crucial votes, which in theory would have meant those meetings were within rules.
However the Commissioner found that on one occasion that he’d cited, the meetings had taken place at 9.30am and 3.15pm (when MPs were actually voting at 10pm), and on another they’d taken place at 9am when MPs didn’t have to vote until 12.15.
Yet Paterson has in turn complained that the Commissioner failed to speak with the authors of 17 witness statements, which he believes would have confirmed his version of events regarding various aspects of the alleged lobbying campaign.
The Committee appears to have concluded their evidence would be irrelevant to its conclusions and his work was, instead, an egregious case of paid advocacy’ which has ‘brought the House into disrepute’.
Fellow MPs will get the chance to debate his fate in the coming days.