BBC presenter corrects false claim about Owen Paterson vote

4 November 2021
What was claimed

The vote on whether to accept the Committee on Standards’ report into Owen Paterson and its recommendation to suspend him from Parliament was a free vote.

Our verdict

False. It was a three-line whip.

“You just said the government voted this down. That’s strictly not true is it. Because the vote was a free vote, wasn’t it, it wasn’t a whipped vote. The MPs voted on the new motion to do with Owen Paterson. So it wasn’t a government decision, was it, it was a vote by MPs.”

The House of Commons voted to delay the decision on suspending MP Owen Paterson on Wednesday after he was found to have lobbied for companies in breach of the Code of Conduct for MPs. 

BBC Breakfast presenter Charlie Stayt initially said that this was not a government vote, as it was not whipped but a free vote.

This is not true. The vote was whipped.

The clip has gone viral on social media, but Mr Stayt did correct himself later on in the programme saying: “My understanding was that the Conservative MPs who voted in that important vote were free to vote as they chose, like a free vote, but that actually was what’s called a three-line whip.”

Background to the case

In October 2019, the Independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards opened an investigation into allegations against Mr Paterson of lobbying which breached the Code of Conduct for MPs.

The Commissioner found Mr Paterson had breached rules on paid advocacy, failed to declare an interest as a paid consultant, and breached the Code of Conduct on the use of parliamentary facilities.

The case was referred to MPs on the cross-party House of Commons Committee on Standards, who, last month, recommended Mr Paterson be suspended for 30 days.

As is procedure, this was then debated in the House of Commons yesterday and the decision over whether to suspend Mr Paterson put to a vote.

The vote

The motion to be voted on was initially to accept the report by the Committee on Standards and suspend Mr Paterson for 30 days.

However, an amendment tabled by backbench Conservative MP Dame Andrea Leadsom proposed scrapping the entirety of the motion, and instead proposed to:

  • Decline to consider the report “at this time”, given “concerns expressed about potential defects in the standards system”
  • Appoint a Select Committee to consider 
    • whether the rules on investigating MPs for breaches of the Code might be changed
    • whether the case against Mr Paterson should be reviewed or whether the report from the Committee on Standards should be reconsidered by the House

Arguing for her amendment, Dame Andrea said questions remained over a number of points including whether MPs should be able to call their own witnesses, provide their own evidence and have a right of appeal when being investigated. 

The amendment passed by 250 votes to 232, and the amended motion was then passed by 248 votes to 221.  

The BBC reported “the government has instructed its MPs to vote in favour of this amendment” and the vote was reportedly subject to a three-line whip by the Conservative party.

The whip is an instruction given by a party leadership to its MPs indicating which way they should vote on parliamentary business. A three-line whip is the most explicit instruction to MPs to vote in a certain way, more so than a two-line or one-line whip.

A government minister who defies a government decision is expected to resign their position and return to being a backbench MP. A backbench MP who defies the whip may face other punishment.

The House of Commons library says: “Defying a three-line whip is very serious, and has occasionally resulted in the whip being withdrawn from an MP or Lord. This means that the Member is effectively expelled from their party (but keeps their seat) and must sit as an independent until the whip is restored.”

By contrast, a free vote is not whipped at all. 

Following the vote, the government has announced it will rethink its plans. Mr Paterson has since announced his resignation as an MP.

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