openDemocracyUK: News

Owen Paterson asked third firm for a job ‘weeks after leaving government’

Exclusive: Disgraced former Tory MP phoned businessman he’d met through his ministerial brief to ask for work shortly after returning to backbenches

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Martin Williams
12 November 2021, 1.00pm
Ex-Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson attempted to get a job with a Northern Irish firm, having met the owner as part of his ministerial work
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Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News

Owen Paterson, the disgraced former Tory minister, did a “ring round” weeks after leaving government in an attempt to get a second job as a consultant, openDemocracy has learned.

Paterson resigned last week after being found guilty of an “egregious” breach of parliamentary rules by lobbying for two businesses while he was still a backbench MP.

He was paid for consultancy work by a health diagnostic firm, Randox Laboratories, and a meat processing firm, Lynn’s Country Foods, both of which are based in Northern Ireland.

Randox Laboratories, which went on to win £479m in COVID-testing contracts, paid Paterson £120 an hour to act as a consultant. The firm told The Times the contracts, which were awarded without competition, were won ‘on merit’.

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But it has now emerged that Paterson also tried to get a consultancy job at CIGA Healthcare Ltd, another health diagnostics firm based in Northern Ireland.

The company’s owner, Irwin Armstrong, told openDemocracy he was “quite friendly” with Paterson after getting to know him when he was secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

“He did ring me up asking if there was anything available,” Armstrong said. “I said we’re a small company and we can’t really afford to be employing people as PR people or whatever.”

He said the conversation took place in 2014, “a few weeks” after Paterson left his final position in government, as environment secretary.

We are highly paid, and have a full-time job to do and should not have space for another role

Jon Trickett, Labour MP

It is not against parliamentary rules for backbench MPs to take second jobs, so the businessman said Paterson’s request felt “perfectly normal”. Armstrong said potential salaries weren’t discussed because he didn’t need to hire anyone.

Armstrong told openDemocracy: “I don’t know the ins and outs of what went on in Westminster… All I can tell you is Owen was an incredibly hard-working, straightforward, open individual as far as I was concerned.”

But Labour MP Jon Trickett said: “It’s amazing to me that any MP has the time not only to take a second job but also to ‘ring round’ private companies offering their services for a fee.”

He told openDemocracy: “The perception formulating in the public’s mind is that MPs are in it for themselves. It tarnishes our whole political system and brings parliament into disrepute.

“There is a simple first step in removing vested interests from our democratic institutions. That is to ban second jobs for MPs. We are highly paid, have a full-time job to do and should not have space for another role if properly discharging the duties we have to constituents.”

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Steve Goodrich, head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK, said: “If ministers are calling round for side jobs so shortly after leaving high office, it shows there is either no fear of consequences or no understanding that this may be inappropriate.

“MPs seeking work from those they engaged with as a minister raises obvious questions as to whether they divulged privileged information and secured political access for their new employer.

“While the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, the body responsible for enforcing the rules on post-public employment, can advise former ministers not to do this, it has absolutely no powers in practice to do anything about it – this needs to change.”

Paterson could not be reached for comment.

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