UK government admits it was wrong over lawmaker lobbying

LONDON (AP) — A chastened British government admitted Tuesday that it was wrong to try to block a lawmaker’s suspension for breaching ethics rules, an episode that both ruling party and opposition legislators said had tarnished the country’s political system.

Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is a member of the Conservative government, said it had been “a mistake” to try to force an overhaul of Parliament’s standards process rather than suspend fellow Conservative Owen Paterson for breaking lobbying rules.

“We expect all members to abide by the prevailing rules of conduct. Paid lobbying is wrong, and members found guilty of this should pay the necessary penalties,” Rees-Mogg said.

The House of Commons standards committee recommended that Paterson be suspended for 30 days for lobbying on behalf of two companies that paid him more than 100,000 pounds ($137,000) a year. Usually, such decisions are rubber-stamped by lawmakers, but the government ordered Conservative legislators this month to oppose the suspension and instead call for an overhaul of Parliament’s standards process.

The government changed course the next day after a furious backlash. Paterson resigned from Parliament, but lawmakers on Tuesday formally endorsed his censure.

Labour lawmaker Thangam Debbonaire said the government had treated the rules with “disdain, frankly incompetence, and a total absence of leadership.”

Former Prime Minister Theresa May, a Conservative, said the government’s behavior had been “ill-judged and just plain wrong.”

“Let’s be clear: this is not a party political issue,” May said. “Damage has been done to all members of Parliament and to Parliament as a whole.”

The Paterson case fueled the latest allegations that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative government don’t follow rules that apply to everyone else.

Johnson himself has been criticized for accepting expensive vacations on the Caribbean island of Mustique and in Spain. He also faces investigation by Parliament’s standards watchdog over the source of the money that was used to refurbish his apartment in the prime minister’s official Downing Street residence.

The often-lucrative second jobs held by lawmakers — largely, but not exclusively Conservative ones — have caused mounting anger.

Members of Parliament are allowed to earn outside income as long as they declare it and it does not shade into lobbying. But there has been widespread criticism of the second jobs since it was revealed that one Conservative lawmaker, Geoffrey Cox, earned 400,000 pounds ($540,000) a year as a lawyer while serving in Parliament.

In response to the ethics uproar, Johnson said Tuesday that lawmakers should be investigated if they were “neglecting their duties to their constituents and prioritizing outside interests,” and should be banned from acting as “paid political consultants or lobbyists.” He promised to seek cross-party support on changes to the House of Commons’ code of conduct.

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