The government has resisted for nearly a year the release of documents that could shed light on whether the Conservative MP Owen Paterson promoted a healthcare firm that paid him to be a consultant.
For more than 11 months the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has failed to respond to a freedom of information request seeking records of a meeting between a health minister, Paterson and the firm, Randox.
Paterson, a former cabinet minister, is facing a suspension of 30 days from the House of Commons after parliament’s sleaze watchdog found on Tuesday that he had broken the rules when he lobbied for Randox and a second client, the food manufacturing firm Lynn’s Country Foods, on different matters.
MPs are expected to vote next week on whether to enforce the suspension.
Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, initiated her investigation two years ago after the Guardian disclosed details of Paterson’s lobbying for the two companies, which had hired him as a paid consultant.
Stone, backed by the Commons’ standards committee, which polices members’ conduct, decided that the North Shropshire MP had committed an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules, raising the possibility that he could lose his seat if enough constituents were to sign a recall petition and trigger a byelection.
The MPs on the all-party committee said: “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 interests.”
They ruled that Paterson had violated the MPs’ code of conduct in three ways when he promoted the financial interests of Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods between November 2016 and February 2020.
Paterson continues to receive almost £100,000 a year from Randox and £12,000 a year from Lynn’s for consultancy work, in addition to his £81,000 parliamentary salary. His more recent work for Randox did not fall within the remit of Stone’s investigation.
On 30 March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Randox was given a £133m contract by DHSC to conduct coronavirus tests. Other firms were not able to bid for the contract because the government argued that the work had to be conducted urgently.
On 9 April 2020 Randox held a meeting with a health minister, James Bethell, who at that time oversaw the awarding of Covid-19 contracts to private firms, according to government transparency data.
DHSC has declared that Paterson also took part in the meeting, which was conducted over the phone. What was said at this meeting is unknown.
A Randox spokesperson said: “Paterson played no role in the award of Covid contracts to Randox,” adding that they were granted because of the company’s extensive experience in healthcare diagnostics.
“Randox was awarded its contract on 30 March 2020 and any subsequent meetings were clearly undertaken with the contract in place,” he said. He did not answer when asked what was discussed at the meeting or why Paterson attended it.
For 11 months DHSC has delayed giving any response to a freedom of information request by the Guardian for copies of documents that may explain what happened at this meeting. It, like other public bodies, are required to respond within 20 working days.
In October 2020 the department awarded a new £347m Covid-19 testing contract to Randox as an extension to the previous contract. It was again agreed without other companies being invited to bid.
Steve Goodrich, the head of research and investigations for Transparency International UK, said: “The public’s right to know is a critical safeguard against abuses of office, yet it is increasingly frustrated by the UK government. We’re witnessing a gaping void where sunlight once shone. Unless departments start complying with their legal obligations to disclosure, we’re left with the overwhelming impression they have something to hide.”
A DHSC spokesperson said: “It is inaccurate to accuse the department of withholding information. We are working hard to respond to freedom of information requests, of which we’ve experienced unprecedented volumes over the last 18 months.”
Paterson has rejected the findings of the investigation into his conduct and insists he has done nothing wrong. He did not respond to an invitation to comment.