North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jr is likely to be suspended from the House of Commons for 30 sitting days after a Parliamentary watchdog substantiated allegations that he broke Parliamentary rules by lobbying for a foreign government which gave him valuable gifts.
Mr Paisley’s peers on the Commons’ Standards Committee found him guilty of “serious misconduct” and that his actions “were of a nature to bring the House of Commons into disrepute”.
The implications of the suspension go far beyond Mr Paisley and could have implications for the nature of Brexit, given that there are expected to be further knife-edge Commons’ votes in the autumn.
And, due to the seriousness of the offence, his potential inability to vote in the chamber could be extended far beyond 30 days. A recent change to the law means that an MP who receives a suspension of more than 10 days must face a by-election if 10% of the voters in their constituency sign a petition asking for that.
Although Mr Paisley has a huge majority in North Antrim, the 10% figure could easily be reached if many of those who voted against him in the last election chose to sign such a petition.
The Commons’ standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone – whose report into the matter went to the committee, which endorsed her findings – ruled that the DUP MP had received a “very substantial personal benefit” from the Government of Sri Lanka in the form of luxury holidays which were first revealed last year by The Daily Telegraph.
He did not declare the visits – and then went on to lobby the Prime Minister on behalf of Sri Lanka’s controversial government.
In a report published this morning, the commissioner said: “These two visits to Sri Lanka provided a very substantial personal benefit to Mr Paisley and his family. “I find it surprising that such an experienced MP did not ask himself whether it was proper to accept such benefits from a foreign government.
“I also find it surprising that he did not realise that, if accepted, these benefits would call into question his impartiality when he next spoke about the affairs of that government.
The commissioner found that Mr Paisley had “breached the House’s rule on paid advocacy by writing to the Prime Minister on 19 March 2014 asking for an exclusive benefit for Sri Lanka, having received personal benefit and hospitality from that government within the previous twelve months”.
She also found that he had “breached the House’s rules on declaration by failing to declare the personal benefit and hospitality from the Sri Lankan government in his letter to the Prime Minister of 19 March 2014”.
And, in a third finding against the veteran DUP figure, she found he “breached the House’s rules on registration of interests by failing to register within the 28 days agreed by the House the two visits made to Sri Lanka with family members in March/April 2013 and in July 2013”.
The Commons’ Standards Committee has now recommended that Mr Paisley be suspended from the Commons for 30 sitting days “in view of the seriousness of this matter”, with the suspension to start on 4 September.
The suspension will have to be endorsed by a vote in the House of Commons.
Mr Paisley responded to the report via a statement from his lawyer, Paul Tweed, and he hinted at the matter coming before the Commons tomorrow. Mr Tweed also said Mr Paisley was “considering” unspecified legal action against The Daily Telegraph, over the way in which it broke the story last year.
Mr Tweed said: “My client has apologised unreservedly at the outset for his unintentional failure to register the hospitality he received.
“While accepting the decision of the House Standards Committee, he nonetheless continues to take issue with the sensationalised report in the Daily Telegraph. Legal proceedings are being considered.
“No further comment will be made until Mr Paisley has addressed the House on Thursday.”
In a letter to the commissioner during her investigation, Mr Paisley said: “I certainly refute any claims that I made an intentional decision not to register, that it was a secret that I was in Sri Lanka, or, worse, that it impacted any comments or decisions I made then or now as a Parliamentarian. None of those claims can in any way be substantiated”.
But, drawing attention to Mr Paisley’s political experience and the fact he had registered other trips the commissioner said he “must have been aware that there are particular sensitivities about accepting gifts and hospitality from foreign governments”.
She added: “It is difficult, therefore, to avoid the conclusion that the reason why the third visit was registered and the two earlier ones were not, was that Mr Paisley was conscious of the potential embarrassment that would be caused to him were it to become publicly known that he had accepted very expensive hospitality, for himself and his family, from a foreign government accused of serious human rights violations.”
She also put it to Mr Paisley in writing during her investigation that he had written to the Prime Minister “urging the government to change its position on a UN motion to the benefit of Sri Lanka. You had received financial benefits from the Sri Lankan government in the previous 12 months. That was a breach of the rule against paid advocacy”.
The full report is online here: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmstandards/1397/1397.pdf