Lobbying for ‘naked’ bacon: how the Owen Paterson scandal began

Route to resignation was marked out more than two years ago following a Guardian investigation

The route to Owen Paterson’s resignation on Thursday afternoon was marked out more than two years ago, when in 2019 the Guardian exposed his lobbying on behalf of two companies from whom he has received at least £500,000 in payments.

Documents released following freedom of information requests revealed that the MP had repeatedly demanded access to ministers and regulators on behalf of his paying clients. This raised the question of whether he had broken parliamentary rules that prohibit MPs from undertaking paid advocacy– rules that have existed in various forms since the 17th century.

The Guardian evidence led the parliamentary standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, to start her own investigation. That resulted in last week’s damning report from the cross-party Commons committee on standards. It concluded that Paterson’s 14 approaches to ministers and public officials were an “egregious” case and that he had brought parliament in to disrepute.

In 2018 the Guardian began making inquiries about a little-known company called UK 2020 that Paterson had formed in 2014 after he lost his ministerial post as environment secretary. He described it as a Conservative thinktank. Funded by donations from private entities, it published occasional reports on issues including the environment and the NHS.

But it also began donating thousands of pounds to Paterson, its sole director. Between 2014 and 2019 it donated almost £40,000 to fund various overseas trips by him.

MPs are required to declare the identities of their political donors in the register of members’ financial interests. Paterson only ever declared his thinktank as the donor in the parliamentary register, so the original source of the thousands of pounds funding him was in effect hidden from the public.

Following the Guardian article, the Labour party demanded that the standards commissioner investigate the true source of the funds, but this apparent bypassing of the rules did not form a part of her later investigation. Paterson closed the thinktank down in October 2019.

The Guardian was able to identify just two donors to UK 2020. The first was a trade association representing agrochemical manufacturers, which paid for UK 2020 to host panels at Conservative party conferences in 2015 and 2016. The second was the Northern Irish clinical diagnostics company Randox Laboratories, which sponsored a 2016 report from Paterson’s thinktank criticising the outcomes of the NHS compared with the health systems of other countries.

Randox, headquartered in Belfast, is owned by Peter Fitzgerald, a Northern Irish polo-playing multimillionaire doctor. The company hired Paterson, a former Northern Ireland secretary, as a consultant from 2015, initially on £49,000 a year, later doubled to £100,000 a year. Paterson’s salary as an MP was about £80,000. Paterson declared these payments in the register of MP’s financial interests. Documents show that he then devoted considerable time and energy to lobbying on Randox’s behalf.

Paterson talked and then wrote to Priti Patel, then the secretary of state for international development, requesting a meeting so that Randox could discuss its “state of the art technologies” and outlining the advantages of the firm’s products.

A meeting was later arranged between Paterson, Randox and Patel’s then junior minister, Rory Stewart. “This meeting covered Randox’s laboratory quality assurance systems … and DfID [Department for International Development] procurement routes and potential commercial opportunities that Randox may wish to explore”, a DfID internal memo recorded. DfID told the Guardian it had never itself awarded any contracts to Randox.

In December 2016 Paterson also began working as a consultant for another Northern Irish company, Lynn’s Country Foods, which trades under the name Finnebrogue. He declared consultancy payments from this company of £12,000 a year. The company sells Finnebrogue Naked bacon, which it markets as a healthy alternative to traditional bacon. Its product is processed without the nitrite-based preservatives in most cured meat, which have been linked to cancer.

Paterson assisted the company in a sustained lobbying campaign with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) that lasted more than a year, the documents obtained by the Guardian and later published by the standards commissioner show. Paterson’s early work was to raise concern about a competitor’s cured meat product that claimed to be all natural. Lynn’s and Paterson argued it could not justify the label under EU regulations.

In the course of repeated meetings with Paterson and top-level FSA staff including its chair, which sought action against the rival’s product, emails say Lynn’s took the opportunity to promote its own “innovative” bacon product, “which is being prepared for launch in the new year”.

Lynn’s marketed the new product as being free of E-number additives, but the FSA found that it did contain an additive mix that needed to be declared on the label. Over many months, Lynn’s and Paterson sought to persuade the FSA that they did not need to put it on the label. Emails between officials note the “considerable resources” being used up on Paterson’s paying client. They also allege that Paterson misrepresented what was said in meetings and counter the assertion that Lynn’s additives had been approved by other EU countries, which turned out not to be the case.

The dispute appears to have ended in December 2018, when Lynn’s agreed to declare on the label of Finnebrogue Naked bacon that its product contained an additive.

Paterson maintains that he only raised these issues because they were important matters of public safety. He says the same applies to his lobbying of the FSA for Randox over antibiotic residues in milk. FSA briefing notes of meetings with Randox and Paterson record that the “primary aim for discussion” was the “use of Randox technology for screening of residues”. Randox had tested UK milk for antibiotic residues and found a banned drug in them. Illegal antibiotic use in livestock is a known problem in Northern Ireland.

Randox wanted the FSA to adopt its new techniques for detecting contamination. It could not, however, show which part of the UK its samples came from, and its testing methods had not been accredited. The FSA did its own sampling across the UK and found no evidence of residues. It judged there was no safety risk.

The company would not long after win £500m of government work for the NHS’s Covid test and trace programme. The company had already been favoured with a visit to its labs in Northern Ireland by the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, in 2019.

The National Audit Office confirmed the existence of a VIP lane whereby companies with government or official contacts were referred for Covid PPE contracts. Neither the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) nor Paterson answered our questions asking whether Randox had been referred to any similar VIP fast track for test and trace work.

A Randox spokesperson told the Guardian Paterson had no involvement in the contracts being awarded. He did not answer when asked why Paterson had attended a meeting between Randox and a health minister in charge of Covid procurement in April 2020. The DHSC continues to resist an FoI request for documents relating to that meeting.

Paterson continues to insist that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. “My integrity, which I hold very dear, has been repeatedly and publicly questioned,” he said in his resignation statement on Thursday. “I maintain that I am totally innocent of what I have been accused of and I acted at all times in the interests of public health and safety.”


Felicity Lawrence, David Pegg and Rob Evans

The GuardianTramp

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