Westminster warned to clean up its Parliamentary Groups Act branded ‘total jokes’ – POLITICO

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LONDON — British MPs fear becoming the “next big parliamentary scandal”. Lobbyists (mostly) love them. But are Westminster all-party parliamentary groups really useful?

All-party groups are back in the spotlight after POLITICO revealed some UK lawmakers were using informal and little-scrutinized groupings of MPs and peers to engage in sex tourism, heavy drinking and other behavior deeply debatable.

This is not the first time that APPGs have been cast in a negative light, and questions persist about the vulnerability of these cross-party groups of MPs and peers to influence from foreign powers and corporations pushing their own agenda. .

There are currently over 750 active APPGs in the UK Parliament, covering everything from the bus and coach industry to golf, immigration policy and beer.

Politicians actively involved in the groups say that, at the best of times, they provide a vital forum for backbench MPs to raise issues that would otherwise fly under the government’s radar, organize cross-party campaigns to lobby for policy change and ensure the voice of the experts. and members of the public do not go unnoticed. Transparency campaigners say the regulatory system remains too reliant on goodwill, while some of those who have been lobbied by groups reject their influence altogether.

The debate is important because APPGs are able to publish their own official-looking reports, generate media coverage and, importantly, can receive outside funding – including from foreign entities – to facilitate their work. They can also provide a pathway for privately funded “secretariats” to obtain passes to access the parliamentary realm, as well as the ability to shape the work of MPs sympathetic to their causes.

The case for

Supporters of the groups point to real political victories on neglected issues that they say would not have been possible without them.

Labor MP Diana Johnson co-chairs the APPG on haemophilia and tainted blood. In 2017, the group played a crucial role in getting then-Prime Minister Theresa May to commit to a full public inquiry into a decades-long scandal that saw thousands of people with hemophilia and other bleeding disorders – as well as many other people who have received blood. transfusions – inadvertently infected with HIV and hepatitis viruses.

The state’s initial response to the scandal was criticized as inadequate, but sustained pressure from backbench MPs and their peers – who used the APPG to coordinate a letter from all major party leaders to the Premier minister at the time – helped force May’s hand over an inquiry into the aftermath of the 2017 election. ‘I wouldn’t have been able to do that as a Labor MP on my own,’ said Johnson, whose group has also successfully lobbied for more financial support for those affected.

Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP who chairs the APPG on coronavirus, agreed that the ability to bond across parties is a major benefit of these informal groups. “An important part of parliamentary life that people often don’t appreciate is that in order for something to actually happen, especially from an opposition point of view, the most important thing you can do is bring together a group of MPs – ideally across both sides of the aisle, but also across both houses – and that’s something I think is rather unique to APPGs,” she said.

Moran says APPGs can also be much more “nimble” than Parliament’s more formal select committees, able to “turn on the head of a pin” and consider pressing issues during a rapidly changing situation like the pandemic. The APPG coronavirus has, Moran said, aimed to “do everything more than just by the book” when it comes to transparency, publishing the minutes of all its meetings and broadcasting hearings to allow the public to see how it works.

Lobbying backdoor

Yet some in Westminster fear the system for protecting APPGs from lobbying remains inadequate.

APPGs known as “country groups” are of particular concern. On the surface, these are intended to give MPs and their peers a sense of the world beyond Westminster, keeping them informed of developments in a specific country or group of countries and arranging trips abroad .

A major source of concern for transparency advocates is the fact that these groups are allowed to receive travel paid for by foreign governments.

“They all have an agenda,” said Duncan Hames, policy director at Transparency International. “And it’s amazing how many times MPs make these trips, come back to Parliament, have a debate in Westminster Hall, which probably nobody listens to, but which is recorded in Hansard nonetheless. [official transcripts of U.K. parliamentary debates]in which they begin to repeat sympathetic arguments they have heard and been pressured with during these trips abroad.

Indeed, the potential for abuse of APPG countries has already spooked Westminster security bosses following an influence scandal earlier this year in which a woman heavily involved with the Chinese in Britain APPG been identified by the security services as a suspected agent of Beijing.

Alison Giles, Parliament’s security director, told the House of Commons standards committee that she thought APPGs were “particularly attractive pathways for parliamentarians”, and said that many cross-party groups “will actively seek the kind of support that foreign entities and governments would be only too happy to provide”, including “a secretariat that could influence the agenda, funding for overseas visits, guest speakers, etc

APPGs, unlike Select Committees, are not supported by dedicated parliamentary staff. Instead, event planning and research is done either by legislators themselves and their own staff or by outside organizations.

The House of Commons in London | Andy Bailey/AFP via Getty Images

Under current rules, businesses, charities and NGOs can act as secretariats. OpenDemocracy reports estimated that APPGs have received around £25m in benefits from outside bodies since 2018, with more than half coming from private sector organisations.

Some legislators view this secretariat support as vital to the operations of the groups. But MPs on the standards committee fear a backdoor to lobbying if left unchecked, warning in a report earlier this year that APPGs ‘could represent the next big parliamentary scandal, with commercial entities effectively buying access and the influence of parliamentarians and decision-makers”.

In the Westminster lobbying industry, opinions are divided on whether APPGs are an effective way to change mindsets.

A senior public affairs official who previously worked in government said one of the benefits of APPGs is to help business representatives identify legislators who are genuinely interested in a topic, saving time wasted targeting MPs and peers who are not interested in their pace. ‘Imagery writing to every MP on every different issue every time something happens,’ they said. “It makes much more sense to have a bloc of MPs who have actively decided to join an APPG and host briefings etc because it is something they are interested in.”

The same person, however, stressed that companies should not support APPGs that expect “quid pro quo” favors from lawmakers, describing involvement in the groups as “a means to an end, not an end in itself.” .

Others were more scathing, seeing involvement in APPGs simply as a way for public affairs firms to appear hip – without really adding much substance.

A boss at a public affairs agency said that while cross-party MP groups ‘can have an impact’, most ‘are total jokes that only exist so that a trade association can tell potential members that ‘they are in dialogue with parliament’. They said that during their own time in government, government ministers have been known to “automatically delete” invitations from cross-party groups, while others called them “political graffiti”.

Calls for reform

While the standards committee is still considering final recommendations for rule changes, there are already growing calls for a cull, with the committee warning that the ‘large amount of groups’ makes it ‘more difficult to monitor the compliance in a meaningful way”.

The same committee has also initiated — but not yet officially requested — a ban on foreign governments, public affairs agencies, charities and NGOs covering APPG secretariat costs.

They also proposed a new, dedicated “gatekeeper” – potentially the Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons – who would be responsible for overseeing APPGs, reviewing them regularly and probing organizers to assess whether the groups are truly multi-party, have a clear objective and have a plan to avoid undue influence. Under such a system, APPGs might have to reapply for accreditation every two or three years.

Hames believes these measures would clamp down on abuse, although Transparency International – which itself supports an APPG on tax transparency – is also pushing to make data on funding and group membership much easier to scrutinize. He also believes that there is no reason for staff from outside organizations involved in APPGs to have access to the parliamentary domain. “The risk of a professional lobbyist having a parliamentary pass in their capacity as the secretariat of an APPG and then abusing that privileged access to parliament for their other work, that temptation would be very high,” he said. .

Moran, acknowledges that the perception that some groups are “having fun” is not helped by the number of existing groups. “Whatever you do in parliament, you have to pass the detection test,” she said. “Do we know what they are trying to do? Do we know day to day how they do it? And do we know where the money comes from? These are pretty basic questions that anything in parliament – ​​any APPG, someone paying for a staff member in your office, whatever – has to go through.


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