Chris Bryant: MPs should run a mile from groups controlled by lobbyists
'Every lobbying company sees an All-Party Parliamentary Group as an ideal way of making a quick buck,' writes the Standards Committee chair
All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) may be informal but they provide a great service in the UK’s democracy. In good hands, they can foster better relations with other countries or they can keep a weather eye on an authoritarian regime. They can bring into sharp focus a policy issue that might otherwise have been forgotten.
In that vein, I set up the APPG on acquired brain injury, which produced an important report with a list of recommendations following a series of roundtables with patients, families and practitioners. Just before Christmas, that bore fruit in the shape of a government commitment to launching a new national strategy on acquired brain injury, which will be drawn up by a programme board jointly chaired by Gillian Keegan, the minister for care and mental health, and me. So, an APPG can make a big difference. And the vast majority are run simply and cheaply on the back of the enthusiasm of a few MPs and peers, without any financial requirement at all.
APPGs are also an important way of baking cross-party working into the parliamentary system. No MP can launch their own APPG with the support of their party mates alone – they need genuine cross-party support. Voters regularly tell us that the more cross-party working there is in Parliament, the better.
But I worry that the number of APPGs has risen dramatically in the past few years. Some industries are especially well resourced, with every part of the supply chain and every trade body getting its own group. Some countries have more than one group. We now have more APPGs than we do MPs. It feels as if every MP wants their own APPG and every lobbying company sees an APPG as an ideal way of making a quick buck out of a trade or industry body. ‘Look,’ the lobbying firms say, ‘if you really want to get widgets on the agenda politically, we can get you access to MPs, peers and ministers – but the more financial support you give the APPG (through us, of course) the more effective the group will be.’ Hence the rise in the number of APPGs that are serviced by lobbying, PR or communications companies.
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There are several problems with this. For a start, nobody should be touting access or influence on behalf of an APPG. Secondly, the rules on what APPGs have to register are pretty clear, but this has virtually been a self-policing area of policy. The Commons authorities have neither the powers nor the resources to investigate every APPG. And since we abolished the requirement to get permission to launch a new APPG, the only substantial requirement for an APPG to keep going is when an Annual General Meeting comes around. Sometimes these are so poorly attended as to make one question whether the group really is an APPG or just a personal campaign or a money-making venture masquerading as a parliamentary affair.
I don’t think anyone is concerned when an APPG is supported by a charity. (The acquired brain injury APPG, incidentally, is supported by the UK Acquired Brain Injury Forum.) But it may be time for us to ban commercial operators from acting as the secretariat for APPGs unless they can prove both a public interest and enough interest from a larger number of MPs and peers. When lobbying firms are effectively driving an APPG in the interests of their clients, we should not only know who those clients are, but be able to close the group down where there is a clear conflict of interest.
The House of Commons and the Lords both have formal select committees covering all government departments. Proceedings in these committees, and their publications, are covered by parliamentary privilege, which is an important aspect of ensuring MPs and peers can speak without fear or favour. It would be – and is – wrong for any APPG to give the impression that one of its reports or publications has a parliamentary imprimatur or seal of approval. Newspaper editors, too, would be well-advised to stop referring vaguely to ‘a committee of MPs’ and to start drawing a clear distinction between the authorised, privileged work of a select committee and the unauthorised work of an APPG.
I certainly don’t want to curtail APPGs so much that their valuable work comes to an end. They are a vital tool in many backbench MPs’ campaigning armoury. But if an APPG feels like it is the front of house for a direct commercial interest, if it feels as if it is a cover for free trips to exotic locations, if it’s really only the brainchild of a lobbying company, then MPs and peers should run a mile.
Chris Bryant is a Labour MP and chair of the Select Committee on Standards, which is running an inquiry into APPGs.
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