I beg to move,
(1) this House approves the Sixth Report of the Committee on Standards, Session 2013-14, HC 357, on All-Party Parliamentary Groups, and the Rules for All-Party Parliamentary Groups contained in Annex 1 of that Report.
(2) the Resolution of the House of
(a) leaving out paragraphs 3 and 4; and
(b) inserting a new paragraph 3:
“Chairs of All-Party Parliamentary Groups shall be responsible for registering the matters specified in the rules for such groups and for the group’s adherence to the Guide to the Rules for All-Party Parliamentary Groups”; and
(3) the Committee on Standards shall have power to update the Guide to the Rules for All-Party Parliamentary Groups from time to time and to make such minor changes to the Rules for All-Party Parliamentary Groups as are necessary to ensure the effective operation of the Register of APPGs and the regulatory regime applying to such groups.
I am delighted that the House is able to debate the report, which sprang out of Mr Speaker’s recognition that all-party group regulation needed to be reconsidered to ensure that it remained appropriate. As I recall, both you in a previous life, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I were members of the working group that was set up. It was chaired by my right hon. Friend Mr Straw, who unfortunately is unable to be with us tonight, although he would have liked to have been here. The Select Committee on Standards built on the proposals of the Speaker’s working group but we also conducted our own investigation. The lay members of the Committee played a full part in this investigation and their presence meant that we had the power for the first time to see ourselves as others see us. I can assure the House that lay members may be friends but in private they have no hesitation in being critical friends. In my view, their ability to be critical friends is precisely what makes them worth having on the Committee. I am sure that view is shared by all members of the Committee. As a result of their involvement we know that the Committee’s proposals command the support of people who have taken the trouble to inform themselves about the way this place works and the wider issues involved in all-party group regulation.
As part of our work, the Committee joined with the Public Administration Committee to get some hard facts about the way in which all-party parliamentary groups operate. We surveyed all APPGs to find out the range of support they received and the frequency of their meetings, and besides that quantitative evidence we took qualitative evidence from colleagues from external organisations involved with APPGs, from those who reported on them and from critics as well.
I do not think we should be embarrassed about APPGs. Indeed, I would be surprised if more than a handful of us were not involved in APPG work. APPGs enable groups of Members to inform themselves about policy. They allow us to work across party lines and to work across both Houses. They allow us to educate ourselves. Today’s all-party Whip shows that Members have opportunities to meet with UK ambassadors from many different countries, hear about the launch of the Green Investment Bank’s new scheme to help local authorities install energy-efficient street lighting, look at the links between mental health and problem debt, or hear about immigration detention in the UK from Shami Chakrabarti or social work from Martin Narey—that is only some of the meetings that are taking place today under the all-party group system. There is a great opportunity for Members of this House—for legislators—to hear from experienced people on many issues.
I draw the House’s attention to the various APPGs with which I am closely involved, and other declarations of interest. One APPG today met a group that included over 60 members of the freight industry. Members of the House were able to hear from them, and were informed by a response from Baroness Kramer. That knowledge would not be able to be received in any other way.
My hon. Friend’s point is well put. I am no expert on freight but if I wanted to be and I was involved in making legislation in this House, that is the type of opportunity that is available to share experience from outside.
APPGs come in all shapes and sizes, from a few people effectively acting as a friendship group for a particular country to groups such as the parliamentary and scientific committee, which provides a way for parliamentarians and the science community to communicate with one another, often through major events. APPGs provide a forum for parliamentarians to press for change. They also provide a forum in which outside organisations working on the same topic can communicate with one another.
It is true that APPGs provide a forum in which outsiders can promote policy to Members of Parliament. I think it is reasonable for us to listen to those who want to lobby us, whether they are charities, businesses or knowledgeable individuals. Their ideas will only be taken up if we think they are good. This is a Parliament—a place where people talk. We talk to one another in formal proceedings, but, even more, we talk to people outside this place, both formally and informally. We need to do that to do our job, so there should be as few barriers as possible to people talking to MPs. Freedom of association is one of the rights protected by the European convention on human rights. Nobody wants to stop MPs talking to each other or to those outside this place, but we could not stop, even if we were mad enough to want to try. Any regulatory regime has to be proportionate, or all-party groups’ activities will simply be driven underground.
It is fair to say that there is a suspicion about all-party groups and at least a danger that they could be misused, so we need a regime that reduces the chance of such misuse. Before I go into that, I just wish to say that I hope last week’s events in this place made it clear that existing rules already prohibit Members from using all-party groups for personal gain and that the Committee on Standards will have no hesitation in condemning those who seek to misuse them.
Our proposals in this report are based on five principles: ensuring parliamentary control of all-party groups; ensuring responsibility and accountability; financial transparency; improved understanding; and proportionality. On parliamentary control, it is already a requirement that groups should meet to elect officers at Westminster on a sitting day and that the meetings and annual general meetings should be advertised on the all-party notice. We also propose an increase in the quorum; that only parliamentarians should have voting rights in all-party groups; and that all members—MPs and peers—should be entitled to vote in an all-party group.
Our proposals on responsibility and accountability are designed to ensure that groups are regulated from this House and it is clear who is responsible for compliance. Rather than having a contact officer, all-party groups should have a chair from the Commons, who will have responsibility for ensuring that the group complies with the rules. All-party group notices should give a parliamentary e-mail contact—we are working on that at the moment. We recognise that external support can be invaluable, but if these groups are really of interest to Members surely we should be willing to provide some resource to support them. Complaints about all-party groups could be and will be investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
Members are already responsible for registering benefits they each receive as a result of APPG membership, such as visits or hospitality, and that will remain. We also recommend that APPGs that receive £12,500 per year will need to submit annual income and expenditure statements. Benefits in kind will need to be described and have an approximate financial value ascribed to them. We believe that is a sensible thing to do, but that does not take individual members of all-party groups away from their individual responsibilities to register such matters.
On improving understanding, we want there to be clear APPG branding, accompanied by clearer rules about the informal work Members undertake which is not linked to APPGs. The House has formal Committees and, in APPGs, a mechanism for MPs and peers to work together outside that formal framework. Members are entirely free to work outside those frameworks, but we should not be attaching the logo of Parliament to groups that do not comply with the regulatory requirements. Some offers were made during the debate and with the working group on getting harsher on this, but we genuinely believe that such an approach would drive people away from the formal all-party group structure into an ad hoc system, which would have little, if any, influence. We want to make sure that that is avoided. There also needs to be far better information on APPGs on the parliamentary website. I am pleased to say that the all-party Whip is now at least available on the intranet.
On proportionality, as well as making sure that the financial transparency regime is effective without being onerous, we propose to end the requirement for there to be 20 qualifying members before a group can be set up. In practice, it has meant that colleagues have signed up to groups on the principle that they might some day be interested, or because if they wished to found a group themselves their colleagues would be more likely to support them. I have had an interest in several all-party groups for most of my time in this place, so I know that that is the case. Members trade names. They may say, “Well, you can put me down for that one, as long as you don’t expect me to do any work in that area.” We feel that that behaviour should now end, and there is detailed recommendation about how to do that.
It was impossible to distinguish between groups that attracted a great deal of parliamentary interest and those that were, shall we say, more specialist, and we feel that there should be more transparency in that area. Let me end with a quote from our report. It says:
“No one wants a Parliament where Members have no interaction with wider society, take no steps to inform themselves about matters of public concern or are simply lobby fodder for whichever party they represent. APPGs perform a useful function in allowing Members to set the agenda and in allowing wider groups to put their case to interested parliamentarians within a framework which ensures transparency and control by Parliament.”
I hope that the House will agree to our proposals, which are intended to produce such a framework.
On behalf of the Government, I support the motion before us in the name of the Chair of the Committee on Standards. Kevin Barron has set out very clearly the conclusions of his Committee’s report and the effect of the motion before the House. All-party parliamentary groups have a distinct and important role to play in the work of Parliament. They provide a recognised forum in which Members of both Houses can meet together and with individuals from outside Parliament to share information and exchange ideas on issues of mutual interest. This is a healthy process. Indeed, the free flow of ideas and information between the lawmakers and citizens is an essential part of any properly functioning democracy.
There is a huge range of APPGs, the origins and purposes of which may range from a shared interest in a particular country or activity to a campaign for a good cause or policy objective. There is no problem with that. What is important—I would say essential—is that in respect of all such groups, there is transparency as to their purpose, membership and support, particularly any financial support, as well as accountability for their actions. That is what I hope will be achieved through the changes we are approving today.
I fully support the intention of the new resolution to make it clear that each chair of an APPG will be responsible and accountable for their group’s adherence to the rules governing all-party parliamentary groups. Those rules must be taken seriously and complied with scrupulously. The fact that significant breaches will be subject to investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and subsequent consideration by the Standards Committee should provide an effective deterrent.
I am also happy to endorse the proposal to give the Committee on Standards the job of updating the guide to the rules on APPGs and making minor changes to the rules from time to time as the need arises without having to bring such changes before the House for approval.
The House can have confidence in the Committee to entrust it with this function. Indeed such detailed changes are much better done in Committee than on the Floor of the House. The House should be grateful to the Standards Committee for its work on revising the rules and the guide to the rules on APPGs. This will serve to increase the confidence of the public in how Parliament conducts itself and the confidence of Members that their engagement with APPGs is not only valuable in itself but beyond reproach. I commend the motion to the House.
I want to begin by thanking the Standards Committee for conducting a thorough investigation into the running of all-party parliamentary groups. In particular, I thank my right hon. Friend Kevin Barron for his continued chairmanship of the Committee and the leadership that he has shown on the issue. I also thank all those Members who provided submissions, and those organisations and individuals who gave evidence to the Committee. The inquiry was, I think, an historic first in that I am not aware of a previous occasion on which a journalist—Mr Mark D'Arcy of the BBC—was asked to give evidence as an expert witness.
It is worth noting the origins of the inquiry. As the Committee report explains in its introduction, there has been disquiet about the increasing number of APPGs in recent years and, in particular, questions about whether they were susceptible to undue external influence. Mr Speaker’s working group on APPGs was established earlier in this Parliament to consider such issues. From the group’s comprehensive study, it was right that the decision was taken for the Standards and Privileges Committee, as it was then constituted, to look at the rules on registration.
In parallel, the Administration Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Alan Haselhurst, has at the Commission’s request examined the impact of APPGs on the running of Parliament. The Administration Committee’s key recommendations, such as the scrapping of the APPG passes, reform of the security and room-booking process and the requirement to have a parliamentary contact included in the all-party group Whip, have already been implemented. The House is grateful to Mr Speaker and to the whole Commission for their leadership and the decisive action taken, in particular in the light of the events that transpired last summer.
Returning to the Standards Committee report before us, Labour concurs with all the proposed changes. The recommendations to scrap associate groups and to end non-parliamentarians having a vote in the running of parliamentary groups are correct. The raising of quorums for meetings and increasing the number of officers, while at the same time ending the requirement to have 20 signed-up parliamentarians, is sensible. As the Committee explained, the 20-member rule has led to a number of cases in which MPs and peers who play no active role in an APPG are dragooned into helping out colleagues to meet the targets, as well as obscuring those who are actually playing a key role in the running of an APPG.
Transparency of activities is vital. To that end, we also support the proposed threshold for donations or gifts in kind of greater than £500. The Committee’s logic in recommending the same threshold as for party donations seems to be an appropriate figure. We agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley said, that requiring those groups that receive more than £12,500 a year to publish income and expenditure statements will go some way towards improving public confidence in APPGs. In short, where the Committee has recommended changes, Labour fully endorses the recommendations and urges the House to support them.
The Patrick Mercer case, however, has again highlighted the unease felt by many both inside and outside the House of Commons about the role that lobbyists and third-party organisations may play in the running of APPGs. In the interest of transparency, it might be appropriate at this point to highlight the fact that the charity for which my wife works provides the secretariat to a cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament. Cross-party groups are the equivalent of APPGs. Nevertheless, I recognise the role that lobbyists, charities and big business may play in providing secretariat and administrative support, which, for some people, has been and is still a contentious issue.
I note that the Standards Committee does not propose any alterations to the APPG rules on external support. As the Committee acknowledged, however, its report was produced without reference to the Patrick Mercer case. That scandal makes uncomfortable reading for all of us who believe that Parliament should be striving to restore public confidence in political participation. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards found that Mr Mercer sought to use an APPG as a vehicle for his commercial interests and that the pseudo-foundation that he proposed as the secretariat would be the engine of that vehicle.
Campaigners for greater transparency have long questioned why some organisations provide the secretariats to APPGs. As the Committee acknowledged:
“It would be naive to think that all the organisations supporting APPGs do so…for altruistic reasons”.
Indeed, the Chair of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, my hon. Friend Mr Allen, warned only last week in the Chamber that
“all-party groups…are the next big scandal waiting to happen”—[Hansard, 8 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 305.]
It is therefore sensible that the question whether it is acceptable for the secretariat to be provided externally be kept under review. Will the Leader of the House say, therefore, whether the Government share our view on that issue? Will he say whether the Government believe that a fresh, independent look at the issue should be considered in the next Session? Will he clarify whether the Government are relaxed about the question of lobbyists or big business playing a key role in the heart of the parliamentary system?
In conclusion, we believe that the report has much to commend it. It makes a range of important recommendations and also endorses the decisions of the Commission and the Administration Committee in a number of areas of the running of the House of Commons. We thank the Standards Committee for its work and endorse the motion.
I declare an interest as the chairman of three APPGs—those on the police, skin and, unsurprisingly, dentistry. I occasionally attend others as well. Following the last attack, if you like, subtle though it was, I must say that I am always amused by the mythology surrounding APPGs. According to the media, in particular, they have mystical power over Ministers. Many, including those who should know better—I include some journalists—relate them to Select Committees. Journalists, when media effect is needed, always describe Select Committees as powerful and APPGs as influential. I am afraid that my response to that is “perhaps”.
The fear propounded by some in the media is that lobbyists will manipulate APPGs. In fact, one of the national papers floated that in an article today. Thomas Docherty mentioned Mark D’Arcy, a parliamentary BBC journalist who knows, because he cruises the halls of the House of Commons and, I think, of the House of Lords, exactly how the systems work. The Standards Committee asked him various questions—his answers are in the report—and he said:
“Someone said to me during recent events that if someone was going around touting the idea that All-Party Groups have genuine influence on Government policy, they should be done for fraud”.
He then said that he agreed, but up to a point.
As a former Minister, I was always made very aware of the background of anyone I was officially meeting, whether they were a lobbyist, from an all-party group, or an individual who wished to influence policy. Every Minister will be well briefed on anyone trying to pursue a position or point—whether they are an individual, or from a group, a firm or an APPG. Their points might or might not be accepted by the policy makers, but it is right that APPGs can be one source of information. In fact, the skin APPG recently published a report for the accepted benefit of Department of Health Ministers following a gathering together of interested people, groups, trade representatives and so on, as clearly set out in the report. The APPG assembled the evidence in its report, which is absolutely transparent about its sources. Health Ministers will make of that what they will, but whatever they do it is a useful assembly of a particular subject of interest to that Department.
It is transparency that counts, and that the APPGs are driven and controlled by MPs or peers as appropriate. The Standards Committee was clear on the usefulness of most APPGs as a means of discussion and even the enlightenment of MPs and peers, but I might also say that sometimes the enlightenment comes from MPs and Lords to those attending. As many in the House will be aware, the outside perception of House procedures and timetables is often very wrong. Those who attend sittings from outside this place often find them very educational. I remember the chairman of an important chamber of commerce, whom I will not name, asking for some legal change involving primary legislation, and his absolute failure to understand that even if I, as a Minister, agreed, which I did not, it could not be enacted after having made progress through both Houses in the next week.
In essence, the changes desired in the report are fairly minor and reflect the Committee’s desire not to over-regulate. The sceptical media and others need to realise that APPGs with transparency and light regulation are preferable to ad hoc groups operating without transparency, undercover, which would be the result if APPGs were limited in number or were over-regulated. This is a carefully considered report with relatively minimal changes that essentially extends transparency.
I start by declaring that for a good long time—a decade or so—I was chair of the Africa all-party parliamentary group. Good and effective all-party groups—they are a mixed bag; some are extremely good and effective, others less so—can have a real influence on public policy. For instance, since the last election, when the Government introduced their defence and security review, the Africa all-party group put in a report that urged the Ministry of Defence to consider the possible security risks emanating from Africa. This was some time before the Libya campaign, but it led to the establishment within the MOD of a unit to look at the African dimension of security.
To give just one other example, under the previous Government, the group produced a report about British involvement in corruption in Africa. It led to the appointment by the Government of an anti-corruption tsar. My right hon. Friend Mr Straw held that job for a time, as did Mr Clarke after the general election. It also led the Government, after a couple of false starts, to introduce a Bribery Bill, which went through with all-party support in the wash-up just before the last general election.
So all-party groups can have a purpose, but they are a mixed bag. Some are truly independent and use that independent voice to great effect. Others are less than entirely independent; they are a front for particular interests or lobbies, sometimes a pretty transparent front—which is a better option—and sometimes a not particularly transparent front. I agree with the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that there is a scandal to come about the way in which outside interests lobby in the House of Commons. I do not believe that the Lobbying Bill has addressed the problem properly, and I believe that the rotten tail of the all-party group spectrum provides inappropriate opportunities for outside interests to lobby in this place.
So I welcome the recommendations in the report. They move in the right direction, but to my mind they do not yet move far enough. For example, it suggests that each group should maintain a list of those Members of the two Houses who are active in their affairs, and that it should be available either because it is published or on request. It would be better if such lists were published, presumably on the all-party group’s website or the website of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. It helps transparency if the public understand which Members have a particular interest in an all-party group.
I want to raise just one matter that could be advanced under the recommendations in the report. They would permit the Commissioner for Standards to issue guidance or codes of practice. Guidance and stricter regulation is required in relation to the election of officers of all-party groups. Most all-party groups meet as a small band, and elections take place very well in an informal way, with no statutory returning officer or heavy procedures. I would not want to over-regulate the affairs of a
majority of all-party groups, which work, because they have limited resources, in a fairly informal way. However, we have had some recent examples of highly contested elections. I see my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart in her place. When there are highly partisan and contested elections for officerships of APPGs, the cross-party consensus that exists in most of these groups is undermined. Such a consensus enables groups to have the leverage and purchase on policy that they do.
I deeply regret the fact that there was a party political campaign to take over the chairmanship of the all-party group on human trafficking, which led to two ballots, the first of which resulted in a tie. Messages were sent through party channels—not through the Whips Office, I think—through an informal system of whipping on both sides of the House. Occasionally, there are political differences in all-party groups, which fail if they fracture along political lines. If a self-denying ordinance among Members does not prevent those groups from becoming, in a small number of cases, highly politicised, some form of regulation is necessary.
I spoke to Mr Bone, who campaigned to take over the all-party group on human trafficking, earlier today to warn him that I would mention his name in this debate. He told me that his campaign was entirely party political, which I find disturbing. It has happened on two or three other occasions. The chair of the all-party China group was ousted, I believe, as the result of a political campaign.
My hon. Friend referred to the all-party group on human trafficking and modern slavery and the election, with a record turnout, which I won and which—he is right—was fought on party grounds. I want to reassure the House that since then, the group has been able to involve Members from all parties working equally enthusiastically on an absolutely broad basis. His comments should not lead anyone to think that that all-party group operates in any way in a sectarian manner, because it does not.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to put that on the record. It is something that I observe from the work the group does.
I should declare a personal interest: I lost the chair of the Africa all-party group because a band of people not from my political party, by a more considerable margin than is normal for our meetings, were organised—perhaps that is the way to put it—to turn up and vote for someone else who, in fact, leads the group extremely well. None of that caucus, which was organised on party grounds to come in and depose someone and elect someone else, had ever been to a meeting of the Africa all-party group, nor has any of them been to a meeting since. I would make the same statement in relation to the Africa group as my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart made in relation to the all-party group on human trafficking. It runs extremely well under new leadership and I am content with it.
I believe, however, that the problem of highly contested elections reached a pinnacle of bad form in the recent election in March of this year for the all-party group on Russia. I was aware for several days beforehand that there was going to be an election. I was under the clear impression that the candidate from my party should be supported—a lot of messages went out trying to encourage people to turn up at that meeting and, equally, messages were sent out to members of another party to support an alternative candidate, who won the contest. One might just say that that is what happens in politics, but the conduct of that election would not pass muster if it was a public election. It would not be deemed remotely acceptable if it was a trade union ballot for industrial action. I turned up at the appropriate time in Committee Room 5, which seats 20 or 30 people at a pinch. There were 80 or 100 people in that room, packed shoulder to shoulder, and as many people outside in the corridor. The group’s officers, one from each party, had pre-printed ballot papers with the names of two candidates, although nominations were not sought until the meeting. As luck would have it, only two candidates were nominated, so the ballot papers were in order.
The two all-party group officers then started distributing the ballot papers to a sea of hands, pushing and shoving. There were no checks whatsoever on who took the papers—whether they were Members of either House or whether they took more than one paper. Indeed, I heard someone joking that they would have to go round with ballot papers again, although I saw no evidence of that. I heard people out in the corridors shouting, “Come here. It’s Room 5. Get in there!”, and asking Members to support their candidate.
I think that is a move in the wrong direction. I wrote to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to say that I felt it would be possible to introduce some form of procedure in such cases to improve the transparency and democracy of the elections—I copied the letter to the Chair of the Standards Committee. There is a rule that permits any Member of either House to join any all-party group, and that is extremely important, because we do not want all-party groups to be closed shops for particular groups of people.
I know that my hon. Friend is moving rapidly to a conclusion and will not want to spend more time on this issue than he has to, but is he aware that, as the Standards Committee states in its report, the rule on 20 members is not about who is or is not a member of an APPG? Every Member of the two Houses is a member of an APPG and has equal voting rights.
I have a couple more things to say, but I will say them quickly.
I believe that we need a system that enables elections to take place from those who have played an active role in a group. That is why publishing a list of members of a group would be a good thing. It should be perfectly in order for someone to put their name on the list up to, say, 24 hours before the election takes place. But the idea that people can turn up to a meeting by the dozen, take ballot papers that are not numbered and not have their names recorded when voting allows a misuse of procedure that should not be permitted.
I would warmly welcome the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards looking at this issue and, while ensuring that all-party groups remain open to all Members, allowing a better means of regulating such elections where there is a great deal of interest in them.
I obviously lead a sheltered life, because in my 17 years in this place I have never witnessed, or been involved in, shenanigans of the sort that have just been described, which underline the importance of and need for the motion before us this evening. All-party groups, if used in the right way and in the right spirit, are an asset to this House, and indeed to the other place.
My experience of membership of all-party groups over the years has been one of colleagues with a shared interest coming together to promote something that is not normally done within the parliamentary channels. Last week I was elected chair of the all-party group for the island of St Helena. In the past the group has done a lot of good work in promoting the island’s interests. For example, the airport that we all campaigned for is currently under construction. I am also chair of the all-party first aid group, which brings together Members from both sides of both Houses. Its sole interest is promoting first aid. For 15 years I was secretary of the all-party scout group. Those all-party groups exist only to promote organisations in this place and benefit them because they have a wider interest in society.
In view of what Hugh Bayley said, let us go with this motion, because we do not want the sort of behaviour he described.
As a member of the Committee, I commend the report to the House. I declare my chairmanship of the autism all-party group and co-chairmanship of the European Union all-party group.
The report is an important step forward in several respects, but most notably in how we seek properly to differentiate the labelling and logos used on reports by registered all-party groups—that is, the crowned portcullis with the appropriate title of the group—and the appearance of documents such as the Select Committee report that I have in my hand. It is vital that all-party groups do not seek to publish documents that look like, or could be mistaken for, reports by Committees of this House. We have to do everything we can to make sure that the media do not continue to fall into the trap of making no distinction between the reports of all-party groups and those of Select Committees. That recommendation by our Committee is particularly important.
I am very pleased that the report has the support of the House. I have heard the wider debate on the issues. Paragraph (3) of the motion gives the Committee licence to make minor changes without necessarily coming back to the Floor of the House, but we will use that in a sensible and proper manner, if at all.
Question put and agreed to.