All-party Parliamentary Groups

Part of Deferred Divisions – in the House of Commons at 7:39 pm on 13th May 2014.

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Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards 7:39 pm, 13th May 2014

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.