All-party Parliamentary Groups

Part of Deferred Divisions – in the House of Commons at 7:53 pm on 13th May 2014.

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Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 7:53 pm, 13th May 2014

The Opposition recognise the importance of this issue, and the debate is particularly timely given the recent scandal involving Mr Patrick Mercer.

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.