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.