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.