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.