All-party Parliamentary Groups

– in the House of Commons at 3:13 pm on 19 July 2023.

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[Relevant document: Guide to the Rules on All-Party Parliamentary Groups approved by the Committee on Standards.]

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Minister for Veterans' Affairs) 3:19, 19 July 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
approves the Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards, Session 2022-23, HC 228, on All-Party Parliamentary Groups: final proposals and, with effect from 16 October, the Rules for All-Party Parliamentary Groups contained in the Annex of that Report, subject to any transitional arrangements agreed by the Committee on Standards.

I think I heard Sir Chris Bryant shout “Really?” from a sedentary position, at the thought that I am here for this debate, but he must understand that I have had a deep and long interest in all-party parliamentary groups.

APPGs play a valuable role in our parliamentary system. They bring together parliamentarians and external experts to further cross-party consideration of important issues. It is paramount that any new rules do not deter APPGs, particularly those that are self-funded, from meeting, because these forums aid the development of public policy on matters that otherwise may not be considered by Parliament. Rather, the new rules should seek to increase transparency, limit undue influence and secure the parliamentary estate, while allowing APPGs to perform their vital functions.

The Government are grateful to the Standards Committee for reviewing the rules governing these groups to ensure that they remain fit for purpose. It is right that we give existing APPGs an opportunity to comply with the new system, so I am grateful to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for outlining the need for transitional arrangements to implement the rules.

APPGs are able to play an important role in Parliament by virtue of their informal status, but I believe these groups should be held to high standards and operate in keeping with the broader principles shared across the Houses, which are that Parliament should be transparent, protected from undue influence, and boast a reputation that is cherished at home and envied abroad. The reforms being proposed represent an important step towards this objective, and as per the Government’s response in June, we welcome the Committee’s consideration of whether the rules on foreign contributions could be strengthened at a later stage. I look forward to this debate, and I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 3:23, 19 July 2023

I rise to support the motion. I must confess that I was a little taken aback at the brevity of the Minister’s speech, but the points he made were absolutely right. We are here to support the Standards Committee’s work. I thank the Leader of the House for bringing forward this important motion, and I join the Minister in his full thanks to the Standards Committee and of course its Clerks, who we can see have put in a lot of work.

This work follows on from previous investigations, such as the report published in 2013. I of course agree with the Minister that this motion will help to safeguard Parliament from various things that could be improper, such as improper lobbying and hostile state actors, and that is why I support it. The Standards Committee is right to have conducted the inquiry now, because the current rules for APPGs were last agreed by this House almost 10 years ago.

APPGs have a long history, and they have made a significant contribution to the life of Parliament. I understand from the 2013 report that the first, created in 1939, was the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. It was established to help with the war effort and focused on the big scientific issues of the day over many years; of course, it still thrives. It is a great example of the longer-term focus that APPGs can have, compared with the shorter-term thinking of many Governments.

Another example of the value of APPGs is the APPG on autism, with which I had the pleasure of being involved for many years while on the Back Benches. I pay tribute to its former chair, dear Dame Cheryl Gillan, whom we all loved and miss very much. It is still one of the biggest and most active groups in Parliament, and much of that was down to Dame Cheryl, with her dedication and her warm and welcoming style, which drew in Members from all political parties.

That is what APPGs at their best can do. They effectively bring together and organise supporters of a particular issue or country from across both Houses and all parties. They provide space for longer-term policy development and a strong voice to Back Benchers, and they therefore have a rightful place in our Parliament.

However, the Committee found that APPGs can pose a

“significant risk of improper access and influence by commercial entities or by hostile foreign actors”.

Looking down the list of APPGs, as I did ahead of this debate, there has been a significant rise in their number since we last looked at their governance, which makes it harder for the House to monitor their practices. The Committee noted the

“real possibility of APPGs having been set up at the suggestion of, and as a result of lobbying by, a commercial interest.”

That is clearly bad practice and—this is the very thing the Standards Committee has been working so hard to prevent with its work in other areas—it could enable commercial entities to, in effect, buy access to or the influence of parliamentarians and decision makers. Throughout its inquiry, the Committee undertook extensive consultation, received written and oral evidence and came to clear conclusions, and we have to act now in support of the motion to strengthen how we run APPGs.

I think the two-tier approach to governance and regulation proposed by the Committee strikes the right balance. It safeguards Parliament where there is the greatest risk—for example, focusing on those with external financial benefits of over £1,500 in a calendar year, and having a lighter touch on those that do not. I also support the recommendation that the number of APPGs an MP can be an officer of is limited, as should be the number of officers per APPG. It is also right that we take a stand and say that no secretariat should be allowed to be provided or funded by a foreign Government, and that external members of a secretariat should not be granted parliamentary passes. I think I have understood the report correctly there.

This is about us, the House and Parliament clamping down on the risk of improper lobbying. For the record, I am not speaking from any particular experience of it having happened, but from the risk that it could, and that is very important. We all have a role to play in maintaining Parliament’s security, and I urge Members and secretariats to do their bit and to follow the new rules carefully. I think APPGs should welcome them, because they are a great opportunity to showcase that we know how to do our work properly and professionally, which can only increase the respectability and credibility of APPGs.

The Committee has said that it will provide an updated guide on APPGs, which will consolidate all the existing guidance. I think it is an excellent idea to have that in one accessible place. I suggest that it is sent in physical form to every MP’s office and that copies are made available in the Vote Office and the Library, as well as online.

Finally, I would like to see these changes as just part of a package of reforms to restore trust in politics, and in Parliament in particular. The Leader of the House and I have a shared desire to increase the transparency of ministerial interests and, for example, to make information on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests more accessible. Will the Minister convey to the Leader of the House that I reiterate my offer to support her in bringing forward these reforms as soon as possible? In the meantime, I urge everyone to support the motion if the House divides.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 3:27, 19 July 2023

I think I have to declare an interest because—I have totted them up—I am the chair of nine APPGs at the moment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

All right, the figure may be 10 if I have missed one out, but, in hurriedly putting some notes together, I could remember nine.

I chair the APPG for children, which is a substantial group. Over many years, it has produced some reports that have led to changes in the law, and I do not think that anybody is going to challenge the legitimacy of that. I chair the 1001 critical days group, or the APPG on conception to age two—first 1001 days. That was the genesis of the Government’s “best start” policy, brought in by my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom, which has played an important part in early years provision. I chair the APPG on archaeology, which briefs parliamentarians on changes to the law regarding the influence of archaeology on the environment, agricultural matters and cultural matters, and it is very active.

I chair the British Museum APPG, which met only yesterday. It has an important job, given that it was this House that established the British Museum back in the 18th century. When there are serious challenges ahead—the future of collections such as the Elgin marbles, for example—this House must have a voice. I chair the APPG for Armenia, which I took on reluctantly from my right hon. Friend Sir John Whittingdale because he was a Minister again. I was told there would be very little going on, and within a few weeks Azerbaijan invaded Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia became a very hot topic. I have virtually weekly conversations with the ambassador and others on this subject, so it is an active group.

I chair the reformed Wilton Park group, an important foreign affairs melting pot financed by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I chair the all-party group on mindfulness, which has done so much good for the mentality, mental health and camaraderie of Members in this House since its formation about 10 years ago, with the strapline of “disagreeing better”; that is very relevant, and it is one of the more active groups. I chair the all-party group on Tibet, which has been absolutely essential to the whole issue of China’s abuse of human rights not just in Tibet but in Xinjiang and beyond.

I chair, too, the all-party group on photography. I took that role on after the murder of our former colleague Sir David Amess. Because I was the next named officer, very shortly after his murder I was, disgracefully, contacted by the registrar to say, “You must have an EGM within 30 days to appoint a new chair,” completely oblivious to the circumstances of the loss of our previous chair. That was how I got to take on that role. The group exists largely to organise the annual photography exhibition, which Mr Speaker very kindly supports and will be attending again later in the autumn. So those are my interests—and there is apparently a tenth one that Sir Chris Bryant will tell me about. I will therefore automatically be caught under these rules, so I have a double interest.

I do not criticise the report, although I disagree with some of its findings, but I think it has gone largely under the radar and many Members are going to be very surprised if and when it goes through that they will be impacted. I absolutely take the point from my right hon. Friend the Veterans Minister, who I am delighted is here to defend these measures today, that the all-party group system is an important part of Parliament—the report itself says that as well—and that new rules should not deter all-party parliamentary groups. I am afraid they will, however, for some good reasons and for other, unintended not-so-good reasons.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

May I, through my hon. Friend, invite the Minister before he winds up to read pages 55 to 74 of the “Guide to Rules” and see how long that is going to take and how sensible it is?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

All right then, I will, but my concern is that there has been very little profile for this report and study. I notice that only one Member of Parliament submitted written evidence and only one gave formal evidence to the Committee, and I cannot see that there were any submissions or calls to give evidence face to face from any chairs of all-party groups, let alone multiple chairs of all-party groups.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

But the Chairman of the Standards Committee is probably about to correct me.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

Yes, I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to the second round. We had a first report, for which quite a lot of people submitted evidence—both members of the public and Members of Parliament—and we also did a survey of all Members, which a large number responded to. We had other submissions as well, and various Committee Chairs appeared before us.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

I am referring to the second report because we are discussing the second report. Because there was quite a gap between this study being initiated and this final report being issued, with final recommendations with imminent implications, many people thought this would not happen and might be kicked into the long grass. We all have to take responsibility if we have not noticed things, but the fact that very few people took part in the second report suggests there was a large degree of ignorance that it was taking place.

I agree that there is a problem: there are too many all-party groups—over 800—and I came to that conclusion some years ago when I was invited to the inaugural meeting of the all-party group on meetings. That was not a joke; it did get established—although I do not know whether it is still going or whether it has just had one big meeting right from the start. There are a number of all-party group subjects that clearly stretch credibility, and the fear is that too many of them are in danger of being hijacked by lobbying groups, commercial trade bodies and other interests to give them a platform in Parliament that they otherwise would not be able to get. I absolutely understand that that is a problem and something needs to be done about it. That demonstrates the case for making it harder to set up APPGs in the first place and having stricter rules for the way they operate and their transparency. Everything in the report on transparency, including financial transparency and having a much better check on financial contributions or freebies to certain Members, is essential. I have no issue with any of that and will certainly support it.

On the issuing of passes, none of the groups I am involved in have, to the best of my knowledge, issued passes to any outside bodies, which I think absolutely goes beyond the pale. I agree, too, with having an annual income and expenditure statement and an annual report. Those are all sensible recommendations, and there might be a compendium of all the activities that go on through all-party groups, which would be a good selling point in highlighting why the all-party groups are an important part of this House and the work they do.

Many all-party groups, including many I am involved in, commission reports. In some cases, we act as quasi-Select Committees to take evidence and produce reviews that are intended specifically to influence Governments and political parties and feed into legislation. They get publicity and are generally a good thing.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

The hon. Gentleman betrays something I have worried about for some time when he refers to quasi-Select Committees, because APPGs do not have the authority of the whole House. It is a really important distinction that they are not constituted like Select Committees or any other Committee of the House. We have striven very hard to make that important distinction, which is why a specific rubric has to be put on any APPG publication saying it is not from a formal Committee of the House.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

That is absolutely right, but although they are not Select Committees they can adopt a Select Committee style in taking evidence in order to produce reports. The Select Committee system works really well. I have sat on the Select Committee on Home Affairs for nine years, and those Committees are one of the strengths of this House, but they cannot cover everything. The all-party groups can drill down into more specialised, niche issues that a Select Committee would never have the time or capacity to take on, in order to produce a report on something specific. A few years ago the all-party group for children produced a report on stop and search by police of young children. We took some very important evidence and produced a report with recommendations that led to a change in guidance. So there was a very clear role for doing that group, and the then Select Committee on Home Affairs did not have the time or remit to be able to cover the issue. We produced a valuable report that had a clear implication at the end of it. So all of those things are good, which is why we do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is sensible to have a two-tier approach for groups that have outside funding, but that funding includes benefits in kind. The National Children’s Bureau is the secretariat to the all-party parliamentary group for children. It does not give us any money. It will organise receptions occasionally to promote our work, it will pay the hire fee for one of the rooms here, for example, and it gives us its time for free, which is a benefit in kind, but none of us receives any money or any perks because of that. The NCB would certainly be caught by this measure, and so would a lot of smaller groups and charities acting as secretariats.

On groups having a minimum of four officers rather than the unlimited amount at the moment, I have been involved with groups that have had large numbers of officers. We do not necessarily need so many, but four is too few. One strength of all-party groups is in the name: they are all-party groups. One wants to get as many parties represented as possible, including in the Lords, as groups are made up of Members of both Houses. To limit them to four officers may limit representation to only two parties—I think it would still apply that they would have to have an Opposition Member as an officer—would not give us a broad spread, so I do not understand the logic of having just four officers.

On limiting each individual Member to being an officer of only six APPGs, I would instantly fall foul of that. In some cases, it may be an excuse for me to be able to say, “I’m very sorry, I can’t be a chairman of that anymore” and I can stand down. But the groups I have taken on—I have given up others in the past, and perhaps there are too many—are on subjects in which I have a strong interest, are active and I think serve a good purpose for the House that I would not be a part of otherwise. So I instantly have a problem. If the new rules are coming in on 16 October, subject to any transition rules of which we know no details—the motion states they will come in when we come back after the conference recess—how is that going to work? The Chairman of the Standards Committee is about to tell me how it is going to work, which may delete my next paragraph.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

It might be best if the hon. Gentleman waits until I make my speech, because I will lay it all out very clearly. It is printed in the documents, but groups will have to have had an AGM or an extraordinary general meeting, which they can do virtually or by correspondence if they want to, by 31 March next year.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

Therein lies the problem. There is no common year end for all APPGs. We had the AGM of the all-party parliamentary group for photography at the beginning of this week, because yesterday was the end of our year when we had to do that by. There is another group for which I have another two months to hold it. After 16 October, when the AGMs start coming up, which groups do I then have to drop to take me down to six or below? It may be ones that I do not necessarily want to drop.

The point is, why are we bringing in this change at the tail end of a Parliament? This is quite a significant change and the obvious thing, surely, is to bring it in in the next Parliament, when none of the groups will exist until they are formed again if there is sufficient interest and a sufficient number of Members interested. There may be a larger number of Members required to set them up—that is a better way of doing it. At their genesis, APPGs, whether they are renewing from a previous Parliament or are genuinely new groups, need to justify the need for setting up that group. That could involve a higher threshold of Members needing to sign the form and somebody scrutinising in more detail whether it is a credible and legitimate APPG that will serve some positive purpose for the House.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

This may be slightly unconventional, but what we are dealing with actually matters to the House. Would it be possible, during this debate, for the Minister and the Whip to consult with the Leader of the House, the official Opposition and the Chair of the Standards Committee, Sir Chris Bryant, to see whether it is possible for us not to make a decision on the motion today, but to come back to the issue in September? That would still allow whatever timescale is needed, and would allow more MPs to be aware of the implications.

We also have to hear from the Chairman of the Standards Committee, which will tell us more, but it might be sensible if the Government, the Opposition and the SNP considered not coming to a decision, having the debate and then coming back in September when minds will be clearer and more MPs know what is going on.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

The Father of the House, my constituency neighbour, makes a very helpful suggestion. I do not understand the rush in any case. As the motion stands, I cannot support it. It would be a bit unusual if we had to force a Division on it— I am not one who usually likes to have Divisions on reports by the Standards Committee. There is a need for change—I absolutely agree—but I think we are going to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There will be damage and harm done to APPGs, which is specifically what the Minister says he does not want to happen and goes against the thrust of a report that wants APPGs to continue to play their very important role.

There are other details in the new rules, for example putting up the quorum for an AGM from five to eight. We all know it is often difficult to get five MPs to attend a meeting to form a quorum because of the competing priorities in this place, and unwitting MPs are literally dragged in from the cafés to boost numbers. Again, I am not entirely sure what that is aiming to achieve. We have the idea of having outside chairs to chair these AGMs, but who will those people be? Will Mr Speaker have to create another pool of chairs or whatever? Again, I will leave that for the hon. Member for Rhondda, if he is going to explain more in his speech.

In conclusion, I support reform of the all-party groups, because there has been abuse, they are open to abuse and we do not need as many as there are. However, we do need a great many of them and we need greater transparency in how they operate. I fear that some of the detail around the implementation of these rules, though well intended, will undoubtedly have the result that many APPGs will not be able to continue in their current form, and this House will be at a loss for it. That is why I air those points in good faith.

Having had some experience of being chair or holding other offices of all-party groups over the years, I can say that the report is a good report, but in its detail it is still lacking. I would like the Minister and others to agree that further work needs to be done to come back with a more suitable solution. Preferably, the whole lot will be put into the next Parliament, which will probably not be that far away, so that we can start afresh without people involved in all-party groups now being unwittingly penalised for it.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (COP26), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Commons Business) 3:46, 19 July 2023

I had better start by declaring an interest, in that, although I am not a chair of an APPG, I am a member of a number of APPGs, several of which I am an officer for. The APPGs I am part of include the APPG on Malawi, the APPG on immigration detention, the APPG on HIV and AIDS, the APPG on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, and the APPG on electoral campaigning transparency, to name just a few.

I agree that APPGs play a significant role in the functioning of this place. As rightly stated by the Standards Committee, they keep Members informed on a wide range of topics and provide a platform for diverse groups that might otherwise be excluded from the political system to present their arguments to engaged parliamentarians. I can think, for example, of the excellent work by the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood, which I joined after being contacted by constituents whose family lives had been devastated by that scandal.

It is important for our democracy that Members engage with broader society and address topics of wider public interest, but it is clear that the current APPG system lacks sufficient transparency and oversight. The existing rules are not stringent enough. Currently, all APPGs must be registered and provide funding details, but many do not produce or make readily available a detailed breakdown. Numerous APPGs have routinely broken transparency rules by failing to disclose their financial records or to provide them upon request. That lack of accountability can allow for undisclosed private donors to exert influence.

The SNP supports strengthening the rules at this point to prevent any undue influence from state actors, commercial entities or dark money through APPGs, and we back the proposals to do so at the earliest opportunity. It is vital that we know who funds APPGs to understand where the influence lies and who is driving the agenda.

Many APPGs operate perfectly legitimately and with clear transparency and oversight, but those with more opaque funding streams could mean Members being unduly influenced by those in the private sector or even hostile state actors, risking corruption and endangering democracy through inadequate scrutiny. Analysis by The Guardian and openDemocracy in 2022—I pay tribute to their work on this—found that more than half of the £25 million-worth of donations to APPGs since 2018 has come from the private sector. Over the past four years, for example, arms manufacturers have contributed £256,000 in cash, services or a combination to APPGs, and significant donations have been made by large companies such as Facebook, Huawei and British American Tobacco. Private health and social care companies have donated more than £1 million to several APPGs where health-related issues were discussed, with the funding increasing every year.

In considering the risks that may be associated with groups accepting financial benefits, the Committee’s suggestion of a two-tier approach appears reasonable. I also welcome the report’s recommendation that all APPGs should publish an annual income and expenditure statement. Although they are currently obligated to provide accounts on request, half of the 190 APPGs approached by openDemocracy failed to do so. The Committee’s proposed 28-day time limit for providing accounts therefore seems sensible. The additional rules applying to groups that receive outside financial benefits totalling over £1,500, which include producing the annual report at the end of the year and AGMs being chaired externally—I look forward to the Chair of the Standards Committee providing more details on the make-up of those chairs—also seem justified. The report also indicates that there are simply too many APPGs, which makes it challenging to ensure adherence to House rules.

May I suggest that membership lists should be updated far more regularly when MPs join and leave APPGs? I have experienced the frustration of trying to remove myself from an APPG and finding, months later, that my name still appeared on that list. I wonder whether thought could be given at some stage—perhaps the Standards Committee is looking at this—to a more centralised administration system, so that MPs and the public can access more accurate and up-to-date information about membership details and, indeed, how active a group is.

Parliament will always be a target for hostile foreign states, but better regulation and transparency around APPGs can ensure that they continue to make a positive contribution. Of course, country APPGs help to promote understanding, co-operation and cultural and economic partnerships between the UK and other nations, but evidence suggesting that some foreign Governments may be exploiting APPGs to promote their views should raise alarm bells across this place. That also emphasises the need for greater regulation. The Committee’s proposal that groups should not be permitted to have a secretariat either provided or funded by a foreign Government seems appropriate. It is certainly right that group officers should apply due diligence as to whether a foreign Government may be the eventual funder of a secretariat or other benefit. I note the Government’s support in particular for that recommendation. I wish that they were a little more willing to require greater due diligence on political funding from unincorporated associations but that, no doubt, is for another day’s battle.

The Prime Minister spoke about his Government’s mission to ensure integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level. APPGs perform a key role, but action in this area is clearly necessary to live up to those values and make this place more transparent. I thank the Committee—and the Clerks who support it—for all its work. I know that it has been some effort and the House very much appreciates that. I support the motion.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes 3:53, 19 July 2023

I agree with many of the points made—particularly those made by my hon. Friend Tim Loughton—and fully support the report’s aims in respect of transparency and financial accountability. However, I have a few concerns, similar to those expressed by my hon. Friend. For example, I am the trade envoy to the western Balkans, which is six countries. I happen also to be an officer or a member of those six country APPGs, which I think is advantageous to my role as the trade envoy. It may be that showing an interest in those countries before I was appointed to be an envoy played a part in my appointment. I do think it is important that I take an interest in those all-party groups because they give me wider knowledge and an interest in aspects of those countries other than their trade and economy.

I am also an officer of a number of other APPGs, usually because of a personal interest or because they are relevant to my constituency. I am a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Iceland because my constituency is heavily reliant on its trading relationship with Iceland; thousands of my constituents who work in seafood processing are totally reliant on supplies of fish from Iceland. There seems to be a particular logic to that. I am a member of those APPGs because of the trade envoy role, interest in the countries or relevance to my constituency, but why should that stop me from being the treasurer of the all-party parliamentary group on heritage rail? I happen to have a passion for steam railways, some of which are in Wales, I say to the Chair of the Standards Committee. The restriction on membership to six APPGs is perhaps over-egging the pudding to some extent. There is an issue with transparency in some APPGs, but we are perhaps looking for problems that do not exist.

On the issue of 20 Members being a member of an all-party group, on the face of it, that would seem perfectly possible. However, some all-party groups deal with illness and disease—virtually every illness or disease known to man probably has an all-party group. There are the headline ones such as strokes, cancers and so on, but some are rather obscure illnesses that may have affected Members, or their families, who have a particular passion to deal with that and to work with the charities and support groups. To find 20 members could be challenging and make it a little more difficult to do that important work.

The report says:

“There appears to be the real possibility of APPGs having been set up at the suggestion of, and as a result of lobbying by, a commercial interest.”

I set up the all-party parliamentary group on freeports a number of years ago because it was a policy concept I wanted to push that would be beneficial to my constituency and others. We have seen the Government adopt the freeport policies around the country. I set that up because I thought it was advantageous to my constituency, not because I was being lobbied by any commercial interest. However, I was aware that commercial interests were interested in the establishment of freeports—port operators being the obvious candidate. I agree wholeheartedly with the vast majority of what is proposed, but, in respect of the points I have made, it goes too far. I certainly support the suggestion by the Father of the House that we delay a final decision on this.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards 3:58, 19 July 2023

First, may I put on record my gratitude to the members of the Standards Committee—both the MP members and the seven lay members—to all the Clerks and, in particular in regard to this paper, to James Davies, the registrar, and Philippa Wainwright, the other part of the team running the APPG register.

We have 762 APPGs at the moment. It is virtually impossible to have any kind of proper regulation or oversight of them, or examination of whether they are doing their job properly when we only have two members of staff, one of whom also does the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. So I pay enormous tribute to them for their work. They try to be as helpful as they possibly can be and to ensure that Members do not inadvertently break the rules, because the rules are complicated and there are too many of them.

We have rules for what we are allowed to do in the Chamber, the code of conduct, the behaviour code and the rules on APPGs. Then there are the stationery rules, the rules of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the ministerial code. All those bodies are different. Frankly, it is very difficult for most Members of Parliament to keep up. I am desperately keen, as is the Standards Committee, to try to have rules that are coherent, consistent and, to use a valleys word, “tidy”.

I used that phrase when we were introducing Ofcom, many years ago, and Hansard rendered “valleys” as “valets”. We do not have many valets in the valleys, so Iusb hope people understand what I mean. We are just trying to bring a bit of tidiness to the sets of rules that we have. Some of you may have valets who do that for you—I do not know why I am looking at you, Madam Deputy Speaker—or indeed batmen, if I am looking at the Minister who opened the debate.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

It does depend on how many Ls there are, and whether there is a T.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

It does—and I have new hearing aids, so I am now quite precise about what I can hear and what I cannot hear in the Chamber.

The serious point here is that we have been lobbied incessantly, ever since I became Chair of the Committee, for new rules on APPGs, by successive Leaders of the House, shadow Leaders of the House, the Speaker, the Speaker in the Lords, Members of the House of Lords—because these are bicameral bodies—a large number of Members of the House of Commons, and external bodies which have been campaigning for changes in the rules because they think that the existing rules are far too flimsy and leave us exposed to a potential new scandal.

I did not like the way in which Sky presented the so-called Westminster Accounts. I thought that some of that was very unfair to individual Members, not least because it lumped any financial benefit that an APPG had received together with the financial interest of the individual Member. It looked as if some individual Members had received hundreds of thousands of pounds of financial support which had gone into their own pockets, whereas all the APPG was doing was trying to bring to the attention of Parliament and the voting public an issue relating to, for instance, a medical condition.

I am therefore keen to get a new set of APPG rules through. I have listened to everything that has been said in the Chamber, and I hope that I will have answers for pretty much everything. I am now looking at Tim Loughton, because I am rarely able to satisfy him—the Member for Del Monte in his suit over there.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

One thing the hon. Gentleman said which I think is really important was that there are too many APPGs. That is true: 762 is just daft. One Member—I do not know who it is; I have not asked—is an officer of 88 groups. I admire their dedication, but I do not think that they can possibly exercise due diligence on 88 APPGs, especially those with financial interests. That is why we wanted to address the question of how many groups someone could be an officer of, and how many officers there should be for each one.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

I hear what the hon. Member says, and I do not demur. I said at the outset that I thought there were too many APPGs. For example, dozens of them have some connection with children, which is why I recently brought as many of them as possible together to try to establish a common children’s manifesto. I am contacted virtually every week by someone asking whether I would be interested in setting up a new all-party group, to which my answer is invariably “No, we have too many already.” We need to merge more of these groups into one overarching interest. If there were more scrutiny at the outset, with someone asking, “Can we really justify setting up this APPG? Can it not be part of another one?”, that would be one way of cutting down the number at the beginning of each Parliament when they are set up.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

That was an idea that we toyed with. It was put to us that we should have a gatekeeper who would decide whether there could be, for instance, an all-party group for each of the Caribbean countries and one for the Caribbean as a whole, and one for each of the overseas territories as well as one for the overseas territories. The danger with that is the question of how to set the criteria for that person to be able to decide. It would mean putting a great deal of power in the hands of one individual, and that is why in the end we rejected the idea. We have reached a different set of conclusions, which we hope will lead to the same eventual outcome: that someone who currently chairs, or is an officer, of three APPGs in a fairly similar field will say, “Do you know what? I am going to try to get them all to combine, and I want to be the chair of the one.”

The guiding principle for us has been, first and foremost, that APPGs are, broadly speaking, a good thing, but there is a danger that they can be a very, very bad thing. It is certainly a bad thing if a commercial interest is effectively suborning Parliament, gaining a kind of accreditation by virtue of the APPG name. I would argue that this gets particularly acute when the secretariat is provided by an external body that is not even a charity but a PR company or a lobbying company. It seems to me that there is a commercial interest in their making APPGs just to keep themselves in business, and that is an inappropriate way for us to proceed. It leaves us open to real reputational risk for the whole House.

I will go through some of the points that have been made, starting with those made by Martin Vickers. He said that he was a trade envoy and an officer for six groups. I know that some trade envoys have decided no longer to be officers of the relevant groups because they are the trade envoy who has a relationship with the Government in relation to those countries. I gently suggest to him that that is a better, or perhaps more appropriate, way of proceeding. I understand fully why he may have ended up being a trade envoy, which is a good thing to be, although I worry about quite how the Government make people trade envoys and retain their commitment to the Government by virtue of doing so. I understand that he might have got there because of expressing his interest through those various groups. I would also say to Members that being a member of an all-party group is a perfectly satisfactory way of signifying to the country and to their constituents that they are supportive of it. They do not have to be an officer in every instance.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

Has the hon. Gentleman been in for the whole of the debate? [Hon. Members: “No.”] In which case, I will not. I am sorry.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I am not giving way. It is a courtesy to the House that if you are going to start intervening in a debate, you should have been here for the ministerial openers.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think it is within the orders of the House not to accept an intervention, but to make a derogatory comment while not accepting an intervention does not allow the hon. Member who has been referred to to answer back.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

I was suggesting that it is all right for the hon. Member not to take an intervention, but that to go on to make remarks that might be regarded as adverse to the person trying to intervene when he does not have the opportunity to respond seems unfair.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I am not sure that that is a point of order—it is perhaps an opinion—but I think it is courteous for those who are intervening in a debate to have been here for a long time. My feeling about this is that a lot of different views have been expressed and it is important to have heard the whole debate. I do not think it is unreasonable for Sir Chris Bryant to say that the reason he is not allowing an intervention is that Sir Christopher Chope has not been here for the whole of the debate. He is perfectly within his rights to give a reason why he will not take an intervention.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

Having said that, I now feel that I have been discourteous and I am going to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The point I was going to make is that there seems to be an issue about the definition of membership of an APPG. My understanding is that anybody who is not a member of the Government is a member of an APPG. The hon. Gentleman himself was once involved in a contested election to become chair of the APPG on Russia, and some 200 Members across both Houses we dragooned into voting in that election. They were not registered members of that APPG, but they happened to qualify because they were ordinary Members of Parliament.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

The rules specify that anybody who is not a member of the Government can be a member and an officer of an all-party group. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I remember the occasion when he, among many others, came to a meeting on the top floor and we had about 350 people voting at an APPG extraordinary general meeting just to get rid of me—over Russia, ironically enough.

The important point the Committee is trying to underline is that an all-party parliamentary group should only be an all-party parliamentary group if it has enough support among the 1,450 Members of this House and the other House to be able to have a proper AGM attended by five Members, for heaven’s sake, and with 20 Members expressing support. That is important because, otherwise, it is very easy for an APPG to be run by an individual Member on behalf of a commercial interest or in pursuit of a personal agenda, bringing along their friends just once a year. That is the evil we are trying to address.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Unfortunately, the proposed rules we are being asked to adopt this afternoon say:

“A Member of the House of Commons may be an officer of a maximum of six Groups.

An APPG must have at least 20 members”.

I think the hon. Gentleman is talking about 20 registered members, because all Members of both Houses, other than members of the Government, are automatically members of APPGs if they so wish.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

No, they are not automatically a member of all APPGs, otherwise every APPG would have 1,450 members. The hon. Gentleman needs to read the rules and the guide to the rules, both of which are available from the Vote Office, as they make all of this perfectly clear.

The point the Committee is trying to make is that every APPG should have a properly constituted annual general meeting, should have a limited number of officers—who have full responsibility for the running of the APPG, and for making sure it operates under the rules of the House and does not expose the House to further reputational damage—and should have enough registered members on the list it submits each year to be able to qualify as a proper all-party parliamentary group.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Sir Chris Bryant refers to the guide to the rules on all-party parliamentary groups. I went out to try to get a copy of this document from the Vote Office and was able to get one copy, but there were no other copies available. The Vote Office is currently trying to print more copies. Considering how few Members there are in the Chamber, it seems most unsatisfactory that we have such a small number of copies of the guide to the rules, which extends to a very large number of pages. Why can we not all see this before we reach a conclusion?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

This debate should not conclude until all Members present have had an opportunity to read the guide to the rules on all-party parliamentary groups, a copy of which is not yet available to every Member.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I have received no other complaints from hon. and right hon. Members that they do not have a copy. As the hon. Gentleman says, he has not been here for the whole debate, so he has not heard a lot of the other arguments. It is a bit discourteous to keep disrupting the debate in this way. We should allow the Chair of the Standards Committee to finish his speech without interruption through points of order, which is a poor approach when we are having a debate. Sir Christopher Chope is on the Panel of Chairs, so I hope he would understand.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I will come on to the Panel of Chairs a little later.

I rather enjoyed that point of order, because I think Sir Christopher Chope is complaining that he has a copy of the relevant document that he wanted.

APPGs are great, but we have too many. There is a great deal of duplication, and I suspect we are all guilty. Many of us end up creating another new APPG on another new medical condition that is somewhat similar to other APPGs, and so on. Colleagues are often a bit naughty in trying to make every APPG publication look remarkably like a Select Committee report, knowing perfectly well that, when it is referred to on the “Today” programme or on ITV, the APPG will be referred to almost identically as a “Committee of MPs,” which is unfortunate because we should rigorously protect the authority of Select Committees and official communications of the whole House.

As I said earlier, I sometimes feel that APPGs are the soft underbelly of the way we do parliamentary lobbying. One Member, who I am not naming—I do not even know who it is—is an officer of 88 all-party parliamentary groups, and I do not think they could possibly do due diligence on all 88 groups.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

I was not here at the start of the debate. I tuned in and have been following it on the television. I heard the speech from Tim Loughton, and I found that there was more to this than I had previously realised. I make all the due apologies, but I think it is better to make a late intervention than no intervention.

The point the Chairman of the Committee makes about the quasi-Select Committee reports has some substance, but he has to remember that not everybody or every party in this House has an automatic right to be a member of a Select Committee. That privilege is given to the three largest parties only. The Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionists, the Green party and others do not have that opportunity to be part of the Select Committee structure. For that reason, our voice being heard through APPGs is very important.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, which I fully take on board. However, ever since APPGs were first created, the House has repeatedly wanted to ensure a clear distinction between reports produced by a group of MPs and ones produced officially by the House. That is an important distinction.

Not every grouping of MPs needs to become an APPG. I have chaired an APPG on acquired brain injury, and it was often difficult to get it going, because all the Conservatives on it kept on being made Ministers—they then got sacked and then they were made Ministers again. One of them, Johnny Mercer, may be about to become Defence Secretary—I have co-operated with him on this subject for a very long time—and another is the Northern Ireland Secretary. Keeping APPGs going is sometimes problematic, because the people who are most interested sometimes get other jobs that mean that they cannot take part. But there is no reason why someone cannot continue the work without being in an APPG.

I am not sure whether the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was irritated when he kept getting text messages from APPGs saying, “Can you come to Room R for two minutes at 2 o’clock because otherwise we will not be quorate for our AGM.” That is an inappropriate way of doing our business. If we cannot get five genuinely interested people along to an AGM, it probably should not be an APPG, especially if it has some external financial interest. The danger is that nobody is exercising proper due diligence over the finances.

For some of us, APPGs have become a bit of a tyranny. The hon. Gentleman says that he is chair of nine, and he is also an assiduous member of a Select Committee and he is regularly in the Chamber. It would benefit us all if there were fewer all-party groups and, as I say, there is reputational risk here. The Committee expressly asked me to say that it expects that the rules we are introducing will lead to fewer all-party groups. That is the express intention of what we are doing.

Let me be clear about what we are doing. As has been mentioned, we propose that APPGs will be able to have only four officers. The intention is to make sure that every one of those officers takes a proper interest in the running of the APPG. Rather than having 10 vice-chairs, four treasurers and all the rest of it, we propose that there be four officers, who are charged with making sure that the group is run properly. We also propose that all APPGs must have an up-to-date list of 20 supporters—registered members. Thirdly, we propose that a Member can be an officer of only six all-party groups, as has been mentioned. Again, part of the reason is that we want these people to be able to exercise due diligence over the running of the group. I am not questioning the hon. Gentleman here; I belong to nearly all the all-party groups that he chairs and he has admirably driven forward issues, including on the British Museum—that was an all-party group that I founded. I admire all that work, but we do want to make sure that we do not imperil the reputation of the House.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

It was David Heathcoat-Amory who set up the British Museum group, but that is neither here nor there. On most of the all-party groups where I am chair, I am actually co-chair, so it is not a question of the chair having to do all the work. Does he take my point that limiting the number of officers to four means that there will not be such a wide spread of parties to make it a genuine all-party parliamentary group? Those four people will now be key and will have greater control, accountability and scrutiny over the activities of that group.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

No, I do not buy that, I am afraid, because what we are trying to say is there are officers and there are registered members. All the registered members should express an interest in the running of the group, and that will demonstrate the cross-party nature of the body.

We recognise that there are many APPGs where there is no financial interest at all. There is no money or external secretariat; it is simply done out of the goodness of the office of the individual Member. We have left most of the rules for APPGs with no financial interest unchanged in all other regards, and the quorum will remain five people.

However, we are introducing a quorum of eight for APPGs where there is a financial interest, and we are saying that the chair for an AGM or extraordinary general meeting of those APPGs will be provided by Mr Speaker, as was requested by Mr Speaker and the Lord Speaker. They want a clear, independent body to be able to administrate whether there has been a proper annual general meeting and that all the rules have been abided by.

I know that Mr Speaker has had some conversations with the Panel of Chairs. It may be necessary to have a couple more members of the Panel of Chairs. We are fully cognisant of the fact that it will take time for all groups to have their AGMs and extraordinary general meetings to be able to comply with the rules, which is why we are making transitional arrangements, although we want the main body of the rules to apply from 16 October, as the motion says.

It might help if I read out the transitional arrangements, because they are important for everybody. They are at the beginning of the document referred to by the hon. Member for Christchurch, and they were in the resolution of the Committee yesterday.

“(1) The rules prohibiting foreign governments from providing or funding (whether directly or indirectly) a secretariat come into force with immediate effect on 16 October 2023.

(2) APPGs need to comply with any other new rules from their first AGM following the new rules coming into force, or 31 March 2024, whichever is the earlier;
except that the additional rules applying to APPGs that meet the £1,500 funding threshold will apply only from 31 March 2024.

(3) APPGs will be able to hold EGMs virtually or by correspondence during a transition period (to meet the requirement for 4 officers and no more;
and to ensure that those officers are officers of no more than 5 other APPGs) ending on 31 March 2024.

(4) An audit of compliance will be carried out in April 2024. Any APPG that has not complied with the Rules by 31 March 2024”— which happens to be Easter Sunday

“will be deregistered.”

I hope it is helpful that I have read that out, because we want to make it as clear as we possibly can.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

When was what the hon. Gentleman has just read out agreed? How is it available to us now?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

It was agreed yesterday at the Standards Committee. We only knew today that this debate was going to be happening today; we thought it was going to be later in the year. It is available on the front page of the document referred to earlier, “The Guide to the Rules on All-Party Parliamentary Groups”, which is available from the Vote Office. It was agreed yesterday, under the authority granted to the Standards Committee.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

I have “The Guide to the Rules”—I am one of the ones who managed to get a copy. I don’t see it—

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

Transitional arrangements? I have read through every other page, starting with page 3—I did not read page 2. I do not believe any other Member of this Chamber, except for the other members of the Standards Committee, has read that. To take a decision on the arrangements this evening, given the impact it will have on every all-party group, is not necessary, wise or advisable.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I think that was a speech. Perhaps the hon. Member will be able to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am conscious that I have spoken for quite a long time and I had not intended to do so.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

Those sort of details are helpful. I understand how the transition arrangements impact the all-party groups themselves. However, to take my situation, I will have to give up the next AGMs coming up to get down to a quota of six, and they may not be the AGMs that I want to give up, but I will have to do so. That means that I have a problem, does it not?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

The thing is that I have a problem, too. We have been working on this and consulting the House repeatedly for three years now. We have been repeatedly told by Members that we have to come up with a new set of rules. The new rules that we have produced—all the individual elements that have been referred to so far—were available months ago. The Government responded to them, and we published the Government’s response to them several weeks ago, and we have the debate today. I am not convinced that, if we were to delay the decision today, we would come up with better rules, or a new version of the debate, in September.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I will give way to the hon. Lady, and then I will not give way anymore, because I am keen to leave the stage.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (COP26), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Commons Business)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I wish to start by correcting the record. Although I am not a stand-alone chair of an all-party group, I am a co-chair. I was reminded by Tim Loughton and the Father of the House of the BBC all-party parliamentary group. On the requirement for the four officers to be held jointly and severally liable for compliance with the additional rules for the groups, who will they turn to for advice and guidance should they require it?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

At present, they would turn to either Philippa Wainwright, who is the registrar of the APPGs, or to James Davis. If they really wanted to, they could also turn to either Eve Samson, who is the Clerk of the Journals, or Daniel Greenberg, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. All of these arrangements have been agreed between the Clerks and the two registrars. Everyone stands ready to provide people with advice. I know Mr Speaker stands ready to provide chairs for AGMs or extraordinary general meetings when we get back in September. One thing that we have exceptionally allowed is that people will be able to do extraordinary general meetings virtually—online—which will make it much easier for people to comply.

I will try to stop now. I know that there is some frustration in the House and I fully understand that. As I have said repeatedly to the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and Mr Speaker, I am not sure that there is an easy consensus to be found on proceeding.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I am not giving way again. I am really sorry, but I have been trying to leave the stage for some time.

This is the next scandal coming down the line. I know that the vast majority of Members want to address the matter. We cannot possibly do so if we remain with 762 all-party parliamentary groups. That is more than there are Members of this House. It is almost as many Members as there are in the other place. If a group cannot get five people to an AGM, it probably is not really an APPG and should not have the imprimatur that the APPG title guarantees it. I urge the House to support these measures today. Actually, the authority is vested in the Committee; it does not need to be agreed to by the House, but we thought that it was best for the House to be able to take a view as well.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons 4:28, 19 July 2023

Through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I say to Sir Chris Bryant that he should use the word “vale” when he says goodbye? For those who were not here earlier, we were having a discussion about how “valet” was spelt and sounded.

I have obviously been remiss in not paying enough attention since the publication of the first report on all-party groups. That concluded that the risk of

“influence by hostile foreign actors through APPGs is real.”

It said that there had been

“a dramatic increase in the number of APPGs”,

commercial interests and the like.

That did not prepare me for the motion, and the conclusions that the Committee came to. The motion contains the words

“subject to any transitional arrangements agreed by the Committee on Standards.”

I had not realised that the Committee would make transitional arrangements without consulting us. I do not believe that I saw draft proposals that alerted me to that. That is my fault. I am not blaming the Committee, but I think that the Chair of the Committee is not right that delaying a vote on this would not allow for improvement; it would.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

Had I been able to intervene on the Chair of the Committee, I would have said that I agree wholeheartedly with his analysis, and his starting point about the need for reform. I fear that the proposals will result in a variety of unintended consequences coming down the track, but I am prepared to go with them for today if I hear some sort of undertaking, from the Committee or from anywhere else in the House, that there will be a review of them, so that if my fears about unintended consequences prove to be correct we can revisit them, and not just say, “We’ve done that; we’re not going back to it.”

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

We have heard that the Committee could, so to speak, impose the proposals even if the House rejects them. I think that we probably should vote on them, just to ensure that Members who are paying attention have the chance to express their view. I will vote against them on the basis that they should be reviewed.

I am happy to co-operate with the commissioner, the hon. Member for Rhondda, the Committee, the Clerks, the Lord Speaker and the Commons Speaker to help to make the improvements that people desire and that are necessary. Some implications of the proposals are not improvements; they are retrogressive.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I am trying to be helpful to the House. The rules on APPGs are the prerogative of the Committee. That was already a decision of the House, but we did not want to proceed without the House taking a view. I hear quite a lot of discomfort about several elements of the proposals. I think that it will look terrible if we decide to pull them this afternoon—it will look as if the House does not want to take action, and that will be seen badly. What might be right is that we reassess the issue of transitional arrangements if people want to make representations to us, which the Committee could hear at its first meeting in September. One option is obviously that none of the proposals applies until the next Parliament. The Committee was hesitant about that—I am sorry that this is a long intervention, but I am trying to be helpful—only because it might look as if this Parliament was not prepared to put its house in order; it just wanted a future set of people to do it.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

That is potentially helpful. I am grateful, and the House will be as well. If the transitional arrangements concentrated on foreign Governments, or significant commercial beneficiaries, effectively supporting groups, that would be understood. It is the other parts that I do not understand. I say that as someone who was asked to chair the Austria all-party parliamentary group when Angus Robertson became leader of the SNP group at Westminster and felt that he could not do it. I stood in and did it, and I remain the chair of that group. In co-operation with the Austrian embassy, which provides no money and no resources, we welcome Austrians here. I guess that alternative arrangements for some functions of that kind could be made quite easily within the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

I am chair of the BBC all-party parliamentary group because one of our colleagues became the interim Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. To keep the all-party group going, given the importance of being able to hear from the BBC and liaise with it on controversial and non-controversial issues, I thought that it was important to stand in.

I am, I think, the chair or co-chair of 12 groups. I am the person the hon. Member for Rhondda referred to as being an officer of more than 80 groups. I could quite cheerfully take him and the House through each of the groups and why I am a member of them. [Hon. Members: “No!”] I will not go through them all, but I will give some illustrative examples.

I am the parliamentary warden of St Margaret’s Church on Parliament Square. I saw the lights on one evening and went into a service, which was the 12-step addiction service. All kinds of people with addictions, whether alcohol, gambling, sex, stealing or whatever else, were giving their witness. That gave me an interest in 12-step recovery programmes and, when a Member of the House of Lords asked whether I would help to set up an all-party group, I agreed. That is one of the groups of which I am a co-chair and registered contact, and I think it is worthwhile. The idea that we would necessarily get four members together at the same time or have 20 people registering as members is unlikely, but the work done by that group is important to all kinds of people inside the House, both Members and staff, and outside it.

I was once asked by Tristan Garel-Jones, a humanist, whether I, a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee who had been a trustee of Christian Aid and chairman of the Church of England Children’s Society, would be prepared to get a humanist group going. I said I would; I said that I was not a humanist, but it seemed to me that it was a line of thought that deserved some kind of parliamentary opportunity. The group has since grown and I am no longer a member of it.

I could go through the various other groups, but there are two that I am keenest on. The first is the group on leasehold and commonhold reform, where for more than 10 years, working first with Jim Fitzpatrick and now with Justin Madders, and with the help of the campaigning charity Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, we have fought to look after the interests of 6 million residential leaseholders. Even in the last couple of days we have had success with the Financial Conduct Authority on trying to ensure that those people are not ripped off on insurance, commissions and the like. That group can get large numbers of Members interested, but not get them all together at the same time.

The same applies to the group on park homes, which my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope has been in charge of for a long time with Sonia McColl, one of the campaigners. To show the kind of interests that we were up against, when her mobile home was being moved from one place to another, it was stolen.

I have some incredible things going on. If I were brought down to six chairmanships, I would not be able to do half the good that I do, and I do not always know which group will become important. When one of my hon. Friends became a Minister, he asked if I would take on, with the Astronomer Royal, the group on dark skies. We are co-leaders of the world in astronomy, and it is important to have parliamentary interest, so that Members of the Lords and Commons who are interested can come to meetings and we can liaise with outside groups.

I think very few of the groups I am involved in—although there are some—would not do worse if I were not interested. I say this to the Government, to those on the Front Benches and to the SNP: it is not necessary for this motion to pass. We have been told it does not matter to Parliament, because the Committee itself can set the rules, but it is possible to get through to the beginning of the next Parliament with suitable transition arrangements that are variations of what is on page 2 of the guide to rules.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

I think the compromises my hon. Friend is putting forward will be helpful here. Sir Chris Bryant, the Chairman of the Committee, is concerned that if we pulled this motion now and deferred it to the next Parliament, it would look like a cop-out. This matter needs to be resolved by this Parliament, but it does not need to be resolved this month. I would certainly ask the Standards Committee to come back with some small revisions to parts of the rules, particularly the transitional rules that have been queried. This is not about the bigger issues of foreign intervention or transparency, because I think we all agree on those. If the Committee came back with those revisions as a matter of urgency in September, the rules could still come in on his timeline—although, frankly, I think that if we resolved the matter now but they did not come in until the next Parliament, most of the problems would go away.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

I agree, and I hope others have heard what my hon. Friend said.

I refer again to pages 55 to 74 of the guide to the rules. It may or may not surprise colleagues that that is appendix 5, on data protection and APPGs—page after page after page of MPs who run groups telling MPs who may be members of the group, or who may be on a mailing list, how we handle their data. That is one of those things where we move ten places across, from one thing to another, without anybody on the Standards Committee understanding at all what was being put forward.

I do not know whether the Chair of the Standards Committee has experience of trying to administer all-party groups. Getting the detail right is important. We try to get it right, and we make some mistakes, but to add in an extra 20 pages for each group that we may be involved in, even if we are limited to six groups, gives us more than 100 pages to fill in. It is bureaucracy. If the only people who can be members of those groups are Members of Parliament, what on earth are we trying to do? That should not be there, and I hope that it is taken out.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Another unintended consequence is that, if a group is allowed only four officers, and one of those officers is appointed to the Government, or falls under a bus, the group will be unable to operate until it has had a formal meeting to elect a replacement. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is so rigid as to be unworkable?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. This debate has to finish in nine minutes, and one more Member wishes to speak before the Minister. Sir Peter Bottomley has been speaking for 12 minutes, and I would like to give five minutes to Jon Trickett.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

First, I believe that the Chairman of the Committee is wrong to say that people are not members of groups. We are all members of groups. Requiring 20 names to be put down is, again, bureaucratic.

Secondly, I say to the Chairman: do what I have suggested, which makes sense. Do not push the motion to a vote now—I will vote against it if he does. Whatever the result of that vote, he should consult again. My hon. Friend Tim Loughton and I, and anybody else who wants to, will come in to have a roundtable and solve the problems. I believe in controlling foreign Government and big commercial interests; I do not believe in wrecking the purposes of all-party groups. Most of those I am involved in have no foreign Government or big commercial interests.

Photo of Jon Trickett Jon Trickett Labour, Hemsworth 4:41, 19 July 2023

This has been a fascinating debate—I almost used the word “delay”, but I would not dare to when speaking about the Father of the House. In the few minutes I have, let me try to make the case against a vote. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Chair of the Committee has listened—we all have—and maybe some refinement can be achieved.

My hon. Friend might have made a stronger case if he had recalled to the House the distinction that his report makes between two types of all-party group. Many of them are benign, as we have heard. When I came to Parliament in 1996 through a by-election, they seemed relatively benign to me, but then I worked twice in Government—in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office—and then for 10 years on the Opposition Front Bench. Over the years, I reflected on the asymmetry of power between the people who have money and, as a result, access to power, including access to this place, and the millions of people around the country who also have interests but are not always heard. I therefore resigned from every APPG—I may be the only person here who is not in a single one. Maybe Members will say that I am not a very effective MP, but it seems to me that, if I want to speak to MPs, commercial interests, or private and civil society groups, I am capable of doing so without being in an APPG.

On the other hand, I would be happy to be party to many of the groups that have been mentioned today, which seem benign. However—and this is the point that I think sticks in the craw—commercial interests have dominated so much of our political life that that asymmetry of power and access to wealth and to this place is so profound that it is eating away at the body politic itself. We have funding coming from the arms industry, the tobacco industry, polluters, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, private healthcare and so on. They are all putting money into APPGs.

Members might ask, “Well, what’s wrong with that?” I am not against the arms industry—I am not a pacifist—but it is one of the largest beneficiaries of state procurement with taxpayers’ money. The private sector in health has an interest in trying to undermine the way in which the health service works. Tobacco is clearly regularly the subject of regulation. They all have access to the House and to Members of Parliament simply because they have the capacity to buy influence through the APPG system. I am not suggesting that anything about that is corrupt, but people outside, such as Peter, who I met yesterday in my constituency, where the local bank has closed—he is 88 years old and nearly blind—want to know that we operate on their behalf and not purely in the interests of large commercial operators.

Then there is the problem of foreign influence. The Committee made it clear in the report that foreign countries have not only attempted to influence our Parliament through APPGs, but succeeded in doing so. Some hostile countries, as we would define them, have sought to influence, but it is not just them. From the news today, we know that Britain was in competition with Spain over the location of a battery factory—I am glad we have got it for the UK. There is a Spain APPG, and I do not suggest in any way that it is malign, but foreign countries—allies or not—have an interest in understanding how our Parliament works.

I am glad that the Committee has recommended changes. If we can get through today without a vote against, the Committee can go away and reflect on the debate and tackle the malign aspects of APPGs. Parliament would then be in a much better place.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Minister for Veterans' Affairs) 4:45, 19 July 2023

I will be very brief. It has been a fascinating debate and there are strongly held views on all sides. The Committee has been tasked with looking at how we tackle this problem, and I think everyone agrees there is an issue with APPGs. I urge colleagues not to divide today—

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

Again, I will try to be helpful. If we vote down the motion today, it will mean that we cannot even take action on telling APPGs that they cannot take money from foreign Governments and I think that that would be a terrible mistake. If we carry the motion today, I undertake, having listened to all the contributions, that, at the next meeting of the Committee in September, we will make such adjustments as we think suitable—we are entitled to do so under the rules—to meet some of the issues that Members have raised. I would be grateful if Members could write to me with specific suggestions that they think might help, but we might also revisit the idea of when the transitional period will end.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)

I strongly urge Members to take that course of action. Voting down the motion would be extremely self-defeating.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

I hope that what the Chair of the Committee has just said can be interpreted as including not only the transitional arrangements, but some of the minor arrangements that are no threat to the major purposes behind this.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)

I am sure the Chair of the Committee has heard that remark—

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I have taken my hearing aid out, but I did hear what the Father of the House said.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)

Fantastic. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
approves the Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards, Session 2022–23, HC 228, on All-Party Parliamentary Groups: final proposals and, with effect from 16 October, the Rules for All-Party Parliamentary Groups contained in the Annex of that Report, subject to any transitional arrangements agreed by the Committee on Standards.