The rules should be updated to ensure appropriate transparency from APPGs, says the Standards Committee in a report published today. The Committee recommends streamlining regulation to ensure that MPs’ responsibility for APPG activity is clear; that there is transparency not only about external support, but also about the activities funded by such support; and greater clarity about the types of informal work done by MPs.
APPGs are not official parliamentary bodies, but groups of MPs and Lords established for a variety of purposes, who may or may not be supported by outside interests. They range from sporting or social groups to means for Members to educate themselves or campaigning organisations. The Register of APPGs (PDF 2.62MB) is overseen by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
The Committee undertook this inquiry following the Speakers’ Working Group on All Party Groups. It looks at the concerns that APPGs may provide access to lobbyists and pressure on resources, and that their output may be mistaken for that of official Select Committees.
The report recommends better regulation of APPGs to address these concerns. However, evidence submitted to the inquiry showed that such groups bring democratic benefits as well. They provide a forum for cross-party work which is not controlled by the whips, and where MPs and Lords can work together; a forum for academics, business people, charities and campaign groups, and other interested parties; time and space for policy discussion and debate; and they help backbenchers to set the policy agenda.
Standards Committee Chair Kevin Barron said:
“Whatever the rules, improper lobbying is always a risk and we should be vigilant. But Parliament should not exist in a bubble. The best safeguard against abuse is a system which requires appropriate financial transparency about both the support APPGs receive and their use of such support; better information to improve understanding of their work and role; and measures to improve accountability. Our proposed package of reforms will achieve this.”
The Committee notes that the APPG passes have already been abolished. The Committee supports this change, saying:
We have no doubt that the APPG staff pass was useful for those who used it to attend meetings with parliamentarians running their APPGs, to set up meeting rooms, and otherwise to assist with APPG events but noting that the existence of this pass category had increased concerns that external groups might be able to buy access to the Parliamentary Estate. (see para 41)
Principles behind the committee’s further proposals:
- APPGs should be driven and controlled by MPs and Lords;
- MPs and Lords playing an active part in an APPG’s activities should recognise their responsibility for its governance and understand they may be held to account over any failings;
- There should be transparency about APPG’s activities and expenditure, as well the support they receive from external sources;
- Information should be provided in a way which makes it easier for the public to understand how APPGs work and how they are regulated;
- Regulation should be appropriate to an APPG’s size and activities.
The Committee also recognises that the regulatory regime needs to balance the benefits of registration with the restrictions that registration will impose. MPs and Peers work closely with a wide variety of groups on matters which concern them. They are free to associate with each other, to meet and discuss issues, and even to hold inquiries if they wish. A vast compliance agenda could reduce transparency by providing a disincentive to register, or make it impossible to operate without a paid secretariat.
Proposals for reform include [not comprehensive, full list p24]:
• Commons Chair should clearly be responsible for compliance with the rules;
• Abolition of Associate APPGs, in which non MPs are allowed to vote;
• Clarity about income, with financial or material support above £1,500 required to be registered, should be accompanied by clarity about expenditure – groups with income of more than £12,500 pa should prepare annual income and expenditure statements;
• Individual Members remain responsible for registering any benefits they themselves receive as a result of APPG membership, and the thresholds for registering such benefits should be those applying to individual Members.
• Clearer information on the website about APPG’s status and activities
• Measures to make it easier to distinguish APPGs from Select Committees: an APPG branded Portcullis, APPG Reports and stationery to indicate any external funding, APPG reports to carry a disclaimer on front cover to make status clear;
• Ban on use of the Crowned Portcullis by informal groups.
- The report has two aims: to propose a package of measures which will retain the benefits which APPGs bring, while putting in place stronger measures to ensure transparency and propriety. The other is to improve understanding of APPGs’ place in Parliament.
A questionnaire was sent to all APPGs on the Register to draw attention to the inquiry and to make sure that there was a foundation of evidence on which to draw. The Committee took evidence from MPs, charities, political consultants, charities and other groups involved in supporting APPGs, and from the Campaign Group Unlock Democracy.
- Since the Committee’s inquiry began there have been allegations that a Member was attempting to set up an APPG at the request of a political consultant. That matter is currently under investigation, and we will not comment on it in this report. The immediate outcome of the publicity surrounding the allegations was that the Administration Committee recommended to the House of Commons Commission that there should no longer be a separate category of pass for the staff of APPGs. We concurred with that recommendation and the Commission has now withdrawn such passes.
- The Committee agrees with the Speaker’s Working Group that “APPGs can enable Members of both houses, working together, to inform themselves about specific subjects, make common cause on issues, and – perhaps most importantly – respond to outside concerns and have direct contact with those who express them. We were struck by the commitment of members and those outside parliament to APGs and note how effective they can be in raising issues with the Government... at a time when politicians are felt by some to be remote we must not cut ourselves off from the wider world.” Speaker’s Working Group on All Party Groups, Report to the Speaker and the Lord Speaker, June 2012, para 2.