By Harry Phibbs
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There are nearly 600 All Party Parliamentary Groups. Each one has a committee of MPs devoted to a special subject. The Chagos
Islands, Liechtenstein, Philately, Brass Bands, Cider, Jazz
Appreciation and Zoos each have their own group. I can't see the one for
Fiji set up by Patrick Mercer – although the register is from April so
maybe this ill-fated body will appear on the radar in due course.
Despite controversy regarding Fiji's human rights record it is not so
surprising that Mr Mercer was able to recruit members. Part of the idea
of these groups countries around the globe is that MPs go on free trips
hosted by the Government concerned. A jolly to Fiji, staying in smart
hotels, sounds most agreeable. Coral and cocktails. Obviously one
wouldn't want to insult one's hosts with a lot of impertinent questions about the arbitrary arrest of journalists.
There have been plenty of calls for an investigation into APGs being used as front organisations for lobbyists even before Mr Mercer's case. Some may be surprised that MPs have to invent such ingenious ways to occupy their time.
Then there is also the amount of taxpayers money handed over to these groups for such vital activities as drinks, receptions, foreign travel and administrative support. For example the All–Party Parliamentary
Group for the Abolition of the Death Penalty exists "to campaign for the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances." It gets £20,939 from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. But have the group yet persuaded Foreign Secretary William Hague? When Mr Hague was
Conservative leader he made clear his support for capital punishment.
Looking down the list of APGs is a reminder of how much charities divert their resources to political lobbying. Dozens of lobbyists have Parliamentary passes by virtue of being APG staff. A reminder that the scandal of politicisation of charities has thus far been dodged by the relevant Minister Nick Hurd.
Isn't it better to have a lobbyist – whether from an industry group, foreign government or "charity" – who is straightforward about whose case he is stating rather than going through the pretence of a neutral, respectable front organisation?
the other hand there is a lot that is done by these groups that is
beneficial. Often there will be a Minister from a particular country
visiting London who would like to have a meeting not only with their
opposite number but also to have a meeting with a group of interested MPs.
Having an all party group in place is efficient. Those who might
potentially want to meet such a visitor have already been identified. It
will be a small minority of MPs, perhaps 20 or 30, interested in any particular country.
The Tory MP Sir Paul Beresford is a member of the Australia and New Zealand Group. Of course he is. He is a New Zealander. He's from Horowhenua. Another member is the Labour MP Austin Mitchell. Sure – he's a former history lecturer at Otago University in Dunedin. New Zealand is a friendly country. If their foreign minister is passing through that's useful for people with such a link to be identified.
If some MPs
(and peers) visit such a country again that might well be of benefit.
There might well be things we could learn from another country – about
reducing crime, or raising educational standard or increasing economic
growth or whatever else. While the internet is a wonderful thing there
is also a benefit in seeing it for yourself.
I am less clear
on the point of groups for countries with hostile and/or unpleasant
rulers. It is true that not all these Country Groups are supportive of
the relevant Government. The Russia group is generally rather anti Putin. The Bahrain group
(chaired by my local Labour MP Andrew Slaughter) is not supportive of
that country's rulers. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Indeed the Bahrain group is put in the "subject group" APG catergory rather than the "country group" category which may well be relevant.
Regarding the APGs
concerned with domestic special issues again there may well be
benefits. For example the Conservative MP Damian Hinds champions the
cause of credit unions and is chairman of an all party group
on the subject. In that particular case it is pretty obvious that
mission is to support the development of more credit unions – there is
not illusion of neutrality.
Then again we have the Looked After Children and Care Leavers group. This is a very important issue. Unfortunatley it tunrs out that the "group's secretariat" is the Who Care's Trust – an anti adoption outfit that has lobbied against Michael Gove's reforms. (Why the Tory MPs Laura Sandys, Jessica Lee, Craig Whittaker, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Julian Brazier, Priti Patel, Helen Grant, Steve Baker, Rob Wilson have signed up for group wanting to keep children in care God alone knows.)
we can all work our way down the list of 600 seeing which groups we do
or don't like the look of. What of institutional reform?
Some call for more regulation. This would make it worse. This would increase the burden on MPs administering the groups themselves and so make them more dependent on lobbyists to do it for them.
A better route is privatisation. MPs,
like the rest of us can set up groups, for whatever they like. Of
course they must still declare whatever money or free trips they get.
However removing official status to such groups would help them to be
seen for the lobby groups they are – lobbying for good or ill depending
on one's point of view in each particular case. Very often the APGs will
be for good and Ministers will still welcome the contribution they make
to diplomacy or scrutiny of policy.If without official kudos there were
fewer of them – as the box ticking by which lobbyists sought to
ingratiate themselves with clients had less traction then so much the
APGs are different to select committees – robustly
fighting their cause rather than offering the grand pretensions of
objectivity. This is not to say that APGs are better or worse than
select committees. But they are different. We should be clear about the