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Be it the hacking scandal, the expenses debacle, or the furore surrounding botched police investigations, a relentless tide of trust-destroying stories is washing from Westminster to Wapping sweeping away reputations and careers, and leaving bloggers like me increasingly devoid of new synonyms for “almighty fuck-up”.

As it stands in the three-way battle between politics, the tabloid press, and the police, MPs are standing tall once more. They should be careful not to stand so tall that they end up falling from a great height

When asked what remains in our parliamentary system which would fail to withstand the full force of the public scrutiny felt in recent weeks, it’s hard to know where to begin – but the All Party Parliamentary Group has to be near the top of the list.

appg-secretariat

All Party Parliamentary Groups, or APPGs, exist to allow parliamentarians of all parties and both Houses to come together to discuss and form consensus on big issues. As a vehicle for discussion and debate, they have been comprehensively invaded by vested interests seeking to buy access to our legislators.

The barriers to setting up an APPG are relatively low, which is perhaps why a total of five hundred and thirty-four are currently to be found on the active register- including everything from the All Party Group on Mobile Homes, to the APPG on Brass Bands.

APPGs are entitled to a Secretariat. Set aside any images you have of a sensibly dressed person of a certain age mildly taking dictation, the provision of an APPG Secretariat is one of the main routes used by public affairs agencies, charities, and businesses to cosey up to MPs and Peers. These “secretaries” often came up with the idea of setting up the group in the first place, to advance the interests of a client or cause.

According to my analysis of the Register of All-Party Groups (the existence of which is perhaps the only redeeming feature of an otherwise disastrously opaque system), two hundred and seventy-nine of the APPGs use an externally provided secretariat. Seventy-seven of the APPGs are openly administered by twenty-nine different public affairs agencies. A further ninety-eight are run by charities with agendas to promote.

The system for registering secretarial groups is hopelessly open to abuse, and so it is not always possible to easily establish who is running the show. Take the APPG on the Aluminium Industry, the secretarial services of which are provided by Aluminium Federation Ltd which is “a not-for-profit organisation.” That sounds suitably reassuring – if the organisation is not-for-profit what chance can there be of big business buying favoured access? It’s only when you look at the Federation’s website, and examine each of its nine sub-associations in turn, that it becomes clear that this not-for-profit organisation is a membership umbrella for private business. This is above board, within the rules, published, and transparent. Transparent if you’re prepared to invest the time to look, of course.

Some APPGs are run by big business – the Athletics group is provided with secretarial support from Aviva who, according to the register, also provide “tickets to athletics events”. Of course, those whose buttocks are used to sinking comfortably in to the leather of a parliamentary bench cannot be expected to really understand athletics until they have had a chance to look at all those perky muscles up close. Aviva have done the responsible thing by publicly declaring these perks for members of the APPG. I wish I could be confident that everyone else is as diligent.

One agency which is listed in the register has published materials which casually sum up just how open to external influence APPGs are. In its “Guide to the Structure and Operation of All-Party Parliamentary Groups” it states that “APPGs are essentially interest groups” and in a presentation it encourages APPGs to run inquiries, the conclusions of which should be sent “to all MPs, particularly if report ties in with local lobbying strategy on behalf of members.”

The presentation also hints at the pernicious practice of vested interests supplying MPs and Peers with pre-written Parliamentary Questions which they then sign and submit in their own name. The presentation says that APPG inquiries should be followed by a “Raft of Parliamentary Questions focusing on the recommendations of the Report.” You may not need reminding that, according to Parliament, “Oral question[s] costs £425 on average. Written question[s] cost £154 on average” – so an agency writes a question for a government department, and the taxpayer picks up the bill for answering it.

Extraordinarily, there is no code of conduct for PR and PA firms wishing to run APPGs. In fact, there is only one explicit rule – that “the consultancy must either publish its full client list on its website or else agree to provide such a list on request, otherwise the consultancy is not permitted to act as the group’s secretariat.” Picking just one example completely at random, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs provide secretariat services to the APPG on Equitable Life Policy Holders, but do not publish their full client list online. I am sure that a responsible agency like Bell Pottinger is operating within the rules, and have shared their client list with the House privately. The public should have the ability to establish when this last happened, and we should also know how often the list is checked for changes.  Let’s be fair to agencies here too – they  should know why this inspection takes place, and whether the appearance of any particular clients could cause them to be deemed unsuitable secretaries.

I could go on, and on, and on about the failings of the APPG system, but let’s end with that old favourite – the junket. Members of the APPGs for Uzbekistan, Morocco, and Taiwan have all received free trips to those countries. In the APPG register you will not find the names of the specific members, or any information on how long they travelled, in what level of luxury they were accommodated, how much personal sightseeing time they were afforded, or indeed any other information about what they did during their visits. Sometimes information about these trips is volunteered by the participants, and a basic level of information disclosure is required in the parliamentarians’ own registers of interests. Full disclosure should be mandatory, and much easier to find.

I have no evidence to suggest that there has been any actual wrongdoing. The examples in this blog post were selected at random, because they pose questions about the system. Recent evidence suggests that any parliamentary system found open to abuse does not stay unabused for long.

I hope those parliamentarians who feel personally aggrieved by recent events enjoy their moment of schadenfreude as we come to the final pages of this, the first chapter of the hacking scandal. They had better hope that the next chapter isn’t entitled “Of parliamentarians and PRs” – it could be a deeply uncomfortable read.