APPGs – the next Westminster scandal?

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.


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.

Will no-one free us of these troublesome ghosts?

One of the truly great things about British politics is the depth and breadth of raw talent which can be found at every level of every party and no party. Unfortunately, tired conventions of political discourse are preventing some of that talent from shining through.

One symptom of that fact is that political debate is, perversely, becoming ever less authentic at a time when distrust of political spin has never been greater.

During my eight years of lowly support of the Liberal Democrats, I often saw the party try to use its own campaigning tactics on itself. Candidates for internal elections would get off to a “flying start” as bar charts intoned that it was a “two horse race.”  Fundraisers would assure campaigners that the candidate of the day had “asked me to call you.” A blue-ink, blue paper envelope would flop on to the mat and transpire not to be a hand-written missive lovingly etched on Basildon Bond, but a mass-produced, low cost, begging note.

This tendency of all the parties to recycle their external tactics in their internal machinations is no more clearly evident than on the party ‘home’ sites (one of which I used to run) where ghost writing is rife. Take three examples:

If any one of those pieces was written by its supposed author, I will eat a copy of Who’s Who?

Ghost writing debases these sites which are intended for authentic public debate as well as party communications.

It’s understandable why the sites allow it – to a shallow degree it gives them credibility. You’ve probably seen at least one local newspaper culpably splash “PM WRITES EXCLUSIVELY FOR CHIPPING GAZETTE” around election time, on receipt of an article ghost-written by the regional press officer.  Yes it’s a bit seedy, yes they know the PM has never been near it, but sales are sales and this puts Chipping’s own rag right up there with the Daily Telegraph. Yawn.

It is almost possible to explain away this practice in mass media platforms, where it is deeply ingrained, but on sites written by party supporters for party supporters ghost writing is  simply wrong. Here are three of the big problems:

In an age of direct, authentic communication – where seemingly every journalist, politico, or even footballer is on Twitter – this audience know when they are being fed bullshit, and most simply disengage when it happens. Political ghost writing is a practice which is often transparently false, and thus inherently pointless.

It’s a missed opportunity to promote talent. The people writing these articles are often the researchers, aides, and wonks who have great influence but little profile. They are the future leaders of their parties, living in the shadows of today’s top brass. Their contributions would be no less valid if they were given an honest byline, and most party supporters would welcome the authenticity.

Far from lending the sites credibility, often ghost writing cheapens the subsequent debate. If they bother to respond at all, party hacks and politicos argue their case in a comments thread which is rarely graced by the supposed author, who often receives only the condensed gist of the replies third-hand, if indeed they receive anything at all.

It is impossible to transform political debate overnight, but that shouldn’t prevent a small step in the right direction.  The sites can find a way forward which is right for them individually – perhaps they could keep their big name bylines, but credit the true author with ‘additional reporting’ in the footer. Is it too radical to hope they could simply refuse to accept another ghost written piece ever again?

For the sake of everyone who could be engaged in politics, but who is turned off by blatantly phoney and incredible articles, I can only hope someone decides to change their approach soon.

Have the Liberal Democrats lost their senses?

Have the Lib Dem leadership lost their senses?. They can’t see or hear supporters who have turned their backs on the party. They can’t smell the putrid stink of seemingly inevitable electoral punishment in 2015, and they’re certainly out of touch with public perception.

I split my vote across a broadly progressive ticket in the London Mayoral election on Thursday – Siobahn Benita first, Ken Livingstone second, Green in the constituency and Liberal Democrats London-wide. I’ve not had much luck backing winners in elections, but this time round my vote felt particularly futile. I can understand why many just don’t bother.

Nick Clegg has shifted public perception of the Lib Dems from being a distinctive party of the centre-left, to an identikit party of the centre right. In making this shift many socially progressive voters felt deserted, and conservatives are deeply suspicious of the over-eager new kid on their patch. It’s hopeless terrain for Clegg.

The party is in danger of becoming a toxic brand. The local elections again demonstrated that Nick Clegg’s calamitous dance with the right is dragging down the fortunes of all associated with the title “Liberal Democrats”. There are some who would vote for Lib Dem campaigners – stalwarts of their local communities – if they stood as independents. Progressive voters will not vote for candidates associated with a party which is daily sacrificing its principles in order to cling to power. As independents are not yet a credible political force, most simply don’t vote.

Though I (and many thousands of others) left the Liberal Democrats, I swallowed some pride on Thursday and voted Lib Dem on the London-wide ballot. This ballot paper is intended to express party support, but I used it to elect an individual – Caroline Pidgeon. Caroline has been a tireless and effective campaigner over the last four years, and was top of the Lib Dem list. The assembly will be stronger for her presence. The vast majority of voters simply saw the Lib Dem logo, and moved on. That’s why the Lib Dems now have just two London assembly members – on level pegging with the Greens.

The Westminster consensus is that Liberal Democrats stay in government for fear that they will be obliterated if they walk away. Even Nick Clegg must now have noticed that they are being massacred for staying. The public are not stupid. Everyone can see the Lib Dems aren’t advancing their agenda in government. Time after time Liberal Democrats have held their noses and voted for measures with which they do not agree. Brilliant campaigners like Norman Baker and Lynne Featherstone have been gagged by stifling protocols of government communication.

The Liberal Democrats have little to show for their loyalty to their government partners, and no clear plan to wrest control of the agenda now that their big potential prizes have slipped away. The party should take the genuinely brave decision to say “this isn’t working for us, this isn’t why people voted for us, and it’s time for us to walk away from this coalition.”

The party could maintain the national financial interest from a position of supply and confidence. With this, much stronger, hand they could have a great deal more to show their voters in 2015.

The Incredible Lord Credo

Last weekend the Twitter user Lord Credo, the self-proclaimed Westminster insider, former Downing Street press officer, even right-hand man to David Cameron, deleted his Twitter account. So far, so dull.

The creator of the account had been outed as an imposter by Suffolk blogger Peter Ede in this blog post. Credo also stood accused of theft, deceit, and living under multiple false names. So far, so marginally less dull.

Credo had taken in the Huffington Post, the broadcaster Jeremy Vine, and the Speaker’s wife Sally Bercow to name but a few. Several leading journalists were among those who voted for Credo to receive a Twitter award. This gets more interesting – in the eyes of political figures, and some journalists in the mainstream media, Credo was credible.

I had my doubts. As we met for lazy lunches by the Ipswich waterfront Peter Ede and I would idly dissect this curious character over calzone.

Six years ago I was briefly a staffer in Lib Dem HQ. When Credo first joined Twitter he told me he’d met me, and knew me, but couldn’t possibly reveal his secret identity. This was the sort of intrigue he deployed to titillate and attract people in to his fantasy world – it worked on a great many, and I don’t blame them. I, on the other hand, called him a “dick” and unfollowed him. My approach to networking has always been distinctive, impatient, and given that I’m not currently Prime Minister – ineffectual.

After a few months, Credo consented to meet Peter and some of his friends. From Peter’s description of Credo, he evidently wanted to be both the envied insider as well as the anonymous maverick. So it was odd that this man, apparently the holder of a parliamentary pass which allowed him to escort visitors in to the relatively quiet bars and cafes of the Palace, only ever met in public bars and restaurants. He was never seen going in to or out of Downing Street or parliament. A show-off, who couldn’t show-off.

The existence of the press office at Downing Street is not a state secret, and the identities of those who work there are well known to those who follow politics –and even to people like me who enjoy flicking through PR Week. Based on what was in the public domain, I couldn’t reconcile the description of Credo to any of Cameron or Clegg’s team.

Then, there was the sheer volume of tweets – sometimes hundreds of messages a day. I’m sure some government press officers wish they had endless hours to dispense their finely crafted pearls of PR liberally across the web. They don’t.

It was also incredible that a self-declared member of the Downing Street press office could repeatedly libel a Conservative backbencher, behind the thinnest veil of anonymity. Credo’s tirades against Nadine Dorries took place during work hours and, if sent via the government computer network, could easily have been traced back to him.

Next came Credo’s tendency to pass off early breaking news as insider revelations.  He claimed to have been the first to tweet news of Andy Coulson’s departure. In fact, by the time he put fingers to tweet, the Westminster rumour mill was so much in overdrive that even I – no longer even the lowest of algae in the Westminster pond – had picked it up.

While drinking in a Whitehall boozer, Credo was ‘called’ by Sally Bercow – of course, ensuring that Peter and friends could see the name on the phone. Credo had also, so he said, spent long hours at the weekend on the phone to the Prime Minister. He was bosom pals with the political editor of a Sunday paper. It struck me that the ‘insider’ connections were always the political backroom A-list – always Coulson, Bercow, Hilton. There was never a Bertin, Field, Oates, or Grey to be seen.

I laid out, pizza by pizza, these concerns to Peter who, to give him the credit he deserves, was never wholly taken in by the good Lord.

One day, Credo resigned after a ‘bust-up’ with the PM. A man who was supposedly one of the Prime Minister’s closest aides left his employ, after a major row, without a word appearing in any corner of the press. When I was told of this development weeks later I explained how this eventuality was patently ludicrous.

The developments became ever more fantastic, and I didn’t even know about the homelessness, the cancer, the suicides, the deaths, and the host of other stories. I didn’t know about the – very real – mislead and (allegedly) financially robbed girlfriend.

Peter took my cynicism, mixed it up with some available evidence, put in hours of effort and ultimately outed Credo, who promptly exited Twitter stage far-right.

So what is the purpose of this post? Hooray for me? Hooray, hooray, I told you so? No. Twitter has incredible potency as a hub for conversation, and as a place to coordinate action. It is a networkers dream, and has opened up corners of the Lobby to us outsiders – both to listen in, and to be heard. For all of these things, it is a blessing.

Twitter also has the power to drive mainstream news and – more insidiously – to help mainstream journalists form their angle on a story. One, poisonous, voice can be amplified to extraordinary levels. The Credo episode must remind journalists of what they already know – even in the world of 24 hour news it pays to thoroughly check out your sources. All of us who use Twitter in our professional lives would be wise to do the same.

An appeal on behalf of Vincent

You may know a little boy like Vincent. Kept silent for most of the week, his parents only let him out to play on Sunday. He’s not allowed to go far – just to one playground, here in Westminster.

Vincent can be boisterous with his friends, and plays a bit rough. He thinks that as he’s the biggest boy in the playground, he should extend an occasional slap or bite in the direction of the other kids to keep them out of trouble. Vincent usually thinks he’s right and the other kids should listen to him more. Deprived of access to the real world by those who care for him, Vincent finds any change to his routine distressing, and his world has been cruelly upset in recent weeks. His friends have vanished, and he has no-one to play with. Vincent is lonely. He wants his friends to come back. Just read these desperate messages posted on the Internet. I warn you, you might find them upsetting.

    “@vincentmoss: Surely Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Theresa May, local MP David Lammy aren’t ALL on holiday? #tottenham”

“@vincentmoss: … Are statements and tweets good enough from D.Lammy, do you think?  Shouldn’t he be more visible?”

“@vincentmoss: Even London’s *deputy mayor* Kit Malthouse is on the phone to Sky re Tottenham riots, is there no one not on a sun     lounger?”

The truth is, the other kids think Vincent is a bit of a bully, and they’ve gone abroad for a few weeks to have a rest away from him. Vincent Moss is the Political Editor of the Sunday Mirror.

Just £1 will buy Vincent a picture of the Mayor of London, to help ease his pain. £3 will buy a life-sized portrait of David Cameron which Vincent can keep with him at all times. £10 will buy a David Lammy doll. Please, give today.

Vincent is just one of many youngsters left alone and frightened in corners of the Westminster playground this autumn. Have you seen Theresa? Sky’s Mark White is very upset by her sudden disappearance.  This morning Mark made a television appeal for Theresa to issue a statement in response to the Tottenham riots. Mark is frantic with worry, and could barely hide his frustration from the cameras. Mark knows, as surely we all know, that Tottenham will not be able to heal the wounds until Theresa May distributes a press release.

£60 will buy an Easyjet ticket to fly Theresa back to Westminster and get her a cab straight to 4 Millbank. Please, call now.

The howls of indignation from broadcasters and journalists finding the Whitehall Quote Machine a little slower than usual to pump out gobbets for their bulletins are bemusing. In every direction, lesser-spotted lobby hacks are calling for politicians to cut short their holidays and get back to their desks – or better still, the studios.  The same calls have not yet been extended to their senior lobby colleagues, but I feel sure Mark White will be opining the absence of Adam Boulton live on Sky any minute now.

Here’s some breaking news for what’s left of the lobby this August – we know our political masters are on holiday, and we don’t care. At all. If anything, it’s good that they’re having a break. Tired leaders make poor decisions. Do us all a favour, and stop testing whether they’re chained to their BlackBerries every minute of every day.

Boris Johnson cannot re-tarmac Tottenham High Road, but the people who can have already set about about it. David Cameron can’t restore America’s credit rating in the next two weeks. George Osborne can’t repair the Eurozone by next Tuesday, and Nick Clegg can’t… Well he just can’t.

Please, leave them alone. It’s August. Go find some impressions of the face of Jesus in toast. Find me a kitten that looks like Berlusconi. Play Solitaire for all I care, but for the love of it all stop trying to whip me in to moral outrage over Cameron’s fortnight in Tuscany.

Now I need a holiday too. Back in a week. Someone keep an eye on Vincent, will you? I’m worried he might be getting a bit obsessive. He keeps talking about posting pictures of his friends holiday whereabouts in the papers.

Professor Tim Jackson on the UK Government's 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review cuts

Last week I filmed a talk and Q&A by Professor Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey. Professor Jackson was the after-dinner speaker at a work dinner, so I probably should stress that the views expressed are his, and not those of my employers!

It was a very dark room so apologies if, like me, you’re not watching on the best screen on the market.

Professor Jackson’s talk was a fascinating look at how tomorrow’s companies should be run, the values they should embrace, and how they should measure success. Professor Jackson particularly tackles the weaknesses of GDP as a measure of success.

The moment that really stayed with me as I left the room was topical, however. Watch Tim Jackson’s view of the UK Government’s 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review below: