Asymmetry of power and access to parliament is eating our body politic
Murky. That’s my word for the funding behind many of the All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) that operate in Westminster.
Last week I took part in a debate on the Standards Committee’s final report and proposals for the reform of APPGs – specifically the numerous ones that receive external financial benefits.
The report was agreed by MPs, but its recommendations to enhance transparency and make the finances of these groups subject to “appropriate governance and oversight” do not go far enough in matching the biggest challenge of our time – tackling the way in which commercial interests dominate so much of our political life, creating an asymmetry of power and access to parliament that is so profound it’s eating away at the body politic itself.
In February last year, OpenDemocracy found that £13 million had been donated by private interests to APPGs. Another £12 million was donated by other external groups. I’ve called it lobbying by the back door, but the reality is these people are enjoying high levels of access through parliament’s front door.
Just sitting at the tables dotted around Portcullis House watching MPs meeting with lobbyists and consultants makes the point.
When I was first elected as an MP it seemed to me that the APPG set-up was relatively benign. But after working twice in government – both in Number 10 and in the Cabinet Office – and being on the opposition front benches for 10 years, I’ve had much cause to reflect on a something that gives the ruling classes, the powerful elite, access to power in parliament, while millions of ordinary people cannot get their voices heard.
As a result I resigned from every APPG I sat on. It doesn’t make me less effective as an MP. If I want access to other parliamentarians or to commercial interests or to private or civil society groups, I’m capable of having it without being on an APPG.
Of course a great many of them represent causes, issues and campaigns that I support and receive no external donations or funding. But any system that allows money and therefore influence from the arms industry, the tobacco industry, from polluters, petro-chemicals, pharmaceuticals, private healthcare and banking, with very little scrutiny, is fundamentally wrong.
The arms industry is one of the largest beneficiaries of state organised procurement using taxpayers’ money. Arms manufacturers have given £256,000 in cash, services, or a combination to APPGs in the past four years.
The Armed Forces APPG, which is part-funded by weapons makers, visited Bosnia and met a representative from Lockheed Martin. An MP on the trip subsequently told parliament that “fears about security” in the country were “justified” – without declaring the trip’s funding.
The private sector in the health service has interests in undermining our NHS, yet is deeply embedded in parliament through a number of APPGs.
Tobacco is regulated because of its dangers, yet the likes of British American Tobacco and Philip Morris International are represented on the board of the UK Vaping Industry Association, which has donated significant amounts to the APPG for Vaping.
I’m not suggesting that this is corrupt – it is legal after all. But for people like my constituent Peter, who is 88, nearly blind and cannot drive and who cannot access his money because Barclays has closed all the local branches, it’s important that I work for him and not in the interests of commercial companies.
And then there is the problem of foreign influence, which I also raised in the debate. Foreign countries, some hostile as we define them, have tried and succeeded in influencing parliament through the many country-specific APPGs (137 at the last count), which have something of a reputation for paying for MPs’ trips.
When you think about how the UK is often in competition with other countries for private company investment, we can see why they, hostile or otherwise, have an interest in understanding how our parliament works.
It’s good that the standards committee recommended changes to the system including requiring all APPGs to publish an annual income and expenditure statement, with those receiving more than £1,500 a year having to produce an annual report of work done. It’s shocking that they haven’t had to until now.
Foreign governments will no longer be able to provide the secretariat or funding, but banning all external secretariats would be a start in tackling the more malign aspects of APPGs.
This article was first published in Labour Outlook