On 5 April 2023, the Parliamentary Committee on Standards published a report (the Report) setting out a series of proposed changes to the rules governing All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs). The proposed reforms are far-reaching and seek to address concerns that have been raised in relation to APPGs in recent months.
The Report affirms that, "while APPPGs are a valuable part of how Parliament does its work", there is a "significant risk of improper access and influence by commercial entities or by hostile actions" through APPGs as the rules currently stand.
What are APPGs?
APPGs are informal groups established by, and composed of, members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords to pursue a common interest. There are currently approximately 750 APPGs covering a remarkably diverse range of topics: from motorcycling and migration to bingo and beauty.
Unlike Select Committees, APPGs are not official Parliamentary bodies and they play no formal role in the passage of legislation through the Houses or in scrutinising the Government (this is not to say that they are uninfluential in these areas). To date, however, they have operated on a relatively informal basis. There are currently four key requirements for APPGs:
- They must be registered in the Parliamentary register of APPGs and must publish details of any benefits the group receives from any source other than Parliament (or the independent Parliamentary standards authority) if the total value of benefits from that source exceeds £1,500 per year.
- They must open their membership to all Parliamentarians, regardless of their political affiliation. Non- Parliamentarians may join as external members but must not have voting rights. APPGs must elect at least four officers (at least two of whom must be MPs). At least one officer must be from the governing party and one from the main opposition party.
- They must meet at least twice each year (the statement of income and expenditure should be approved at the annual AGM).
- They must avoid presenting themselves in a way that could lead them to be confused for a Select Committee.
In addition to the above, all Parliamentarians remain bound by the usual rules around standards and declarations of interest. These include, for example, a ban on paid advocacy in Parliament and a ban on entering into any contractual arrangement which might compromise a Parliamentarian's independent decision-making in Parliament.
On 6 April 2023, one day after the publication of the proposed reforms, The Times reported that Conservative MP Scott Benton (Chair of the APPG on Betting and Gambling) had offered to ask Parliamentary questions, leak a confidential white paper on gambling reform, and lobby ministers in relation to gambling reform, in exchange for substantial payment. Benton believed at the time of making these offers that he was speaking to investors in the gambling industry. In fact, he was talking to undercover reporters.
Benson allegedly reported himself to the Standards Commissioner after becoming concerned about the tenor of the conversation, however, the investigation has highlighted previous concerns regarding the ability of private individuals or companies to exert influence on Government and legislation through APPGs and informal channels.
This is not the first time such a concern has been raised. In 2022, a study conducted by The Guardian and openDemocracy found that more than 50% of the £25 million of funding in APPGs has come from the private sector. In 2021, concerns were raised after members of the armed forces APPG took a trip to Bosnia (which was, at the time, on the brink of conflict), in part funded by the arms company Lockheed Martin and the defence support company CAE. A Conservative MP who had been on the trip subsequently affirmed the need for the UK to be "part of the solution in [Bosnia]" during a Commons debate. No declaration was made in relation to the trip's funding.
What changes have been proposed?
The Report has taken a two-tiered approach to the proposals for reform, from relatively minor changes for APPGs that do not receive external financial benefits, to more substantial changes for APPGs that receive external benefits valued at over £1,500 per year.
The proposed changes include:
1. Foreign Government funding
- secretariats supporting APPGs should not be funded by foreign governments either directly or indirectly. Officers of the APPG must undertake due diligence to ensure this requirement is met.
2. Limitations to officer positions
- a member should only be permitted to act as an officer of up to six APPGs, to ensure they are able to provide effective oversight;
- each APPG should have four officers. According to the Report, having more than four officers makes it harder to assign accountability for the APPG's actions and decision-making; and
- officers of APPGs that receive more than £1,500 of external benefits per year should be held jointly and severally liable for the APPGs compliance with the additional rules applied to such groups.
3. Requirements around publishing financial information
- information should be published within 28 days of the APPG receiving a valid request;
- all APPGs should publish an annual income and expenditure statement;
- all APPGs should keep a register of financial benefits, listing the approximate financial value of the benefit;
- when external funding has been provided for a secretariat, extra transparency is required about where this funding has come from;
- APPGs that receive more than £1,500 of external benefits per year should produce an annual report which includes a statement from the officers outlining the due diligence they have undertaken to ensure the APPG is not funded by foreign governments; and
- individual MPs are still responsible for declaring the benefits they receive from APPGs over a certain amount.
4. Additional rules around transparency
- all APPG reports should display a rubric on the front cover which clearly identifies that (i) the report is not an official Parliamentary publication, (ii) the report reflects the views of the APPG's membership, and (iii) who the report was researched and funded by; and
- APPGs that receive more than £1,500 of external benefits per year should hold an annual AGM, chaired externally by an individual who is not a member of the APPG so as to facilitate better oversight. There should be eight Parliamentarians present at the AGM.
The Government has confirmed that it is "carefully considering" the Report and the Committee's proposals.