Given that they are one of the few places where MPs and peers from different parties and with radically different philosophies can learn to work together, it seems a bit of a shame that the system of All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) is the latest institution to be brushed with the taint of sleaze. The Commons standards committee is to investigate this obscure, under-reported corner of political life.
Concerns have arisen because the members of some groups may have a conflict of interest, or the appearance of a conflict, due to their involvement with companies or organisations closely linked to a relevant APPG’s remit. There may also be questions about who funds the APPGs’ work, research and secretarial support, and who pays for travel and hospitality. In short, there is a suspicion that the groups are being “lobbied” in some insidious way.
The APPGs are a curious thing. Unlike select committees or those scrutinising bills, they have no formal constitutional role. They are simply a group of MPs and peers (normally backbenchers) clubbing together because they have some particular interest – a charitable cause, say – or because they have constituency, family or sentimental links to a particular part of the world, or a shared area of expertise.
They organise events and a little publicity, and sometimes issue reports on areas of concern. Thus in recent weeks, the APPG on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf has reported that the government is funding groups that whitewash human rights abuses in the Gulf states; the APPG on the Future of Aviation has expressed concern about the traffic-light system of Covid travel controls; the APPG on Beauty, Aesthetics and Wellbeing has recommended better screening for people seeking Botox and filler treatments; and the APPG on Zimbabwe has appealed to the Home Office to stop deportations to the country.
There’s an APPG for almost everything, in fact, and not all causes are entirely political, or indeed obvious candidates. To take a few at random, there are groups for Afghanistan, Cameroon, San Marino, Slovenia, Iceland, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, 22q11 syndrome, Alevis, British Sikhs, coronavirus, Crossrail, the death penalty, electoral reform, gasworks redevelopment, jazz appreciation, Lancashire, pigeon racing, running, vaping, wrestling, and youth employment.
As can be guessed from the numbers, running into the hundreds, they have expanded greatly over the years for some reason. The old cliche was that the members sometimes joined so that they could take part in important on-the-ground fact-finding missions to places such as Bermuda, Thailand or the Maldives (all have APPGs) or enjoy the generous hospitality that might be expected to follow from a close interest in scotch whisky, wines of Great Britain, or hospitality and tourism (again, all have APPGs), but the current inquiry by the standards committee suggests that something rather more serious than the occasional complimentary bottle of single malt may be at stake.
At any rate, it would indeed be a shame if the genuinely valuable work of many of the groups’ MPs and peers, toiling for fine causes and with no personal reward, were harmed by some of their more mercenary colleagues and the heavy intrusion of unaccountable special interests.