MPs call for reform of Westminster groups to avert the ‘next great parliamentary scandal’

Unofficial Westminster groups need significant reform to avert the “next great parliamentary scandal” of lobbyists buying access to MPs, a cross-party committee has warned.

The committee also stressed there is a “real risk” of hostile foreign actors gaining ‘improper access and influence” through All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) — bodies that examine a wide variety of subjects.

In a major report, MPs on the Commons Standards Committee noted there has been a dramatic increase in the number of APPGs, and while “vital” to parliamentary work, they risk “inappropriate influence and access”.

MPs insist that “if left unchecked, APPGs could represent the next great parliamentary scandal, with commercial entities effectively buying access to and influence of parliamentarians and decision-makers.”

There are 774 APPGs — an increase of 194 from 2015 — with subjects focusing on industry sectors, public policy, medical conditions, and specific countries, with the groups running inquiries, events, and organising visits.

Unlike Commons Committees, they are not official parliamentary bodies, with the possibility of secretariats being provided by external bodies. Current rules dictate they must declare support of over £1,500 a year from a single source.

While emphasising the importance of APPGs, the MPs said there are “few, if any” safeguards in place to ensure they are “genuinely member-led and are not simply used by external bodies as a way to amplify their own message”.

“The danger is that an APPG could all too easily become a parliamentary front for an external commercial entity,” they said. “That would be wholly inappropriate.”

In a section on the risk posed by hostile state actors, the report referenced the recent case of Christine Lee’s involvement with the Chinese in Britain APPG.

Ms Lee was described in a January security alert issued by MI5 as being “knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Chinese Community Party”.

Alison Giles, the director of security for Parliament, told MPs during the inquiry that Ms Lee was “instrumental” in setting up the Chinese in Britain APPG, including funding and attending meetings.

The MPs added in the report: “The expert evidence we have received to our inquiry shows that the risk of improper access and influence by hostile foreign actors through APPGs is real, though difficult to measure. There is also evidence that this risk has already materialised.”

In order to reduce the risks posed by APPGs, the report recommends a reduction in the “sheer number” of groups, which “makes monitoring compliance with the rules more challenging”.

The MPs also suggest transparency is enhanced of funding sources and provision of external staff on APPGs, including secretariats, and potentially banning them from being funded by foreign governments.

The committee chair and Labour MP Chris Bryant said the report was a “wake-up call for us”, with “chilling” evidence gathered by MPs pointing towards an urgent need for reform of the system.

“All Party Parliamentary Groups are really useful, but they must never be a backdoor means of peddling influence around the corridors of power or pursuing a commercial interest,” he stressed.

“We have set out four ways to address the risks posed by APPGs, as well as a range of possible measures to regulate them, and ensure they continue to enhance – rather than endanger – the integrity of Parliament.”

He added: “Parliament always has, and always will, be a target for hostile foreign states. But with better regulation and transparency around these informal groups, we can ensure they continue to make a positive contribution to democracy”.


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