All-Party Parliamentary Groups – Just an excuse for free trips to exotic places?

There’s been a lot in the news about lobbying this weekend and it looks like a story that looks set to run and run. When David Cameron was trying to get himself into Downing Street in 2010 and in the wake of the Parliamentary expenses scandal, he suggested that lobbying would be the next big scandal, and when the Coalition was formed, the introduction of a register of lobbyists was included in the Coalition Agreement. Nothing to date has been done about it however, although the fallout from Thursday’s Panorama programme may change that.

Part of the ‘support’ Patrick Mercer (the MP caught up in this scandal) is said to have offered the undercover reporters was to set up an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Fiji, through which the clients agenda could be pushed. According to the Daily Telegraph, Mercer is filmed saying (of the setting up of the APPG):

The MP told the lobbyist he was making progress establishing the APPG. Mr Mercer said it would not be a problem attracting members. There were “several freeloaders that would like to go to Fiji”.

“This is extremely attractive,” said Mr Mercer. “I mean who doesn’t want a trip to Fiji, who doesn’t want a trip to the South Seas?

His view seemed to be borne out when Mercer gave a progress report and said:

“I am sorry to have to ask this but [name of MP], for instance, who is one of the … individuals who is very keen – he said I would love to go to Fiji,” said Mr Mercer.

“[The MP said] ‘can I bring the wife?’, I said, ‘I just don’t know, I’ll have to ask’.”

So there appears to be a picture being painted here that external groups with interests in a particular country can promote their own agenda in Parliament by playing on the desire of certain MPs to enjoy trips to sunny climes. But what actually is an all-party parliamentary group, and who sits on them?

Parliament publishes a Register of All-Party Groups here. Of APGs, it says:

APGs are informal, cross-party, interest groups that have no official status within Parliament and are not accorded any powers or funding by it. They should not be confused with select committees, which are formal institutions of the House.

There are a great number of APGs. They cover many and diverse fields such as health, education and transport. Some exist to foster links with other countries and parliaments, others to address a particular issue, and a couple exist mainly for social reasons (eg some sports groups). Some APGs have existed for many decades whereas others come and go in response to issues of the day.

APGs are essentially run by and for Members of the House of Commons and House of Lords. Mostly they are run by backbenchers, though ministers may also be officers or members of APGs and many groups choose to involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities.

So they cover many issues, not just countries and have no official status. The register is a vast document (over 600 pages long), so it would take a  team of researchers to investigate the memberships of each group, the interests they have declared and the questions they’ve asked in Parliament. I’m sure there are journalists working on this as we speak, and there’s surely potential for more political casualties before this is over, but I thought I just take a quick look at 5 top holiday destinations that there is an APG for and see who sits on them.

1) Bahamas

Chair: David Morris (Con)

Notable other members: Alec Shelbrooke (Con); Patrick Mercer (Con);  Aidan Burley (Con); Tom Watson (Lab); Andrew George (LD); Ian Paisley (DUP)

2) Maldives

Chair: David Amess (Con)

Notable Other Members: Andrew George (LD); Keith Vaz (Lab); Ian Paisley (DUP); Roger Godsiff (Lab)

3) Mauritius

Chair: Andrew Rosindell (Con)

Notable Other Members: David Amess (Con); Tom Watson (Lab); Roger Godsiff (Lab)

4) St Lucia

Chair: Andrew Rosindell (Con)

Notable Other Members: Ian Paisley (DUP)

5) Thailand

Chair: Roger Godsiff (Lab)

Notable Other Members: Andrew Rosindell (Con)

I picked these five countries at random based on my perception of them as a holiday destination, but I was surprised to find that even among just fives countries, there is quite a lot of duplication of names. Ian Paisley, Roger Godsiff and Andrew Rosindell are all members of three of the five, while Tom Watson, David Amess and Andrew George are members of two. If I get time, I might look at this a bit more closely (or maybe someone else will do it).

Looking at Roger Godsiff’s entries on the Register of Member’s Interests, in the last 5 years, he’s travelled (for free) to Mauritius, and also Japan, Syria and Vietnam. The cost of paying for these trips himself would have been more than £10000.

In the last 5 years, Andrew Rosindell has enjoyed all-expenses paid trips to the Cayman Islands, Venezuela, Jordan, Gibraltar, Taiwan, Norway, Switzerland, Lebanon, Qatar, China, Syria, Malta. That’s 12 overseas trips! And he hasn’t even been to Thailand, Mauritius or St Lucia yet.

Godsiff and Rosindell are both back-bench MPs, and it’s not clear to me how their jet-set lifestyle is representing the interests of their constituents. What are the sponsors of these trips getting for their money?

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