Friday, 25 February 2011

Parliamentary groups flourish as David Cameron fails to deliver reforms

A Guardian investigation reveals that more than £1.6m was channelled into Westminster by outside interests last year

For a time, it seemed the MPs' expenses crisis of 2009 would result in systematic reforms across Westminster. avid Cameron warned MPs that lobbying was the "next big scandal waiting to happen", and promised sweeping reforms. Last February he said: "It's an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.

04 Sir Peter Bottomley is on 151 groups. He was awarded his knighthood for public service

"We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. We must be the party that sorts all this out." Twelve months later, promises of widespread reforms have failed to materialise, as the Guardian investigation into one form of lobbying – the funding of all-party political groups – reveals.

Outside interests channelled more than £1.6m into Westminster in 2010, and more than 280 groups receive financial support from corporations, lobbying associations or other interest groups. Last year 232 new MPs entered the Commons after the May 2010 election, one of the largest intakes in contemporary history. But in this respect the "new politics" barely differs from business as usual: 207 are already registered members of one or more all-party group.

The groups are described by parliamentary authorities as "informal, cross-party interest groups that have no official status within parliament and are not accorded any powers or funding by it". They are intended to function as informal organisations for MPs and peers with interests in specific countries or topics, either for research or recreation. However, as many groups receive extensive financial support from outside interests, one MP warned they risk appearing to the public as "merely a way for lobbyists to buy influence".

Despite the publication of some details of outside support – which formed the basis of the Guardian's data analysis – all-party groups do not have to record full membership or financial assistance. Groups are entitled to use parliamentary meeting rooms and equipment, but those who log financial support from outside interests and record 20 "qualifying members", with at least 10 from the government and 10 from the opposition, get priority access when booking rooms.

The scope of all-party groups has increased significantly. In 1986 parliament had 68 country groups and 80 subject areas. By 1996 that had increased to 93 country and 142 subject groups. Today there are 121 country groups and 364 subject-focused groups – slightly fewer than just before the election, due in large part to the high turnover.

The information published on the register is limited. Groups need only publish their 20 "qualifying members", not their full membership list. Benefits in kind and other non-cash donations do not need to be quantified.

The Associate Parliamentary Group on Wholesale Financial Markets and Services, for example, records support for "events including business breakfasts, lunches and other functions held in the palace of Westminster, an annual dinner, occasional research papers, advertising costs and web maintenance" from thirteen organisations. These include the British Bankers Association, City of London Corporation, London Stock Exchange and the Investment Management Association. No other details are given.

Some groups are more transparent than others. The hepatology group notes its secretariat is funded by three pharmaceutical companies, Roche, Merck Schering-Plough and Gilead Sciences, each providing £750 per month. The group for Jordan merely notes that the "Council for Arab-British Understanding acts as the groups secretariat".

Despite having "no official status" within parliament, all-party groups are entitled to issue parliamentary lobby passes to paid staff, though official guidance notes this is "not as a matter of course". It continues by stating that if any staff members have "remunerated activity which is advantaged by the privileged access to parliament afforded by their pass", then the staff member's identity must be recorded.

The Guardian found 70 groups met this criteria. Those afforded parliamentary access by all-party groups include the parliamentary officer of the council of Arab-British understanding, the managing director of lobbyist Parliamentary Perceptions and the public affairs manager of the micropower council.

The groups often have contradictory aims: the all-party humanist group issues a pass to the head of public affairs for the British Humanist Association, while Christians in Parliament gives one to the Bible Society's senior parliamentary officer.

On a different front, Parliament's pro-choice and sexual health group received £10,000 from the faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare and £5,000 from the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, with the Family Planning Association acting as secretariat. The rival pro-life grouping takes in £250 per month from Christian Action Research and Education, £2,500 from St Michael's Church and has an administrator funded by Right to Life.

The often contradictory nature of different all-party groups doesn't always prevent members signing on to several dozen at a time. Peter Bottomley, the most prolific "qualifying member" is on at least 151 groups. These include the industry-supported Wine and Spirits group and the Pub group, backed by the campaign for real ale – organisations often at each other's throats on issues such as minimum pricing and tethering. There are also more than a dozen different country groups in Bottomley's repertoire, including Ukraine, Tibet, Sudan, Portugal, Palestine, Korea, Botswana and the Chagos and Channel Islands.

Bottomley says all-party groups can act as effective lobbyists to change the law or raise causes. "I'm glad you've noticed I sit on more of these groups than others - I'm interested in a lot of things and I am very keen on lobbying," he said. "Through the advisory council on transport safety, I lobbied to introduce mandatory front seat belts, which saved lives. Or another group on which I sit which tries to encourage young people to take an interest in sailing, with the support of the industry. I think that's a good cause, too. I am asserting these all-party groups are a good thing – and the only outside earnings I've received in 10 years was £300 from the Guardian for an obituary, which was donated to a good cause."

The groups centred around national interests occasionally fund foreign travel for members of all-party groups. Members of the Central Asia group received a funded trip to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in September 2010, while earlier in the year the Kurdistan regional government funded a trip to the Kurdish region of Iraq. The Council of Arab-British understanding funded a trip to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel for the Palestine group, while three members of the Bahrain group had a trip in October funded by the country's government.

The registers also show the practice of the public sector organisations paying to lobby government is alive and well: the BBC provides support to both the media and its own all-party groups. The Royal Mail part-funds the transport group, while Network Rail funds two transport groups. The London Organising Committee supports the Olympics group, while both the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Federation support the policing group. Several local government organisations also support various groups.

Concluding his speech on lobbying last February, Cameron explained why he believed reform was an urgent issue. "We don't know who is meeting whom. We don't know whether any favours are being exchanged. This isn't a minor issue with minor consequences. Commercial interests – not to mention government contracts – worth hundreds of billions of pounds are potentially at stake.

He added: "I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. We can't go on like this. I believe it's time we shone the light of transparency on lobbying in our country and forced our politics to come clean about who is buying power and influence."

Top 10 groupies

1 Peter Bottomley (Con) 151 groups

2 David Amess (Con) 86

3 Andrew Rosindell (Con) 83

4 Nigel Evans (Con) 80

5 Mark Pritchard (Con) 76

6 Jim Dobbin (Lab) 72

7 Robert Walter (Con) 60

8 Lord Jones of Cheltenham (Lib Dem) 53

9 Andrew George (Lib Dem) 52

10 Clive Betts (Lab) 51

The Guardian