British politics: how all-party parliamentary groups work

I’ll never completely understand British politics, but that’s okay because no one else does either. If you doubt that, just look at Britain’s politicians these days. They haven’t a clue. So I’m going to section off a small corner of British politics and explain it to you–and to myself as I work my way through it: Welcome, my friends, to the corner labeled all-party parliamentary groups, known to admirers and detractors alike as APPGs, which makes them sound vaguely like something motorized and hazardous.

They’re neither, but if you feel safer wearing a crash helmet, no one here will make fun of you for it. At least not while you’re listening. 

Irrelevant photo: A neighbor’s tulips.

How do APPGs work?

The positive side of APPGs is that they give Members of Parliament and of the House of Lords who share an interest in–oh, let’s say crash helmets a chance to get together and discuss the topic informally. Because they cross party lines, they have at least the potential to calm political rivalries, allowing some actual thought to go on. Members–at least in theory–can listen to evidence and consider the shape of a problem and maybe even find a solution or two. They can bring in experts, campaigners, interested parties, lobbyists, and anyone else who seems relevant. 

As Parliament’s website explains, APPGs have “no official status within Parliament. They are run by and for Members of the Commons and Lords, though many choose to involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities.”  

Pay attention to the phrase about involving individuals and organizations from outside Parliament. We’ll come back to it in a minute. In the meantime, let’s look at the APPG for London as an example of how they work. Its goal is to “strengthen the capital’s voice in Parliament.” And, as it happens, “London Councils [‘the collective of local government in London‘] provide the secretariat to the group.” If I understand that correctly, it means London Councils do the work that keeps the hands of the APPG clock circling the dial. All the MPs and Lords have to do is–well, as much or as little as they want. Show up. Talk. Drink tea. I’m not sure and I’m starting to make things up so let’s cut away before I visibly make a fool of myself.

Members of the APPG could, of course, dig deeply into the numbers, read conflicting interpretations of them, meet ordinary people who live in London, become experts on the subject, and generally impress the hell out of us. But it’s not required. They could also sit back and let the secretariat discreetly set the group’s agenda and direction.


The line between registered and unregistered groups

There are also unregistered groups that don’t meet the qualifications for an APPG. They don’t get to use Parliament’s nifty little logo on their publications and letters and they can’t use the words all-party or parliamentary in their names. They also can’t use the words and, but, it, or the in their correspondence. They have a lower priority when booking rooms.

Groups that do make the cut have to register themselves, meet, and follow the rules. They make boring reading but, sadly, they do matter.   


Why would anyone object to APPGs?

We-e-ell, because of that business of an outside group providing the clockwork that makes the hands move.

Sorry, did that metaphor get too weird? Because APPGs are an entry point for lobbyists, official and unofficial. Let’s say you’re the Crash Helmet Manufacturers’ Association. Or the Crash Helmets Are Dangerous and Anti-Democratic Advocacy Group. You’ll want to provide all the help you can to the APPG that’s talking about crash helmets. You can offer to supply secretarial services or researchers. You can give the group money or buy tangible stuff or services on its behalf. For all I know, you can bring it ice cream. You can find–and pay–experts who will supply the committee with your position, all neatly wrapped up with an impressive bow, and they can hand the members–who for the most part aren’t experts, remember–with arguments, sound bites, justifications, and all the facts that fit your position.

When Parliament’s website explains what services you as an outside group can provide, it doesn’t mention ice cream but does list office cleaning, publishing reports, and web support. If there are limits to how involved an outsider group can get, I haven’t found them. 

Outsider groups can also pay for “overseas visits, hospitality, event or travel tickets, receptions or other events, clothing, jewellery or discount cards, loans or discounts.”

I don’t know about you, but I can see where clothing, jewelry, and loans are essential when you’re learning about crash helmets. And as long as it’s all declared, it’s kosher.

If an individual volunteers their services? That doesn’t have to be declared. 

MPs and Lords also have to register the individual gifts–trips, accommodation, jewelery, whatever–that they received because they’re group members. Again, once that’s done, it’s kosher.

Any organization acting as an APPG’s secretariat will have to do some disclosing of its own, including its clients and major donors. That koshers everything. But whether a group runs an APPG or plays a smaller role, it still gets access to MPs and Lords, and it gets the prestige that being associated with Parliament lends it. 


Let’s run through a few examples

The cryptocurrency company Phoenix Community Capital sponsored one APPG and its co-founder spoke at an event put together by another one. The company’s online promotion pumped up its links to Parliament and to the APPGs.

Then in September 2022, it seemed to disappear. Its website went offline and investors couldn’t get at their money, no matter how much they pounded on their computers and yelled. In February, according to an article, Some of the firm’s assets and its name appear to have been sold to a new company run by an individual called ‘Dan’, who has told investors it has no obligation towards them, but that it would still try to make them some returns. . . .

“Phoenix Community Capital . . . gave £5,000 last year to the APPG on blockchain – the technology behind cryptocurrencies but which also has other uses.

“The company appeared on the APPG’s website as one of its corporate ‘partners.’ The group is co-chaired by Martin Docherty-Hughes, a Scottish National party MP who said he had no contact with, or knowledge of, Phoenix.”

Between 2019 and 2021, an APPG promoting medical interventions into obesity got from £178,500 to £183,000 from three private healthcare companies that make their money from surgery and other treatments for obesity. The APPG used the money to pay for a lobbyist to run the APPG’s secretariat. The lobbyist wrote on the APPG website that the group promoted “a shift away from the ‘move more, eat less’ mentality prevalent in obesity thinking and better utilisation of treatment for obesity and access to services.” 

If you’re tempted to shrug that off as nothing more than noise, it also says the APPG “had direct input into the government’s obesity strategy published in July 2020 through meeting with No 10 officials and the development of a top 10 policy wishlist.”

That kind of implies that its involvement matters.

The secretariat of the APPG on sustainable aviation is run by an alliance of airlines and airports. And the net zero APPG? From the goodness of their hearts, energy companies donated tens of thousands of pounds in the past year for the consultancy running it. 

Since 2018, the private sector spent more than £12 million on APPGs. (There are 755 of them–or were in February, anyway. They seem to be breeding like stray socks in a drawer. In other words, the number’s grown substantially in recent years.) Charities (if you’re from the US, that means nonprofits) and unions also coughed up money to support them. 

The chair of the Commons standards committee sees APPGs as enough of a problem that he made a public call for parliamentary authorities to be given the power to shut down the groups when there’s a  clear conflict of interest.

“When lobbying firms are effectively driving an APPG in the interests of their clients,” he wrote, “we should not only know who those clients are, but we should be able to close the group down where there is a clear conflict of interest. . . . It feels as if every MP wants their own APPG, and every lobbying company sees an APPG as an ideal way of making a quick buck out of a trade or industry body.”