People throw rocks at things that shine: Why we should not worry too much about All-Party Parliamentary Groups

At the start of August, two newspapers splashed stories about All-Party Parliamentary Groups. First the Mirror claimed that a ‘Tory MP [had] handed paid roles on Parliamentary groups’ to a lobbyist; and then the Guardian said that ‘MPs serving on informal parliamentary groups while working in second jobs are facing scrutiny’. In both cases it was All-Party Parliamentary Groups in the spotlight. And each story revealed a whole bunch of misapprehensions about these Groups and also how regulation of them is actually working rather well.

First, the misapprehensions. It is standard fare for the media to overstate the importance of All-Party Parliamentary Groups, implying that they give some sort of privileged access or play a formal role in the legislature’s activities. Sometimes they are put on a par with Select Committees; as a former Parliamentary Clerk, this used to be pretty irritating. The fact is, they have none of these powers or responsibilities.

What APPGs do is bring together MPs with an interest in a particular subject to debate and discuss the issues, and perhaps even to work out ways to make their case to Ministers. But they have no formal role and their powers are no greater than an individual MP or Peer acting on their own. They have no access to public money, so the idea of doling our paid roles is a touch misleading. What these Groups do can be important, but it is essential not to overstate their influence.

Another misapprehension surrounds the ‘revelation’ that MPs who have interests in the subject matter often serve on these Groups – or even set them up. Well, that’s the point. Surely it can be no surprise that MPs from former coalmining areas dominate the Coalfield Communities APPG, or that those who have an interest in manufacturing or have relevant firms in their constituencies are part of the Aerospace APPG? And is it really unexpected that an MP who worked in the packaging industry for 30 years now has a role as Chair of the Foodservice Packaging Association and at the same time runs the Packaging Manufacturing Industry APPG? What is the Guardian’s point: that Mark Pawsey shouldn’t use his experience and contacts to help to ensure that an important industry is regulated efficiently and effectively?

Which brings us to the second point: that regulation of these matters works rather well. In fact, neither of these articles could have been written without the transparency engendered by the existing rules. We know that the various MPs cited by the Guardian have paid external roles, and even how much they are paid, because they have declared it in the Register of Members’ Interests. We know they serve on various APPGs because they have completed the very frequent returns required for the Register of All-Party Parliamentary Groups. We can see who their fellow office-holders are and if anyone provides them with support in the same, available-to-the-public-on-the-internet, register. In this case, at least, Parliament’s rules and regulations really deliver.

It seems to me that what’s really bothering the media isn’t APPGs at all: it is MPs having second jobs or being too close to ‘business’. There’s a debate to be had about Members received money from outside sources; personally, I think it is entirely legitimate if it is declared for all to see. And the discussion about proximity to companies is a tired conversation about lobbying itself. I don’t know how many times it has to be pointed out that if Parliamentarians do not speak up for major employers in their constituencies or industries they used to work in or businesses they understand and support we will end up with bad laws and regulations devised by officials who can never have knowledge of every facet of the economy and society they oversee. Lobbying is all about ensuring that the legislative process is well-informed, and if APPGs play a role in that, great.

Sitting behind all this is the on-going inquiry by the Committee on Standards into the rules for and regulation of All-Party Parliamentary Groups. This will consider all of the issues raised by the two newspaper articles and much else besides. I hope that the Committee will put any prejudices about ‘big business’ aside and judge the work of APPGs representing industry in the same way as those that are ostensibly more ‘worthy’. And I hope too that it will reflect on the way that the existing rules already promote openness; and that there is a real risk that without APPGs MPs and Lords with common interests would simply get together informally without any transparency at all.

Originally published as “Are All-Party Parliamentary Groups something to worry about?” on the Vuelio blog.

Response to the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists

This afternoon the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists has published a note claiming that comments made recently about the Lobbying Act, particularly in the wake of the stories about David Cameron and Greensill, have been “inaccurate and misleading”. The Registrar appears to be particularly exercised about the PRCA and others repeatedly pointing out that loopholes in the Act mean that many lawyers and other consultants who lobby can in effect decide for themselves if they want to apply the legislation to themselves or not.

The note says: “Some recent comment has suggested that a number of groups of people, such as lawyers,
management consultants or politicians, are not bound by the current law and that only businesses defining themselves as ‘consultant lobbyists’ are subject to the rules…. Whether an activity needs to be registered as consultant lobbying depends on the nature of the activity, not on the sector or whether the individual or company considers themselves to be a lobbyist”.

It is slightly surprising that these remarks ignore Schedule 1 of the Act, which is devoted to setting out who is exempt from the Act’s provisions, stating:

A person does not, by reason of making a communication, carry on the business of consultant lobbying if (a) the person carries on a business which consists mainly of non lobbying activities, and (b) the making of the communication is incidental to the carrying on of those activities.

At first glance this loophole seems sensible: it means that the boss of a widget manufacturer who writes a letter to a Minister on behalf of someone else doesn’t have to register as a lobbyist. But in practice it leaves it wide open for pretty much any consultancy business to omit itself if it wants to, given that in the vast, vast, majority of cases lobbying on behalf of clients makes up only a tiny fraction of overall business activities.

As it happens, all of the Big Four management consultancy firms do register. But we cannot be sure if smaller companies in that sector act as consultant lobbyists, and whether they register the fact or not. Of the magic circle law firms only Clifford Chance appears on the ORCL register (it’s worth noting that two other companies with high profile public affairs offers, Norton Rose and DLA Piper, also do), but there could be any number of smaller law firms, not to mention ‘strategic consultants’ and others, who lobby but do not feel any compunction to register the fact. In fact, David Cameron could have set himself up as a business consultant and lobbied on behalf of Greensill as a third party and still not needed to register that he was doing so provided it did not make up the “main” part of his business. As it turns out he was seemingly employed direct, but the result is the same: there was no need for him to register what he was doing.

All this means that I’m afraid to say that the Registrar’s note today is itself somewhat misleading. And we haven’t even got started on the other side of all of this, namely that the Register records whether or not the registrant has signed up to a Code of Conduct governing the behaviour of the lobbyists concerned. According to the ORCL website, despite the fact that they commendably register as lobbyists, none of the management consultants and the law firms mentioned have adopted a relevant Code. They are of course highly reputable organisations, so I am sure they always behave properly, but we do not know what rules they follow. Moreover, unlike members of the PRCA Public Affairs Board they are excused from publishing their client list; I am not aware that any of them choose to do so voluntarily. In short, even if we know that they lobby we can have no clue who for, which is hardly very transparent.

The correct response to all of this is not for the Registrar to waste time criticising entirely reasonable and accurate comments made about the deficiencies of the Act and instead to recommend that the Government and Parliament make two big changes to it. First, the exemptions under the Act should be ended, and anyone who is paid by someone else to lobby government should be treated as a consultant lobbyist, even if such activities are a very small part of what they do. Second, the Act should require all consultant lobbyists to sign up to a recognised Code of Conduct which obliges them to publish a list of their public affairs clients. These are simple changes. I’m looking forward to an update from ORCL that backs them.

Life in a Northern Town: Some thoughts on the Treasury move to Darlington

Amongst the many goodies dispensed by the Chancellor in his Budget last week was a special gift to the North East: an announcement that a significant part of the Treasury would move to Darlington. Over the next few years 750 senior civil servants will move up to County Durham. Yes, it is cynical politics aimed at shoring up newly-won ‘red wall’ seats and at bolstering the position of Ben Houchen, the hyperactive Mayor of Tees Valley. But even so, surely this is unalloyed good news, on multiple levels?

Not if you read the comments from a few local people on social media. Some expressed the rather sour-faced view that moving suits up from London wouldn’t create any jobs for Darlington residents, whilst others said that “the best we can hope for” are office cleaning and taxi driving roles. This is both depressingly defeatist and economically illiterate. For one thing, even if every one of the 750 suits is someone relocating from London, they will spend in local businesses, buy local houses, their kids will attend local schools, and generally they and their families will participate in the community and spend money. New companies will spring up to serve the needs of ‘Treasury North’ and its staff, both directly and indirectly, and those firms will bring jobs and opportunities for local people.

This trickle down effect of relocating public sector roles from London is demonstrable and significant. For example, despite some early quibbles it is now generally accepted that moving large parts of the BBC to Salford has brought measurable economic growth. This has included a cluster of new and innovative firms locally, making up “the second largest cluster of digital and creative business in Europe” and creating thousands of new jobs. In Darlington we can expect to see a similar process, including via spin offs such as economic consultancies founded by former HMT officials. In my own sector, I wonder whether we’ll see a few new public affairs folk operating in the area?

In many ways, though, all this is the least we can expect. In fact not everyone offered the move to Darlington will take it, so there will be spaces to fill right away. Over time the Department will need new recruits; people in the area now in education can hope to work at the Treasury one day without needing to leave the North East. With luck and good judgement schools and universities will adapt to meet this demand for highly qualified staff, bringing further knock on benefits.

But the economic and educational fillip for the North East is really only a small part of what Treasury North can deliver. Perhaps the greatest advantage of all is the change of perspective it ought to inspire. Removing people at the epicentre of policy-making from the Westminster and London bubble will allow them to see at first hand the impact of their decisions and recommendations so far away from the capital. If that doesn’t lead to more humane and responsive thinking it is hard to see what will.

For me, then, moving part of the Treasury to Darlington is a great idea, and one that probably should be repeated for other Government Departments. Of course there are risks, the greatest of which being that if Ministers stay in London to be close to Parliament the most senior officials will try to do the same, meaning that the North East will not receive the best civil servants and could become a backwater. Ministers will need to fight this natural instinct. Parliament can help too by allowing Ministers to strike a balance between being present in the Chamber and sitting in their office up north. But all this can be overcome, and in difficult economic times Treasury North should be one big success.

Speak Now: Why the Government will fairly quickly be forced off the fence over vaccine passports

In recent weeks, as the Government has very impressively rolled out its vaccination programme, there has been increasing discussion of ‘vaccine passports’. It is said that such documents might open the way for Summer holidays, and that they might be used to allow some lucky people to return to the pub, or to go to mass participation events. This enthusiasm has spilled over into the world of work, with care homes suggesting that they might require new employees to have been vaccinated, and a chain of plumbers saying the same.

The Government, though, has been less keen; a charitable description of Ministerial statements is that they have been very cautious, although others might say they have been confused. They seem to back vaccine passports for international travel, which is fair enough given that many countries have for years asked for proof of inoculations against other diseases. But back at home it has been less sure-footed. The Prime Minister has ruled out passports for a trip to the pub, and from time to time other Ministers have poured cold water on the idea that the Government is preparing for their introduction domestically. But having once argued that “mandating vaccinations is discriminatory and completely wrong”, the Vaccines Minister has more recently said that the use of passports will be up to individual businesses, whilst the Foreign Secretary has agreed that shops and bars might well demand their use.

When it comes to employment contracts the Government also seems to want to sit on the fence. The Health Secretary has acknowledged that carers might be required by their employers to be vaccinated, and ‘sources’ have briefed the Times that “Ministers … have no plans to forbid others from setting up their own schemes, meaning that passports could become reality for many regardless”; the same newspaper has previously reported that care homes, schools and other businesses are drawing up plans to force staff to show they have been vaccinated. And the Lord Chancellor has apparently given a green light for companies to demand that new staff show a vaccine passport in order to obtain work.

So the Government seems desperate to stay out of this issue, allowing foreign governments and private businesses to decide the way ahead. This instinct is understandable but it is also unsustainable. And by failing to be clear about the way forward the Government is in danger of squandering some of the political capital it has accrued thanks to the success of its vaccination policy.

The reason the Government wants to stay out of this is obvious: it is difficult. If it intervenes to allow venues legally to prevent the unvaccinated from visiting, or to permit businesses to stop employees going to work without fearing a tribunal, the backlash will be severe. The backbenchers of the Covid Recovery Group have already made their position clear; to them, vaccine passports are discriminatory, undemocratic and frankly un-British. But it won’t just be hardliners who will be up in arms. What about the young, who will be vaccinated last? Or people who can’t have the vaccine? What happens if mutations mean we have to have another round of jabs next year? How will it all work?

But despite the risks the Government simply cannot remain aloof. Businesses are already demanding answers to some really knotty questions. For example, who is liable if an unvaccinated carer infects a patient? What if vaccinated staff refuse to work with unvaccinated ones? What happens if a homeowner refuses to allow a plumber into the house without knowing if they’ve been jabbed? Businesses and the public will increasingly look to the Government for clarification of these and a host of other issues. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Government is, directly and indirectly, a major employer and provider of services itself, and before too long its own staff will want to know what’s going on.

It is worth noting too that many of these same concerns also apply to mass testing. Can a company force an employee to have a test? Can it make the individual stay at home if they refuse? Does it have to pay them? What about schools and pupils, pub-goers and hostelries, accommodation providers and guests? What, in short, are our rights and responsibilities as individuals and as organisations in all of this?

There are no easy answers. But silence is not a viable option. As we begin to follow the roadmap out of lockdown starting from next week the clamour for answers will inevitably become overwhelming. If the Government doesn’t want to muff up it will need to adopt a clear position of leadership; and it seems obvious to me that it will end up having to say that discrimination on grounds of vaccine status and willingness or otherwise to take a test is legal, at least in some circumstances and with plenty of room for exemptions. It may even have to take the lead in creating a widely accepted ‘passport’. (At last! Some use for the NHS Test and Trace app!) Ministers will be roasted for doing so. But they really do have to speak now.

Why caring about legacy is a vital part of democracy

Over the years it has become a standard part of political commentary to castigate politicians for caring too much about their legacy. The argument goes that being so self-obsessed as to worry excessively about how history will judge them leads political leaders to make selfish, mistaken or vainglorious decisions in the here and now. If only they were less focused on themselves and thought less about their future image the world would apparently be a much better and safer place.

If you doubt this is true just trying Googling “Tony Blair obsessed legacy”. Somewhere near the top of the pile will be media coverage of Clare Short telling the Iraq inquiry that Gordon Brown believed Mr Blair went to war in Iraq because he was “obsessed with his legacy”. Later on the Daily Mail claimed that the former PM’s fixation on his legacy led him to “cut and run”, leaving the job in Iraq (in its view) half-completed. The Catholic Herald argued he was “self-obsessed”, whilst his successor reportedly spent time dumping on his legacy once he took up the reins of power. All in all, Mr Blair’s concern about how history would judge him has been reported as A Very Bad Thing Indeed.

Other politicians have also faced criticism on exactly the same grounds. For example, it is claimed that David Cameron’s desire to have as his legacy an end to Conservative infighting over Europe led to the Brexit referendum and everything after. Margaret Thatcher’s worries about her legacy may have led her to hang around for too long when she should have packed up and gone. In fact, name almost any major politician and you will find someone, somewhere, who has criticised them for thinking too much about how the students of the future will write them up.

But those people who have claimed the same about Donald Trump are massively missing the point. In fact, it seems to me that the real danger with someone like Trump is that he doesn’t care enough about how history will judge him. As yesterday’s events reveal, he is prepared to be remembered as a man who incited violence, undermined democracy, and ultimately weakened his own country. If he was at all interested in how he would be written up 50 years from now he would surely have behaved in a very different way in the past couple of months and for the past four years.

This is why being ‘legacy obsessed’ actually matters. No matter what constitutional checks and balances exist, if a leader is prepared to ignore, belittle, damage and destroy institutions around them they are likely to be able to do so, at least to an extent. History will not judge them favourably for it but if they don’t care it doesn’t matter. So worrying about your legacy should be regarded as a vital part of the way democracies operate. It is what keeps everyone playing by the same rules of the game. And we should never mock our leaders for having the vanity to want to be remembered as great, because otherwise they won’t try.