Insurance Post

All Party Group rules do need cleaning up to make their agendas and supporters transparent

The role and the very existence of All Party Groups is back in the headlines with today's report in The Guardian on the links - disclosed and undisclosed - between many groups and lobbying firms, trade associations and commercial interests. This story isn't new - The Times did a very similar exposé in January 2006.

As everyone who reads this blog knows, I have been involved in running the All Party Parliamentary Group on Insurance & Financial Services (APPGIFS) since it was launched 20 years ago. My last post was actually an extract from a review of the work of the group over that period which was published in Post just two weeks ago. The Guardian, like The Times before it, makes some good points and I have alot of sympathy with their calls for reform. However, we do have to be careful not to fall into the obvious traps of assuming that every group has a raft of secret funders or a specific lobbying agenda. The APPGIFS certainly doesn't.

Let's get the facts about the group on the table. Incisive Media is not a lobbyist. It is a publishing company. We initiated the group 20 years ago through one of our publications, Post Magazine, the leading weekly magazine for the UK insurance industry. The group has always been run on a strictly neutral basis and we frequently invite critics of the insurance industry to speak to the group so that MPs get a balanced view of every issue. We have continued this policy as we have broadened the scope of the group's activities to cover other retail financial services sectors.

The recent meetings on the Financial Services Authority's Retail Distribution Review are a very good example of the balanced, neutral approach we take. There has been some intense lobbying by independent financial advisers on RDR but we felt the role of the group was to provide a more rounded view of the issues so we arranged presentations from the FSA and consumer representatives as well as IFA trade bodies. It was clearly a shock to some MPs who attended the meeting to find that the very effective lobbying by smaller IFAs was not the whole story and that RDR has many supporters inside and outside the industry. Has this made debate in Parliament on this important issue better informed and more balanced? I would like to think so.

Our mission has always been to provide a channel for more effective communication between an important sector and Parliament. The benefit to us - and there is one - is to be at the heart of the political debate on many crucial issues affecting our readers.

There are no hidden funders. PriceWaterhouse Coopers has acted as technical consultant for most of the time the group has been running but there is no financial link. PWC's briefings cover all aspects of the issues the group debates in a neutral and even-handed manner. It also produces minutes of the open meetings. Also, no-one pays us or PWC for access to the group. Where companies, trade bodies and others want to meet the group privately over lunch or dinner they make all the arrangements and pay for them: we just invite the members on their behalf.

We have tried to be as transparent as possible and a few years ago set up a website with as much information as possible about the group. This includes a full membership list (not just the 20 you are are required to publish to register a group), details of the group's meetings, including which companies have invited the group's members to private lunches or dinners, relevant briefing papers and minutes of meetings. All of the meetings in the House of Commons are open to anyone to attend.

The group does not have any external members. This is the Associate Parliamentary Group status that The Guardian refers too and which, I believe, causes many of the problems.

We have frequently been approached by companies and other organisations to open up the membership to external groups, many offering to pay to 'support' the group. This route has never attracted us. We have happily worked with other groups run on this basis but have always felt one of the strengths of our group is its neutrality. Personally, I think it would be helpful if the Associate Parliamentary Group status was abolished.

That would leave us with groups like the APPGIFS which just has members from the House of Commons and House of Lords. They still need someone to administer them. Why you may ask? 

In an ideal world MPs would run such groups themselves. You could argue that if they are sufficiently interested in a topic they could get together, set-up a group and invite people to come and meet the group. This isn't going to happen for a variety of reasons. Probably top of the list is that MPs (even more so Peers) simply do not have the administrative resources to take on something like this. We underfund our Parliamentary representatives and expect them to do far too much with very limited resources. They also do not have the depth and range of contacts with an industry that an organisation that is part of that industry has.

So, you inevitably end up with external support for groups. The challenge is to stop that being provided by firms, trade associations or lobbyists pressing just a narrow range of views on the relevant issues and I am not sure there is an easy answer to that problem short of Parliament setting up a collective administration unit to run groups. This could ensure that they are all run on the same open, neutral and transparent basis but would still lack the industry knowledge and contacts.

The answer probably lies in a major overhaul of the rules - especially on transparency - although if the experience of the bureaucratic nightmare that has been put in place to administer MPs' expenses is anything to go by the chances are that organisations like Incisive Media will decide that the additional complications and costs make running a group alot less attractive. That would be regrettable.
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