The Financial Times has looked into the funding of all all-party groups. They find the that all-party groups received £1 million last year from external bodies, including major companies. For example, the Associate Parliamentary Health Group receives support from AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squib, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer.
After MPs expenses and ex-ministers lobbying, this looks like it is a candidate to be the next big Parliamentary scandal. All the FT was able to get hold of is the groups' income, as they aren't subject to the Freedom of Information Act. There is significant evidence that the groups are being used as a vehicle for lobbying:
"Almost half the bodies receive secretarial assistance from outside organisations. Of these, about a third are provided directly by a lobbying group."
The basic problem is that these bodies occupy a bit of a regulatory vacuum. Despite being a part of the Parliamentary process, providing considerable resources to MPs, they aren't subject to the kind of transparency that would be expected elsewhere. Essentially, this is a similar problem to that at the Carbon Trust, a nominally private sector company created and sustained by the Government with taxpayers' money. Transparency is introduced in the public sector but some bodies fall outside that nominal definition. While the letter of the law may not compel all-party groups to answer FOI requests, the spirit of the law should clearly include them.
The public should be very concerned about this because, as US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it, "sunlight is the best disinfectant" and access to political power or public money without transparency is often associated with corruption. If MPs expenses had been published years ago, as they have been for Members of the Scottish Parliament, then very likely most of the scandalous claims reported by the Telegraph last year would never have been made. Without transparency, there is no way we should give all-party groups the benefit of the doubt.
We set out some principles for reform of the Freedom of Information Act in our new book How to Cut Public Spending (and Still Win an Election). There is now a significant list of necessary changes, including:
- Fund the Information Commissioner's Office directly from Parliament rather than via a Government Department.
- Include organisations and activities which, while not technically within the public sector, are reliant on taxpayers' money or part of Parliament's work.
- Remove the limitations that prevent prosecutions for flagrant breaches of the Act. Those limitations make it almost impossible for officials who destroy information to avoid answering requests to be punished.
- Introduce new sanctions for organisations that delay answering requests without good reason.
All those changes would strengthen the Act. It is a vital tool in keeping politics honest, public services efficient and the national debate honest but could be a lot more powerful.