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Nearly 300 Parliamentary Lobby Groups Disappear After New Rules on Foreign Funding and Membership Come into Force

All Party Parliamentary Groups have long been seen as the ‘next big scandal’ in lobbying, which the new rules aim to tackle

Photo: Justin Kase/Alamy

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Hundreds of parliamentary lobbying groups have been disbanded after new rules came in banning foreign state funding and tightening up transparency rules. 

All Party Parliamentary Groups have come under close scrutiny in recent years, following a raft of scandals. The internal lobbying groups are composed of MPs and peers but are often run by outside organisations known as secretariats.

Amid fears that vested interests and even hostile states could use them to unduly influence parliamentarians – while adding a layer of parliamentary prestige to their work – all APPGs are now required to produce an annual income and expenditure statement, with the secretariats banned from receiving funding from foreign states, whether directly or indirectly. 

It may have posed a problem for the dozens of cross-party groups that provide free ‘educational’ trips to MPs to the countries in question. 

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Following the new rules, the count of APPGs, groups in Parliament that span a wide range of interests has plummeted from 722 to 444, marking a 39% decrease within just a month, according to analysis by the non-profit democracy group mySociety. 

Last year, Politico uncovered instances of British parliamentarians having engaged in ‘sex tourism’ and heavy drinking through trips hosted by some country-focused APPGs. 

The outlet also found a small cohort of MPs, approximately 10 “super members” held roles in 20 or more country-focused APPGs. Collectively, the backbenchers undertook overseas visits amounting worth over £450,000 since joining parliament. 

National-focused APPGs that have now been scrapped include Bahrain, which was chaired by the now-suspended Tory MP Bob Stewart. Stewart recently had his conviction overturned over a verbal tirade against a Bahrain democracy protester. 

Reporting by OpenDemocracy in 2022 estimated that APPGs had received around £25 million in benefits from outside bodies in four years, with more than half of that coming from private sector firms. 

APPGs are sometimes seen as a bridge between Parliament and the public, allowing MPs and Lords with shared interests to engage with policy areas and outside groups. But they’ve faced growing scrutiny for potential vulnerabilities to corruption, with Transparency International highlighting concerns over MPs and peers accepting expenses-paid trips from governments with dubious records on human rights and corruption.

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The tougher rules introduced at the start of this month are aimed at enhancing financial transparency and reducing foreign influence within the parliamentary groups.

The number of country-specific groups has subsequently fallen by 43%, while subject-focused groups on issues – ranging from jazz to the wine industry and electoral reform – have fallen by 38%. Some groups may have been unable to meet the new 20-member minimum threshold. 

However, the Substack Democracy for Sale has noted that groups that have chosen not to register officially can continue to operate similarly to APPGs but without the obligation to follow the new transparency and funding rules. 

Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy, told Byline Times: “We will need to keep close watch on whether less scrupulous operators, who are keen to bypass the rules, set up new groups with misleadingly official names. If this happens, MPs should give them a wide berth.” 

Julia Cushion, Policy and Advocacy Manager at mySociety, said that while the new rules clamp down on inappropriate funding from foreign governments and corporate lobbying, “there is now a risk of new “informal” policy forums popping up in their place.” 

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Regardless of how the money came to them, MPs are obliged to declare gifts (such as trips paid for by foreign governments) through their own declarations of interests, for any over the value of £300. 

Steve Goodrich, Head of Research and Investigations at Transparency International UK added: “APPGs had long been a backdoor for lobbyists, including those representing big oil and kleptocrats. That corrupt and repressive regimes like Azerbaijan could secure privileged access to the parliamentary estate through these groups shows how bad things had gotten.

“Parliament was right to require greater transparency and accountability over APPGs, which has seen a dramatic drop in the number of groups registered.”

But he also urged the Government to bring forward legislation to ‘lift the lid’ on other forms of lobbying in politics.


The Losers

Country-based APPGs that have now been scrapped: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Barbados, Belarus, Bermuda, British Overseas Territories, British Virgin Islands, Central America, Channel Islands, Colombia, Croatia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia and Djibouti, Falkland Islands, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, India, Jamaica, Kashmir, Kurdistan Region in Iraq, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Maldives, Moldova, Montserrat, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Pacific Islands, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Pitcairn Islands, Polar Regions, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Russia, Slovakia, Southern Yemen, Sri Lanka, St Helena, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Western Sahara, and Zambia.

There is no suggestion that the MPs involved in those APPGs were funded by foreign states, unless their registers of interest say otherwise. 

Other all-party groups to have been abolished this month – some of which may have provided free jollies for MPs and peers, include groups for:  

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The new rules from this month: 

As of after the next election, MPs or peers can only be officers for a maximum of 6 APPGs. 

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