A helping hand? Tracking changes in support to all-party parliamentary groups since 2001

There are now over 600 All-Party Parliamentary Groups in the UK parliament, with the number having more than doubled since 1997. In this post Paul Thomas discusses the monetary and in-kind support these informal groups receive, suggesting that most could not operate without it. He compares information about APPGs in 2001 and 2017, finding that the level of support from NGOs and charities has increased significantly. This may go someway to explaining the growth in APPG activity.

In addition to the formal system of cross-party select committees, Westminster is home to a vast number of informal bodies known as all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) that bring together MPs and peers from different parties to collaborate on issues of shared concern. APPGs have attracted increased media and political attention in recent years due to their explosive rate of growth, increasing policy advocacy, and concerns about the support they receive from external stakeholders. At present, this external assistance is estimated to be worth nearly £6 million per year, and critics are especially concerned about the potential influence of corporations or business groups on APPG activities.

As part of a broader research project comparing the growth and influence of APPGs in Canada and the UK, I examined whether these three trends are related – that is, whether the recent growth of British APPGs results from increased interest from external stakeholders who see the groups as vehicle to influence policy. My findings indicate that external support, and especially the rising support from charities and NGOs, has indeed contributed to the expansion of APGs in recent years. Moreover, much of the growth in support for APPGs has been through in-kind contributions, which often includes outside organizations managing group activities and writing their reports. These results suggest that concerns over corporate influence on APPGs may be somewhat misplaced, with NGOs and charities not only providing more funds that corporations or business associations, but doing so in a way that makes it easier for them to influence APG activities.

An introduction to all-party parliamentary groups

APPGs are divided into two main types: those focused on relations with other countries, and subject groups that deal with specific policy issues, regions of the UK, or stakeholder communities. The first APPG, the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, was established in the 1930s. The number in operation then grew steadily over the following decades to reach 242 in 1996. However, following the 1997 election this growth accelerated, with the total hitting 592 prior to the 2010 election. While slowing, as shown in Figure 1, this expansion continues, especially among subject groups. There were 631 APPGs registered in May 2017: 132 country groups, 496 subject groups, and three sports clubs (for ease of analysis, these clubs are considered with the subject groups).

APPGs have no formal role in the parliamentary processes for either scrutiny or legislation. Many are largely passive, serving to facilitate the exchange of information between and among parliamentarians and stakeholders through e-mail lists or occasional receptions. Yet a growing number have distinct policy objectives or agendas. These groups employ a variety of tools to achieve their goals, with their members sponsoring parliamentary debates, conducting select committee-style inquiries, and introducing private members’ bills. While determining the exact reasons behind a government decision can be challenging, pressure from APPGs has contributed to policy changes in areas as diverse as cyclingtobacco control, fuel duty, and the prevention of anti-Semitism.

Chart 1: Number of APPGs active at the UK parliament, 1948–2017

The majority of APPGs receive some form of external support, and most could not operate without it. MPs and peers simply do not have the spare capacity to organise regular group meetings, let alone to conduct inquiries, produce research reports, or fund refreshments at group meetings. The services offered by external actors can range from basic assistance with organising group meetings to the provision of dedicated research and administrative staff valued at over £50,000 per year. In some cases, external actors will pay lobby firms to assist an APPG on their behalf. Some groups also receive cash contributions, either for specific expenses or to enable the groups to hire their own employees.

However, the external support provided to APPGs has long raised concerns that parliamentarians may be unduly influenced by the funding or assistance received. Beginning in the 1980s, parliamentarians responded by imposing increasingly strict rules for the registration of external support. These were last updated in 2015 to require APPGs to estimate the value of any in-kind support worth £1,500 or more.

Tracking support to APPGs over time

What can the patterns of support to APPGs tell us about the reasons for group growth? To explore this question, I used webscraping software to capture the external support declared in the last APPG registries produced prior to the 2001 and 2017 elections. Changes in the registry system during that period means that the information is not perfectly comparable. Most problematic is the absence of any estimate for the value of in-kind contributions on the 2001 registry. Nonetheless, the data provide an indication of how the support provided to British APPGs has changed over the past decade and a half.

The table below summarises the external support declared by British APPGs in 2001 and 2017. The proportion of APPGs receiving support rose slightly between 2001 and 2017, driven by an increase in external assistance among inter-country groups. More notable, though, is the change in the way support is provided. While the proportion of groups receiving direct monetary support fell sharply, the proportion receiving in-kind support jumped from half of all APPGs to two-thirds.

This change is significant given that in-kind support is much more likely to involve the direct provision of services by external actors, such as planning meetings, organizing consultations, or preparing policy reports. By comparison, monetary support is often given for specific expenses, such as hospitality or travel costs, or to enable APPGs to hire their own staff. As such, in-kind support often gives external actors more chance to engage with parliamentarians, and more opportunities to shape their views. This can include recommending which stakeholders MPs and peers should meet, and which policy ideas are included in their reports.

Type and value of support provided to APPGs by group type

Note: Some groups received both monetary and in-kind support, meaning that the numbers do not necessarily add to 100% across categories.

However, 2001 and 2017 registries not only reveal a change in how external support is provided to APPGs, but also in who is providing it. As shown in the table, the value of the monetary support given to British APPGs more than doubled between 2001 and 2017. Charts 2 and Chart 3 break down this support by the nature of the sponsoring organisations. They show that business interests dominated the support given to APPGs in 2001, with corporations and business associations together providing 81% of all funds received. Yet by 2017, business associations and corporations accounted for just 53% of funding, while charities and NGOs surged to a combined 42% – up three-fold from 2001.

Chart 2: Breakdown of monetary support to UK APPGs in 2001, by organisation type

Chart 3: Breakdown of monetary support to UK APPGs in 2017, by organisation type

The role of NGOs and charities in enabling APPG activity is even more evident when examining in-kind support. The organisations that provide in-kind secretariat services to APPGs typically have the greatest opportunity to influence the groups’ activities and the views of their parliamentary members. Chart 4 breaks down the actors providing secretariat services to APPGs in 2001 and 2017 by organisation type. It shows that NGOs and charities are the two most prominent sources of secretariat support, accounting for 56% of secretariat organisations in 2001 and 53% in 2017. The comparable figures for corporations and business associations were 24% in 2001 and 18% in 2017. The lobby firms serving as secretariats were funded by both corporate and charitable or not-for-profit actors in roughly equal measure.

Chart 4: Organisations providing secretarial services to UK APPGs, by type

Together, these results suggest that the expansion of APPGs is being driven at least in part by external actors who are looking for new ways to connect with parliamentarians. This can be seen both in the growing proportion of APPGs that receive external support, and in the rising value of the support received by existing groups. However, while media and political commentary has focused on the potential of APPGs to be used as vehicles for inappropriate lobbying by corporations, the data presented here suggest that more attention should be given to the growing role of charities and NGOs in supporting APPG activities. Not only are these groups providing an increasing portion of the monetary support received by British APPGs, but they also dominate the provision of secretariat services as well, giving them opportunities to directly engage with parliamentarians on a regular basis.

There are no indications that charities and NGOs are misusing their influence with APPGs. Yet further research is required to determine whether a level playing field exists amongst all actors. For instance, are those charities and NGOs with the resources to support APPGs more likely to obtain policy change than those that are less well funded? Does the presumption of good intentions make charities and NGOs freer to engage in public affairs practices that would attract criticism if undertaken by corporate actors? Or does the growth of engagement with APPGs by charities and NGOs suggest that they are being excluded from other avenues of policy influence available to corporate actors? Knowing the answers to such questions would improve our understanding of how APPGs relate to the broader system of interactions between government, parliamentarians, and external stakeholders.

This post was originally published on the PSA Parliaments Group blog and is reposted with permission.

About the author

Dr Paul EJ Thomas is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University. His new book All-Party Groups in Westminster Legislatures: Backbench Activism and Interest Representation in Canada and the United Kingdom is under contract with University of British Columbia Press. He tweets @pejthomas.


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