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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

MPs and Lords benefit from gifts and funding

The Guardian reveals that businesses, overseas governments and lobby groups have given sponsorship, free gifts and funding worth at least £1.8m to MPs and Lords in the past year through all-party parliamentary groups.

These groups are a key avenue for lobbyists and other interest groups to exercise influence on policy and legislation so this kind of transparency is important. However, because largesse is not linked to a particular MP or Lord, it is difficult to measure exactly how it operates to change things.

The paper says that more than 300 all-party groups, which are semi-official groupings of MPs and Lords interested in a particular subject, have received funding or support from outside groups, including:

• Trips to 27 countries including China, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Taiwan, Thailand, Israel and Liechtenstein for members of 15 groups.

• A £32,000 donation from BT Global Services to fund concerts for the parliamentary choir.

• Contributions totalling more than £117,000 for "associate membership" – at £8,400 a time – of the all-party group on health, from companies including AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and actuaries Milliman.

• Free membership for MPs and Lords of the Slimming World all-party parliamentary group and the Weight Watchers group. Each group has about 20 members who are MPs or peers, drawn from all the main parties.

They add that more than 80 groups issued parliamentary passes to staff with outside interests, which included several lobbying or consultancy firms, thinktanks, the Catholic aid agency Cafod and the Unite union:

Several lobbying groups are listed as funding the secretariats of all-party groups, but they are not required to disclose which of their clients – if any – provide them the finance to do so.

Contributions from outside groups vary from relatively small donations such as wine for tasting sessions of the all-party parliamentary wine and spirit group, or sponsored rugby kits for the all-party parliamentary rugby union football club group, to £16,000 for the parliamentary boat race from Siemens, to money to fund inquiries or reports on technology, health and abortion.

Overseas governments and interest groups are also contributors. Parliamentarians accepted a free five-day trip to Azerbaijan from the European Azerbaijan Society, which exists for the "promotion of Azerbaijan as a modern, progressive country with tremendous economic opportunities and a strong cultural heritage".

Members of the all-party China group received a trip to Hong Kong paid for by the Hong Kong government, trips to China supported by Virgin Airways which provided free upgrades, and accommodation from the Confucius Institute's headquarters and other bodies.

Despite this information being available there remains a huge problem with transparency. The data,was compiled by the Guardian from an official register using a web scraper built for ScraperWiki, indicating that it is not published in an accessible form as a matter of course.

The paper says that All-party groups are obliged to provide some information on their donations, but when these are benefits in kind, such as free trips, dinners and administrative services, they are not obliged to give their value. Despite being able to use parliamentary facilities and being regulated by House authorities, the groups are not made to publish minutes, information on whom they meet or detailed annual accounts.
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