UK MPs are again pushing to tighten rules around backbench groups

LONDON — The British parliament’s controversial backbench groups have been back in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Now some MPs want to tighten the rules that govern them.

A new report from the U.K. parliament’s Committee on Standards has probed the membership and financial affairs of so-called All-Party Parliamentary Groups, and is now recommending a cap on the number of backbench groups in which an MP can hold an role, and a ban on secretariats which are “either provided or funded by a foreign government.”

The groups are subject to less stringent rules than the House of Commons’ better-known select committees, but are still able to use parliamentary premises for their meetings

New proposals include mandatory annual reports for groups that receive over £1,500 a year, while MPs will be banned from acting as an officer for more than six APPGs at once. The plan for toughening the rules comes almost a year after a previous report identified improper influence on APPGs as the potential “next great parliamentary scandal.”

It’s now for the government to allow time for a debate in the House on the proposals. The prime minister’s spokesman said last year he found reports of misconduct by British MPs on APPG trips “very concerning.”

Standards committee chair Chris Bryant said: “Parliament always has, and always will be a target for hostile foreign states and improper commercial interests. But with better regulation and transparency around these informal All-Party Parliamentary Groups, we can harness their positive contribution to our democracy while mitigating any risks.”

It comes after POLITICO revealed that some British lawmakers were using the informal, little-scrutinized groupings of MPs and peers to indulge in sex tourism and excessive drinking. Concerns have also been raised about the lobbying of MPs as a result of these groups.

Particular concerns have been raised around the actions of MPs on ‘country APPGs’, where the groups have been set up to forge closer links with foreign nations.

These groups’ focus on foreign countries means they tend to make regular trips abroad, funded by overseas governments or private companies and often on parliamentary time.

A POLITICO investigation last December also found a small cluster of MPs — made up of around 10 “super members” — had signed up for roles with 20 or more different ‘country APPGs’. Collectively, this small group of backbench politicians have made overseas visits worth more than £453,000 since entering parliament, according to official records.

The investigation also found that a number of British lawmakers had been using the foreign trips as an opportunity for the covert use of sex workers and for raucous, excessive drinking, according to MPs, peers, diplomatic and parliamentary officials who spoke to POLITICO.