The ‘Chinese spy’ story puts All-Party Parliamentary Groups in the spotlight

14 Jan

Today’s story about an agent of the Chinese state doling out hundreds of thousands of pounds to British politicians is a salutary reminder that the world doesn’t stop turning just because the Government is on a foot-shooting spree.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Barry Gardiner accepted a whopping £425,000 in donations from Christine Lee, a lawyer with links to the CCP regime in Beijing, as well as employing her son as one of his parliamentary staff. He was also apparently a major advocate of the Hinkley nuclear power project and an opponent of those criticising Chinese involvement therein. An unhappy coincidence.

The paper also reports that she gave £5,000 to Sir Edward Davey when he was Energy Minister under the Coalition (another unhappy coincidence), as well as receiving a ‘Points of Light’ award from Theresa May when she was Prime Minister.

Not much partisan hay to be made, then. But the story still raises all sorts of interesting questions, not least about the Government’s tough new posture on China and the worrying implications this may have for any serious nuclear energy programme in this country.

But for reasons outlined in this thread, Lee’s case could also put a spotlight on one of the remaining relics of the old, pre-expenses scandal Parliament: the system of All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs).

These bodies often do good work. They encourage MPs with common interests to work together across party lines, and offer another avenue by which backbenchers can contribute to the work of Parliament. They can help to connect legislators to expert opinion, and promote promote their causes to the Government and to the public. They are also free, being required to self-fund.

However, this has its downsides. As at any intersection of commercial and political life, it can sometimes be hard to tell where productive engagement ends and lobbying and producer capture begin – and that’s before we even touch on the subject of foreign interests.

Likewise, the funding arrangement is a two-edged sword. Whilst the lack of official funding does save taxpayers’ money, it creates for APPGs a dependency on external sources of funding which can clearly, in some circumstances, be deeply problematic.

In this case, it looks as if it gave Lee a chance to piggyback off a perfectly respectable cause – promoting political engagement in the British Chinese community – for nefarious ends. But it need not be something as eye-catching as a full-blown national security risk.

The simple fact is that given the opacity of their expensing systems, APPGs are also just a very good way to butter MPs up. Whilst IPSA will make you file for paperclips (and then sometimes fail to pay out), an APPG remains a relatively safe way of securing nice dinners, trips to things, and even foreign travel with minimal risk of the bill ending up on the front pages of your local paper.

Alas, there is always someone who takes things too far and ruins it for everyone else. If hostile governments can use this system to covertly advance their interests in this country, APPGs are probably due at least gentle reform, not least to ensure the real and valuable work so many of them do is not overshadowed by scandal.