Anthony Hilton: All Party reports tread a fine line

It is a long time since any parliamentary report received as much publicity as the one last week from the All Party Parliamentary Small Shops Committee.

The theme of the report – that something needed to be done urgently if small shops were to survive competition from supermarkets – struck a chord in newsrooms across the media. If we want to retain consumer choice and avoid all high streets looking the same then small shops need some form of official help to offset the power of the supermarkets.

But would it have been quite so well received if it was widely known that the report was in part financed by the Independent Retailers Confederation – an organisation whose primary purpose is to preserve the independent shops sector? The Confederation retains Quintus, a public affairs consultancy, and uses it as a conduit to pay for and provide 'secretarial support' to the committee.

Now in fairness to the politicians, the report  clearly states it received this financial support from the Confederation and there is no evidence that the support created bias. However, it is surely inconceivable that an organisation with this pedigree would come out with a report saying supermarkets were a good thing.

The committee is, in effect, a lobbying organisation for the Confederation, and, though it is not widely known outside Westminster, there are now quite a few of these. One I come across is the All Party financial group, set up and supported by City trade bodies such as the Futures and Options Association. The main role of this group, according to the FOA, is to provide a forum to educate MPs in financial matters so they will be better able to judge the merit and impact of proposals which come before Parliament.

It is legitimate to lobby but there is also a fine line. There is no state money for these All Party Committees, so they function with the help of outside finance. This is fair enough if they confine their activities to education and lobbying. But it gets difficult when they produce reports because there is always a risk that these get confused in the public mind with Parliamentary reports from officially established watchdogs such as the Treasury Select Committee. They're not the same thing at all. That is where the danger lies.

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