Honest answers

The first time I ever broadcast live on Radio 4, I was nervous.

I'd spent the preceding hours in an office where there was coffee, and there were doughnuts. So when a subtle change in the sound coming through my studio headphones signalled that I'd gone live, I was in the kind of sugar and caffeine frenzy that is sometimes used as a defence in murder trials. A tidal wave of adrenaline hit me, and it was a struggle to speak in a steady voice at a measured pace.

I mention this because something rather similar happened when I gave evidence to the Commons Standards Committee, the other day. The committee is the MPs' disciplinary watchdog and, for their own inscrutable reasons, thought I was a good person to deliver the opening evidence for their inquiry into the workings of All Party Parliamentary Groups - APPGs.

I had consumed a couple of lattes that morning, but when the chair, the Labour MP Kevin Barron delivered a couple of kindly opening remarks, I wilted for a few moments. So, henceforth, I will be rather more sympathetic to jittery performances by select committee witnesses.

I've reported more select committee hearings than you can shake a stick at, but it's a completely different experience to be in the witness box as opposed to slouching in the press gallery. And I was not in any sense a defendant. Some people go into committee hearings with their career on the line - ministers and top civil servants can suffer real damage from a poor performance; I'm sure they find the process far tougher than I did.

I'd just been asked to give my thoughts on APPGs and once I was able to tune in to the questions, I set about delivering them.

The Standards Committee is looking at APPGs because there is concern that they could be a vehicle for influencing Parliament. There are hundreds of these groups, and they can be anything from a convivial semi-social grouping like the APPG on folk music, to serious bodies arguing for policy changes, like the APPG on Breast Cancer.

Some have no funding at all - others have secretariats run by lobbyists or charities. Some produce reports aimed at getting some policy result from government. They're an important part of the ecology of Parliament, creating a channel for MPs and peers to find out about a particular subject.

APPGs on a particular country may get regular briefings from an ambassador. Others which deal with a particular subject may reach out to all kinds of interested parties to make sure parliamentarians are hearing all the arguments and analysis. The Conservative Dan Byles is running an APPG on Unconventional Oil and Gas - essentially on fracking - and is in contact with industry and green groups and other interested parties. Given the controversy over fracking as a method of extracting oil and gas, I suspect quite a few MPs will find the chance to hear all the different views very useful.

So I made a number of points to the Standards Committee:

* APPGs have had a number of successes in pushing very specific policy agendas, for example on promoting cycling and toughening the laws against stalking. In both cases there was already support for their causes, but by holding select committee-style inquiries, they marshalled evidence and pushed government into action. And because they're not required to be impartial, they can deliver punchier reports, with rather less "on the one hand, on the other hand…" But the idea that the government machine stops, shudders and changes course, purely on the basis of an APPG report is absurd.

* The status of APPGs has to be clear; they're not select committees, they don't have Commons clerks ringmastering their inquiries, they don't have a mandate to weigh evidence in the same way and their proceedings and reports don't carry parliamentary privilege. So they can be sued for libel. The government has to give a formal response to select committee reports; APPG reports don't require any.

* It should be clear who is financing an APPG - and, to be fair, that information is recorded in the official register - so parliamentarians and everyone else can draw their own conclusions about the validity of anything they say. I quipped at one point that if the APPG on bears reported that nothing untoward was happening in the woods, people wouldn't necessarily be particularly impressed. And the former minister, Sir Paul Beresford, made the point that any minister who goes into a room with an APPG will have been briefed on any interest which may lurk behind them.

* It would be a mistake to smother APPGs under some burdensome compliance regime, that might have the effect of making it impossible for those with little or no outside funding to continue. Far better to ensure a bit more transparency - the All Party Whip, the round-robin which tells MPs about APPG events, should be more widely available, and maybe the list of those parliamentarians actively involved should be more comprehensive.

* Beyond that, MPs and peers have to overcome any reluctance to whistle-blow if there's something about the operations of an APPG that bothers them. Parliament is not some Enid Blyton-style boarding school, where everyone hates a sneak; its reputation is too battered to be able to afford such inhibitions, because the whole institution suffers when scandal erupts.

* Finally, the APPG world seems just a little bit casual, with MPs signing up at the request of their mates, so they can demonstrate they have the support 10 parliamentarians from the government side and 10 from the Opposition. "You don't have to do anything, old chap, not even turn up. Another pint?"

To be honest, I don't think APPGs are anywhere near the heart of Parliament's problems. They may need a little tidying-up, but they don't need, or deserve, a witch-hunt against them. And my impression is that the committee doesn't think so either.

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