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The Curious case of APPG’s

By definition, All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) are informal cross-party groups that have no official status within Parliament. They are run by and for Members of the Commons and Lords, though many choose to involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities. 

APPGs cover a multitude of subject matter, from wrestling to surrogacy, digital identity to ceramics and dozens more.

I’m intrigued by them.

They are basically specialist interest groups, with members from both houses of Parliament (Commons and Lords): according to the register of APPGs “They provide a valuable opportunity for parliamentarians to engage with individuals and organisations outside Parliament who share an interest in the subject matter of their Group”.

MP’s and Lords use APPG’s to float ideas, see what resonates and what doesn’t. They also access research and knowledge and specialist advisory without actually paying for it.

  • But do they also attract sponsors from wannabe players looking to curry favour with MP’s?
  • What do they do?
  • What powers do they have?
  • What influence if any do they have?

As these questions were going round and round my head, I decided to dig a bit deeper into them, choosing the APPG on Miscarriages of Justice as I had attended the House of Lords back in 2019 when they began their inquiry into the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).

Today, March 5th 2021, the APPG’s long-awaited report has finally been published, entitled ‘In the Interest of Justice: An inquiry into the Criminal Cases Review Commission by The Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice.’ This Commission had a brief to “investigate the ability of the criminal justice system to identify and rectify miscarriages of justice”. 

Front cover of the 89-page report

There are six members on the Westminster Commission, including Dame Anne Owers, who was a non-executive director of the CCRC, between 2010 and March 2014. This is surprising and some may say that this report may suffer from confirmation bias as a result of her appointment.

I read an interview (see ‘No quick fixing’ by Ben Leapman. InsideTime, April 2020, p.23 but online here), where she is on record as saying “It has certainly been useful to have a look at where the Criminal Cases Review Commission is. I was particularly interested as I was on the body that recommended the creation of the CCRC, so it is something that has always been very close to me.” This shows clearly a strong emotional attachment to the CCRC as an entity on the part of Dame Anne. Is she marking her own homework?

One of my previous blogs attracted comment from The Lord Garnier, who said: “The fact that Dame Anne was, amongst other things, a CCRC non-executive director between 2010-14 is one of the reasons that Lady Stern and I asked her to join the Commission. Her role as a non-executive director was to challenge and scrutinise its work. We saw that as a positive advantage as it would enable us, and it has, to get a better insight into the work of the CCRC.”

In part of my reply to The Lord Garnier, I said: “You use the words challenge and scrutinise. But in reality, how do we know she will not be scrutinising her scrutiny, now say that out loud and see if it makes any sense to you?”

For context, the CCRC was set up under the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, and is a non-departmental public body, having the power to send or refer a case back to an appeal court if it considers there is a real possibility the court will quash the conviction or in that case reduce the sentence (APPG, 2021, p. 6). And yet, a key recommendation of this report is that this test should change to whether the conviction may be unsafe, the sentence may be manifestly excessive or wrong in the law, or where the CCRC concludes that it is in the interests of justice to make a referral.

In 2015, the House of Commons Justice Select Committee scrutinised the CCRC and concluded that evidence suggests the real possibility test causes the CCRC to be too cautious, leading to a low proportion of cases it refers to the Court of Appeal and high proportion of those cases successful before the court.

Six years later, we find their recommendations have largely not been achieved.

The APPGs 2021 report has recommendations too, although accurate counting of them has been problematic as there are 33 in the body of the report but only 31 in the section ‘Conclusions and Recommendations’. But that aside, its Achilles heel is found as early as the Foreword which tells us “this report contains the conclusions and recommendations only of its six authors” (APPG, 2021, p.4). 

My hunch here is that they all claim authorship but some with greater justification. 

It is concerning that over a period of 25 years since the CCRC was established there has been a shift in the balance of power. An extra layer of management has reduced commissioners to part-time fee-paid roles. And it appears throughout this report that the CCRC wants its power back even though it struggles to be constitutionally independent of the government.

Can the CCRC fulfill its remit?

If investigation needs improvement and the structure needs strengthening, it will be hard pressed on a budget, funded by the Ministry of Justice of £5.936m.

For a non-government organisation, the CCRC has had government-imposed changes, leadership has been diminished, safeguards have been removed and there has been an undermining of the purpose of the legislation that it is founded on. It makes you question what powers public bodies actually hold.

My sincere hope is that the work performed by this APPG, even though it has no statutory powers, will be effective in some way and not evaporate like a silent conversation that never happened.

But is an APPG the right platform to bring about much needed change from within the CCRC?

 


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