More than £13million has been poured into a growing network of MPs’ interest groups by private companies including health bodies, arms companies and tech giants, fueling concerns about the potential backdoor influence.
An analysis by the Guardian and openDemocracy found that more than half of the total £25m funding for All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) since 2018 came from the private sector.
Other funding for the 755 groups – a number that has fallen from 560 five years ago – came from charities and trade unions.
On Thursday, the chairman of the House of Commons standards committee, Chris Bryant, for the first time called on parliamentary authorities to have the power to shut down largely self-governing groups where there are clear conflicts of interest.
Writing for the Guardian, he said it might be time to ban commercial operators from funding and running APPGs: “When lobbying firms effectively run an APPG for the benefit of their clients, we don’t we should not only know who these clients are, but we should be able to close the group if there is a clear conflict of interest.
Bryant, whose standards committee is investigating the system, added: ‘It’s like every MP wants their own APPG, and every lobbying firm sees an APPG as a perfect way to make a quick buck. with a commercial or industrial body. .”
APPGs are informal groups representing the interests of MPs and their peers, from China and Russia to cancer, digital regulation, longevity and jazz. They must be chaired by MPs, but are often run or funded by lobbyists and corporate donors seeking to influence government policy.
Groups can play a key role in bringing neglected issues to parliament’s attention, says Bryant. They organize roundtables, produce reports, travel abroad and lobby for change, but receive no public money.
A number of APPGs are sponsored by companies with interests in the policy areas the groups seek to influence. In situations where there is no conflict of interest, concerns may arise about the perception of such a conflict. Examples include:
The Obesity APPG, which sought to promote medical interventions for obesity, received between 2019 and 2021 between £178,500 and £183,000 from three private healthcare companies that manufacture or promote gastric bands or drugs used in surgery and treatment of obesity: Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic and Novo Nordisk.
The support was used to pay a lobbyist, HealthComms Consulting, to run the APPG Secretariat. The lobbyist states on its website that the APPG has promoted calls for “a change in the ‘move more, eat less’ mentality that is prevalent in thinking about obesity and better use of obesity treatment and access to services”. He adds that the APPG “contributed directly to the government’s obesity strategy released in July 2020 by meeting with the 10 officials and developing a list of the top 10 policy wishes”. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
MPs from the APPG Armed Forces traveled to Bosnia last fall as it was on the brink of conflict, with hospitality and transport partly funded by an arms company, Lockheed Martin, and the support company to the CAE defense. Lockheed Martin’s head of government affairs accompanied them for a night and dinner. A Tory MP on the visit, James Sunderland, later spoke in a debate in the House of Commons about the need for the UK to be “part of the solution at home”. [Bosnia]without declaring the financing of the trip.
James Gray, chairman of the APPG, said the trip should have been declared as paid for by the APPG, of which Lockheed Martin and CAE are “merely sponsors.” He said businesses ‘have nothing to gain’ from the trip, and APPG subscribers ‘do it because they believe in having a good group of MPs and peers who understand defence’ . A Lockheed Martin spokesperson said funding for the visit “would come from APPG funds and not specifically from Lockheed Martin UK contributions”. Sunderland did not comment.
In areas related to the climate crisis, the APPG Secretariat for Sustainable Aviation is an alliance of airlines and airports, while energy companies have provided tens of thousands of pounds over the year elapsed for the board that manages the net zero APPG.
Graham Brady, a senior Conservative who chairs the APPG for Sustainable Aviation, said he was formed to support collaboration between the aviation sector and parliament, adding: ‘The in-kind benefits reported in register represent routine secretarial work done to facilitate group meetings. . No direct financing is involved and no benefits in kind have been granted to the members of the group.
Many APPGs have secretariats run by charities, unions and other organisations, which help with their administration and act as a point of contact.
A thriving industry has also emerged around professional lobbying firms, sponsored by commercial interests, helping to produce reports seeking to influence policy, fund dinners or drinks and take parliamentarians on free trips abroad.
Analysis by The Guardian and openDemocracy found that since 2018 APPGs have reported £5m in cash funding and £18.3-20.2m in ‘benefits’ support, which cover the provision of services, secretarial work, travel or hospitality. More than half of the sponsorship and donations – around £13million – came from private companies.
APPGs have been at the center of controversy but remain largely self-policing. Last month a new spotlight fell on the groups after it emerged that a woman at the center of an MI5 security alert to MPs had provided support and funding to the now disbanded Chinese in Britain APPG .
In September, MPs on the Standards Committee raised questions about the longevity of the APPG offering platinum, gold and bronze levels of membership to sponsors, with fees of up to £100,000 for meeting access with group members. The APPG said it had dropped out of the program and no sponsor had ever been involved in a tiered membership.
The largest APPG, the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum (Pictfor), received over £125,000 in in-kind benefits last year from companies including Google, Facebook , TikTok, BT, Amazon and Huawei.
The group also runs a tiered membership, with prices ranging from £500 for charities to £5,000 for large companies, for ‘benefits’ such as access to events. Pictfor denied any similarity to the APPG longevity program and said its membership did not represent a tiered system of opportunity or influence over the group or its members, but rather protected against it.
The analysis of a series of other APPGs highlights the links between groups of MPs and private companies.
The secretariat of the UK bioethanol APPG is listed as Ensus UK, which operates one of the UK’s largest biofuels plants. After the APPG submitted a report to the government calling for the introduction of E10 fuel, which uses biofuel of the type manufactured by Ensus, a meeting was held between the APPG chairman, a government minister and the director commercial of Ensus UK. Ensus said its support and “modest financial contribution” to the APPG’s work on E10 is common knowledge.
New coronavirus-related APPGs include Business in a Pandemic (Covid) World, which has declared £49,000 in-kind support for its secretariat, lobbyist Wychwood Consulting, from a Covid diagnostics company, Cignpost. Neither Wychwood nor Cignpost responded to requests for comment.
Wychwood is also receiving £10,000 to £12,000 in-kind benefit sponsorship from Yoti Ltd, a facial recognition company, to run the digital identity APPG. Yoti said he was open about his sponsorship of the APPG, which provides a unique service to parliamentarians as a forum to discuss and educate them about digital identity.
Arms companies are particularly active, with firms such as BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and missile maker Raytheon backing the APPG armed forces with £256,000 over four years. A spokesperson for Lockheed Martin UK said: ‘This support is registered in an open and transparent way in the APPG register.
The technology and national security APPG, set up in 2020, has received support worth up to £39,000 from Rebellion Defense Ltd, a US-UK defense artificial intelligence company which has, among others , former Google CEO Eric Schmidt as investor and board member. The “benefit in kind” support allows the APPG secretariat to be provided by a center for defense studies at the University of Oxford where one of the co-founders of Rebellion is a researcher. Rebellion Defense and the APPG declined to comment.
All APPGs must be registered and provide funding details, but most do not produce or make a detailed breakdown readily available. They are obligated to provide accounts upon request, but half of the 190 APPGs did not when requested by openDemocracy.
APPGs are only required to complete a simple “Income and Expense Statement Template”, but this does not give them the opportunity to provide much detail. The APPG’s alternative dispute resolution form listed between £4,501 and £6,000 for secretarial services and between £13,501 and £16,000 for a visit to Singapore, without further details. The group has been approached for comment.
Some APPGs, such as the Celtic Sea Group and another for the wood panel industry, have a lobbyist as their secretariat but no funding figures have been published on their parliamentary registration page. Their president has been contacted for comment. Other APPGs gave more details. On Pictfor’s full website, the accounts have been uploaded to its blog section.
Steve Goodrich of Transparency International said: “From big tobacco to kleptocratic regimes, there’s a plethora of interests behind these groups that remain [largely] not controlled by formal rules. Without greater transparency on lobbying, much of what happens in these groups will remain behind closed doors.
The government made no comment.