Dark Money Investigations: News

Weapons makers and private firms donate £13m to get exclusive access to MPs

Revealed: Unregulated MPs’ groups took more than half their funding from private sector – including health and tobacco firms and big tech

Tatev.jpg Peter Geoghegan
Tatev Hovhannisyan Peter Geoghegan Ben Quinn
17 February 2022, 12.00am
The private sector has given £13m to MPs’ All-Party Parliamentary Groups in the past four years
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openDemocracy. All rights reserved

Arms manufacturers and healthcare businesses are among the private firms that have bought access to Parliament through a £13m “back door” lobbying network, openDemocracy can reveal.

British American Tobacco and Big Tech are also among those that have funded so-called All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) – which are largely unregulated and growing in numbers.

Analysis found that more than half of £25m worth of donations given to APPGs since 2018 has come from the private sector, with the groups repeatedly lobbying for causes that benefit their private donors.

The finding has sparked calls by Chris Bryant, the chair of the Commons’ Standards Committee, for parliamentary authorities to have the power to shut down the groups if there are conflicts of interest.

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The investigation by openDemocracy and The Guardian found:

  • Arms manufacturers have given £256,000 in cash, services, or a combination to APPGs in the past four years, while Amazon, Facebook, Huawei, Google and British American Tobacco have all donated significant amounts.

  • One APPG successfully lobbied the government to introduce a controversial ‘greener’ petrol called E10, after taking donations from one of the sector’s leading firms. The company helped to research and write the group's influential report on the subject, which contained disputed claims about the benefits of E10.

  • The Armed Forces APPG, which is part-funded by weapons makers, visited Bosnia and met a representative from Lockheed Martin. An MP on the trip subsequently told Parliament that “fears about security” in the country were “justified” – without declaring the trip’s funding.

  • Private health and social care companies have pumped more than £1m worth of donations into a number of APPGs where MPs and peers have discussed health-related issues. That funding has been rising each year.

  • A significant number of APPGs have routinely breached transparency rules by failing to declare their accounts or provide them on request. This means private donors could be hidden with no accountability. One Tory MP initially told openDemocracy: “I am not releasing anything to you.”

The revelations come amid mounting concerns about the potential for misuse of the groups, with critics calling them a “back door” for lobbyists.

Last month, MI5 revealed that a Chinese government agent, Christine Lee, had been involved in a now-disbanded APPG called ‘Chinese in Britain’ while trying to exert influence over MPs.

openDemocracy recently revealed how the chair of the Azerbaijan APPG, Bob Blackman, was “fed” propaganda by the country's embassy for parliamentary debates. The Conservative MP boasted: “On a regular basis I put down positions on behalf of our good friends in Azerbaijan.”

Many APPGs operate legitimately, but experts say their often opaque funding, and the access given to the private sector, mean they risk opening the door to a corruption scandal.

Writing for openDemocracy and The Guardian today, Labour MP Chris Bryant said parliamentary authorities should be given new powers to shut down APPGs “where there is a clear conflict of interest”.

“APPGs cannot be a back door means of peddling influence around the corridors of power without scrutiny,” he said. “Nor should they purport to carry the seal of approval of the whole House.”

What is an APPG?

APPGs are ‘informal’ groups of MPs and peers examining topics ranging from coronavirus to jazz. Although some are supported by charities, others are almost entirely run by private lobbying firms, which can act as the groups’ secretariats.

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‘I am not releasing anything to you’

Lobbyists don’t just fund parliamentary groups – they regularly act as a ‘secretariat’ for one or more APPGs, allowing them to research and write influential reports.

The Internet, Communications and Technology APPG is funded by Big Tech firms, which pay up to £5,000 to become a ‘corporate member’. Cash donations have included £40,800 from Huawei – which has faced scrutiny from the National Cyber Security Centre over its security practices – as well as £30,000 from Google, £24,000 from Amazon and £18,000 from TikTok.

The Corporate Governance APPG received money from a range of multinational firms that have previously faced serious questions about their own corporate behaviour. They include British American Tobacco, Deloitte, PwC and others, with support totalling well over £100,000 in recent years.

Meanwhile, arms companies have donated £256,000 in cash to the Armed Forces APPG in the past four years, with donations from BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and missile maker Raytheon.

Last year, BAE Systems was accused of having “plumbed the depths of unethical behaviour”. Speaking in Parliament, Labour’s former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the arms company was “willing to sell to any murderous, brutal dictatorship and use corruption to secure those sales”.

MPs from the APPG visited Bosnia last year as the country stood on the brink of war. A senior official from Lockheed Martin also joined the delegation for dinner one night.

One of the Conservative MPs on the trip, James Sunderland, later spoke in parliament about the need for the UK to be “part of the solution” in Bosnia – without declaring the trip’s funding.

The group’s chair, James Gray, said the companies “had nothing to gain” from the trip, and said that subscribers to the APPG “do so 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 have come from the APPG’s funds and not specifically from Lockheed Martin UK’s contributions”.

In another case, the China APPG’s biggest donor has been HSBC, in which Chinese state-owned businesses have significant stakes. Already under fire for backing China’s security law, HSBC also froze accounts of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

Rules do not require APPGs to publish financial accounts, but those with higher levels of funding are required to provide a basic income statement on request. However, when openDemocracy asked 190 APPGs to provide these documents in 2020, 95 failed to do so.

In one case, Conservative MP John Howell – who chairs the Alternative Dispute Resolution APPG – responded: “What… is the purpose of this inquiry? Unless I am clear that you are not up to no good I am not releasing anything to you.” The accounts were later provided after openDemocracy pointed out the rules on transparency.

Lobbying interests

The number of APPGs now stands at 755 – more than the 650 MPs in Parliament. Recent additions include the Digital Health APPG, which has had more than £3,000 worth of donations from the Association of British HealthTech Industries.

A US-UK defence artificial intelligence firm has paid more than £69,000 towards the running of a new Technology and National Security APPG, formed in 2020. The company’s investors and board members include former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

The secretariat of the Sustainable Aviation APPG is an alliance of airlines and airports, while energy companies provided tens of thousands of pounds this year for the consultancy running the Net Zero APPG.

Graham Brady, a senior Tory who chairs the Sustainable Aviation APPG, said it was formed to support collaboration between the aviation sector and parliament. “The benefits in kind reported on the register represent routine secretarial work carried out to facilitate meetings of the group,” he said. “No direct funding is involved and no benefits in kind have been given to members of the group.”

An image showing a line travelling from donors to secretariats to APPGs to Parliament
APPGs repeatedly lobby Parliament for causes that benefit their private donors
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openDemocracy. All rights reserved

Six APPG secretariats are operated by HealthComms Consulting – a lobbying firm originally founded by Conservative MP Paul Bristow, and now run by his wife. Last year, the six groups recorded £250,000 worth of financial support, with the majority coming from private healthcare firms.

HealthComms Consulting was renamed last year from its previous incarnation, PB Consulting, which had offered clients services such as “NHS market access” and “parliamentary awareness”.

Bristow, a former lobbyist who sits on the Commons’ Health Select Committee, was embroiled in controversy last year when he submitted questions to ministers on a range of health issues linked to the lobbying firm without raising a potential conflict of interest, though he has subsequently declared the link.

Bristow said he had led calls to ban MPs from lobbying and to “clean up the system”, adding: “When doing so, I have been very clear about my wife’s role and I don’t have any involvement with her company, which follows the PRCA self-regulatory code of conduct.

“I also support changes to the rules on APPGs, because there are far too many and most are pointless. The ones with secretariats tend to be more effective and those arrangements are declared.”

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Four APPGs list their secretariats as the College Green Group, a political consultancy founded by Vote Leave’s former chief technology officer, Thomas Borwick.

The company’s website previously claimed that “under 10% of APPGs currently achieve their full potential” and offered parliamentarians the chance to “let us catapult your APPG to the top of the league table” by creating “a coalition of organisations and businesses as affiliates or supporters to recruit sponsors” for a fee.

College Green, which said it removed the text in the course of a website upgrade, said that “league table” was shorthand for how some APPGs achieve more than others in terms of activity. It now describes its role in the groups as “allowing for cross-party, issue-based problem solving, with high-level activity and management”.

Asked how it recruited sponsors of APPGs, College Green Group said: “We engage with businesses and organisations that have an authentic interest in the topic of focus for each APPG. Based on these conversations we make recommendations to the APPG and, if all parties are in agreement, we engage the sponsors.”

‘Quite simply dodgy’

The boss of Britain’s own lobbying industry association said potential abuse involving APPGs was part of a bigger picture of Westminster authorities “not caring much”.

“You have got parliamentary authorities that are living in the 1980s, or maybe 1950s, and are just constantly turning a blind eye to MPs and peers abusing the system for their own purposes,” said Francis Ingham, the Public Relations and Communications Association chair.

“Because the parliamentary authorities don’t resource them directly, they inevitably will have to be resourced by third-party organisations. Nobody would quibble about APPGs devoted to cancer, but people might quibble about those devoted to exotic locations around the world which appear to have slightly different purposes, put bluntly.”

Members of Ingham’s association have to declare whether they support APPGs and whether they are paid to do so, but he warned: “There are APPGs that are not transparent and that’s just the reality. There is a grey area outside of the mainstream. Because they’re not members of our organisation it means that they can offer services that are improper, in our view, and get around the rules in that way.”

Parliamentary authorities are just constantly turning a blind eye to MPs and peers abusing the system

Francis Ingham, head of UK lobbying industry association

Just 17 of 135 APPGs dedicated to individual countries or global regions declared their sources of funding, which can be used to finance activities ranging from trips to receptions. It’s known that many of the groups get by without support and rely on MPs’ offices doing admin work, but Ingham suggested there were exceptions.

“Not declaring who runs the APPG is quite simply dodgy,” he said. “Even if there’s nothing untoward happening, the very thing that you’re not saying who is running it is intolerable in a parliamentary democracy.”

Last year, MPs on Parliament’s Standards Committee raised questions over the Longevity APPG, which focuses on ageing and the promotion of longer life. The group offered platinum, gold and bronze levels of membership for sponsors, which came with a fee of up to £100,000 for access to meetings.

Members of the Standards Committee expressed surprise, with its chair, Chris Bryant saying: “That’s quite high up there on the badness register, isn’t it?”

The APPG on Longevity told the BBC that it had dropped the scheme, adding: “No sponsor was ever involved in the tiered membership described in the early version of the sponsorship proposal.”

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