Sam Bright reports on the influence held by a parliamentary lobbying group backed by private health interests

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A Government Health Minister and two senior officials held a meeting this week with a Westminster lobbying group funded by private healthcare firms, Byline Times can reveal.

As previously revealed by this newspaper, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Healthcare Infrastructure is a lobbying group consisting of MPs and peers, sponsored by four private firms with a financial interest in health infrastructure.

The APPG held a meeting yesterday in Parliament on the subject of the ‘New Hospital Programme’ – the Government’s ostensible plan to revamp/build up to 48 hospitals by 2030, which formed a core plank of the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto.

Yesterday’s meeting was attended by Lord Nick Markham, Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). He was joined by Natalie Forrest, the mandarin in charge of the New Hospital Programme; alongside Nick Smallwood, CEO of the Government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority.

As fact-checkers have pointed out, the majority of the 48 hospital projects are “either replacements for existing hospitals, new wings or buildings for existing hospitals, or refurbishments”. The Government is not building 48 new hospitals from scratch.

APPGs are forums for parliamentarians to discuss and lobby on behalf of certain policy issues. Although they have no formal parliamentary status, they wield influence over Government officials – as seen with yesterday’s meeting – and produce reports that are often endorsed by ministers. The groups are commonly advised, and even directly managed, by private entities.

In this case, the APPG for Healthcare Infrastructure is sponsored by four private firms with a financial interest in health infrastructure: Assura, Eric Wright, Fulcrum, and gbpartnerships.

These firms have paid between £31,501 and £33,000 to the public affairs company Connect Communications to run the APPG this year, with Connect acting as its ‘secretariat’. It appears that representatives from Fulcrum attended yesterday’s APPG meeting.

APPG for Healthcare Infrastructure Sponsors

  • Assura: a healthcare premises provider with more than 600 GP surgery, primary care, diagnostic and treatment centre buildings in the UK.
  • Eric Wright: a construction firm that provides services to the NHS and local authorities, including capacity modelling, strategic planning and building utilisation.
  • Fulcrum: a healthcare construction firm, having built more than 40 healthcare centres in the UK.
  • Gbpartnerships: a company that works with NHS and the public sector to plan, develop and maintain health and public buildings.

Access and Influence

The APPG for Healthcare Infrastructure has actively lobbied for greater private involvement in the NHS.

On 18 October, the APPG released its annual report on ‘Meeting the Short, Medium and Long-Term Needs for NHS Infrastructure’.

The paper claimed that “the Government’s originally stated ambition to meet all health infrastructure needs through public funding alone are [sic] no longer viable in the post-pandemic age”.

An alternative to public funding, it said, should include “third-party development”, claiming that this option represents “value for money for the taxpayer”.

In particular, the report recommended “that the Government and NHS England consider the option of third-party partnerships for GP premises” in order to upgrade the quality of GP surgeries.

The report quoted Sarah Beaumont-Smith, CEO of Fulcrum Infrastructure – one of the sponsors of the APPG – who said “how effectively the public sector and independent providers had worked together during the pandemic”. The paper mirrored this opinion, adding that “the APPG hopes this and other examples of close partnership with independent providers continue in the post-pandemic world”.

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The report also directly quoted polling by YouGov on behalf of Assura – another of the APPG’s sponsors – on the views of healthcare professionals regarding NHS infrastructure.

The APPG claims that it simply “seeks to highlight the importance of the physical infrastructure of health and social care and how high-quality health infrastructure is essential to the delivery of high-quality healthcare to patients”.

“The idea of an APPG on Healthcare Infrastructure is important, especially with our crumbling NHS hospitals and huge waiting lists,” Johnbosco Nwogbo, lead campaigner at the public ownership campaign group, We Own It, told Byline Times. “But most people would be forgiven for thinking there’s something very fishy about the APPG being sponsored by private companies with interests in healthcare.”

The APPG has 10 members: six Conservatives, three from the Labour Party, and one Liberal Democrat. Its chair – Chris Green MP – and three of its four vice chairs are Conservative parliamentarians, including Lord James Bethell, who served as a Health Minister from March 2020 to September 2021.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on behalf of the companies that sponsor the APPG.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak today admitted at Prime Minister’s Questions that he has personally used private healthcare, while there are suggestions that the Government is effectively pushing the NHS to breaking point – forcing the country to rely more heavily on private providers – by offering no additional funding for the health service, despite record waiting lists.

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There have also been mounting concerns within the Westminster system about the conflicts of interest engendered by APPGs.

The Parliamentary Standards Committee produced an interim report last May, warning that the proliferation of APPGs has “created the conditions for inappropriate influence and access”. The report went on to warn that “if left unchecked, APPGs could represent the next great parliamentary scandal, with commercial entities effectively buying access to and influence of parliamentarians and decision-makers”.

It recommended further regulation to prevent malign actors from being able to run APPGs and further transparency on their sources of funding.

“All Party Parliamentary Groups are really useful, but they must never be a back-door means of peddling influence around the corridors of power or pursuing a commercial interest,” Chris Bryant MP, chair of the Committee on Standards, said.

The APPG for Healthcare Infrastructure has not responded to a request for comment.

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