Special InvestigationThe Vested Private Interests Behind Westminster’s Influential Lobbying Groups
Sam Bright investigates a murky aspect of our political system, where landlords fund private rental research and fossil fuel firms donate to environmental groups
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Labour is calling for urgent change to “safeguard Parliament from improper lobbying and hostile state actors” after an investigation by Byline Times revealed how dozens of largely unregulated parliamentary groups are being funded and supported by those with financial interests in the policies they propose.
This includes the National Residential Landlords Association funding a parliamentary group on the private rental market; gambling companies donating to MPs involved in a parliamentary betting group; and fossil fuel companies backing MPs and peers looking into renewable energy – all taking place lawfully at the heart of British democracy.
All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) act as talking shops for MPs and peers to consider particular policy areas or relations with a foreign state. There are currently more than 700 of them – ranging from Adult Social Care to Zoos and Aquariums.
Unlike parliamentary committees, APPGs do not have official status within Parliament. These informal groups are broadly unregulated – yet have considerable influence over policy-makers. One recent example of this, revealed by Byline Times, was a meeting this month between an APPG funded by private health interests and senior Government figures to discuss the redevelopment of hospitals, as the NHS crisis continues to unfold.
APPGs are often co-ordinated and funded by outside interests – whether that is a charity with specialist knowledge of a certain policy area, or a private firm with a vested interest in certain legislative reforms.
This has generated mounting concerns about the potential for these groups to be used as lobbying fronts for private interests. In a report last May, the Parliamentary Standards Committee warned that the proliferation of APPGs, along with their informal structure, has “created the conditions for inappropriate influence and access”.
There are a range of legitimate reasons for private companies to engage with parliamentarians and the Government – although these firms are driven by corporate interests, unlike most politicians, they will often also have a real-world understanding of the fields in which they operate.
However, Byline Times’ investigation reveals a number of vested interests involved in APPGs that may provide some cause for concern.
In light of the findings, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Thangam Debbonaire, told this newspaper: “There’s an urgent need to toughen up the governance and regulation of APPGs to safeguard Parliament from improper lobbying and hostile state actors. Labour backs calls for stricter rules on secretariats, increasing transparency on their funding and a stronger enforcement of existing rules.”
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APPG for the Private Rented Sector
The APPG for the Private Rented Sector was created to examine this sub-section of the housing market. Its secretariat is the Public Affairs Company – one of a number of political PR/communications firms that coordinate APPGs.
Its funding comes exclusively from the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) – a group representing the interests of landlords. Since the APPG’s inception in 2015, it has received all of its funds from the NRLA and its predecessor organisations.
Listed as a client on the Public Affairs Company website, the Residential Landlords Association (merged with the National Landlords Association in 2020 to create the NRLA) is quoted as saying that “the Public Affairs Company has made a significant difference to RLA recognition by politicians and government departments… They understand our complex business, and their guidance is sound and practical. The service level has exceeded our expectations”.
Potential conflicts of interest also exist among the parliamentarians who sit on the APPG. One of its multiple vice chairs, Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake, holds shares in five residential properties and is a shareholder in the Property Franchise Group – financiers of “property entrepreneurs and property professionals”. Another vice chair, Lord Rupert Carrington, is a director and shareholder in two property management companies.
Conservative MP Andrew Lewer, the APPG’s chair, told Byline Times that “the APPG for the Private Rented Sector is not, and never has been, a group for landlords.
“The group’s purpose statement makes clear that it is a forum for parliamentarians to discuss issues pertinent to the private rented sector and engage with all key stakeholders in the sector, including both tenant and landlord organisations. Organisations representing the interests of tenants including Shelter, Generation Rent and Crisis are invited to every meeting and take part in panel discussions.”
APPG on Betting and Gaming
A number of the MPs involved with this APPG have financial ties to the betting industry.
The group’s chair, Conservative MP Scott Benton, has in recent years received more than £2,500 in gifts from the Betting and Gaming Council – the industry body representing more than 90% of betting shops, online betting and gaming operators, casinos and bingo operators in the UK. Most recently, this included tickets and hospitality to last year’s Brit Awards, worth £1,164. Benton has also received £4,550 in gifts from Entain, one of the world’s largest betting and gaming groups; as well as £1,530 in gifts from Gamesys, an online gambling operator.
Benton has campaigned for a super casino to be approved in Blackpool – the area he represents – and has promoted the use of high street betting shops. There is no suggestion Benton, or any MP mentioned in this investigation, has adopted policy positions as a result of receiving funding from private interests.
Benton is not alone, however, in being a member of the APPG on Betting and Gaming who has received gifts from firms in this sector.
Conservative MP Aaron Bell, a vice chair of the APPG, has received £3,450 in gifts from Entain in recent years, £2,320 from the Betting and Gaming Council, £1,960 from Power Leisure Bookmakers, and £1,530 from Gamesys. Conservative MP Philip Davies, a fellow vice chair, has accumulated £7,100 in gifts from Entain, while earning £49,000 as an advisor to GVC Holdings – Entain’s parent company. Two of Davies’ former aides also now work for GVC.
Such gifts have also been bestowed on Conservative peer Lord Philip Smith, whose register of interests states that as a “vice chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Betting and Gaming Group… the member receives regular hospitality and invitations to events which during the course of the calendar year together amount to more than £300 in value and all of which are paid for by sources listed in the register of APPGs”.
Likewise, vice chair Lord Benjamin Mancroft, a Conservative peer, has reportedly been “involved in the gambling industry for many years”, notably as president of the Lotteries Council.
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Run by Whitehouse Communications, the Media APPG has received funding in the past year from seven private entities, but only one newspaper group – News UK.
News UK is Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s British media arm, publisher of the Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times and owner of TalkTV and Talk Radio. As reported extensively by Byline Times, Murdoch maintains a close relationship with senior Conservative ministers, who have in recent years shelved plans for a Leveson 2 inquiry into the links between the press, police and politicians.
Murdoch memorably provided testimony to the Leveson Inquiry, faced with allegations that journalists at News International – the predecessor to News UK – had tapped the phones of celebrities and politicians.
There doesn’t appear to be any reference to Leveson in the Media APPG’s work.
There are a number of APPGs rightly dedicated to the field of climate change, many of which produce valuable work on areas such as sustainable energy and the effort to achieve net zero carbon emissions.
However, a number of fossil fuel firms have been funding these APPGs. While this may not have compromised their work, it could be seen as a means through which big energy companies are attempting to ‘greenwash’ their reputations – associating themselves with sustainability campaigns as a way of reducing scrutiny of their polluting activities.
The APPG on Renewable and Sustainable Energy is funded, among others, by gas giants Calor and Cadent, as well as Centrica, which owns British Gas, and Drax – the power generation company that has faced criticism for receiving billions of pounds in green energy subsidies while reportedly cutting down environmentally-important forests.
Similarly, the APPG on Net Zero has been funded by organisations including Centrica and the multinational energy firm EDF. The APPG on the Future of Aviation, meanwhile, is paid for by several large airports – including Gatwick and Heathrow – and numerous trade associations representing airlines and airports.
This influx of external money has also buttressed funding for research into questionable sources of renewable energy. The APPG on Hydrogen, for instance, is sponsored by a number of energy firms that have advocated the merits of hydrogen fuel – including Shell, Cadent and EDF. The APPG hosted a fringe event at last year’s Conservative Party Conference, involving representatives from Cadent and the Northern Gas Network – and likewise at the Labour Conference.
The APPG explicitly states that its purpose is not to objectively assess the merits of hydrogen power, but to “[raise] awareness of, and [build] support for large scale hydrogen projects”. This is despite evidence that hydrogen is increasingly being used as a staging post for fossil fuel companies hoping to avoid the wholesale transition to the cleanest renewables.
A Complex Business
A number of these vested interests fund APPGs – and consequently participate in their work – alongside non-profit organisations and other, more publicly-spirited stakeholders. This creates the desired impression that the APPG is considering all viewpoints, and including all relevant parties, in its deliberations. The secretariat for APPG on Renewable and Sustainable Energy, for instance, is recorded in the register of interests as being funded by the European Climate Foundation and the Energy Systems Catapult – a non-profit organisation attempting to accelerate the transition to net zero.
However, this inclusive approach – even towards those potentially doing harm – creates an instinct towards conservatism among the APPGs.
Take the APPG on Housing Market and Delivery, which is backed by a range of organisations, including social housing providers, property consultants and developers. In March 2021, the APPG produced a report – a ‘Fair Housing Market for All’ – in which it committed to understanding the housing system better and to “find solutions which help it work better without unfairly penalising any one player in it.” In other words – it would not be challenging the vested interests that make huge profits from the housing market arguably at the expense of everyone else.
In the report, the APPG – which is run by a consultancy that advises people on “how to become a Conservative MP” – also questioned the laws introduced after the Grenfell Tower fire to tighten fire safety standards, as well as new environmental regulations. “Many also reported… that the additional costs of dealing with post-Grenfell fire safety issues combined with the requirement to ‘decarbonise’ existing stock were all placing additional pressures on their ability to support the delivery of more affordable homes,” the report claimed.
Meanwhile, the APPG on Aerospace is run by the UK aerospace trade body; the APPG on the Chemical Industry appears to be coordinated by the Chemical Industries Association; the APPG on Armed Forces is paid for by defence conglomerates BAE, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing; and the APPG on Internet, Technology and Communications has received funding from Google, Facebook, TikTok and BT.
“Part of the problem is that government does not allow Parliament or parliamentarians to have sufficient staff to service many legitimate APPGs,” Liberal Democrat peer Lord Chris Rennard told Byline Times. “Parliament employs very skilled people to service its select committees and this could provide a much better model for servicing APPGs and could free them from dependence on public affairs companies and private sector businesses.”
For Green Party peer, Baroness Natalie Bennett, it is a shame that APPGs of the kind highlighted by this investigation give valid ones a “very bad name” by appearing to be “straight vehicles for corporate interests and perks for parliamentarians”.
APPGs may sound like a technical feature of Parliament, and their powers may be limited, but they appear to be a central node through which private interests can help mould British democracy. As the Parliamentary Standards Committee has warned, “if left unchecked, APPGs could represent the next great parliamentary scandal”.