For charities and campaigning backbenchers like the late Sir David Amess, all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) are vital platforms for a plethora of good causes and interest areas they wish to promote. To their critics, they can appear as unreformed relics of a past, less-regulated Westminster landscape.
But amid the swirl of roundtable discussions, drinks, overseas trips and reports, dozens of communications and public affairs companies are helping to run more than 100 such groups, out of a total of 755, with sponsorship from corporate interests.
The full reach of lobbyists acting as APPG secretariats – arranging meetings and trips for members and sometimes cultivating potential funders – is revealed in analysis by the Guardian and openDemocracy.
A framework of rules applies to APPGs, setting out how to register if they wish to use parliamentary emblems and how to list the details of any secretariats. However, the system is largely self-policed.
Connect Communications, which is co-owned and run by the former Labour MP Andy Sawford, runs the secretariats of 14 APPGs. Policy Connect, a not-for-profit company that has held meetings attended by paying businesses and ministers, runs the secretariats of nine APPGs, covering issues ranging from climate change to data analytics. It said that any private meetings involving ministers were always led by the APPG chair.
Healthcare firms provided the bulk of about £250,000 worth of financial benefits-in-kind support registered in 2021 for six APPG secretariats operated by HealthComms Consulting, the lobbying firm founded by Paul Bristow, the current Conservative MP for Peterborough, and now run by his wife, Sara Petela.
Her firm acts as the secretariat of the APPGs on adult social care, obesity, sepsis, women’s health, vascular and venous disease, and minimally invasive cancer therapies.
HealthComms Consulting was renamed in 2020 from its previous incarnation, PB Consulting, which had been founded by Bristow and had offered clients services such as “NHS market access” and “parliamentary awareness”.
Bristow, a former lobbying industry leader who sits on the Commons health select committee, was embroiled in controversy in 2020 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 subsequently declared the link.
Bristow told the Guardian 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 [Public Relations and Communications Association] 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.”
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, told the Guardian that “league table” was shorthand for how some APPGs achieve more than others in terms of activity. It now describes its role as secretariat for 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.”
The corporate governance APPG received money from British American Tobacco, Deloitte, PwC and others, with support totalling well over £100,000 in recent years to pay for a secretariat run by Jennifer Bryant-Pearson, a lobbyist.