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« Exposed: the unhealthy relationship between a minister, the APPG on Smoking and Health and ASH | Main | Will e-cigarettes take centre stage in 2013? »

Parliamentary special interest groups under attack

The Times leads with an interesting report about parliamentary special interest groups.

Such groups, notes the paper, are not official parliamentary bodies. Despite this "they are allowed to hold meetings in the Palace of Westminster and use the portcullis logo" and the "house style" of Parliament.

Many of the groups have produced reports that echo the views of their industry funders and petitioned ministers on policy, raising questions about the relationship with their backers.

In return for contributing large sums, companies are granted access to events at Westminster, often attended by ministers and other policymakers. Some are even responsible for drafting reports on behalf of groups.

Groups mentioned include the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group, the Parliamentary Internet Communications and Technology Forum and the Associate Parliamentary Health Group.

The latter, says the paper, "received more than £190,000 from pharmaceutical companies, including GSK, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca".

In return for paying £8,400 a year, the companies are allowed to send up to two representatives to all group meetings, where event speakers have included Sir Bruce Keogh, the head of the NHS, and a series of ministers from the Department of Health. Its associate status gives voting rights to outside organisations, granting them a say in the group's activities.

Driving to the Forest office in Cambridge this morning I listened to a discussion on the subject with Labour MP Kevin Barron.

According to Barron's website:

Kevin has always had a strong interest in public health and in 1993 was the originator of a Private Members Bill to ban the advertising and promotion of tobacco products. In July 1996 he was duly appointed to the newly created position of Shadow Minister for Public Health.

Kevin ... chaired the Parliamentary Labour Party Health Committee from 1997 to 2002. [He] has also chaired several All-Party Parliamentary Groups including those related to the Pharmaceutical Industry and Smoking and Health. He is currently Chair of the All-Party Groups relating to Bulgaria, Pharmacy, the Film Industry and is Co-chair of the Associate Parliamentary Health Group.

Without being prompted by presenter Victoria Derbyshire Barron mentioned the All Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health which he said was run by Action on Smoking and Health, a group he described as a "charity".

The implication was that the APPG on Smoking and Health is a worthy special interest group. Indeed, Barron praised both ASH and the APPG (which are effectively one and the same) and said that without them recent legislation on tobacco control may not have happened.

The Times didn't mention the APPG on Smoking and Health because the focus of its report was on corporate funding of all-party groups.

I don't know about you, however, but I see very little difference in groups that are funded by companies and groups that are funded by charities. In fact, where they are fake charities like ASH it's worse, in my opinion, because there is less transparency.

For example, The Times reports that:

Because of their unofficial status, the [all-party] groups receive no public money, leading some to seek finance from other sources.

Hang on a minute. The secretariat for the APPG on Smoking and Health is run by a group that has received hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money.

ASH will no doubt argue that it has not spent public money on running the APPG on Smoking and Health. Nevertheless, it cannot be argued that the APPG is run by a group that has not received money from the public purse and the idea that ASH's charitable status raises it to a different and more saintly level is laughable.

In addition, ASH is one of a number of "charities" that have morphed into political pressure groups. (See Christine Odone writing about the RSPCA in the Telegraph before Christmas, Charities must stick to good causes and not play at politics.)

Anyway, I'm a bit tight for time today but I thought I'd draw the subject to your attention. See also two previous posts about the APPG on Smoking and Health:

I think I'm going to be sick (June 2011)
Revealed through Freedom of Information: the hypocrisy of ASH (November 2012)

Draw your own conclusions.

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Reader Comments (4)

ASH receive only about £10,000 per an in voluntary contributions, so where does the money come from for them to finance secretarial assistance to the APPG?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 15:34 | Unregistered CommenterJunican

More ordure to be cleaned out. Do keep us informed.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 21:36 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Spellet

You said Simon that "ASH will no doubt argue that it has not spent public money on running the APPG on Smoking and Health."

ASH do admit funding the APPG, by implication the % that they receive from the government, I think about 33%.

"Action on Smoking and Health (a charity) provides administrative support to the group, which includes sharing of information with members of the group, provision of briefing material at meetings, and funding for group receptions and for design, printing, photography, and dissemination costs relating to group publications and stationery."

Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 14:20 | Unregistered CommenterDave Atherton

Dave, ASH has argued in the past that it doesn't use public money to lobby government (ie it uses other sources of funding) and I suspect that, if asked, it will use the same defence with regard to the APPG. It's a feeble distinction, of course, but that's what they will say and that's the point I was making.

Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 14:48 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

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