Drug companies are giving groups of MPs and peers that campaign on health issues hundreds of thousands of pounds a year in “hidden” funding that could hand them “undue influence”, research has found.
The pharmaceutical industry has built up a “hidden web of policy influence” over dozens of all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) at Westminster by making hundreds of “non-transparent” payments to them, as part of the industry’s wider effort to lobby those in power, researchers claim.
The findings raise questions about the independence of APPGs, the voluntary special interest cross-party groups of members of both houses of parliament that seek to influence ministers and government departments through reports, inquiries and meetings at Westminster.
Fifty-eight APPGs focusing on different aspects of health received 468 payments totalling just under £2.2m in direct and indirect funding from pharmaceutical firms between 2012 and 2018, academics from the University of Bath found. APPGs receive no money from parliament to support their activities, which often involve ministers being questioned and being sent reports.
“In the context of health-related APPGs, payments from the pharmaceutical industry represent institutional conflicts of interest as they create circumstances where the primary interest, policymaking in the interests of public health, is at risk of being unduly influenced by he secondary interest, the pharmaceutical industry’s goal of maximising profits”, the authors conclude, in a paper published on Thursday evening in the medical journal PLOS One.
Drug companies can use their close relationship with APPGs to contribute to their inquiries, argue for policies that favour their commercial interests and have that reflected in reports, all without the public knowing about those links, according to Emily Rickard and Dr Piotr Ozieranski, from Bath University’s department of social and policy sciences.
They uncovered the long history of funding by examining parliament’s register of APPGs and drug company payment disclosure reports. Both sources contain information about big pharma’s funding of APPGs, and also its financing of health charities, which often act as the secretariat for APPGs. But the details given were often vague, incomplete and hard to understand, the authors said.
Their research found:
16 health-related APPGs received 168 payments from 35 drug firms worth £1.2m in 2012-18 – one-sixth of their total funding
Two APPGs, on health and cancer, accepted more than £600,000 in that time
50 health-focused APPGs received almost another £1m in 304 payments from patient organisations or health charities, which themselves take sums of money from big pharma
“We are not attacking any APPG or alleging any impropriety. However, there is a dilemma. The APPGs are a key part of policymaking and it is clear that corporate money is entering the APPG bloodstream”, Rickard and Ozieranski told the Guardian.
“Something must be done to mitigate against potential influence which normal citizens or NGOs won’t be able to exert.”
The revelations led to calls for greater openness about where APPG funding comes from.
“APPGs have an important role to play in holding the government to account and shaping policy by bringing together voices from across the political spectrum and from a range of stakeholders”, said Dr John Chisholm, the chair of the British Medical Association’s medical ethics committee.
“However, it is vitally important that there is full transparency around who is behind these groups and what is driving their calls for change. This is especially important for the development of health policy, which must be underpinned by the principle of improving the health of the population, and not risk being swayed by other conflicting interests.”
Justin Madders, a shadow health minister, said: “It is hugely concerning if big pharma and other vested interests are using the cover of these groups, which were set up with the best of intentions, to circumvent the normal rules on probity and transparency.
“There is a need for clearer rules on funding and conflicts of interest to ensure important health issues are not used as a vehicle to push private interests.”
But Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, a Labour peer and the treasurer of the all-party parliamentary health group, countered that APPGs’ lack of funding from parliament left them reliant on external organisations.
“APPGs need a lot of support to be run effectively. There is no funding available so its inevitable that outside organisations are asked to fund”, he said.
“In these circumstances it is an imperative on the parliamentarians who serve as honorary officers to make sure that financial sponsors do not improperly influence the outcome of APPG work.
“That is certainly the case with the APPG on health, where the sponsors come nowhere near our decisions on programmes.”