7 min read
A major Covid testing firm sponsors an All-Party Parliamentary Group which called for the government to introduce new Covid testing requirements.
Cignpost Diagnostics have sponsored the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Business In a Pandemic World since its creation in September 2020, with one of the firm’s directors, Steve Whatley being given a role as co-chair of the group’s “steering committee”.
APPGs are informal committees made up of MPs and peers which do not hold any official parliamentary status, but can be sponsored by outside groups and companies.
While parliamentary authorities say the groups are expected to be run “by and for” parliamentarians, Whatley was the sole outside speaker at the group’s first meeting where he presented a proposed timeline for the group’s meetings and discussions, including initial sessions on testing and travel.
The firm has subsequently secured deals with several airports to provide testing for passengers, including Heathrow which attended a session of the APPG in October 2020.
In September 2020, Cignpost shared a blogpost to their website setting out their plans for “targeting the travel industry” adding they were “expanding its capacity with more testing labs and machines and is looking beyond sport and TV production to new markets, including travel.”
Staff from Cignpost, which has paid tens of thousands to sponsor the APPG, were also invited to several subsequent meetings of it, including sessions where they gave powerpoint presentations setting out the company’s work. Metageni, a firm in which Whatley is listed as a non-executive director, were also invited to speak.
In March 2021, the group, chaired by Conservative MP Ben Everitt, announced their backing for a new Covid scheme which encouraged ministers to allow venues to reopen but “would require all attendees to take a Covid-19 test in advance of attendance 1-2 days prior to the event”.
In a statement, the group said: “Admittance to the event would only be possible with a valid negative certification. Venues or event organisers would also be required to test all employees and suppliers involved in the event to guarantee a safe environment. The cost of the test would need to be funded by the individuals attending the event or the organisers of the event.”
The document added that: “Ben Everitt MP and Steve Whatley, joint co-chairs of the APPG, believe these proposals could ‘restart’ the events industry.”
While Cignpost have not conducted mass testing at events, they have secured several contracts to test staff and players at sporting events, including the PGA European Tour.
The Commons’ Committee on Standards has recently launched a new inquiry into the work of all-party groups over fears they could be used as a route for lobbyists, companies and foreign governments to exert influence over Parliament.
Labour MP Chris Bryant, who chairs the Committee, said earlier this year the inquiry would examine the “transparency and propriety” of APPGs.
“These groups cannot be a back door for peddling influence or gaining access to MPs. The Parliamentary logo is not for sale,” Bryant said.
Minutes from a meeting of the APPG in January 2021 show fellow Cignpost director Nick Markham was given the opportunity to set out the firm’s testing work in front of MPs and representatives from events industry groups.
The presentation, which set out the company’s projects with a number of major sporting events, said “Cignpost are working with many organisations to get their events running again.”
According to the group’s minutes, Markham, a non-executive director at the Department of Work and Pensions and a former Conservative councillor, told participants his role at Cignpost was “working particularly on the sales and commercial side and so working with clients including sports and events to get them up and running again.”
The group also lobbied the government to introduce an events reinsurance scheme which would provide cover for companies if their events were cancelled as a result of new lockdown measures – a scheme which was later announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in August.
The firm also attended the Event Production Show in 2021, where Whatley spoke as a representative of the APPG, including posting an interview using Parliament’s Portcullis logo on Cignpost’s YouTube channel.
In a subsequent post on their website, Cignpost, which had a stand at the exhibition, said there had been a “large interest from a lot of outdoor and large event production companies who wanted to know how we would help them run an event successfully”.
It added: “This shows that the event industry wants to get back up and running and hopefully Cignpost can give them the help and security they need to run successful events.”Asked about his involvement with the APPG, Whatley told PoliticsHome: “I helped set up the APPG early in the pandemic to provide a way for companies to explain first hand to MPs how COVID was damaging their businesses. Many of those involved were smaller businesses or sectors that felt overlooked by the government.
“I am incredibly proud that the APPG has played its part in helping the events industry to recover from the impact of COVID. The APPG worked with a wide range of events organisations to make the case for a government backed cancellation insurance scheme.
“The Live Events Reinsurance Scheme that the government introduced enabled events and festivals to happen again and has put the industry on the road to recovery.”
He added: “There has been no commercial benefit whatsoever for Cignpost from the introduction of this scheme. Nor have any of Cignpost’s corporate clients benefited from the introduction. Cignpost has also never worked for any of the event organisations that attended any APPG meetings.
“Cignpost has no government contracts nor has it used the APPG to further its own commercial interests in any way.”
When asked how Whatley had come to hold the position on the APPG, Everitt told PoliticsHome: “His convening powers are superb and he gets industry players in to come and talk to us about areas which were pertinent at the time.
“We’ve had hotels, airports, people from the events industry… so he’s just incredibly well connected. He gets people in to add to the conversation and let us do what APPGs are supposed to do, which is to provide that industry voice to the government without going through that filter of the civil service.”
When questioned about Cignpost’s frequent invitations to speak at meetings of the group, he added: “If that’s the case that’s not necessarily a problem as long as they’re acting independently, providing advice that moves the conversation along and not doing anything inappropriate then it doesn’t matter who they work for. It’s what they say and how we inform the conversation.
Asked whether he believed Cignpost’s sponsorship had given them disproportionate access to parliamentarians, Everrit added: “It’s not necessarily access to the MPs, it’s the ability to put their view forward into the conversation.
“Ultimately this is why industry players sponsor these APPG bodies, that is what they do. As long as we are entirely sure nobody acts inappropriately and does it for commercial gain, then it is moving things along in the right direction.”
The Tory MP added there was a “double firewall” because Cignpost “don’t have any contracts in the events sector” and “hasn’t worked for any organisations that have attended the APPG”.
He added: “I’m comfortable that we’ve never actually lobbied for anything that would support just simply them, because obviously it is a big industry and there are plenty of other players in it.
“We have never at any point put forward their products or services because that’s not what you do. If I thought we were doing that, I would pull the plug.”
Tom Brake, director of campaign group Unlock Democracy, said: “I welcome the Standards Committee’s inquiry into APPGs. The rules covering APPGs need a complete shake-up. I expect the inquiry to underline the fact that there must be no blurring of the lines between APPGs, which have no parliamentary status, and Parliament.”
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