An MP breached Parliamentary rules by failing to publish information about a committee backed by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), the standards watchdog has ruled.
The Parliamentary commissioner for standards opened an inquiry after a complaint that the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for education failed to include mandatory information on its website and publish income and expenditure statements for 2019 and 2020.
Conservative MP Marcus Fysh has chaired the APPG since February 2020.
In a decision published this week, commissioner Daniel Greenberg said he considered there had been a breach of APPG rules but that it was “at the less serious end of the spectrum”.
The breach was “inadvertent” and “arose from an inattention to the rules”, he added.
The inquiry has now been concluded through the “rectification procedure”, in which Fysh acknowledged and apologised for the transparency breach and set out steps to rectify it.
Analysis by The Guardian and openDemocracy website last year found more than £13 million had been poured into a growing number of APPGs, fuelling concerns over the potential for backdoor influence.
Of the 755 groups last year, more than half of the total £25 million funding came from private firms. The rest was charities and trade unions.
Chair ‘received assurances’ that rules were followed
In a statement, Fysh said there had not been any income or expenditure for the group except the “benefit in kind” each year of secretariat service from Ranelagh Political Communications, paid-for by BESA.
BESA has handed Ranelagh at least £132,000 over the last eight years to act as the group’s secretariat.
The register of APPGs shows the group published its income and expenditure statement for this year, but not between 2017 and 2021. Rules state this must be done if an APPG receives more than £12,500 in any 12 month period.
In a letter to the commissioner, Fysh said the secretariat had “interpreted” the benefit in kind as “not technically meaning income or expenditure that needed statements”.
He added that he “did not think to audit its previous reporting” when he took on the role “as it was a group of long standing with what I believed to be an experienced secretariat”.
“I sought and received assurances…that all had been done and was being done to comply with the rules.”
APPG was deregistered over missed reporting deadline
The group was also found to have not published up-to-date information about its meetings on its website.
The MP for Yeovil said during Covid he thought that “APPG [annual general meetings] had to be held in person…and had been advised against”.
He added there were “many other responsibilities related to the fight against Covid so formal meetings for the APPG officers were not something prioritised”.
During this time, it held “speaker meetings” with the likes of children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza and former children’s minister Will Quince to discuss topics such as children’s wellbeing during the pandemic and SEND.
An appendix in the rectification decision shows emails sent to the APPG chair and registered contact setting out rules for formal meetings by APPGs during the pandemic.
In the guidance, APPGs were asked to avoid holding face-to-face APPG meetings on the parliamentary estate.
But they were also asked to advertise virtual formal meetings on their websites if they had one, and prepare minutes “in the usual way”.
An email exchange between the APPG register and the education APPG’s chair in 2022 also shows the group was briefly de-registered in June 2022 after failing to hold an AGM and register it by a reporting deadline.
Meeting to restate finances yet to take place
It was subsequently reregistered in February 2023 after an AGM was held.
The latest register of APPGs, published in June, also shows the APPG for education technology, which was also backed by secretariat services via BESA, is now defunct.
Vice-chairs of the Education APPG include the Lib Dem life peer Lord Storey, former Labour minister and life peer Lord Knight of Weymouth and Tory MP Andrew Lewer.
In a statement to Schools Week, Fysh said: “Covid meant that AGMs for the APPG weren’t held with the usual cadence, and it was working to a revised reporting year end.
“It has been agreed with the commissioner’s office that the APPG will return to its original February to February reporting period and restate its income and expenditure for each year.”
An emergency general meeting to restate its income and expenditure will take place “when parliament returns in September”.
BESA and Renalagh both said they were “pleased” that the commissioner had agreed the infringements were “inadvertant”.
“We look forward to continuing to support the important work of the ‘[APPG],” BESA added in a statement.