Major Polluter Drax Among Government-Backed Companies Donating to Northern Tory MPs

The Northern Research Group has been accused of a ‘clear conflict of interest’ in accepting sponsorship from firms that are major beneficiaries of government spending.
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Credit: PA Images / Alamy

A prominent group of Conservative MPs has accepted £48,000 from firms that directly benefit from billions in government contracts and subsidies, including the UK’s largest CO2 emitter Drax.

The Northern Research Group (NRG) received the donations between April and June this year, according to new Electoral Commission records.

The company donations included £12,000 from biomass giant Drax, £12,000 from the UK’s largest defence contractor BAE Systems, and £24,000 from engineering consultancy WS Atkins, which has secured major rail contracts from the government. Between them, the three firms have received billions of pounds in government contracts and subsidies combined. 

All three companies made these donations to support the NRG’s annual conference in June, attended by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a number of cabinet ministers, and senior Tory MPs. Sunak, whose constituency is in North Yorkshire, used the platform to declare that he is a “prime minister for the north”.

The firms were then featured prominently on panels alongside these cabinet ministers, MPs, and local political leaders. A spokesperson for WS Atkins disclosed that speaking on panels was a benefit offered by the NRG as part of their “sponsorship package”.

The NRG was formed in the wake of the 2019 general election, when a wave of Tory MPs took over traditionally Labour-held ‘red wall’ seats across northern England. The group is estimated to have around 55 members – comprising roughly 15 percent of all Tory MPs. 

The government has faced extensive criticism over recent years for the close relationship between public contract winners and the Conservative Party, after it was revealed that more than £3 billion in Covid contracts had been awarded to the party’s donors and associates

News of the donations comes as the government stands accused of watering down its net zero targets. Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives face a fresh lawsuit over its climate strategy, after its revised plan – published in March – admitted that it would fall short of meeting its emissions goals. 

“There are serious questions to be answered over the Northern Research Group’s dodgy donations,” Green Party MP Caroline Lucas told DeSmog. “These companies are propping up a group of Tory backbenchers, and simultaneously receiving millions in government contracts and subsidies for which UK taxpayers are footing the bill.”

The NRG did not respond to DeSmog’s requests for comment. 

‘Next Steps for Levelling Up’

The NRG claims that its goal is to “pressure government for greater investment in the north”. The group’s former chair, Jake Berry MP, was previously the Northern Powerhouse minister, a role which focused on boosting economic investment in the north of England.

The NRG’s flagship annual conference, this year held in Doncaster, hosted a number of influential politicians, including former Chancellor George Osborne, Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, Levelling Up Minister Dehenna Davison, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, Defence Minister Tom Tugendhat, Rail Minister Huw Merriman, and Environment Minister Trudy Harrison.

The corporate sponsors of the conference spoke alongside these political leaders, and a spokesperson for Atkins admitted that its “sponsorship package included panel speaker slots”.

Drax sponsored a panel entitled “next steps for levelling up the north”, in which Bruce Heppenstall, the director of the wood-fired power station, spoke alongside Michelle Dewberry of GB News, Dehenna Davison, and Sir Howard Bernstein, the former chief executive of Manchester City Council.

Drax has faced increased scrutiny over its political campaigning amid a wave of revelations over its donations and lobbying practices.

The company last year made a £12,000 donation to the Labour Party, and has sponsored major events at both Conservative and Labour conferences.

Last week, DeSmog reported that the company was accused of “brazen” political campaigning ahead of a Thursday’s by-election in Selby and Ainsty, in an apparent attempt to create a favourable relationship with the constituency’s next MP.

Drax has won around £10 billion in subsidies from the government to burn wood pellets for electricity at its North Yorkshire plant, and is now awaiting a decision on whether its controversial plans to capture and store carbon emissions (BECCS) from its operations will win the estimated £31.7 billion in government backing that the firm is seeking.

The subsidies granted to Drax were “a clear waste of public money, when we should be funding businesses and initiatives that improve people’s lives, like home insulation and wind power,” said Merry Dickinson from campaign group Biofuelwatch.  

Drax did not respond to our requests for comment.

Ian Muldowney, chief operating officer of BAE Systems (Air), also spoke at the NRG conference on the “defence panel”, alongside Defence Minister Tom Tugendhat. According to the public sector intelligence group Tussell, from 2012 to 2020, BAE Systems entities were awarded over £9 billion across 304 public contracts.

BAE Systems “regularly engages with MPs from all parties”, a spokesperson for the firm said, adding that BAE sponsored the defence panel. The purpose of this engagement was “to increase parliamentarians’ understanding of important subjects such as the armed forces, manufacturing and skills and to highlight the significant contribution our industry makes to the UK’s security and prosperity,” they said.

Richard Robinson, the chief executive of WS Atkins’s UK and Europe business, spoke on the “infrastructure panel” alongside Rail Minister Huw Merriman, while another executive, Senior Director Planning and Consenting Andrew Jones, spoke on the “economy panel”.

WS Atkins is a major supplier to Network Rail and is serving as an “engineering development partner” for the first phase of HS2, the UK’s new high-speed railway. The value of the contract is reportedly worth between £250 million and £350 million.

“Atkins was one of a number of sponsors and we participated in panel discussions around the role of infrastructure and transportation in regenerating towns and local communities and boosting economic growth,” a company spokesperson told DeSmog.

“As one of the largest engineering, design and project management companies in the UK, Atkins – like many contractors and engineering consultancies – is helping to deliver a number of major infrastructure projects which are funded by the public sector, including HS2.”

Dickinson from Biofuelwatch said that “there is a clear conflict of interest when MPs belonging to the governing party receive large donations from major beneficiaries of government spending.

“We were promised a Northern Powerhouse, with genuine green jobs and clean energy, and instead we seem to be receiving backdoor deals with corporations.”

Last week, Sky News reported that the NRG was being scrutinised by the parliamentary expenses watchdog, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), after Sky uncovered that nearly two dozen MPs received political donations from a private donor to help them with campaigning, weeks after they joined the group. 

NRG member Jake Berry has denied the allegations, telling Sky News there was “no connection between [NRG] membership and receiving political donations”.

Phoebe Cooke headshot - credit Laura King Photography
Phoebe joined DeSmog in 2020. She is currently co-deputy editor and was previously the organisation's Senior Reporter.
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Sam is DeSmog’s UK Deputy Editor. He was previously the Investigations Editor of Byline Times and an investigative journalist at the BBC. He is the author of two books: Fortress London, and Bullingdon Club Britain.

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