The Guardian: LONDON, England, By Rob Davies – On 7 July, the Conservative MP for Blackpool South, Scott Benton, took his seat at Wembley to watch England take on Denmark in the semi-final of Euro 2020, courtesy of the Ladbrokes Coral owner, Entain – a freebie worth £3,457.
Less than four hours earlier, Benton had warned parliament that a review of betting laws, widely expected to result in tougher regulation, must not be driven by anti-gambling “ideology”.
He called for casinos to be allowed more slot machines, adding that many people would be “concerned” about the Gambling Commission’s plans for affordability checks on people betting online and in person, a measure intended to prevent ruinous losses.
Days earlier he had enjoyed another day out, at Ascot, courtesy of the Betting & Gaming Council (BGC) trade body. In total, he accepted hospitality worth £7,495 during a gambling-funded summer of sport.
All in all, according to a Guardian audit, 28s MPs – 19 Conservative and the rest Labour – have taken almost £225,000 in wages and freebies from the gambling industry since August 2020.
During the same debate at which Benton spoke – one of his two speeches favourable to the gambling industry that month – Labour’s John Spellar interceded. He referred to the urgent need to “improve and continue Britain’s attractiveness” as a casino destination.
He had recently been a guest of the Paddy Power owner, Flutter, at England’s match against Germany, and was due to attend the cricket at Lord’s the following month, at a cost of £874.80 to the BGC, whose members include major casino companies.
For the gambling industry, it was a busy month for both hospitality and political fulmination about the future of regulation.
On 13 July, the Conservative MP Mark Jenkinson expressed “grave concerns” about the prospect of the government imposing betting limits, in an article, sponsored by the BGC, for the Conservative Home website. The article appeared six days after he watched England play Denmark, courtesy of Entain, and less than a month after the BGC took him to Ascot, visits worth a combined £4,857.
There is no suggestion that any of the trio broke parliamentary rules. But their actions have raised concerns about the gambling industry’s apparent attempts to curry favour with politicians and the system that allows it.
The gambling sector’s charm offensive comes in the run-up to the publication of a white paper on gambling reform, expected early next year, that could significantly curb the profitability of bookmakers and online casinos.
One peer described the industry’s charm offensive as a “pretty obvious” attempt to influence the outcome of the reforms.
By far the biggest beneficiary of the gambling industry’s largesse over the past year was Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley. The Guardian revealed last year that he had accepted almost £50,000 to advise the Ladbrokes owner, Entain, on safer gambling and customer service.
Davies has previously said that his work outside parliament is “a matter for me”, although in 2010 he did not extend the same forbearance towards firefighters with second jobs, who were resisting changes to their shift pattern. The firefighters, he said, “ought to start to live in the real world at a time when many people are grateful to hang on to their one job”.
On top of his work for Entain, which employed two of his former political aides in senior roles at the time he took the job, Davies accepted hospitality worth a combined £8,695 from the company, fellow betting firms Flutter and Gamesys, and the Betting & Gaming Council.
In addition to what it paid Davies, Entain spent almost £41,000 on hospitality for 13 MPs over the summer.
The BGC spent half that sum, £20,405, escorting lawmakers to events including three England matches at Euro 2020, horse racing at Ascot, cricket at Lord’s and the Ivor Novello awards.
Of the 13 MPs who enjoyed the trade body’s hospitality, three spoke out in support of the industry within days of being entertained, two of them – Benton and Spellar – in the House of Commons.
During that same debate, Laurence Robertson – a longtime advocate for the gambling industry – warned of the “great danger” of tighter regulation, backing the BGC’s view that it would drive people towards the black market.
As he has pointed out, he correctly declared his interest, a £24,000-a-year role with the BGC, advising on sport and safer gambling. He also took £9,307 worth of tickets and hospitality at Ascot, York and Sandown racecourses, Lord’s and England’s match against Denmark. The gifts came from the BGC, SkyBet, Entain and Coral.
In total, 28 MPs are either paid by the gambling industry or have accepted hospitality from the industry, with a total value of £224,281 since August 2020. All of the hospitality and salaries were declared to the register of members’ interests, in line with parliamentary rules.
Beneficiaries include the Conservative MPs Caroline Dinenage, who is a minister within the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which is overseeing the gambling review, and Aaron Bell, who used to work for Bet365.
The BGC is led by Michael Dugher, a former Labour MP.
Lord Foster of Bath, the chair of Peers for Gambling Reform, said it was “pretty obvious why the industry is giving largesse to parliamentarians”, calling the flurry of consultancy roles and hospitality freebies an attempt to “try and influence the outcome to the advantage of gambling companies. With millions of people impacted by problem gambling and more than one gambling-related suicide every day, I suspect [they] will find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion.”
Matt Zarb-Cousin, a former aide to Jeremy Corbyn and director Clean Up Gambling, said: “Far too many MPs have had their snouts in the gambling trough. This is a sector that derives most of its profits from the harm it causes their constituents. The government has an opportunity in its gambling review to demonstrate our democracy is not for sale.”
An Entain spokesperson said: “Any political engagement we conduct is always in line with the registers of members’ interest. As a sports betting and interactive entertainment company, we are proud of the role we play in supporting grassroots and elite sports both in the UK and internationally.”
A BGC spokesperson said: “Any hospitality is consistent with the parliamentary rules and is fully declared and transparent.”
Aaron Bell said: “I have declared all hospitality promptly and transparently in the register of member’s interests, and have always abided by the parliamentary code of conduct.”
The other MPs did not respond to requests for comment.
- Top Feature Photo: A Tory MP watched England take on Denmark in the semi-final of Euro 2020, courtesy of the Ladbrokes Coral owner, Entain. Photograph – Catherine Ivill/Getty Images