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15 December 2023

Parliament has a gambling problem

MPs must take a firmer hand on this destructive industry – and start by saying no to all those free tickets.

By Will Dunn

Tory sleaze fans got an early Christmas present from the House of Commons Committee on Standards yesterday when it published its report on the disgraced MP for Blackpool South, Scott Benton. In April, Benton (then chair of the Betting and Gaming all-party parliamentary group) was found to have offered to table questions in parliament, lobby ministers and pass on sensitive information, for about £2,000 a day, to people he thought were investors in the gambling industry. Those investors were actually investigative reporters from the Times, and Benton abruptly left the Conservative Party to pursue opportunities as an independent.

Benton has now been suspended for 35 days, and if 10 per cent of voters in Blackpool South sign a recall petition there will be a by-election (yes Brenda, another one) in the former Red Wall seat, which Labour held from 1997 until 2019.

Don’t let that prospect distract you from the Benton report, though, because it contains diamonds. Take, for example, his offer to leak a government white paper on gambling (full of potentially market-moving information) to people he thought were planning to make investments in that market. With astonishing chutzpah, Benton defended this offer by telling the commissioner for parliamentary standards it was “at best a gross exaggeration, potentially a lie”, because he couldn’t really have got hold of the white paper. That is quite the defence! OK, I offered to sell material information to investors – but chill, I was making it up!

Benton’s disregard for the responsibilities of his position is breathtaking, but his connections to the gambling industry are sadly all too common. Gambling lobbyists have proved adept at inveigling themselves into parliament.

If like me you are a regular reader of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, you’ll know that in the past 12 months alone, the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) – the top gambling lobbyist – has spent more than £48,000 taking 29 different MPs to horse races, football and rugby matches and concerts. The BGC has also given paid employment to two MPs, while others have worked for or received gifts or donations from organisations including Jockey Club Racecourses, The Racecourse Association, Flutter (owner of Paddy Power and Betfair) and Entain (owner of Coral and Ladbrokes).

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It’s likely that the real volume of schmoozing is a good deal higher, however, because MPs only have to declare gifts over £300. Benton himself explained: “You’d be amazed at the number of times I’ve been to races and the ticket comes to £295.”

Oliver Bullough, whose book Butler to the World contains a revealing history of Britain’s gambling industry, told me there’s a reason so many of those items on the Register of Interests are tickets to Ascot or Cheltenham. Gambling companies have been adept at persuading MPs that their business is still mostly comfortably-off people in hats shouting at horses. The reality is that this only represents a tiny portion of the £14bn that people in the UK lose to gambling companies each year.

Most of the bets placed in the UK, he explained, are placed with bookies that are technically in Gibraltar. “They’re not regulated, in a meaningful sense, or taxed by the UK authorities but by the Gibraltarian authorities.” Since the late 1990s, the gambling lobby has used the threat of “offshore” competition to extract concessions on tax and regulation.

The big problem with this is that the less gambling is taxed, the more addictive it can be made. When British bookies had to pay tax on every bet, the odds they could offer were restricted. “If you reduce the taxes,” explained Bullough, “they can offer much tighter spreads on the bets, which makes them much more addictive. That’s what gave us fixed odds betting terminals, and all these really addictive online casinos.”

In 2021, a team led by Naomi Muggleton at Oxford used a large-scale analysis of credit card data to see how gambling affected the lives of 6.5 million people in the UK over seven years. A small (10 per cent) increase in gambling behaviour was shown to double a person’s risk of missing a mortgage payment, and the progression from light to heavy gambling (which the study showed happens regularly and can take as little as a few months) increases the risk of mortality from any cause, at any age, by around a third. Gambling is physically and financially lethal, and its effects are felt most seriously in deprived areas – such as Blackpool South.

Electorally, firm regulation of gambling should not be difficult: most people have a somewhat or very unfavourable view of the industry. Banking technology is easily advanced enough to make effective regulation possible. MPs must take a firmer hand on this hugely destructive industry – and start by saying no to all those free tickets.

[See also: What does Mark Drakeford’s resignation mean for Labour?]

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