A Conservative MP has been caught showing he was willing to break parliamentary lobbying rules for money in an undercover operation by The Times.
Blackpool South MP Scott Benton met undercover journalists in a central London hotel in March posing as employees of TAHR Partners, a bogus company that lobbies to influence government policy.
The Times is investigating allegations that the gambling industry received support from MPs in exchange for a financial reward in response to the “cash for matters” scandal that engulfed John Major’s premiership.
The newspaper contacted a number of MPs who offer paid work as expert consultants. Mr Benton replied and suggested he would be happy to pay between £2,000 and £4,000 a month to help the bogus company.
This is despite strict rules banning MPs from lobbying for money or giving advice on how to influence parliament in return for pay or the expectation of pay.
Mr Benton ultimately did not accept any financial payment arising from the meeting and there is no suggestion he broke any parliamentary rules as a result.
However, during the video, the conservative MP expressed his willingness to break parliamentary rules and leak the government long awaited game review, which is expected to be published around Easter after a series of delays.
Mr. Benton said he would make a “song and dance” to make sure TAHR Partners received the white paper “within 48 hours” of publication, despite the fact that it was likely to contain market-sensitive information.
He also gives journalists three examples of how he can be of more use to them than a PR or lobbying firm, including direct access to ministers, submitting written questions and access to specific documents and information.
“Direct ear of the minister”.
MPs are prohibited from approaching ministers to ask parliamentary questions to benefit the company that gives them or offers to give them a monetary reward.
But when asked what he can offer the company as a member of parliament that a PR or lobbying company cannot, he says:
Mr Benton said he could wait at the entrance to the voting hall where “the minister has to pass you and you have 10 minutes while you walk around until the next vote to get his ear”.
He also told the company about written questions “where we can post things and get an instant response within five business days.”
He compared what he could offer the company to a PR firm. “The one thing they don’t have is direct access to a government minister.”
At one point, he even shows the employees of the fake company the written question he submitted in the parliament “on behalf of one business”.
Despite a ban on MPs advising companies on how to influence Parliament, Mr Benton is suggesting the company hold an “urgent” meeting with Gambling Minister Stuart Andrews and Culture Secretary Lucy Fraser.
He also suggests putting written questions and then “writing something more formal and sitting me down with the minister and going through it line by line.”
“I’ve supported specific requests from other partners in meetings when they’ve spoken to company X, Y, and Z, and I’m sure they’ll return the favor as well,” he adds.
At the end of the meeting, staff ask if a payment of £2,000 to £4,000 is the right ‘ball’.
“Yes,” says Mr. Benton, nodding.
What is lobbying, which MPs have second jobs and how much do they earn from them?
New rules for parliamentary groups are called for to prevent the “next big scandal” in British politics
In a statement, Mr Benton told Sky News: “Last month I was approached by a supposed company offering me an expert consulting role.
“I met with two individuals who claimed to represent the company to find out what the role entailed. After this meeting I was asked to provide my CV and some other personal information. I did not do this because I was concerned that what was being asked of me was not within the parliamentary rules.
“I contacted the Commons Registrar and the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner who clarified these rules for me and had no further contact with the company. I did this before being informed that the company did not exist and that the individuals who claimed to represent it were journalists.”
The long awaited game review
The secret sting comes ahead of the imminent publication of the government’s gambling review, which was launched in 2020 but has been marred by a series of delays.
Whitehall sources recently told Sky News it could be published before Easter.
Campaigners and politicians are calling for urgent reforms after laws were liberalized under the 2005 Gambling Act, which unleashed TV advertising and made Britain the first country to allow online gambling.
The review is expected to include a ban on so-called VIP packages on betting sites, stricter financial controls and a charge on gambling companies to fund treatment and awareness programs.