Britain's leading gambling charity at centre of conflict of interest claims

Exclusive: Husband of Responsible Gambling Trust executive awarded lucrative contract to study 'problem gambling'

Britain’s leading gambling charity has been accused of a conflict of interest after the husband of a senior executive was awarded a lucrative research contract, The Independent can reveal.

The Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT), which is funded by bookmakers to the tune of about £5m a year, is already facing claims it is too close to the gambling industry. 

It could now face an inquiry by the Charity Commission amid criticism that Sophro Ltd. a firm owned by the husband of RGT director of commissioning Jane Rigbye, was awarded a major research contract as part of a £750,000 initiative to study “problem gambling” online.

Sophro Ltd is owned by Ms Rigbye’s husband, Jonathan Parke. Mr Parke previously worked for the RGT in the role his wife now occupies and stepped down from the charity in 2014.

Mr Parke is an expert in “self-regulation” in gambling. Before his role at the RGT he was a lecturer in consumer behaviour at Salford Business School, and provided consultancy services to regulators, charities and the gambling industry.

His firm’s contracts with the RGT have prompted allegations of a conflict of interest, which Ms Rigbye denies. This follows criticism that there is a revolving door between staff at the RGT and the wider gambling industry. 

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said the case raises ‘serious questions’ about the industry (Getty)

The research contract, which was awarded in December last year and was followed by a second contract last month, is being run in conjunction with the online gambling firm Unibet. The RGT said that Ms Rigbye has “no responsibility for commissioning research”.

It has been claimed that RGT downplays the damage caused by online gambling and highly addictive betting machines.

Who is Neil Goulden?

Neil Goulden, the outgoing chairman of the Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT), is seen by many as the “face of the gambling industry”.

He has said the evidence is clear that “problem gambling is about the individual and not any specific gambling product or products”, in the face of fierce criticism from gambling charities.

He stills owns shares in bookmakers Gala Coral, the firm he used to work for, and along with more than half of the RGT trustees he retains close links to the industry.

The depth of the problems involving gambling addiction in Britain was underlined earlier this week, when it was revealed that doctors are having to offer drugs normally prescribed to alcohol and drug dependency to help the worst addicts.

Figures show there are more half a million problem gamblers in the UK and calls to the country’s leading gambling helpline rose by a third last year.

Until last year Sophro Ltd, which is registered at the couple’s home in Nottinghamshire, was known as The Gambling Lab. It listed both Mr Parke and his wife as directors. At the time, they were both employed by the RGT. 

Ms Rigbye stepped down from the role after she was appointed to a senior position at the RGT but two months later the firm’s name was changed and it bid for a share in the £750,000 research project. Last night the RGT insisted it had put the contract out to tender and it followed proper procedure after “careful scutiny”.

The Independent can also reveal that the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board, the board that oversees the RGT’s research, had raised concerns that both Mr Parke and Ms Rigbye had been appointed to roles within the charity without their posts being advertised. The RGT says it is not unusual to “promote people internally” and that Ms Rigbye is “eminently well-qualified”.

Last night Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron told The Independent that the case raised “serious questions”. 

Labour’s Clive Efford, shadow gambling minister, said that the RGT “should be disbanded” if its research was found to protect the “interests of the industry at the expense of people with gambling problems”.

Simon Perfitt, founder of Rethink Gambling, said: “We are extremely concerned that the RGT has appointed Directors of Commissioning who had clear conflicts of interest without even advertising the posts. 

“Rethink Gambling has now made a formal complaint to the Charity Commission over the alleged conflict of interest.

Last night Ms Rigbye said allegations that there was a conflict of interest were “ridiculous”. 

Shesaid: “We are very open that he runs the company [Sophro Ltd]. Our field of interest is a small one so it’s not unusual for people to be working together. I am the director of commissioning but I am not responsible for any of the research commissioning.”

In a statement the RGT said: “The RGT has robust procedures in place and we are a fully independent charity committed to minimising gambling-related harm. Our research committee is chaired by Professor Jo Wolff and oversees all research matters.”