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Tories turn on MP caught in gambling industry lobbying sting

Minister says Scott Benton’s offer to lobby for bogus firm ‘totally unacceptable’

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Thursday 06 April 2023 15:06 BST
Scott Benton has Tory whip suspended after being filmed offering to lobby for gambling firm

Senior Conservatives have condemned colleague Scott Benton, suspended by his party pending an investigation into footage of him offering to lobby on behalf of gambling investors for money.

Mr Benton was stripped of the Tory whip after an undercover sting by The Times appeared to show he was prepared to leak market sensitive information and ask parliamentary questions on behalf of a bogus firm.

Tory transport minister Richard Holden said Mr Benton’s offer to lobby ministers for money was “totally unacceptable”.

The junior minister told Times Radio: “This behaviour is totally unacceptable and I am glad that it is now going to be thoroughly investigated, all the claims made, and will be properly looked into.”

Asked whether an MP’s actions could get any worse than offering to leak confidential documents, Mr Holden replied: “No.” When pressed that Mr Benton was a Tory, the minister shot back: “He’s not any more.”

Responding to the lobbying sting, Tory MP Bob Seely said: “I hate the way that these rich and powerful interests get themselves embroiled with MPs and we shouldn’t be doing it.”

The former minister told TalkTV: “I’m trying to be super careful about this stuff. I wish my colleagues would as well.”

Sir Keir Starmer said the episode showed Rishi Sunak had “lost a grip” and was further evidence “that Tory sleaze is back.” On lobbying rules, the Labour leader said: “With Scott Benton, as we have seen, it is flagrant disregard of those rules and those principles.”

Referencing the sting by political campaign group Led By Donkeys, Sir Keir said: “It is not a one-off. Only a few weeks ago we saw three other Tory MPs looking after lucrative jobs, thousands of pounds at the time, for their apparent advice.”

It comes after former cabinet ministers Matt Hancock and Kwasi Kwarteng drew criticism for offering to advise a bogus South Korean company for up to £10,000 a day, although there was no accusation of wrongdoing.

Mr Benton was caught on camera telling undercover reporters posing as investors how he was willing to lobby on their behalf. He agreed with a fee proposed by the reporters in the range of £2,000 to £4,000 a month for two days’ work.

Under those rules, MPs cannot advocating a particular issue in the Commons or raise it with ministers in return for payment. They are also prohibited from serving as a paid parliamentary adviser or guiding firms on ways to influence parliament.

Scott Benton MP (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA) (PA Media)

In a meeting in early March, Mr Benton described how he could support the fund, which he believed was set up by an Indian businessman looking to invest in the UK betting and gaming sector, by suggesting he could help water down proposed gambling reforms.

It comes as the government is carrying out a major review of gambling laws, mulling stricter regulations that could affect operators’ profits.

Mr Benton offered a “guarantee” to provide a copy of an upcoming gambling white paper to the business at least two days before publication, potentially allowing it to benefit from market sensitive information.

He also said he could table parliamentary written questions and that he had previously done so on behalf of another company. The MP said he could offer “the direct ear of a minister who is actually going to make these decisions”.

In a statement, Mr Benton said that after the meeting he was asked to forward my CV and some other personal details to the firm. “I did not do so as I was concerned that what was being asked of me was not within parliamentary rules,” he said.

The MP said he contacted the Commons registrar and the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner “who clarified these rules for me and had no further contact with the company”. Mr Benton added: “I did this before being made aware that the company did not exist and the individuals claiming to represent it were journalists.”

A spokesperson for Tory chief whip Simon Hart said that following Mr Benton self-referral to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Mr Benton “has had the Conservative party whip suspended whilst an investigation is ongoing”.

Led By Donkeys undercover investigation reveals MPs charge 10k a day for consultancy

Mr Sunak, who entered office last year promising “integrity” within the party, had come under immediate pressure from Labour and the Lib Dems to withdraw the whip from the Blackpool South MP.

Sir Keir also suggested Labour would back tighter gambling regulations, after reports that under-25s could be prevented from spending more than £2 a spin on slot machines. “We do think regulations need to be tightened,” he said.

Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell meanwhile criticised the chaos around reforms to gambling laws. “We urgently need to update analogue gambling regulation so it is fit for the digital age, yet the Conservatives’ failure to govern means we are still waiting for proposals to be published.”

Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “These shocking revelations are yet another damning indictment of the state of the Conservative Party. The British public are sick of Conservative sleaze.”

No 10 said it was first and foremost a matter for the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Daniel Greenberg, and whipping matters were for the whips office. The Independent has contacted Mr Greenberg’s office.

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