MP suggests he is willing to break lobbying rules for money

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A Conservative MP has been caught indicating he would be willing to break parliamentary lobbying rules for money in an undercover sting operation by The Times.

Scott Benton, the MP for Blackpool South, met undercover reporters posing as employees of TAHR Partners, a fake company lobbying to influence government policy, at a central London hotel in March.

The Times has been investigating allegations the gambling industry has secured support from MPs in exchange for financial reward, in an echo of the “cash for questions” scandal that engulfed John Major’s premiership.

The newspaper contacted a number of MPs offering paid work as an expert adviser. Mr Benton responded and suggested he would be happy to be paid between £2,000 and £4,000 a month to help the fake company.

This is in spite of strict rules that ban MPs from carrying out paid lobbying or advising how to influence parliament in exchange 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 course of the video, the Conservative MP shows a willingness to break parliamentary rules and leak the government’s long-awaited gambling review, which is expected to be published around Easter following a number of delays.

Mr Benton said he would make a “song and dance” to ensure that TAHR Partners received the white paper “48 hours” before publication – despite the fact it is likely to contain market-sensitive information.

He also gives the reporters three examples of how he could be more useful to them than a PR or lobbying firm, including through direct access to ministers, the ability to table written questions and access to certain papers and information.

‘The direct ear of a minister’

MPs are not allowed to approach ministers to ask parliamentary questions in order to benefit a company that is giving them, or proposing to give them, financial reward.

But asked what he could offer the company as an MP that a PR or lobbying firm could not, he says: “Probably the direct ear of a minister who is actually going to make these decisions.”

Mr Benton said he could wait at the entrance of a voting lobby where “the minister has to pass you and then you’ve got 10 minutes while you walk around to the next vote to have his ear”.

He also told the company about written questions “where we can table things on the public record and get an instant response within five working days”.

He compared what he could offer the company with a PR firm: “The one thing they don’t have is direct access to a government minister.”

At one point he even shows the fake company employees a written question he submitted in parliament “on behalf of one business”.

Despite the ban on MPs advising companies on how to influence parliament, Mr Benton suggests the firm arrange an “urgent” meeting with gambling minister Stuart Andrew and Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer.

He also suggests tabling written questions and then “writing something more formal and having me sit down with the minister and go through it line by line”.

“I’ve supported other colleagues’ particular asks in meetings when they’ve spoken to company X, Y and Z, and I’m sure they would return the favour as well,” he adds.

Towards the end of the meeting, the employees ask whether payment of between £2,000 to £4,000 is in the right “ballpark”.

“Yes,” Mr Benton says, nodding.

Read more:
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In a statement, Mr Benton told Sky News: “Last month I was approached by a purported company offering me an expert advisory role.

“I met with two individuals claiming to represent the company to find out what this role entailed. After this meeting, I was asked to forward my CV and some other personal details. I did not do so as I was concerned that what was being asked of me was not within 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 made aware that the company did not exist and the individuals claiming to represent it were journalists.”

Long-awaited gambling review

The undercover sting comes ahead of the imminent publication of the government’s gambling review, which was launched in 2020 but has been beset by a number of delays.

Whitehall sources recently told Sky News it could be published before Easter.

Campaigners and politicians have been calling for urgent reform since laws were liberalised under the Gambling Act of 2005, which unleashed television advertising and made Britain the first country to permit online gambling.

The review is expected to include a ban on so-called VIP packages on betting sites, tighter financial controls and a levy on gambling companies to help fund treatment and awareness programmes.

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