It’s nice work if you can get it….
There nine MPs were, going about their normal daily business, when their phones began to ring.
“Hello sir/madam, would you care to join us at Wembley Stadium to watch England play in the Euros?”
“Why certainly….how much are you charging?”
“Oh, nothing. The tickets are on us.”
The conversation between the nine MPs that accepted hospitality packages for the football, Wimbledon and Royal Ascot this summer possibly went something like that. And who was on the other end of the phone? A number of different betting firms.
Of course, the tickets weren’t given away out of the goodness of their heart – despite how much they protest. Remember, the UK government is currently undertaking a review of the Gambling Act, in which stringent new regulations are being considered.
And so the gifts may have been something of a sweetener….although they certainly leave something of a sour taste.
On the House
There were seven Conservatives and two Labour MPs that took advantage of the bookies’ good nature.
Among the most high-profile was Esther McVey, the former work and pensions secretary. She accepted a ticket for the England vs Denmark game, which given their scarcity would have cost the average Joe or Jane in excess of £3,000 with the cost of hospitality included.
Scott Benton is the MP for Blackpool South, and he has been very vocal of late in supporting plans for a new super-casino in his constituency. As if by magic, he was treated to £8,000 worth of tickets, drinks and food at a number of England’s games in the European Championships, as well as days out at Ascot and Wimbledon.
Entain were one of the firms to treat the politicians so kindly, with McVey, Phillip Davies, Laurence Robertson and Labour’s Toby Perkins taking them up on their gracious offer of hospitality.
Perkins is, for the sake of balance, an outspoken advocate of safer gambling, and when questioned he said: “I was happy to accept an invitation to the semi-final and reported it in line with the rules, and I’m happy to answer questions about that.”
Meanwhile Mark Tami, Labour’s whip, and three Tory MPs (Graham Stuart, Ben Bradley and Stuart Andrew) said yes please when Power Leisure Ltd came calling with free tickets to the England vs Germany game, which with VIP treatment thrown in were valued at just shy of £2,000 each.
They’re not the only politicians that took advantage of corporate good-heartedness, with other ministers enjoying trips to the football and racing on behalf of brands like Heineken – not exactly a good look for a tournament in which the average football fan had to move heaven and earth just to get a seat at Wembley Stadium.
But at a time when gambling reform is very much on the agenda, we have to question the motives of those betting firms so eager to please their elected representatives – and query the motives of those so willing to accept them.
You Scratch My Back
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised of the synergy between politics and gambling.
An investigation by the BBC in 2017 found that gambling operators make more donations and hand more gifts to politicians than any other sector in the UK.
At a time when MPs are thought to be looking at ways to reform the betting sector, with specific interest in improving punter welfare and safety, it is alarming that these back-handed presents are being given and received with such impunity.
All politicians and parliamentary staff must legally declare gifts and hospitality tickets, and in this case all nine involved did – you can see the register of interests that is publicly available.
But you could argue that it is hypocritical of them to accept such freebies when so many in parliament are rallying against betting firms – their involvement in the sponsorship of football in particular is a topic that has been used as a battering ram in recent times.
So, will the back scratching of those involved have any impact upon how the revised Gambling Act looks? The jury is very much out on that. But what is confirmed is that a sector that delivers millions in taxation – and the very punters that they serve, for better or worse – are reliant on that ‘special relationship’ being a wholesome and trustworthy one.