Campaigners are furious after the parliamentary watchdog has said it most likely will not investigate an MP for failing to disclose donations from a gambling firm during a debate in which he spoke in favour of the industry.
Calder Valley MP Craig Whittaker spoke out against reform of the gambling industry during a debate, but failed to mention that a gambling firm provided him with tickets worth over £3,000 to an England match during the Euros.
Clean Up Gambling has branded the Parliamentary Commissioner Standards “not fit for purpose” amid warnings that the gambling lobby has ramped up lobbying efforts ahead of a white paper on reform for the sector.
What did Craig Whittaker say during the gambling debate?
During a Westminster Hall debate on gambling related harm on 29 March, Mr Whittaker, the MP for Calder Valley, made the joint-most contributions, alongside the MP who called for the debate, Labour’s Carolyn Harris.
Mr Whittaker spoke at length, stressing the potential pitfalls of more regulation and warning the Government against “imposing a nanny-state solution for the majority” in order to “protect the most vulnerable”.
Mr Whittaker also argued that evidence suggests more restrictions drive gamblers to the black market, citing Norway as an example.
He also stated that the gambling industry’s proactive approach to problem gambling “is actually part of why we have a much lower gambling problem in this country than our neighbours do”.
Campaigners have taken issue with these claims, describing them as “stock lines” of the gambling lobby that are “easily falsifiable”.
Conservative MP accused of reading from gambling firm’s briefing note
A number of MPs who spoke in the debate did refer to the register and disclosed their links to the sector, including Laurence Robertson MP, who has a second job working at the Betting and Gaming Council, and Aaron Bell MP, who worked in the gambling industry before entering parliament.
The SNP’s Ronnie Cowan MP accused one Conservative MP of reading their speech directly from a briefing note provided by a gambling firm.
Speaking sarcastically toward the end of the debate, Mr Cowan said: “I must say, I am pleased that people have come here to talk on behalf of the gambling industry. Too often, we talk in a silo and do not hear what other people have to say. I am glad they have come here, spoken out, expressed themselves so eloquently and read their Bet365 briefing so beautifully.”
Jonathan Gullis said, “that’s not true,” to which Mr Cowan responded: “It absolutely is true. I was sat here beside you and watched you read it.”
Mr Cowan is the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Gambling Related Harm, which he says has engaged with all sides of the issue including problem gamblers and family members of people who’ve taken their lives as a result of gambling addiction, as well as the industry.
He said he believes some MPs who speak up in favour of the gambling industry and against further regulation do so because they have financial links to the industry, and effectively take on board only one side of the argument, as provided by the industry.
He said: “A number of people who support the gambling industry haven’t done any research, it’s just complete and utter blind faith in a company that might happen to employ a lot of people in their constituency.”
"Even if I firmly believe in something, I shouldn’t be taking money to promote that, it’s my job, I’m already paid once to promote that.
Mr Cowan also warned that the gambling lobby is “among the most vociferous in Parliament,” and that they are now “pulling out all the usual suspects” ahead of the publication of the Gambling Harms white paper.
Parliamentary standards watchdog is ‘not fit for purpose’, campaigners say
Matt Zarb-Cousin, director of the Clean Up Gambling campaign, wrote to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone OBE, on 31 March, raising concerns about Mr Whittaker’s contributions to the Westminster Hall debate on gambling related harm earlier that week.
He wrote that Mr Whittaker had spoken “in defence of the gambling industry and in opposition to reform,” and that the MP’s contributions had been “extremely favourable to the gambling industry by repeating their rhetoric”.
The Code of Conduct for MPs states that MPs, “must always be open and frank in drawing attention to any relevant interest,” including donations and hospitality received within the last 12 months.
However, Mr Whittaker did not reference his financial interests during the debate, failing to draw attention to his entry in the register of members’ financial interests, where MPs list any second jobs, donations or other financial interests.
Gibraltar-based Entain Operations Ltd paid for Mr Whittaker’s ticket to England’s tense Euro 2021 semi-final victory against Denmark, along with hospitality, worth £3,457 in total.
Entain is one of the world’s largest betting companies and owns brands such as Coral, Partypoker and Ladbrokes.
In a response to Clean Up Gambling’s letter from the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, seen by NationalWorld, it states that an inquiry into Mr Whittaker’s comments is unlikely, as he was speaking, “in quite broad terms regarding the subject of Gambling Related Harms”.
The response states: “Based on the information you have provided, I do not believe the Commissioner would open an inquiry into this matter.”
Speaking to NationalWorld, Mr Zarb-Cousin said: “No wonder Parliament is a cesspit when it’s not a requirement to declare hospitality from Entain before parroting their lines in a Westminster Hall debate.
“Surely this is even more the case when MPs are making easily falsifiable claims on behalf of a sector’s commercial interests.
He added: “The Standards Commissioner is not fit for purpose.”
Craig Whittaker MP has been contacted for comment on this story.