Tory MP Scott Benton has whip suspended after newspaper sting

Blackpool South MP reportedly offered to lobby on behalf of gambling industry and leak confidential document

A Conservative MP who reportedly offered to lobby ministers on behalf of the gambling industry and leak a confidential policy document for up to £4,000 a month has had the party whip suspended.

Scott Benton, the MP for Blackpool South, was caught by undercover reporters for the Times posing on behalf of a fake investment fund saying he could “call in favours” from colleagues and get “easy access” to ministers when queueing for parliamentary votes.

Late on Wednesday night, a spokesperson for the Tory chief whip Simon Hart said that Benton had the party whip suspended “whilst an investigation is ongoing”. Benton has referred himself to the parliamentary commissioner for standards, the spokesperson added.

In a statement to the Times, Benton said he had contacted the Commons authorities after the meeting to seek advice because he was “concerned that what was being asked of me was not within parliamentary rules” and there had been “no further contact”.

However, the revelation threatens to reignite allegations of sleaze in the Conservative party and shine a light on the world of paid lobbying in Westminster. Benton – who receives regular hospitality from the gambling industry – was one of eight MPs the Times said it approached.

The paper said it touted a fictitious investment fund seeking an “expert adviser” amid a significant review of gambling laws and that “gaining insight from policymakers is a key part of our strategic investment strategy”. While some MPs declined, Benton was said to have been happy to meet.

Elected in 2019, his constituency is being reshaped under the boundary review set to kick in before the next general election – raising questions about whether he will stand again and where.

Benton was asked what he could offer the fake company instead of a PR or lobbying firm, the Times said. According to the paper, he said: “There’s probably 10 different PR firms I know who are trying to get meetings with the minister … The beauty of politicians, if you like, are we vote in the House of Commons two or three times a day, and we’ll be voting later.

“You will literally stand at the beginning at the entrance to the voting lobby. And if you wait there for five minutes, 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.”

Benton went on to suggest he could, if hired, provide “real-time information” and “easy access” to ministers, as well as sitting down with them to go through a formal response to a policy consultation “line by line”, the Times reported.

He also allegedly offered to “put parliamentary questions on the table”. Referring to written questions MPs can submit to government departments, Benton is said to have told the undercover reporters: “We can table things on the public record and get an instant response within five working days on any question whatsoever, which obviously nobody else outside the political realm can.”

Benton took out his phone to read out one such question he had submitted, the paper said. He said it was sent on 17 February “on behalf of one business, essentially” – however, it was not clear whether he received any financial reward doing so.

Talk also turned to government documents and information, ahead of the publication of a long-awaited white paper on gambling law changes. The Times said Benton promised he could “guarantee” he would be able to pass on a copy of the review at least 48 hours before it was published publicly, adding he could “make a song and dance” to make sure he got early access to it.

The allegations have led to questions being asked about Benton’s compliance with the Commons rules.

The current code of conduct says: “Taking payment in return for advocating a particular matter in the house is strictly forbidden. Members may not speak in the house, vote, or initiate parliamentary proceedings for payment in cash or kind.”

Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader, said: “These shocking revelations are yet another damning indictment of the state of the Conservative party. The British public are sick of Conservative sleaze. Rishi Sunak must strip Benton of the Conservative party whip immediately. Anything less would be make a mockery of his claim to restore integrity.”

Benton said he had agreed to the meeting to find out what the role entailed, in a statement provided to the Times. He pointed to several moves that he said were evidence he had been attempting to follow the MPs’ code of conduct.

He said he did not provide his CV as was requested during the meeting because “I was concerned that what was being asked of me was not within parliamentary rules”.

And later, Benton claimed, he “contacted the Commons registrar and the parliamentary standards commissioner who clarified these rules for me and [I] had no further contact with the company”. Benton added: “I did this before being made aware that the company did not exist and the individuals claiming to represent it were journalists.”

The Guardian has approached Benton for his response.

The revelations have raised questions about the struggle to clamp down on MPs’ second jobs.

There has been a string of stories regarding senior politicians offering their services to outside companies. The former Tory minister Owen Paterson committed an “egregious” breach of the rules on paid advocacy and ultimately resigned after a bitter feud was triggered by government-backed attempts to spare him from suspension.

Recently, the former cabinet ministers Matt Hancock and Kwasi Kwarteng agreed to work for £10,000 a day to further the interests of another fake company, having been duped by the campaign group Led By Donkeys. Both MPs deny any wrongdoing.


Aubrey Allegretti and Donna Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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