Lobbying sting MP Scott Benton faces 35-day suspension
A Conservative MP caught in a lobbying sting should be suspended for 35 days, the Commons standards watchdog has recommended.
Blackpool South MP Scott Benton was caught by the Times offering to lobby ministers and table parliamentary questions on behalf of gambling investors.
If the Commons backs the punishment, it could leave the former Tory MP – who was stripped of the whip after the allegations surfaced – facing a by-election.
The Commons Standards Committee said Mr Benton’s actions were an “extremely serious breach” of the rules.
The message he gave to the undercover reporters was “that he was corrupt and ‘for sale’, and that so were many other Members of the House”, the Standards Committee’s report said.
“He communicated a toxic message about standards in Parliament. We condemn Mr Benton for his comments, which unjustifiably tarnish the reputation of all MPs.”
They recommended that he should be suspended for 35 days – something which could trigger a by-election.
Mr Benton was chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Betting and Gaming when he was approached by undercover reporters posing as representatives from fictitious betting firm Tahr Partners in March.
The MP insisted that “at no point during the meeting did he agree to undertake activity that would be in breach of the rules” and referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Daniel Greenberg when the Times published its story in April.
But the Standards Committee said Mr Benton suggested MPs could lobby ministers, set up meetings with government advisers, table parliamentary questions and provide access to confidential documents.
The committee agreed with the commissioner’s finding that Mr Benton “made statements that he would be willing to breach and/or circumvent the House’s rules for the company in return for payment”.
During his conversations with the undercover journalists, Mr Benton also suggested there was widespread abuse of rules on declaring hospitality worth more than £300.
He said “a lot of companies try to be quite cute” about the level of the hospitality so MPs did not have to declare it.
“It normally works for the company. And it normally works for MPs as well.”
He added: “Without saying too much, you’d be amazed at the number of times I’ve been to races and the ticket comes to £295.”
The committee concluded that Mr Benton “made statements that other Members had previously breached and/or circumvented the House’s rules and would be willing to do so in the future in return for payment”.
They said it was important that “Parliament deals decisively with cases like the present one where a Member shows themselves to be unworthy of the position they hold in public life”.
The committee said that “by repeatedly indicating his willingness to disregard the House’s rules, and by giving the impression that many Members of the House had in the past and will in the future engage in such misconduct” he had committed a “very serious breach” of the rules which require MPs not to do anything that causes significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the Commons.
“His comments gave a false impression of the morality of MPs in a way which, if the public were to accept them as accurate, would be corrosive to respect for Parliament and undermine the foundations of our democracy.”
In a letter to the committee, Mr Benton insisted: “I do not consider my actions to be a breach of the rules: it is my view that I complied with the letter and the spirit of the rules.”
He said: “The meeting was a lapse in judgment and I deeply regret my comments. I would like to again offer my unequivocal apologies for the inaccurate statements I have made.”
If MPs approve the 35-day suspension, Mr Benton could face a by-election if 10% of eligible voters in Blackpool South sign a petition calling for it.
A recall petition is opened if an MP is suspended for at least 10 sitting days.
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