An MP suspended from the Tory Party over lobbying allegations was caught on camera saying there are ways for elected officials to dodge their requirement to declare corporate hospitality.
Scott Benton appeared to suggest MPs allow companies to put a falsely low value on tickets they have accepted for live sports and cultural events, in order to avoid the requirement to disclose hospitality worth £300 or more.
He was filmed laughing after telling undercover reporters they would “be amazed at the number of times I’ve gone to races and the ticket’s come to £295” – just under the threshold.
Mr Benton was caught as part of an undercover sting by The Times newspaper which found he was willing to leak sensitive information to a bogus investment fund and ask parliamentary questions on its behalf, in breach of parliamentary rules.
He had the Conservative whip suspended on Wednesday following calls for him to step down after footage emerged showing him offering to lobby ministers on behalf of gambling investors in exchange for money.
In a new recording, Mr Benton said: “They could ask a question for you and it wouldn’t be on the public record. If you gave somebody a ticket to the FA Cup final and it was £400, a) they would have to declare it and b) obviously if they then asked a question that would potentially flag up.
“So a lot of companies try to be quite cute about the level of the hospitality to make sure it falls just under so people don’t have to declare it, it normally works for the company. And it normally works for MPs as well.”
The new footage is likely to raise further questions about the scale of lobbying in Westminster and the risk of improper links between outside influencers and MPs sitting on APPGs.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the scandal showed how Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has lost control of his own MPs.
Sir Keir claimed that Blackpool South MP Mr Benton had showed “flagrant disregard” for the rules MPs were expected to follow.
He told broadcasters in Scunthorpe: “I think all of this shows that the Prime Minister has lost a grip and, if ever we needed further evidence, this is it, that Tory sleaze is back.”
Referencing a sting by political campaign group Led By Donkeys, Sir Keir said: “It is not a one-off. Only a few weeks ago we saw three other Tory MPs looking after lucrative jobs, thousands of pounds at the time, for their apparent advice.”
Sir Keir also suggested he would back tighter gambling regulations, after reports that under-25s could be prevented from spending more than £2 a spin on slot machines.
The Government is currently carrying out a major review of gambling laws, mulling stricter regulations that could affect operators’ profits.
“We do think regulations need to be tightened. We will look at what the Government puts forward,” the Labour leader said.
Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell meanwhile criticised the chaos around reforms to gambling laws.
She said: “We urgently need to update analogue gambling regulation so it is fit for the digital age, yet the Conservatives’ failure to govern means we are still waiting for proposals to be published and debated in Parliament.”
Transport minister Richard Holden told Times Radio: “This behaviour is totally unacceptable and I am glad that it is now going to be thoroughly investigated, all the claims made, and will be properly looked into.”
Asked whether an MP’s actions could get any worse than offering to leak confidential documents, Mr Holden curtly replied: “No.”
When pressed that Mr Benton was a Conservative MP, the minister added: “He’s not any more.”
The body representing lobbyists, meanwhile, said the red wall MP should now consider his position.
Alastair McCapra, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), said: “It is hugely frustrating to read of yet another MP who apparently believes they can use their position to act on behalf of an external body for payment.”
“Mr Benton should apologise and consider his position.”
Mr Benton was caught on camera telling undercover reporters posing as investors how he was willing to take actions which would break Parliament’s lobbying rules.
Under those rules, MPs are forbidden from advocating a particular matter in the House or raising it with ministers in return for payment.
They are also prohibited from serving as a paid parliamentary adviser or consultant or guiding firms on ways to influence Parliament.
In a meeting in early March, Mr Benton described how he could support the fund, which he believed was set up by an Indian businessman looking to make investments in the UK betting and gaming sector, by attempting to water down proposed gambling reforms.
The MP agreed with a fee proposed by the reporters in the range of £2,000 to £4,000 a month for two days’ work.
Alongside his suspension, which means he no longer sits as a Tory in the Commons, Mr Benton has referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
Another Conservative MP, Philip Davies, claimed he was also contacted by the fake company set up by The Times but did not fall for the sting.
The Shipley MP told GB News he thought there was something “very fishy” about the company, adding: “I went there knowing in my own mind this was a fake company who were just trying to do a sting.
“By the time the meeting had finished, I wasn’t so sure anymore that they were a fake company. They were very, very good.”
Separately, Conservative former minister Lord Swire has been made the subject of an inquiry by the House of Lords Commissioners for Standards’ Office.
Lord Swire, formerly the Conservative MP for East Devon, is under investigation for “alleged non-registration of interests leading to potential breaches” of the House of Lords code of conduct.