Gambling debt suicide

By Richard Shrubb

Lobbying is the scourge of UK politics. Private interests are over-represented in government through gifts, payments and days out given to MPs and Peers.

More than 100 people are likely to commit suicide in the next year due to a policy delay by the government on fixed odds betting machines. Rather than lowering the stake from £100 to £2 in April 2019, it is doing it in October 2019. Why? It seems that a lot of MPs have been given free tickets to horse races and football matches. This just the start of how lobbying warps government policy. Let’s look at this peculiarly British form of corruption.

In 2017 Liz Ritchie had an email from her son Jack that no mother ever wants to see. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s PM she recounted, “We had an email from him with an attached suicide note to say ‘I’ve gambled again and I’m not coming back from this one’”. He was in the Far East at the time but even so the family got someone to his place within 45 minutes – too late as he was dead.

It is widely accepted that 250 people a year commit suicide due to fixed odds betting machine addiction. That’s 250 mothers left bereft and many other close family members and friends destroyed by the loss of someone troubled yet deeply loved.

The BBC host asked Ritchie, who now runs a gambling support organisation, whether bringing fixed odds stakes down would make a difference? She responded, “Absolutely! [The problem is] each of these machines is worth £50,000 a year to these companies… The reality is if the stakes are low the payouts won’t be so big and therefore they are less attractive to people. This is why gambling companies are resisting this and they are lobbying as hard as they possibly can!”

Ritchie pointed out that the Association of British Bookkeepers had had three meetings with the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer in the last year while family and support groups could never get so much as a phone call.

A Minister resigns

During the Radio 4 broadcast the Minister for Sport, Civil Society and Loneliness, Tracey Crouch, tendered her resignation from the government and this was accepted. Many family groups had mixed views on this as on the one hand she was a rare case of a principled minister resigning from government (the words ‘principled’ and ‘minister’ are all too rarely connected these days) but on the other hand she was known to be a passionate advocate of the reduction of stakes right at the heart of government. As you can see in her letter however, supposedly more junior MPs ‘interests’ were more important to those at the top than a mere junior minister.

Tracey Crouch resignation letter

Tracy Crouch resignation letter as Minister for Minister for Sport, Civil Society and Loneliness

The resignation letter stated, “… implementation of these changes are now being delayed until October 2019 due to commitments made by others with registered interests.” In short? At least one – possibly several – MPs were not into preventing the rash of suicides but were interested in the welfare of the gambling companies and these interests ranked above vulnerable and desperate people.

Who could these be?

One obvious place to look would be the Parliamentary Register of Members Interests, right? Not really… Looking through it we found eight Tory MPs who had been given days out, notably Philip Davies of Shipley who has been on 10 outings at the expense of different gambling companies in the last year; and Nigel Adams of Selby and Ainsty who’s been to three. Of selected other parties, good old Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson’s had one day out.

Photo of Alexandra Runswick, director of Open Democracy.

Alexandra Runswick of Open Democracy.

For all we know, Philip Davies is a gambling addict who falls on his knees every time he sees a gambling lobbyist in Westminster, begging for a few free punts at the races – the Register of Members Interests tells us nothing but what he did or why. Is Tom Watson the MP equivalent of the Godfather for gambling companies? Again, we just don’t know beyond his declaration. I spoke to Alexandra Runswick, Director of the pressure group Unlock Democracy, whose organisation has done a lot of work on lobbying over the years through its Follow the Money campaign. She said of the Register of Members Interests, “It’s just the visible tip of an iceberg. If you can prove they have been on an outing and they have exerted influence, asked a Parliamentary question or whatever [that would point to something], but there will have been a lot more than just a trip to the races.”

What we can say of the MPs having jollies at the expense of gambling companies is that the expenses mean that they are bound to do something in return. Philip Davies cost different gambling companies more than £3500 last year – while nothing to another Tory MP taking £70,000 from poisonous pharmaceutical company Sanofi – it is a good way for those companies to bend his ear.  Runswick continued, “There is an assumption that the company will get something out of it but it is never explicit. I’m sure if you went to an MP who had been given free tickets to the races they would say there was no obligation,” adding “MPs aren’t allowed to be lobbyists for companies but they are allowed to be legislative advisors which is effectively a lobbyist!”

What disconnects the Honourable Member for Shipley from influence and the Register of Members Interests is that we don’t know who he hangs out with and what he talked about at the races. Was he dashing between the bar and the bookie gambling his worldly possessions away or was he talking about how best to access the Chancellor? Runswick again: “Often you don’t want to put something on the public record, what you want to be doing is having a chat with your colleagues in the tearooms because lobbying works best when you can’t see it. It’s all about relationships.”

You the reader may be like me on Facebook where a picture of your child gets 5 Likes and you quietly wonder why someone else posts a comment saying ‘It’s a bit windy today!” and gets 150. Lobbying to that extent is very like Facebook where the quality not the quantity of your relationships matter. That plausibly disconnects Philip Davies from being the reason that Tracey Crouch resigned and the Association of British Bookkeepers managed to cosy up to the Chancellor so well.

Corrupt?

I asked Runswick, is lobbying corruption? She responded, “There is an influence of money on UK politics but it is very difficult to prove that it is corruption as it is difficult to prove a direct relationship between a donation to a political party for example and a policy outcome. Corruption tends to be thought of bribing a police officer if you get stopped. We don’t routinely have that kind of corruption in the UK but we have corruption in the sense that money can buy you access and influence”.

In short, we cannot say who is the bent MP behind the delay in fixed odds gambling being reduced but we can say without fear of legal action that corruption in the wider sense of the word has taken place, and this is set to cost as many as 125 more lives to suicide, all due to certain MPs enjoying a day or two at the races or a football match.

As a closing thought, I spotted at least 100 MPs being given visits to Saudi Arabia in the last year and a similar number being invited to Tel Aviv as the guests of the Israeli government. They will come back and spout their host government’s line on certain issues and this is why we have seen a real silence on the part of the May government with regards Saudi’s behaviour in Yemen and Israel’s murdering Palestinian children recently. While in Riyadh you might get out of a speeding ticket with a $100 bill slipped to a policeman, the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia know very well how our own system of corruption works!


Richard Shrubb

Richard is a marijuana, water sports and electric vehicles writer based in Dorchester, Dorset. Living in Prince Charles model housing estate, Poundbury, he is an avowed republican, community and Labour Party activist. Visit his website at www.richardshrubb.com for more about what he does.

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