Bookies’ hospitality: no strings attached

The Guardian newspaper published an article connecting the latest controversy over MPs’ lobbying with members of Parliament who had accepted hospitality from betting companies. As a previous chairman of the Association of British Bookmakers, this is a subject I know something about.

The large betting companies sponsor horseraces and become betting partners to football clubs. As part of the deal, some take a hospitality box in the stands/stadium, where food and drinks are provided.

Many executives of betting companies love horse racing – they own their own horses and go racing at every opportunity. They are not the only executives who love racing – it is no accident that Vodafone sponsored the Derby for more than a decade. Sir Ernest Harrison, the Chairman, was a keen enthusiast of horse racing.

I recall being invited to the Coral Eclipse. Coral had taken over a banqueting room to host key staff members who had produced an outstanding performance for the business. I was there, as chair of the ABB, Alan Meale MP (Labour) was there (he had just been made a Lord) and I sat on the same table as Philip Davies MP (Conservative), who was featured in the recent Guardian article. Others included lawyers and accountants who served the business.

We talked horseracing and sport and at no time did anyone from Coral approach Mr Davies (his dad was a bookie, and he loves going racing) to persuade him or vice versa about anything political or in connection with the industry.

William Hill also invited me to the FA Cup final, where the company had a box. I was invited because I am from the Midlands and Aston Villa were playing against Chelsea. Yes, it was a while back. In the box was John Brown’s friend the late, great chef Antonio Carluccio. His team won.

On another occasion, again at Wembley, one female MP from a north London constituency accepted an invitation and on arrival aggressively asked what William Hill expected of her in return for the invite! The William Hill executive was astounded, he said ‘nothing at all we are here to watch a game and enjoy the day’. As always, that is precisely what happened.

The purpose of inviting MPs is so they can see the sport in action, understand what motivates gamblers to participate, and get a better understanding of the sports and betting before they postulate about it. When I was chair of the ABB the biggest handicap to progress was ignorance of the industry.

When Richard Glynn took over from Chris Bell at Ladbrokes, he saw no value at all in sponsoring racing or having boxes at sports grounds. He did away with a lot of them. It was an expense that provided no return. For him the money could be spent better elsewhere. He was probably right, but suddenly life was a lot less fun and MPs now only see one cankered side of the gambling story.

However, bookmakers are not the only people who invite MPs to go racing. Take the Tote – when Peter Jones was in charge – and The British Horseracing Authority who invite MPs and members of the House of Lords. Matt Hancock MP, the previous Health Secretary, is after all the member of Parliament for Newmarket and was always bringing forth debates about the Levy and issues for the betterment of horseracing – a sport that would not exist without betting and bookmakers.

By Warwick Bartlett

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