MPs enjoy free tickets worth £100k during Covid large event pilots

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MPs enjoy free tickets worth £100k during Covid large event pilots

Exclusive: two ministers and Keir Starmer among those accepting gifts from gambling, drinks and sports firms

Fans celebrate at Wembley after Raheem Sterling scores for England against Croatia

Deputy political editor

Last modified on Fri 30 Jul 2021 20.12 BST

MPs enjoyed a bonanza of free tickets this summer worth more than £100,000 from gambling, drinks and sporting companies as they took advantage of the government’s Covid pilot scheme for large events.

Cabinet ministers Ben Wallace and Brandon Lewis, plus the opposition leader, Keir Starmer, were among those who benefited from free tickets declared during July, with more than 35 MPs in total accepting hospitality as they took part in the research project.

With large events banned for more than a year due to Covid rules, MPs appeared keen to make use of the pilot scheme as they took up free tickets to the Euro 2020 football, motor racing at Silverstone and Goodwood, tennis at Wimbledon, cricket at Lord’s, Rugby League Challenge Cup, and the Brit awards.

Many fans with long-held tickets to Euro 2020 matches had their tickets cancelled due to Covid restrictions, but 19 MPs managed to attend for free courtesy of gambling companies and the Premier League.

Wallace, the defence secretary, was one of 10 MPs who took advantage of corporate hospitality worth £3,547 from Gibraltar-based Entain, the owner of Ladbrokes, to watch England play in the Euros at Wembley.

Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow work and pensions secretary, took the same £3,547 package from Entain, while Starmer’s parliamentary private secretary, Sharon Hodgson, accepted hospitality of the same value from the Betting and Gaming Council. Nigel Adams, a Foreign Office minister, also took free tickets worth £1,999.14 from the betting industry body to attend an England football match.

The gambling industry hosted the MPs at a time when the government is undertaking a comprehensive review of the Gambling Act to consider further restrictions on advertising. Matt Zarb-Cousin, the director of the Clean Up Gambling campaign, said the industry appeared to have used an international tournament as “an excuse for wining and dining MPs” ahead of the review. The campaign group also warned that legislators “should think twice about accepting hospitality from a sector that derives the majority of its profits from people experiencing harm”.

Starmer’s Euro 2020 tickets came courtesy of the Premier League worth £1,628 and the Rugby Football League to the value of £618. Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, was also handed tickets to the semi-final worth £1,040 by the Premier League.

Others senior MPs declaring free tickets include Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, who enjoyed a day at the England v Pakistan cricket at Lord’s worth £954 donated by Bestway Holdings, and a ticket to the British Grand Prix worth £1,264 from Motorsports UK. Mark Spencer, the chief whip, also accepted a ticket to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone worth £1,516.80. Several other MPs were given hospitality to the Euros by Heineken, the drinks company.

The MPs were among thousands of people able to take advantage of the government’s scientific trials on large events, with each one setting different criteria for the selection of participants.

When the schemes were launched the government said it was “working with event organisers to identify suitable participants from their usual customer base”. Under the trials, those going to events were expected to take rapid lateral flow tests before attending, while the gold-standard PCR testing before and after an event was a voluntary request for attenders.

The full results of the trials have not yet been made public, but early findings from phase 1 found no substantial outbreaks from the large-scale public events early in the trial. However, the government warned it was difficult to draw conclusions about reopening as community transmission was low, the return rate for PCR tests was poor and the pilots were “insufficient in scale, scope and study designs to generate any direct evidence based on transmission data”.

The results covering the Euro 2020 matches and others have not yet been released.

Overall, betting and gambling companies taking MPs to the Euro 2020 matches at Wembley were the biggest providers of free tickets. About 10 Tory and Labour MPs have previously declared tickets from gambling companies to England football matches, but the MPs’ latest register of interests showed a further nine took hospitality to Wembley matches. Five MPs were given free tickets to the tennis at Wimbledon, five to motorsports events and four enjoyed hospitality at the golf.

A spokesperson for the Betting and Gaming Council, the industry body, said: “The regulated betting and gaming industry supports a range of sports, including football, and this funding has proved vital during the pandemic.

“This includes £40m for the English Football League and its clubs, as well as funding for grassroots football. In addition, we contribute £350m to horse racing, as well as millions more for rugby league, darts and snooker.

“All hospitality is within the rules and fully declared.”

The MPs have been contacted for comment. A spokesperson for Lewis said: “Any reportable hospitality will be properly declared in the usual way.”

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