MP caught in lobbying sting faces suspension from Commons after appeal fails

Rishi Sunak faces the prospect of another difficult by-election after an independent panel upheld a finding that former Conservative MP Scott Benton should be suspended from the Commons for 35 days.

Mr Benton, who was elected as a Conservative but now sits as an independent, was found to have breached Commons rules after he was caught by the Times offering to lobby ministers and table parliamentary questions on behalf of gambling investors.

He appealed against both the finding and the suspension, but in a report published on Tuesday an independent panel upheld the Standards Committee’s original decision, saying there had been “no procedural flaw” in the process.

The panel also described Mr Benton’s arguments against the recommended suspension as “misconceived or erroneous”, finding the sanction was “neither unreasonable nor disproportionate”.

In response, Mr Benton said he was “deeply disappointed” with the outcome, describing the findings as “unjust”.

He said: “The entire process has been prone to regular leaks at every stage, with journalists knowing the details throughout. This lack of integrity throughout the process has formed an inescapable appearance of bias.”

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

The Conservatives won Blackpool South in 2019 with a majority of just 3,690, raising the prospect of another difficult by-election for the Prime Minister after losses in Wellingborough and Kingswood last week.

Labour called on Mr Benton to resign immediately rather than wait for the outcome of any recall petition.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow paymaster general, said: “Scott Benton should do the decent thing and resign, saving the people of Blackpool South a lengthy recall petition that would leave them without the representation they deserve.

“This is yet another by-election caused by Tory scandal. Britain deserves better than this carousel of Conservative chaos.

“Labour’s Chris Webb is Blackpool born and bred, and ready to deliver a fresh start for Blackpool South.”

A by-election in Blackpool South would be the fourth such vote held this year, while defeat would be the 11th time the Government has lost a seat in a by-election since the start of the current Parliament in 2019.

Newly elected MPs welcomed to Westminster
Sir Keir Starmer welcomed Gen Kitchen and Damien Egan, the newly elected Labour MPs for Kingswood and Wellingborough, to the Houses of Parliament (Aaron Chown/PA)

Mr Benton had argued that the investigation into him by the Commons Standards Commissioner was “materially flawed”, claiming the commissioner had “drastically over-reached” and “arrived at conclusions which were unsupported by any adequate evidence”.

He also claimed that the Standards Committee’s decision had been leaked to the press, which was evidence of an “appearance of bias” against him.

The independent panel dismissed both arguments, saying there was “no substance” to his claims against the commissioner and that an investigation by the Standards Committee found there had been no leak of its decision.

The panel also found there was “no substance” to Mr Benton’s claims that the recommended suspension was “unreasonable and/or disproportionate”.

Responding to the decision, Mr Benton renewed his criticism of the Standards Committee and claimed the panel had ignored evidence that details had been leaked to the press.

He said: “It goes without saying that the standards process is designed to be open, fair, honest and transparent so the public and MPs can have trust in it. These events clearly mean that this trust has been breached by members of the committee and/or its administrative staff and create an inevitable perception of partiality.

“How can MPs and the public they serve have faith in a standards process which doesn’t adhere to its own ethics, standards and principles?

“To make matters worse, the decision of the appeal panel (the timing of which should have again been unknown) was leaked to the press with journalists contacting me last night regarding this and the decision being leaked this morning. Despite being aware of yet more leaks, the appeal panel chooses to ignore this and the obvious flaws and bias within the process which they so clearly demonstrate.”

Alistair McCapra, chief executive of lobbying trade association the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, welcomed the panel’s decision, saying the footage of Mr Benton recorded in the Times sting had been “clear and damning”.

He said: “We need a radical shift in the culture around lobbying in this country and effective and clear rules to support that change. Until then we will continue to see unethical, disingenuous and underhand attempts to influence policy and there is good evidence to show the continued damage to public trust in politics associated with it.”

The Government will now move the proposal to suspend Mr Benton, which is likely to pass the Commons without difficulty, triggering the six-week recall petition process.

If 10% of Mr Benton’s constituents sign the petition, he will be recalled and a by-election will take place, meaning the poll is unlikely to occur until the end of April or the beginning of May.

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