Why should we tolerate businesses making false claims to Parliament or government departments?

Posted On: 
4th February 2019

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling calls for greater transparency in the submissions which individuals and business make to Parliament and to Government departments.

Credit: 
PA

Our lawyers got in touch with Betfred regarding a comment made about the Campaign for Fairer Gambling in its submission to DCMS in the FOBT stakes and prizes review. This had been sent to DCMS in January 2018 and published by DCMS in May 2018 with other submissions.

In its submission to the DCMS, Betfred alleged that the Campaign for Fairer Gambling was linked to “the casino industry” and was motivated by commercial interests in advocating for the reduction of the maximum betting stake of FOBTs.

Betfred replied by instructing lawyers and through the subsequent constructive discussions that were held Betfred has now publicly admitted that its comment was incorrect, and it has published its retraction of its comment on the DCMS website. Overall this was a very commendable way for the matter to be handled by Betfred, an independent family owned operator.

But it does beg the question why businesses feel able to mislead politicians with false information designed to discredit any opposition or those resistant to their commercial interests. In the context of a select committee inquiry, evidence is given under oath and it is an offence to testify with claims that are untrue. So why is this principle not extended to government consultations?

Businesses are generally in possession of vastly greater resources than campaigners in the public interest, and the latter group are often unable to afford access to justice if their entity is defamed or unfairly attacked.

In an article for Tribune, Matt Zarb-Cousin explains how the campaign against FOBTs was won, and how we managed to get an edge over the very well-resourced Association of British Bookmakers (ABB), the members of that trade body and the numerous public affairs companies working for them. We knew our arguments were stronger, and that the evidence was on our side, so if the government was in a position where it either wanted to or had to give a fair hearing to our case for a £2 cap then that policy would eventually be enacted.

In that context it is not surprising that both the ABB and Betfred – which is not a member of the bookies’ trade body – sought to discredit the campaign itself rather than engage with us in debate. The attacks on the campaign, the individuals behind it and its integrity were designed to undermine the messenger because our opponents could not adequately or convincingly criticise our message.

But from the perspective of government, which should want to enable or even facilitate a climate where there is transparency in public policy debate but also truth, there is no reason why lies about campaigners in the public interest should be tolerated. It’s entirely counterproductive to allow businesses to flex their financial muscles, denigrating their opponents by spreading false statements in the course of lobbying to protect their commercial interests.

The US Mueller investigation is delivering multiple indictments for “process crimes” applying to individuals who may not even be benefiting financially from lying. It would clearly not be productive to raise the bar so high it causes people to be afraid to testify or submit to consultations. However, in instances where financial reward may flow to those making misleading representations, financial penalties should apply at a sufficiently high level to act as a deterrent against such representations.

Even the think-tanks which enjoy charitable status, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), are not required to disclose the identity of their donors despite receiving public subsidy through Gift Aid and other tax relief. Yet despite operating on these favourable terms, the IEA is able to advocate on behalf of sectors such as gambling, tobacco, alcohol, sugar and fossil fuels, without any oversight of the veracity of that advocacy. It is hoped that parallel inquiries into the activities of the IEA by the Charity Commission and the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists will at the very least deliver greater transparency how public discourse is conducted, but there is a long way to go in ensuring representations to government by corporations, vested interests or their advocates are entirely truthful.