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The head of a UK parliamentary committee has accused the Gambling Commission of an “unprecedented” attempt to block his inquiry into the agency’s role as the lottery regulator.
Julian Knight, chair of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, hit out at the commission for overstepping its remit after it warned him in a letter that the inquiry posed “a significant risk” to the integrity of the current bidding round for the next National Lottery licence that it is overseeing.
In a letter sent to Knight, seen by the Financial Times, the commission’s chief executive Andrew Rhodes wrote that in his view “it would pose significant risk to the integrity of the competition if the Gambling Commission, any of the applicants, or anyone directly involved in the competition in any way, were to provide evidence to the inquiry at this sensitive stage of the competition”.
The letter continued: “For these reasons, I believe that the public interest would be best served by contributing to your inquiry at a later stage and my colleagues and I will, of course, be very happy to give detailed evidence to the committee once the competition has concluded.”
Knight said such a warning was “unprecedented” and “potentially a contempt of parliament,” adding the commission had “no right to interfere.”
He said he was “seriously considering” calling the commission in front of the committee to explain the letter unless he received “assurances from them that they will be dropping this idea that they are telling others not to contribute”.
The Gambling Commission is already under pressure from MPs to prove it can continue to function as a regulator ahead of a major overhaul of the UK’s gambling legislation due next year.
The National Audit Office, the spending watchdog, and the parliamentary public accounts committee have both said that the Gambling Commission is not fit for purpose and its functions should be reassessed.
Knight announced in July that his committee planned to scrutinise the role of the Gambling Commission specifically in relation to its oversight of the National Lottery. It is currently running the competition for the next 10-year lottery licence with the preferred bidder for the fourth contract since it was launched due to be announced in February.
The commission recently delayed the bidding process for a second time and extended Camelot’s contract by six months.
Bidders for the licence, one of the most lucrative government contracts put out to tender, have signed strict confidentiality agreements in order to participate in the competition.
Applicants are not permitted to openly criticise the incumbent operator of the lottery and have to check any public comments relating to their bids with the commission. Breaches of the confidentiality agreement could see bidders removed from the competition by the regulator.
The bidders include Italian lottery operator Sisal, the Czech gambling company Sazka and media mogul Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell. Camelot, owned by Canada’s Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, has run the lottery since its inception in 1994.
The commission said in a statement that it respected the need for scrutiny and would “support the committee’s inquiry as fully as possible” but that it would be writing to applicants to remind them that sharing information about the competition could breach confidentiality protocols.
“Our priority is to run a fair and open competition, in which applicants compete on a level playing field. As part of this, all parties directly involved in the competition must adhere to strict confidentiality protocols that seek to protect the integrity and fairness of the process and maintain competitive tension,” it said.