MPs in Olympic freebie ticket row: should they go?

Olympic ParkSteve Parsons/PA Wire/Press Association Images

It was always going to happen: a major world event packed with corporate hospitality opportunities, just a stone's throw from the House of Commons. The scandal of MPs snapping up freebies to events that thousands of taxpayers have been turned away from was just waiting to happen.

Today, the news broke, so who has been taking the freebies, and should they be allowed to?

The freebies

The tickets in question are the highly coveted seats to see the men's 100 metre final at the athletics. According to a report in the Daily Mail the tickets are corporate gifts from BT, one of the event's major sponsors. The guests will be taken to the BT Tower in London for a briefing, and then on to watch the race. They won't be treated to lavish hospitality, but the presence of MPs as the guests of a sponsor is somewhat unnerving.

Ministers have been banned from accepting any freebies to the games - probably because of the outcry that would ensue. A Cabinet Office note printed in the Daily Mail read:"The presumption for all invitations should be that they are declined. Should you feel there is an exceptional case to justify attendance it will need to be supported by a business case and to come to the Cabinet Office for approval (who in turn will liaise with DCMS)."

However, BT was given permission to offer the ticket to the culture media and sport select committee. So far, four of the 11 members of the committee have accepted.

The argument

One of them Tory MP and Chair of the committee John Whittingdale told the Daily Mail: "BT are having a briefing on their involvement in the Olympics. My committee has spent five years having regular sessions on the preparations for the Olympics. It's not terribly surprising that we might have wanted to go and have a look.

"This is not the first time I've been to events with BT or companies that operate in the area that we scrutinise. But they are a major sponsor of the Olympics and have put a huge amount of money into the Games.

"It would be utterly extraordinary if we didn't take a look at the Games. I don't see that this compromises the committee at all."

So should they be accepting the tickets?

Corporate hospitality is big business for the Olympics. Prestige Ticketing, the official hospitality provider for the Games, sold around 80,000 tickets - which is likely to have made around £100 million.

In business, the Bribery Act has caused all companies to think twice about offering and accepting freebies. When it was introduced Kenneth Clarke highlighted that it wasn't intended to affect corporate hospitality. However, it outlaws doing so where it can be proven that it provided an advantage to another person and was offered or given with the intention of inducing the person to perform a relevant function improperly. It means that many companies and individuals have steered clear, out of concern that it may look bad.

Clearly MPs have no such concerns. The fact that the MPs have been overseeing the Olympics is given as a reason why they should be able to see the end result of their work. However, they had a chance to buy tickets like everyone else.

The fact they are on the committee should make them especially cautious, and fight shy of anything that could seem to the casual observer as a conflict of interests - whether or not it has the slightest affect on their future activities.

But what do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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