Andrew Bridgen: There are better ways to protect gamblers than the Single Customer View

9 Feb

Andrew Bridgen is MP for North West Leicestershire.

Over previous months, my concerns have been well documented about the case for, and effectiveness of, the ‘single customer view’ (SCV) and affordability checks which have been mooted in the forthcoming Gambling White Paper.

Whilst I believe in the liberty of people to spend their own money as they see fit without Government intrusion, it is becoming increasingly obvious that safeguards are being brought in, with an SCV trial and Gamstop running the pilot.

However, to quote Sir Humphrey, ‘if we are going to do this damn silly thing, lets not do it in this damn silly way’.

There is a far better solution, which achieves the objectives of SCV but offers a greater protection for all punters who get caught up in bookmaker red tape which is susceptible to abuse by those not wanting to pay out on winning accounts.

Instead of SCV, we should instead be implementing a single customer wallet, which would work in the same way as a Paypal, Skrill, or the Neteller wallet. This would have a standard deposit amount set per month and could be decreased on request or increased with a one time proof of income or wealth.

There would be significant advantages and efficiencies for legitimate bookmakers and punters alike.

Currently bookmakers are employing significant resources in checking age and identity and complying with anti-money laundering regulations. An independent wallet would eliminate the need for every different bookmaker to undertake these checks, as deposits would come from the single verified source.

This would give greater confidence to punters who are all too frequently caught up in ping pong exchanges with bookmakers trying to prove their identity and being subject to invasive checks into their financial status.

The obvious efficiencies would more than cover the cost of operating an independently-managed single customer wallet. It would also be far easier to highlight gambling harm, as that could be measured by the amounts leaving the wallet.

It would also be able to take account of lifetime winnings and provide a more rounded picture, so successful punters do not get caught up in checks if they lose a large amount to one particular company, as well as allowing the opportunity to distinguish between monies being deposited into the more skilled sports betting and the unskilled, random online casinos and slots.

So far, te noises we hear out of the Gambling Review currently are predominantly from bookmakers and gambling harm charities or organisations. There has been precious little from the average punter who is subject to numerous checks and restrictions in their attempts to get a fair bet laid and get paid by a bookmaker (without having to needlessly lay out their financial affairs).

Bookmakers are right to highlight the dangers posed by the new legislation with regards to the black market. But whilst making this argument, they must also accept that the restrictions imposed on thousands of punters by bookmakers is also a significant factor in empowering the black market. This is something an effective Gambling Commission should have been looking into and preventing – however, the ability of that organisation to protect those who like to gamble is very much open to question.

I will be asking to meet the Minister and the Gambling Commission to discuss this proposal and hope that this will be seen as an effective compromise to protect all punters whilst both eliminating bureaucracy for bookmakers and the potential to abuse legislation to avoid pay-outs. In exchange, if the bookmakers are serious about tackling the black market, these endless restrictions on the accounts of those who show the slightest potential of winning must cease. 

This seems a more Conservative solution to me.

A minister resigns in protest at the Treasury’s failure to prevent a grotesque waste of public funds

25 Jan

Ministers do not resign any more. This complaint is often heard, but was yesterday confounded by Lord Agnew, who resigned from the post of Minister of State for Efficiency and Transformation.

He informed the Lords that while seeking over the last two years to institute the measures needed to stop vast sums of public money disbursed during the pandemic from being stolen by fraudsters, he could be neither efficient nor transformative.

It is a pity so much else is going on, for what turned out to be his resignation speech was a devastating attack on both the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [BEIS] for their “desperately inadequate” performance:

The oversight by both BEIS and the British Business Bank of the panel lenders of the BBLS [the Bounce Back Loan Scheme] has been nothing less than woeful. They have been assisted by the Treasury, which appears to have no knowledge of, or little interest in, the consequences of fraud to our economy or society. Much store has been given to the extra money allocated to HMRC, but it took a year to happen, and this department was already the most competent and well-funded in that discipline; whereas at the beginning of Covid, BEIS had the grand total of two counter-fraud officials on its staff, neither of whom were experienced in the subject. They refused to engage constructively with the counter-fraud function that sits in the Cabinet Office, has considerable expertise and reports directly to me.

Schoolboy errors were made: for example, allowing more than 1,000 companies to receive bounce-back loans which were not even trading when Covid struck. They simply failed to understand that company formation agents hold in stock companies with earlier creation dates. I have been arguing with Treasury and BEIS officials for nearly two years to get them to lift their game; I have been mostly unsuccessful.

We move now to a new and dangerous phase: banks’ ability to claim on the 100 per cent state guarantee for non-payment. We do this without implementing a standard bar of quality assurance on what we expect as counter-fraud measures; we know that we have serious discrepancies. For example, three out of the seven main lenders account for 87 per cent of loans paid out to companies already dissolved. Why is the ratio so skewed? Two of the seven account for 81 per cent of cases where loans were paid out to companies incorporated post-Covid, as I referred to a moment ago. One of the seven accounts for 38 per cent of the duplicate BBL application checks that were not carried out after the requirement was enforced. Bizarrely, it took six weeks to get the duplicate check into place, during which time 900,000 loans, or 60 per cent in total, were paid out, bearing in mind that some £47 billion has been paid out.

If only BEIS and the British Business Bank would wake up, there is still time to demand data and action on duplicate loans. Why will they not do it? Despite pressing BEIS and the BBB for over a year, there is still no single dashboard of management data to scrutinise lender performance. It is inexcusable. We have already paid out nearly £1 billion to banks claiming the state guarantee. The percentage of losses estimated to be from fraud rather than credit failure is 26%; I accept this is only an early approximation, but it is a very worrying one. I will place in Hansard a copy of my letter to the chairman of the British Business Bank, sent on 16 December, addressing some of these points. I have still not received an answer.

I have at least four differences of opinion with Treasury officials: first, on urgent improvements in lender performance data, I simply want the bar to be set at what the best of the panel banks can deliver—to repeat, there is not even a common definition of fraud to trigger the payment of the guarantee; secondly, far greater challenge of lender banks when we uncover inconsistency in data; thirdly, educating Treasury officials as to why reliance on audits is far too reactive and generally happening well after the horse has bolted; fourthly, a failure by Treasury or BEIS officials to understand the complete disjunction between the level of criminality—probably hundreds of thousands of pounds—and enforcement capability. For example, NATIS, a specialist agency, can handle around 200 cases a year; local police forces might double that.

Noble Lords can see that it is my deeply held conviction that the current state of affairs is not acceptable. Given that I am the Minister for counter-fraud, it feels somewhat dishonest to stay on in that role if I am incapable of doing it properly, let alone of defending our track record. It is for this reason that I have, sadly, decided to tender my resignation as a Minister across the Treasury and Cabinet Office with immediate effect. I would be grateful if my noble friend would pass this letter to the Prime Minister at his earliest convenience. It is worth saying that none of this relates to far more dramatic political events being played out across Westminster. This is not an attack on the Prime Minister, and I am sorry for the inconvenience it will cause. Indeed, I think any Prime Minister should be able to reasonably expect that the levers of government are actually connected to delivering services for our citizens.

I hope that, as a virtually unknown Minister beyond this place, giving up my career might prompt others more important than me to get behind this and sort it out. It matters for all the obvious reasons, but there is a penny of income tax waiting to be claimed here if we just woke up. Total fraud loss across government is estimated at £29 billion a year. Of course, not all can be stopped, but a combination of arrogance, indolence and ignorance freezes the government machine. Action taken today will give this Government a sporting chance of cutting income tax before a likely May 2024 election. If my removal helps that to happen, it will have been worth it.

It leaves me only to thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for his courteous but attentive role as shadow Minister of my portfolio, and to thank noble friends, many of whom I know will carry on their scrutiny of this important area. Thank you, and goodbye.

I had not intended to quote so much of Lord Agnew’s speech, but frankly, he knows a million times more about this subject than I do.

As Charles Moore recently pointed out, one of the grievous deficiencies of our media is that with rare exceptions (in this case The Financial Times carried a piece by Agnew) it does not report speeches, even when the speaker has something worthwhile to say, and is instead much more excited by splits and gaffes.

While drafting this article, I kept half an ear on The World At One. The BBC was yet again canvassing the views of Andrew Bridgen (Con, North West Leicestershire).

Viva the vaccine passport rebellion

10 Dec

What a week it’s been for the Government. With the furore around whether or not Downing Street had a party – or three – the Electoral Commission’s verdict on Boris Johnson’s wallpaper and the arrival of his and Carrie Johnson’s baby daughter, the media has had no end of things to write about.

Unfortunately for the Government, much more negative attention is on its way, due to a growing Conservative rebellion around Coronavirus vaccine passports, which, on Wednesday, Johnson announced would be implemented in England (in what some have called a “diversionary tactic”). 

Although Conservative MPs have been generally supportive of measures to combat Coronavirus, from the Emergency Powers Bill to curfews, something about the passports has pushed them to their limits.

Tens of Conservatives, including Dehenna Davison, Andrew Bridgen and Johnny Mercer have tweeted their disapproval of vaccine passports (which have been introduced in Scotland and Wales), with William Wragg, a member of the Covid Recovery Group, being so brazen as to call for Sajid Javid to “resign” over the latest measures. Expect a mega rebellion on passports on Tuesday, when they’ll be voted on, with talks of up to 100 MPs rejecting the plans.

The Government’s justification for passports has been the quickly-spreading Omicron variant, which has prompted it to unleash its “Plan B” set of restrictions. This includes asking people to work from home when they can from next Monday, as well as making masks compulsory in many indoor settings; two requirements that have received much less, albeit some, criticism compared to passports.

Part of the reason why MPs may have become more concerned about these is the events elsewhere in Europe, which have brought into sharp focus how illiberal restrictions can become. Austria’s decision to make vaccines mandatory has been a wake up call – to say the least. The more cynical will say that some MPs are simply using passports as an opportunity to kick Johnson when he’s down, having disapproved of his policies for a while.

My own view, in regards to the introduction of vaccine passports, is one of mild disbelief that the Government ever contemplated them in the first place, never mind that Johnson said there should be a “national conversation” on mandatory jabs. 

There seem to be far more arguments against passports than those in favour (many of which are based on emotional reasoning – “well I like the idea” – and a desire to conform – “well France has done it”). They are divisive, literally separating society into two; don’t completely stop transmission; no one knows where the cut off point for such passports should be (flu?) and will make life complicated and miserable, with large economic consequences. The Night Time Industries Association has already said passes have caused a 30 and 26 per cent trade drop-off in Scotland and Wales, respectively.

Perhaps the most worrying thing, though, is we simply don’t know the long-term impact. Passports are one giant experiment, which we have discussed with all the seriousness of whether someone should change bank accounts.

In general, vaccine passports seem to symbolise a wider issue with the Government, in the Covid wars, which is that it hasn’t completely decided how to be “Global Britain” yet. Post-Brexit it has the opportunity to show the world a different approach to the pandemic; one that respects civil liberties, and isn’t so far away from Sweden’s more relaxed strategy. Instead, we seem to be “Herd Britain”, constantly keeping an eye on what France and Germany are up to, with a view to emulating them.

Either way, something has changed in the equation. The crucial question next week is how the Government groups the votes on “Plan B”. If MPs can vote on vaccine passports as a lone category, it makes it far easier for the idea to be shot down. On the other hand, if vaccine passports, masks and working from home are placed into a single “Plan B” vote, the Government might find all of its plans in disarray; as Bridgen warned “I will vote against any legislation that sees [passports’] introduction“. That, or it’ll be easier to sell to Labour, which is pro restrictions. Whatever the case, we need a cut off point as to how far measures can go; viva the vaccine passport rebels, I say.

The 29 Conservative MPs who supported the China genocide amendment

23 Mar
  • Adam Afriyie
  • David Amess
  • Bob Blackman
  • Crispin Blunt
  • Peter Bone

 

  • Andrew Bridgen
  • Reman Chishti
  • Christopher Chope
  • David Davis
  • Richard Drax

 

  • Ian Duncan Smith
  • Mark Francois
  • Nusrat Ghani
  • Sally-Ann Hart
  • Philip Hollobone

 

  • Jeremy Hunt
  • Bernard Jenkin
  • Andrew Lewer
  • Julian Lewis
  • Tim Loughton

 

  • Craig Mackinlay
  • Kieran Mullan
  • Caroline Nokes
  • Matthew Offord
  • Andrew Rossindell

 

  • Bob Seely
  • Derek Thomas
  • Charles Walker
  • David Warburton

The 33 Conservative MPs who rebelled over the Genocide Amendment

19 Jan
  • Ahmad Khan, Imran
  • Amess, David
  • Blackman, Bob
  • Blunt, Crispin
  • Bridgen, Andrew

 

  • Crouch, Tracey
  • Davis, David
  • Djanogly, Jonathan
  • Duncan Smith, Iain
  • Ellwood, Tobias

 

  • Francois, Mark
  • Ghani, Nusrat
  • Gillan, Cheryl
  • Gray, James
  • Green, Damian

 

  • Hart, Sally-Anne (pictured)
  • Hoare, Simon
  • Hollobone, Philip
  • Jenkin, Bernard
  • Latham, Pauline

 

  • Lewer, Andrew
  • Lewis, Julian
  • Loughton, Tim
  • Mackinlay, Craig
  • Nokes, Caroline

 

  • Richards, Nicola
  • Rossindell, Andrew
  • Seely, Bob
  • Tugendhat, Tom
  • Wakeford, Christian

 

  • Walker, Charles
  • Warburton, David
  • Wragg, William

Today’s genocide amendment had no relation whatsoever to recent votes on Covid – or other major rebellions that this site has been chronicling.

But there is considerable overlap between the rebels on those lists and on this one.  And even newcomers to our records such as Sally-Ann Hart and Nicola Richards have voted against the Government previously (though rarely).

Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the amendment, lists of those defying the whips now have a certain predictability.

Rob Sutton: Introducing the top 50 Conservative MPs on Twitter

29 Jun

Conservative MP Twitter power rankings: the top 50

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Amongst the social media giants, Twitter is the primary battleground for political discourse. It’s also one of the key avenues by which MPs convey their message, and has near-universal uptake by members in the current House of Commons.

The effectiveness with which Twitter is utilised varies considerably between MPs, but it is difficult to compare like-for-like. How does one take into account the differences between, for instance, a freshman MP and a veteran Cabinet member? Length of service in Parliament and ministerial rank give a considerable advantage when building a following.

In this article, I have compiled a power ranking of MPs in the current Parliament, with the top 50 shown in the chart above. The MP’s follower count was adjusted by factoring in their previous experience, to better reflect the strength of their following and their success at engagement on the platform.

Being Twitter-savvy is about more than just a high follower count: any Secretary of State can achieve this just by virtue of the media exposure their office brings. Building a Twitter following based on thoughtful commentary and authentic engagement requires skill ,and can be achieved by members across all Parliamentary intakes and ranks of Government.

Though the top 10 is still dominated by MPs holding senior ministerial offices, the composition of the list beyond it is far more variable. A number of prominent backbenchers are in the top 20, and four members from the 2019 intake make the top 50, beating longer-serving and higher-ranked colleagues.

I hope that this list serves as recognition of the skill and contribution by Conservative members to public debate and engagement, beyond ministerial duties which so often dominate any mention in the media.

Building a model of Twitter power rankings

Success is judged by number of followers, with higher follower counts indicating greater influence on Twitter. The follower count was adjusted using three key parameters:

  • The number of years since an MP was first elected to Parliament.
  • The number of years the MP’s Twitter account has been active.
  • Their highest rank within Government achieved since 2010.

Higher values for each of these would be expected to contribute to a higher follower count. I built a model using the open-source Scikit-Learn package, and fitted it to data from the current Parliament.

The model was then used to predict how many followers a given MP might expect to have based on these three factors. The steps taken to produce a final “Twitter power score” were thus as follows:

  • Using these three factors, multiple linear regression was used to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers an MP might have.
  • Their true follower count was divided by the expected follower count to produce a single number which represented the MP’s performance at building a following.
  • Finally, a logarithm was taken of this ratio to make the number more manageable and to produce a final Twitter power score.

The final step of taking a logarithm means it is easier to compare between MPs without those who have very high follower counts (such as Boris Johnson) making the data difficult to compare, but it does not affect the order of the ranking.

Compiling the data

Having decided which factors to correct the model for, I collected the required information. All three factors were easy to find reliable sources for. The Twitter page for each MP displays the date the account was created, and the Parliamentary website provides the date of their first election to Parliament and previous government posts.

Members who are newly returned to the backbenches following governmental duties (such as Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt) are scored at their highest government rank since 2010 to recognise this. I was able to find the Twitter accounts and required information for 319 Conservative MPs who were included in this ranking.

To build a model based on this data required incorporating the highest government rank numerically. To do this, I assigned scores according to their rank. These grades recognised their relative seniority and media exposure associated with the office, with higher scores assigned to more senior positions:

  • Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State, Speakers, Leaders of the House and Chief Whips are scored 3.
  • Ministers of State, Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chief Whips are scored 1.
    Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Whips are scored 0.5.
  • Backbenchers score 0.

When assigning these values, I considered the typical sizes of follower counts of MPs in each category. When comparing Secretaries of States to Ministers of State, the median follower count is around twice the size, but the mean follower count is around eight times the size, as a handful of very large follower count skews the results upwards.

Deciding on weightings requires a (somewhat arbitrary) decision as to which measures to use when comparing between groups, and the scores I decided on were ultimately chosen as a compromise across these different measures, which produced stable results when used in the model.

It is also worth explaining why Prime Ministers are grouped with Secretaries of State, despite the far higher media exposure and seniority of their post. When deciding on the respective weighting for different levels of government post, a sufficiently large pool of MPs was needed to produce a meaningful comparison. The only data points for comparison of Prime Ministers are Boris Johnson and Theresa May, so it is difficult to give them their own weighting without it being either unreliable or arbitrary.

While grouping them with Secretaries of State and other senior positions might be perceived as giving them an unfair advantage in the weighting, I felt it justified given these challenges in determining the “fair” weight to assign them. With this done, I had three parameters for each MP on which to build a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers.

Calculating the number of expected Twitter followers

I built a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers using the Scikit-Learn, a popular machine learning package in the Python programming language. The model used multiple linear regression to fit the input parameters to the known follower count.

The input data was prepared by removing extreme high outliers in the data which skewed the fit toward high numbers and away from the vast majority of MPs before fitting. Once fitted, an “expected value” of Twitter followers could be calculated for each MP, based on the year of their first election to parliament, the number of years on Twitter and their highest government rank since 2010.

Including more parameters increases the ability of the model to describe the difference between MPs’ follower counts (the variability). By increasing the number of input variables included in the model, more of the variability is captured:

  • One variable captures between 20.3 per cent and 36.1 per cent of the variability.
  • Two variables capture between 39.1 per cent and 43.1 per cent of the variability.
  • All three variables capture 48.7 per cent of the variability.

These three variables are therefore responsible for almost half of the variation between MPs in their follower counts. The remainder of the variability is likely due to a range of factors which the model does not include, of which the MP’s Twitter-savviness is of particular interest to us. I discuss these factors further below.

Limitations in the model

There are multiple other parameters which could be included in future iterations which I did not include in this model. In particular:

  • Membership or Chairmanship of Select Committees.
  • Previous election to a council, assembly, devolved legislature or the European Parliament.
  • Membership of the Privy Council.
  • Government positions prior to 2010.
  • Prominent positions within the Conservative Party, such as the 1922 Committee or European Research Group.
  • Twitter-savviness and effectiveness of their comms team.

Another limitation was not accounting for the perceived relative importance of various governmental departments: a Great Office of State or Prime Minister is scored the same as any other Secretary of State. The difficulties involved in ranking governmental departments were beyond this first model. The length of service in a given government post was also not considered.

Finally, the choice of model to fit the data may not be the optimal choice. Multiple linear regression assumes, per the name, that the distribution is linear. But the large outliers might be better described by a power law or Pareto distribution, or the non-linearities of a neural network.

During next week, ConservativeHome will produce profiles of six individual MPs who have performed notably well in the power rankings, and who reflect the contributions brought by members beyond their ministerial duties, if they have any.