Thursday, November 30

John Whittingdale admits to taking free dinner with performers at lapdance club



John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, was embroiled in fresh controversy after he admitted accepting free hospitality from a London lapdancing club while chairing an inquiry into its licensing regime.

Mr Whittingdale and two other MPs were treated to dinner with managers and two female performers.

Mr Whittingdale insisted it was an official visit as part of an inquiry by the Culture, Media and Sport select committee into new laws cracking down on such establishments.

But the evening was not recorded in the committee’s published records, according to a report on Tuesday in the Evening Standard.

Nor was the visit mentioned in the committee’s report, which rejected proposed tougher laws, aimed at curbing the spread of lapdancing clubs by classing them as “sex encounter” venues.

The Lap Dancing Association organised the hospitality soon after it was set up in 2008.

Mr Whittingdale later spoke in Parliament against the new rules, which made it easier for residents to prevent lapdancing clubs opening in their area. His speech made no mention of the visit.

Two other members of the select committee expressed surprise about the visit, saying they did not know of an official trip and had not received invitations. Former Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price told the Standard it was a “genuine surprise” when he was informed him of the visit.

“Whether or not they are in contravention of rules, I would have expected it to be minuted,” he said,

“Certainly it would seem par for the course, if it was an official visit — one would expect that at least during the private meetings of the committee it would have come up then.”

Former Liberal Democrat MP Adrian Sanders said he remembered some discussion of a potential visit, but his view was that it was “completely unnecessary” and he was never told anything was arranged.

He added: “If it was official it should be mentioned in the report, it should be in the annex, what visits took place and also who went.”

Mr Whittingdale, 56, is embroiled in a series of controversies. Last week it was revealed a former girlfriend was a dominatrix, and this weekend it emerged he had relationships with a Page 3 Girl and east European women, including one who was thought to be the daughter of a former Soviet military officer.

Challenged by the Standard to explain the visits, Mr Whittingdale said that following an invitation from the Lap Dancing Association, he led trips to two clubs in central London in a single evening.

His spokeswoman said a parliamentary official and two other committee members — Conservative MP Philip Davies and Labour’s Janet Anderson — also accepted the invitation to “see the security arrangements, rules and impact on the local community.”

She added: “Members visited two clubs during the evening and at one of them had dinner with the managers of the club and the association, and two girls employed there.

“The girls were keen to refute the claim made by [women’s rights group] Object that they were being exploited and to emphasise the strict controls in place in the club.

“John did not meet any girls except those at the dinner who talked to him about Object.”

The Standard specifically asked whether there were naked women working in the club at the time, this was not addressed in the spokeswoman’s statement. The Standard also asked if alcohol was consumed but the question did not get a response.

Other visits made by the committee were recorded during the same period in official “sessional returns”. They included a visit to Torquay for four members costing £3,800, and a day at a racecourse costing just £112.55, made in relation to a separate inquiry into gambling. Some trips cost nothing but were still recorded.

In the final report into the reforms of the Licensing Act 2003, no mention is made of any visits to lapdancing clubs. The spokeswoman for Mr Whittingdale said: “We suspect that these visits were not mentioned in the report as only a minority of members were able to go.

“It is unknown why they were not included in the sessional return as that would be a matter for the Clerk of the Committee.” She was adamant that all members of the committee had been invited.

She added that the Lap Dancing Association had issued an “open invitation” in its evidence to MPs, although it contained no specific date and there is no mention in documents that the suggestion was ever taken up.

The committee’s report came out against the Labour government’s proposal to designate lapdancing clubs as “sex encounter” venues. The MPs declared: “We believe that it would be unfortunate if changes in licensing of lapdancing establishments gave the public the impression that such venues offer sex for sale.” They suggested a new category for the clubs, to differentiate them from “sex encounter venues such as sex shops and sex cinemas”.

The report also said the clubs’ licenses should only have to be renewed every five years, instead of every year, and that fees for moving to a new regime should be limited.

In October 2009 Mr Whittingdale told MPs in a Westminster Hall debate: “The Lap Dancing Association made the point that lapdancing clubs are probably some of the best policed and secure venues and have less of a record of public disorder than almost any other type of entertainment venue.”