Sunak pours taxpayers’ money into online betting company

Rishi Sunak has sunk millions of pounds in public funds into an online betting company and a luxury Caribbean business selling private island vacations amid controversy over investments made by the government’s 1.1 startup scheme billion pounds is growing.

Taxpayer groups and gaming charities have sounded the alarm over investments made under the Future Fund as criticism over the Chancellor’s wasteful Covid spending mounts.

The scheme was designed to help innovative, fast-growing startups survive the pandemic, providing loans of up to £5m which could then be converted into equity. But details released by the British Business Bank this week revealed a number of controversial investments.

BetConnect, an online betting exchange vying to become the ‘next Betfair’, has received a convertible loan worth nearly £2million. The investment in a betting company comes as the government considers how to toughen gambling laws following a review.

The startup program has also invested money in Edge Retreats, a venture providing wealthy vacationers with the “world’s best luxury villas”, including in the Caribbean, Italian Lakes and the Maldives. The villas and private islands on offer cost up to £400,000 per week to rent.

The Future Fund was designed to support ‘innovative UK businesses which typically rely on equity investments to fund their growth’, according to the British Business Bank, and was set up by the government to oversee the backed Covid support schemes by the state.

It comes as Mr Sunak’s Covid business support packages have come under increasing scrutiny as taxpayers are left behind for billions in loan losses, in part due to the fraud. Lord Agnew, a Cabinet Office minister, resigned last week criticizing the government’s “dismal record” in tackling fraud.

Meanwhile, the British Business Bank has been accused by Public Accounts Committee MPs of ‘woefully inadequate’ due diligence over Covid loans to Greensill Capital, the financial firm advised by David Cameron which collapsed the last year.

Danielle Boxall, of the Taxpayers Alliance, said: “As we emerge from the pandemic, Ministers must ensure that investment programs such as these deliver real value for money for taxpayers.

“Although it may have some success, no investment is guaranteed.”

The Telegraph revealed on Wednesday that taxpayers now hold an 8% stake in Bolton Wanderers after the League One football club received a £5million convertible loan from the Future Fund. The investment has raised questions over the fund’s eligibility criteria after the 145-year-old club was granted access to start-up aid.

A spokesperson for Edge Retreats said: “As an innovator in leisure travel, Edge Retreats was supported by this fund in 2020. This has enabled the company to protect jobs of its staff and to continue to grow as a company. We have therefore not made any redundancies. We have also grown and are able to continue to offer villa rental services.

A British Business Bank spokesperson said: “The Future Fund used a standard set of terms with published eligibility criteria. The process provided a clear and effective way to make funding available as widely and as quickly as possible without requiring lengthy negotiations. Applications that met all eligibility criteria received an investment.

BetConnect did not respond to a request for comment. The Treasury declined to comment.

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