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Football Pools (Paper Supplies)

Volume 466: debated on Monday 4 July 1949

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Popplewell.]

10.10 p.m.

As far back as 23rd June, I asked a Question of the President of the Board of Trade, namely:

"Whether he will now take steps to annul Section 2 of the Paper (Use in Betting Schemes) Order, 1947.
He replied firmly:
"No, Sir. The new order relates to newsprint and will not affect the supply of paper for football pools. If we were to annul this section I am quite satisfied that there would be an increase in the amount of canvassing by football pools, which I am sure none of us wants to encourage."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd June, 1949; Vol. 466, c. 431.]
I must confess that I was a little bit surprised at the reply, and so were many hon. Members who have taken an interest in the question of betting pools and those 10 million to 12 million people in this country who are pool fans. It will also be within the recollection of this House that during the Committee stage of the Finance Bill, some hon. Members who spoke on the Clause dealing with betting pools said that they did not quite understand how the pools worked and exactly what happened. It seemed to me then that far too much stress was put upon the Pools Association and on the promoters who run these pools. Members seemed far too interested in what profit the promoters make and what they do with it. Some Members have said how wicked and evil some of the pools promoters are, but seem completely to forget about the 10 million or more people who subscribe to the pools or take an interest in them. The views of those people were not heard, in spite of the vast number of letters that have been addressed to Members of this House. I therefore want to take up a little time concerning the people who actually subscribe to the football pools.

The first point made by the President of the Board of Trade was that an increased supply of paper would mean far more canvassing, but that is appallingly inaccurate, as one realises after thinking of the history of the pools. Football pools have been going on in this country since well before the war. In the middle of the 1930's they were a thriving and widespread industry. Then came the war. The Government called the pool promoters together and pointed out that the circulation that went on and the amount of paper that was posted to and from the people subscribing was far too much to be allowed in time of war because the postal service could not possibly control it. With the agreement of the Government the pool promoters decided that no more circularising should take place and that advertisements instead should appear in the newspapers.

The pool promoters came together and formed themselves into a group known as "Unity." They advertised together in the newspapers. That arrangement went on throughout the war. At the end of the war a gentleman called the Rev. Mr. Bretherton came forward, I understand, and pointed out that it was actually illegal to advertise in the Press something which forecast the future. The case was fought through the courts and a decision was given once one way and something like three times the other way, with the result that it was no longer legal to advertise in the Press. The pool companies then went to the Government and pointed out the situation. The Government came to their aid to the extent of allowing them a certain amount of paper for the time being. After that, Unity Pools broke up and went back to their afterwards, the allowance of paper was based at something like 2.25 per cent. of the pre-war rate. Within a very few weeks that was cut by a further 10 per cent. Then it went down to 1.69 per cent. and, finally, to the present allocation of 1.25 per cent.

With that final allocation was included, for the first time I believe, the weight of the envelopes. All that happened within 12 months. The weight of envelopes created a new and unpleasant problem. The result was that the football pools, cut down to 1.25 per cent. of their prewar allocation—that is a big cut—had to look round for ways in which to deal with the situation. One of them was to reduce the size of the actual coupons very considerably and another was to deal with the problem of envelopes. It may be flippant, but it has been said and possibly not entirely without reason, that cutting down the size of the coupon and forcing about 10 million people to read these small coupons is—let us face it that the pools are more or less followed by the poorer people—one of the reasons why there has been the immense increase in the demand by poorer people under the new National Health Act for new spectacles. Silly, admittedly, and mildly flippant, but it is a possibility. I cannot look at the coupons without spectacles. I can afford spectacles, but many people cannot and they want to fill in the coupons.

The envelope problem is far more serious. The football pools people have to think of their own living, and the people who take part in the pools also want to continue. They had, therefore, to think out a scheme, and it was decided to get old envelopes and use them again. That has gone on to such an extent that the envelopes have become completely insanitary. People are using envelopes four, five, six and seven times, sticking them together in every possible way. It has caused a considerable amount of unpleasantness and disgust. Some of the envelopes are filthy. I believe that Post Office officials have made official complaints about the filth. When one thinks of 10 million people using these envelopes, one realises that there is probably some point in it. I have had letters about this from my constituents, one saying that he got some kind of unpleasant sores which his doctor told him could quite easily have come from that filthy type of envelope. I believe that the Board of Trade have already realised that and that something has been done or is being done about envelopes. We cannot continue on that basis.

The general question of unfairness has been mentioned in previous Debates on this subject. Why is it that this is being done? Why are these people being chosen for victimisation in this way? They were brought down suddenly after the war to just over 2 per cent. of their pre-war allocation and then, slowly but surely, reduced to 1.25. Eventually the weight of the envelope is included in the allocation, creating a very considerable difficulty. What is the reason for that? If one looks at other businesses, one sees them gradually going the other way. Since the war, as things have improved there has been considerable relief allowed, not only for ordinary businesses but for those which are direct rivals of the betting pools. They have been allowed to increase their paper allocation slowly but surely by something like 20 per cent. For what reason? Not only to carry on their businesses but also to advertise them.

Nothing like that is allowed to the betting pools, and the hon. Gentleman who is to reply might give me some reason for that. The feeling amongst people who take part in those pools is, why are they being treated in this way? It is considered by many people to be the least evil form of betting. In fact I believe there are some members of the churches who consider that it is not betting at all but a real way of "studying form," and therefore they take part in it. I gather that there are quite a num- ber of clergy on the books of the most respectable pools.

As if this victimisation is not enough, we move on to the Board of Trade using another method, presumably, of stopping the betting pools—namely, by adding a halfpenny which has to be paid in advance for every coupon received. I can understand that happening immediately after the war. I can understand people thinking that to make people pay a halfpenny in advance would make them think twice before taking part and, furthermore, it would make it impossible for circularisation to take place until the halfpenny had been paid. In actual fact what happened was that the halfpenny having been put on and the decision made that they should pay in advance, every 24 weeks or the whole year, for so many copies of coupons canvassers were produced.

That brings me back to my opening question, why did the President of the Board of Trade say that by taking off the halfpenny or by allowing the annulment of this Order, it would mean an increase of canvassers? There were no canvassers until this thing started after the war. There was no need for them. It was only when the halfpenny was put on that canvassers went round to canvass people to pay their halfpennies. Not everybody wanted to go on indefinitely, because they had to pay over a period of weeks. Many decided after two or three weeks that they were "browned off" and did not go on. The net result was that they still received coupons—which is a sheer waste of paper—right through the year because they had been made to pay in advance.

Everyone connected with the pools industry would be only too glad if they could take off that halfpenny. It helps nobody particularly. It would definitely stop, instead of increasing, canvassers. I think I can safely say that if the halfpenny were taken off it would not increase the numbers of people taking part because the allocation of paper has already been so hedged round that there could not legally be more paper allowed. That being so, there could not be any further waste of paper in that way; by taking off the halfpenny there would be no earthly reason for canvassers in the future. A further reason why people object to canvassers is that in the pre- sent state of the country as many people as possible should be engaged on worthwhile employment.

Everybody who knows says that to get rid of the halfpenny will get rid of the canvassers, and that would be a tremendous asset from the point of view of worth while employment. But, from what I have seen and studied, I do not think that the pools as such are using a vast amount of wasted labour other than canvassers. After all, the Control of Engagement Order is still in existence and the Ministry of Labour, as far as I know—I should like to be challenged on this—have never had any form of complaint from the pools or any rows with them on the application of that Order. I understand that a certain amount of disabled labour is used, and I believe in Merseyside, where most of the pool firms come from, there is already quite a considerable amount of unemployment. Therefore, the number of people employed in the pools is not really affecting the country's output in more constructive work but is, on the contrary, a useful asset to stop our unemployment figures from increasing.

I know that at least one hon. Gentleman opposite wishes to speak in this Debate, and I say no more than to plead with the Board of Trade seriously to study this matter once again. Obviously they have already done so, judging by the repeals of different orders regarding paper releases. I plead, not on behalf of the Pools' Association or pool owners, but on behalf of the people who take part in these pools. Let them have clean and sanitary envelopes and reasonable sized paper; let them be rid of the canvassers, and let them be given a fair and square deal on the same terms as the other different betting organisations which are not subject in the same way to taxation, but which compete with them.

10.28 p.m.

I have a great regard for the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Teeling), and I am sorry to say that on this issue I can only regard him as an honest man who has fallen among what, I think, could be described as extremely doubtful characters. I had great difficulty in preventing myself bursting into tears as he unfolded this tale of the trials and tribulations of the pools since the beginning of the war. Let us dispose of that argument right away. In 1945 the pools, under the Unity Pool operation, were sending through the post two million envelopes. In 1946, when Unity Pools broke up, the figure had leapt from two million to 7½ million. In 1947, it had risen another 1¼ million to 8,750,000. In 1948, it reached 9½ million. In 1949 these poor wretched victims of the Board of Trade bureaucracy were sending out precisely 10¼ million envelopes. That is to say, whereas in 1945 this wretched industry, persecuted by the Board of Trade, was sending out two million circulars, in 1949 it was sending out 10¼ million.

I am not concerned about envelopes. The coupons inside were completely new.

Let me deal with the plaintive point made by the hon. Gentleman about the payment of 2s. Let us face up to reality. The position is not altogether as he described it. To an increasing extent the 2s. is not paid at all. I have in my hand a document recently issued by Bond's, a subsidiary of Littlewood's of Liverpool, which was circulated to all their considerable number of clients. This is what they say:
"If you collect 2s. from each of your five friends we do not require the 2s. You can keep it."
In short, all that needs to be done on this slip of paper is for a person to sign that he has paid the 2s. and for the agent to sign that he has received it. No cash passes at all in the majority of cases. The agent gets his commission and the 2s. simply does not pass. As competition for that method, I am given to understand that last week the three largest football firms, instead of collecting the 2s., offered every agent 3s.; so that what the agent has to do is to collect no cash but automatically to receive 1s. for every name he sends in on the slip of paper.

If the football pools can afford to find paper to go touting and explaining a legal way to evade the 2s. charge, I should have thought that the paper so used could have been used in some part to make the plain envelopes for which the soul of the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Teeling) craves. The regulation as it now stands is subject to abuses. For example, Shermans and I.T.P., have opened shops throughout the country at which cash is collected and coupons distributed. The main purpose of the shops is to evade the regulations in regard to paper. Coupons are dished out to anyone who goes to these shops and no money for them is collected.

I consider that far from being over-brutal to the pools the Board of Trade has been over-generous. To try to suggest that the football pool firms are only getting about one-seventieth of the paper they got before the war is sheer nonsense. Many borough billposting companies could prove that by the amount of paper advertising pools on their hoardings. Far from being too harsh, the Board of Trade has gone to the other extreme. With the exception of two large football pool firms, every single football pool company since 1946 has been more or less breaking the regulations. Each pool has been devising very clever legal devices to get over the regulations. No one knows that better than the Parliamentary Secretary who is going to reply.

May I ask the hon. Member with regard to the 2s. whether it is not true that if the 2s. were got rid of, there would be no need for the agents?

The agents are not employed primarily to collect the 2s. They are employed to get more and more people taking more and more coupons and spending more and more money in more and more pools.

10.33 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising these points. I am not concerned tonight with the ethics of pools. It does not bother me much whether it is compatible with this or that theological belief to fill in a football pool coupon.

In the short time left to me, I should like to comment on one or two of the points that have been made. First, with regard to the requirement that no coupon can be distributed except to a person who has paid the ½d., the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Teeling) is right in saying that this was first introduced as a means of saving paper. On balance, my right hon. Friend has concluded that this ought to be retained, at any rate, during the current year. I say "on balance" advisedly, because I have looked at this matter carefully and it has given great anxiety both to my right hon. Friend and my predecessor as to whether we got any help towards our main objective, which is, after all, to avoid the unnecessary use of labour. We finally concluded that probably we did. There is not very much to it. We decided not to take it off this year.

The hon. Member will, I think, have realised that we did recently make a new order, namely, Order No. 1100 of 1949, which was made on 13th June and came into operation on 1st July. That was in substitution of Order No. 2247 of 1947. This new order has, I think, certain definite advantages because it will enable the licensing control to be modified to some extent by enabling the Board of Trade to issue licences for any period, instead of for the stated four-monthly periods which apply to the use of paper by unlicensed football pool firms, and will also enable the Board of Trade to make, under licence, allocations of paper for envelopes and labels used in the distribution of coupons.

In the past we have had one licence for the total allocation; in future, we propose to give one licence for the contents of the packet sent to the pool's client, and another for the envelope and/or label used by the pool to send the contents through the post to the client. I believe that, under the new system, it will no longer be an incentive for pools to reconstruct envelopes from old coupons as they have done in the past; and I think that, whatever may be the argument about the use or misuse of paper, now that supplies are much easier we really ought to get away from some of the quite abominable reconstructions going through the post. All this is to make it possible for us—and it is our intention so to do—to give licences for envelopes independently of the licences given for the actual paper coupons and related material.

It will happen forthwith. It will happen in any licences which we issue from now on. I am not talking of the total amount; what I am saying is that it will be possible to allocate as between one and the other. As regards the future, it is a little early to say precisely how the paper shall be allocated in respect of the next season. I might say that it is, I think, desirable to find a method of allocating the paper which will have within it some possibility of flexibility and which will not in any way freeze the various firms concerned on their 1947–48 level. It seems to me that that flexibility is desirable.

I would say so. We have to find some more accurate process by which to assess the firm's active clients and in this field competition need not be absent. It is quite wrong to go on the assumption that there was a particular level of activity with this firm and that firm, and that we should keep it like that in successive years.

Our licensing control system does impose a limit on the amount of paper used by football pools. If information is given to us which shows that there is a real mis-use of paper so that the effect is that the pools are not keeping to their quota, I assure the House that we shall take action. The licensing of paper is a fairly slight instrument to use for what, after all, is, I submit, a major economic purpose. We do not want to have the pools employing more people than are necessary, and we want to limit the number of people employed in going out and getting clients. Licensing of paper is not a 100 per cent. effective method, but it is one way and, while desiring flexibility in the new football pools system, we will, I hope, make it more effective than in the past. We have given some thought to this matter, and, within the limitations necessarily imposed on us, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing our best.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-one Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.