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Royal Commission Ongambling

Volume 959: debated on Friday 1 December 1978

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

4 p.m.

The Royal Commission on Gambling reported six months ago and, despite many efforts to obtain a debate, I have been unsuccessful. I make one promise to the attractive hon. Lady who will reply to the debate today. If she wishes to add popularity to her other attributes, all that she needs to do is to give me one promise—a promise for an early debate in the House on the report of the Royal Commission.

About 94 per cent. of the adult population of this country—about 39 million people—gamble sometimes. Of those, two-fifths gamble regularly; one third enter the pools every week; nearly 10 per cent. bet regularly on the horses and the dogs and 4 per cent. play commercial bingo. Nearly £8,000 million is staked in one form of gambling or another, of which £900 million is spent or lost. This money goes round and round, and it is far more than the £3,000 million spent on tobacco, £6,000 million on alcohol and £1,300 million on entertainment.

Surely there is an overwhelming case for a debate in the House to decide on and prepare the legislation to implement the many recommendations in the Rothschild report, either by changing the regulations, by a circular from the Home Office or by encouragement. The many associations are ready to go ahead, and they are eager that action is taken soon.

A circular from the Home Office to all local authorities urging the adoption of standard procedures for the local lotteries which they operate will go a long way towards meeting the recommendations in the report of the Royal Commission. I might add that Thanet was the first local authority to operate such a lottery.

These urgent proposals require early Government decisions. A gambling authority suggested by the Gaming Board for all gaming is not advocated, and it would be undesirable because a gigantic bureaucracy would arise.

A single authority for horse racing and to control the levy again is not desirable, but a British horse racing authority is fully supported by the whole of the racing industry. I am glad to see that the Jockey Club is going ahead with its intention to try to set up such an authority voluntarily. I hope that the Government will give every assistance. In this area it is essential to take racing out of the state of flux and ensure that there is a stable future for it in this country. That is imperative.

The recommendation to abolish VAT is set out in the following terms:
" VAT on foal and yearling purchases, and on the transfer of a home bred yearling from stud to training, and on the importation of horses from abroad should be abolished."
That is a clear and specific recommendation. It not only has the support of the whole of the industry, but it is entirely in line with the attitude adopted both in the Irish Republic and in France.

The Home Office should press the matter to the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer as a vital and immediate need. It should likewise seek the reduction or abolition of the on-course gaming tax of 4 per cent., with which I was much concerned in 1972. Reduction or abolition would greatly assist by ensuring that racecourse attendances rose. The figures are there for all to see. Attendances show a steady fall, and reduction or abolition of the tax is the way in which to deal with the problem.

A British horse racing authority would greatly assist the Racecourse Association to ensure and maintain the efficiency of our racecourses, subject to the control of that authority. I see no need thereafter for the acquisition of the courses.

I turn to the subject of gaming. The scope of the Gaming Board as the continuing authority needs to be clarified swiftly. The Board has done a good job and should continue to control to a greater degree not merely gaming and bingo but lotteries, pool competitions and amusements with prizes. That would involve some increase in staff and the clarification of many regulations. There is an urgent need to change some of them.

In particular, there is an original error that must be rectified swiftly. Persons engaged in hard gaming who present a cheque for the purpose of gaming are not able to redeem that cheque at the conclusion of the play. The result is that the casinos frequently lose. Regret-ably, people dishonour cheques and go off with their winnings. The law must be changed as soon as amending legislation can be introduced so that a balance can be struck at the conclusion of the play. It is also undesirable that players who have presented cheques that have been dishonoured should be allowed thereafter to play at gaming in the casinos until their debt has been discharged.

Those recommendations should be carried into effect, but if popularity is what the Home Office wants—my knowledge of the Department goes back many years and I know that that is what it likes particularly; I have often been instrumental in giving it that popularity on many matters that I have advocated —let it above all introduce the recommended tax to be levied on the punters for the purposes of play. The recommended figure of 7½ per cent. is too high, but if the punters have to pay £5 on every £100-worth of chips purchased for play the yield to the Government will be considerable. Moreover, that would be in line with Government taxation in other areas. It is a small amount to pay to bring the legislation up to date.

I turn to lotteries. The House must have the opportunity to decide whether a national lottery for good causes is viable. It is the view of most associations, and it is certainly my view, that a lottery for good causes is total despotism. It all depends on who will decide the good causes. It would be admirable if the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West became the person responsible, as the chairman, for choosing the good causes. If I can choose them, I am prepared to favour the proposal. But if, as is advocated, they are to be chosen by three or four people who apparently will be very distinguished men —that is why I said that I hoped I might be one—it will be completely autocratic control. There will be no control by anyone over who chooses the causes, and the result will be absolutely autocratic despotism.

It is interesting that the Royal Commission is first class on almost all the technicalities and the question of machinery. It makes its errors only where it enters the political field, and does so for a number of reasons. The local lotteries meet a deep-seated need. The needs of spastics, the mentally handicapped and many local causes are best suited to promotion by the local authorities and the societies concerned, which are all viable organisations doing great local good. The local people, whether through the councils or otherwise, decide where the money shall go. We should keep the lotteries essentially local and increase the amounts paid out. We should raise the £40,000 limit somewhat, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) and once advocated. We have told the hon. Lady that if she had done it in those days she would have been more popular, but she could not persuade her Government to do so.

It was a long time before the regulations finally came before us, and they have now to be altered, because in the instances of some of them there have been many abuses. But the effect of a national lottery would greatly harm the benefits accruing to local charitable efforts. There is only a limited amount of national and local money in the lottery field. Syphon it off for a grandiose national scheme, autocratically controlled by a small board, and we lose the benefits which accrue to the local lotteries.

The pools promoters are opposed to such a scheme, and there is really no reason why the pools competitions, which attract substantial revenue and which are taxed, should not continue.

I want one assurance from the hon. Lady this afternoon. That concerns the statement by the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancester that, in the event of a national lottery, the lottery would be taxed in the normal way, and the effect of a tax which would exceed 30 per cent. would be to make the project in any event totally undesirable. I think that this is the best protection now.

I turn to the recommendations. There are a great many of them. I intend to give the hon. Lady her full time to reply to these matters.

First, there is recommendation 9 in paragraph 7.4. For the betting offices, new legislation will be required. There are no WCs. There are no soft drinks. They do not allow for evening racing—and a frequent occurrence in the summer evenings it is. Also, following the debate, the House ought to consider whether the offices should be open for Sunday racing. There are many views to and fro on that issue.

Recommendation 13 in paragraph 7.73 is clearly right. It appeals for a code of conduct for the protection of punters. That is eminently desirable.

Recommendations 65 and 60 say that there should be no external lottery managers although consultants may be employed to set up a scheme. There have been abuses in this field and certainly some limitations should be applied. I regard the necessity for consultants as being valuable, but I believe that the more local one can make the schemes, the better. Frankly, I do not want to see —whether they are efficient or not—matters being taken over by large concerns outside their area to run those lotteries. Equally, no lottery should be connected with a gift scheme. That is recommendation 68.

Then, concerning the Gaming Board, the report says that it has not been able to keep the control over lotteries that it would have liked. I am sure that Sir Stanley was right about this. There is a need for regional inspectors from the Gaming Board to supervise lotteries. This can be well effected through the Home Office. As I see it, it does not—I hope—require legislation. That is recommendation 73. The Board is right in saying that the expenses for lotteries should be limited to 15 per cent.—which is recommendation 101.

Also—there is not time to deal with them—there are 21 recommendations for licensed bingo clubs, many of which are desirable and do not require legislative effect. These are set out in recommendations 211 to 243.

The comprehensive nature of this report, which is a magnificent piece of work by Lord Rothschild and those who worked with him, is exemplified, to one's amusement, in recommendations 244 to 249, where it rightly says that Chinese gaming should be protected by law. The Chinese, inveterate gamblers in this country, are subject to virtually no con- trol today as very few people can speak Chinese. But equally, the fact is that in Soho today considerable gambling goes on, and the Commission is entirely right when it says that it should be subject to protection in the normal way. No doubt Chinese policemen and Chinese gaming inspectors will be employed for the purpose.

As regards amusements with prizes, there are many sound recommendations.

Finally, I come to the matter of greyhounds. Some years ago I passed through this House, on the nod and with very few amendments, a Bill to deal particularly with the number of betting days for the greyhound racing industry. All the recommendations are sound. None of them is controversial. All of them can be introduced. They will require legislation. They will go through on the nod, and they will be passed very quickly.

The recommendations are that the number of betting days each month should be increased from 14 to 18; that the public holidays special betting days should be increased from four to six; that the betting days be related to the licensing year instead of the calendar year; and that the number of races permitted at any one meeting should be increased from eight to 10. Those proposals are agreed.

The most important proposal did not meet with agreement. There is a great need to revise the formula for charges for bookmakers on-course. About £103 million a year comes from betting on greyhounds on course. The bookmakers are charged a mere £350,000 a year. That is only five times the normal admission charge. It is ludicrously low. The Home Secretary must find a suitable formula for reasonable charges to be applied. The charges are not reasonable and they are deductable for tax.

The Under-Secretary of State's predecessor did not listen to me as long ago as 1960 when I wished to change the gaming laws and introduced the first Gaming Bill. I introduced that Bill on the day that I was married. The Home Office was becoming unpopular because it was not controlling the Mafia-like operations in the mid-1960s. I called for an autocratic gaming board. As a result of action on both fronts, the popularity of the Home Office shone. Everybody said how marvellous it was that the Home Office was dealing with those problems and how well the new law was implemented.

It is now necessary to have an appeal procedure to a review board from the Gaming Board through the High Court. as is recommended by the Rothschild Commission. If that is done there is no reason why the system should not continue in substantially the same way and that powers should not be widened to cover all the other spheres associated with gaming so that amusements with prizes, lotteries, bingo, and so forth are taken under one umbrella. There is no reason why the staff should not he expanded. But the Home Office must keep control over wages and salaries.

The Home Office should say that it intends to see that such legislation is proposed and prepared now. Where regulations can be changed and where improvements can be made without changes in legislation this should be done now.

My old Mum used to say"If you have got a job to do, do it now. If it is one that you wish was through, do it now. If you are sure that the job is your own, you must tackle it alone, but for God's sake do it now." That is what I advocate.

4.17 p.m.

I thank the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) for drawing attention to the report of the Royal Commission on gambling and for giving me previous notice of the points that he wished to raise.

The report was published only last July. It contains 303 recommendations covering almost every aspect of gambling. I thank Lord Rothschild and the members of the Committee for all the work that they have done and for producing such a thorough and wide-ranging report on an important subject.

The report provides the first full review of gambling since the report of the Royal Commission of 1949–51 on betting, gaming and lotteries. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said, the present report contains many interesting ideas which the Government will wish to examine.

We have asked all those interested in the Commission's recommendations—and they comprise a wide body of organisations and individuals, including the local authorities, the Gaming Board, and charities—to let us have their comments by the end of the year, if possible. I assure the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West that his views will be carefully considered in conjunction with all the other comments.

He will not expect me, in under 13 minutes to give the Government's response to the major recommendations in the report, let alone to all 303 of them. I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for being so quick off the mark. Obviously, he has read the report thoroughly, if not entirely, and has come to conclusions on all 303 recommendations, or so it seems. I only hope that everyone else is as quick and thorough in coming to conclusions as the hon. and learned Member has been.

I am most sympathetic to the hon. and learned Member's idea of a debate on this enormous two-volume report. I should like to know the views of hon. Members on a wide variety of subjects, but the hon. and learned Gentleman knows that it is not for me to initiate a debate. That responsibility rests with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. However, at the end of such a debate, which would range over an enormous number of points, it would be difficult for the Government to have formulated ideas on each one. However, it would be most useful for us to hear the views of the House.

The subject must for practical purposes be divided into three parts—lotteries and pools, gaming and betting. The Government will have to proceed at a different pace for each.

I should perhaps say a word or two about chapter 12 of the Commission's report, which deals with lotteries. The Commission's proposal for a national lottery is dealt with separately in chapter 13 of the report. The Commission is critical of the existing law on lotteries and the situation which obtains under it, and goes so far as to say that that situation is"scandalous ". The report urges reforms under the following main heads.

The first is the prevention of commercial exploitation. It is proposed that there should be a prohibition on the employment of external lottery managers and restrictions on advertising lotteries.

The second is improved control of lotteries. It is proposed, inter alia, that the Gaming Board should be made responsible for the supervision of all public lotteries.

The third is control of lottery tickets, to ensure that instant and bearer lottery tickets are securely manufactured and distributed.

I should perhaps say at this point that it is clear from some of the comments we have already received that not everyone accepts all the criticisms of the Royal Commission on existing lotteries or thinks that its general picture is a fair one. But there can be no doubt that there is need for an early review of the present law on lotteries, and my right hon. Friend has said that he is giving urgent consideration to the Commission's recommendations on society and local authority lotteries. I cannot yet say what the outcome of this will be, but our aim is to make the Government's intentions as regards lotteries known in advance of any announcement about their conclusions on the Royal Commission's report generally.

So lotteries will be put first in that respect. It may be that our proposals for lotteries could best be made known by means of a consultative document which would be widely circulated among the many bodies with an interest in this matter. That could be done as early as next year.

Of the total of 303 recommendations in the report, about two-thirds would require new legislation, and about 30 could be dealt with by regulations.

Some concern has been expressed this afternoon about the Pool Competitions Act 1971. The Act was a temporary measure passed after a ruling of the House of Lords that a certain competition, which had been run on the basis that it involved pool betting, was an unlawful lottery. A number of charitable and sporting organisations derived substantial sums from competitions of this kind, and the 1971 Act was passed in order to allow the competition to continue for a time, under licence from the Gaming Board.

The intention of the 1971 Act was to afford the organisations concerned a period in which to diversify their sources of income. Although the initial life of the Act ended in 1976, it has been renewed on three successive occasions by order of the Secretary of State, so that it is now due to expire in July 1979. It is, I think, fair to say that the Act was renewed from time to time so as to make it possible to consider the matter afresh in the light of the Royal Commission's comments. The Royal Commission concluded in chapter 15 of its report that there was no case for allowing the Act to continue beyond July 1979.

The organisations which benefit from competitions run under the Act have made representations—many of them very strong—to the effect that my right hon. Friend should further review the Act, or alternatively, introduce some new measure which would allow them to continue to benefit from such competitions. I cannot say today what our response to these representations will be, but my right hon. Friend is aware of the need for an early announcement about the Government's intentions, and I hope that that will not be too long delayed.

The hon. and learned Gentleman refered also to horse racing, and here the major recommendation is that a British horse racing authority should be set up. It is proposed that it should be representative of all aspects of the racing industry and should be the supreme administrative and legislative body for British racing, taking over most of the functions of the Horserace Betting Levy Board for the assessment and collection of the levy. The authority would delegate to the Jockey Club the functions of licensing and discipline.

This is clearly an important issue on which the Government want to consider the views of all concerned before reaching any conclusion and then see whether there is a consensus. I cannot say at this stage whether a voluntary or statutory body will eventually be set up, but I have noted the hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks.

I know that there is some disappointment in greyhound racing circles at the rejection by the Royal Commission of proposals for further support from bookmakers and punters, but some concessions designed to assist the sport are proposed. Other recommendations regarding greyhound racing are proving to be controversial, and again we shall be carefully considering the comments received. It is not easy when a Royal Commission report causes controversy and the Government therefore have to weigh up the arguments for and against.

As for the hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks on VAT and those of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy about a national lottery, obviously, both the hon. and learned Gentleman's views and those of my right hon. Friend will be taken into consideration, and when our conclusions are finally reached they will be considered by the House before implementation.

Will the hon. Lady give an assurance that after the discussions with the Home Secretary there will be an early debate on this matter, at the end of January or the beginning of February?

As I said earlier, this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I shall convey to him the hon. and learned Gentleman's request.

It is genuinely made on behalf of a great many associations. I did not want to enumerate them, but almost all have asked for it.

I appreciate that, and I understand that my right hon. Friend was asked for such a debate recently in business questions. I shall refer the matter to him again.

I turn next to gaming. The Royal Commission found that the gaming scene is now very different and in almost every respect improved since the time when public and parliamentary concern led to the passing of the Gaming Act 1968 and the establishment of the Gaming Board. The Royal Commission considered that the Board had been particularly successful in dealing with casinos but suggested that it should now place more emphasis on gaming machines and lotteries. It recommended also the establishment of a gaming review board to which appeal could be made, where appropriate, against certain decisions of the Gaming Board.

The Royal Commission made almost 150 separate recommendations on gaming in its various forms, and these will have to be carefully examined when interested bodies and individuals have had an opportunity to comment. There is certainly room for more than one view on these many recommendations, and the hon. and learned Gentleman's views will, naturally, be noted.

I referred earlier to the action being taken in regard to lotteries. To deal with some of the many other important matters covered in the report, a new unit has recently been set up in the Home Office. Its responsibility will be to receive comments from all interested individuals and organisations on those recommendations of the Royal Commission relating to betting and gaming and to consider the implementation of the recommendations in the light of the views expressed by those concerned. As a first step, letters are being sent to those organisations primarily concerned with the Commission's proposals, reminding them of the opportunity to submit comments on the report. It is hoped that such comments will be received by the end of the year or as soon after as possible.

Finally, I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving us this opportunity today to focus attention at a comparatively early stage—,

The Question having been proposed at Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.