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Offshore Gambling (Licensing)

Volume 540: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2012

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Gambling Act 2005 to regulate remote gambling on a point of consumption basis; to require all operators selling into the British market, whether in the United Kingdom or overseas, to hold a Gambling Commission licence to enable them to undertake transactions with British consumers and to advertise in the United Kingdom; to provide that all relevant operators contribute to the Horserace Betting Levy; and for connected purposes.

I am proud to stand in the House to represent the global headquarters of horse racing. For centuries, Newmarket has been at the heart of that great sport. From the time when the merry monarch moved his court twice a year to gamble on the races, to modern times when the jobs of 5,000 of my constituents are linked to racing, the story of Newmarket has been, and remains, interwoven with the story of racehorses.

I declare an interest. I am widely supported by the racing industry, including as declared in my entry in the register, and I am an unwavering supporter of racing.

As the presence of so many Members in the Chamber shows, the issue is not just about Newmarket. Attendance at horse racing is second only to football. British racing is among the best in the world; our blood stock is the best in the world. More than 6 million people, from every walk of life, visit British race courses every year; £10 billion is placed in bets, £300 million is paid in taxes and 100,000 people are employed by the racing industry nationwide.

This great sport is under threat. Racing has suffered a devastating fall in funding. The horse-racing levy—the annual payment from betting to racing in return for the product on which so many bets are placed—has declined from more than £100 million in 2009 to less than £60 million last year. Prize money, the lifeblood of the sport, has fallen by half in two years. Even second place will no longer cover the cost of diesel to many of our smaller fixtures. The number of mares in foal is declining and more of our best stock is sent overseas for training, especially to France.

Race courses, trainers, jockeys and staff are struggling, and livelihoods are under threat, but with attendances at courses at record levels, why is there that decline? It is because since 2007, 18 of our 20 biggest bookmakers have moved offshore, so according to bookmakers’ own estimates they avoid £300 million in tax and tens of millions in contribution to the levy. As punters increasingly go online, that avoidance is set to grow. Offshore bookmakers also fall outside UK consumer protection rules and stifle competition from those who remain onshore. Smaller independent bookies lose out, as do responsible bookmakers who remain onshore, such as Bet365 and Coral. In their correspondence with me, independents despair that there is no level playing field. Why should they pay the tax and full levy when the big boys do not?

Offshore bookmakers tell me that they are only offshore because their competitors are, so I shall take them at their word. Let us have a level playing field, efficiently enforced right here in the UK. How should it be done? What is the proposed solution?

There is now broad consensus in the House and outside that the levy system is broken. It has failed to keep up with the times and it should be replaced with a commercially sensitive alternative, such as a racing right. Instead of the antagonism generated by the levy system, gambling and racing can work together to their mutual benefit. As Paul Bittar, the impressive new chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority has set out, the new system must be sustainable, able to adapt to ever-changing technology and to the rapid channel shift towards online and smartphone betting. Of course, those wider reforms must also encompass betting exchanges. After all, a bet is a bet whether one side is a company or another punter.

The basis of any commercial arrangement must be a level playing field for bookmakers—onshore paying tax. That is what the simple change in the Bill would bring about. It would not solve all the problems of the world, but it would have a big effect. It would define the location of the bet as not where the bookie is but where the punter is. Technically, gambling licences would be provided on the basis of point of consumption, not point of sale. A bookmaker who wants to market to British punters and take bets from them must be licensed by the Gambling Commission. Tax and levy would be paid. It is a simple change with a big effect. There are two concerns that I want to tackle head-on. First, some say that bringing bookies onshore would drive punters to unlicensed sites. Hold on: most sites are already offshore, outside full regulation. That, indeed, is part of the problem, so the Bill would bring the vast majority of bookmakers back onshore. Offshore bookmakers could not advertise and would face prosecution.

I am a practical man. Let us not make the best the enemy of the good. Just because we cannot do everything does not mean that we should do nothing. Indeed, the argument about leakage shows just how important it is that the onshore rule is enforced properly. I say, yes, there is concern about leakage: let us ban offshore gambling effectively. Others make the objection that the 15% tax rate is too high, and should be cut—we should use the carrot, not the stick—and I think there is merit in that argument. I am in favour of lower taxes, and no tax should be punitive. I say, yes, there is a tax rate that is fair to racing, bookmakers and the Treasury. It is not zero, and the Bill should be the first step in finding it.

British horse racing has a proud history, and a broad and passionate following. For generations, it has been the best in the world, attracting talent from around the world, and it is the envy of the world. At this moment—the moment of Frankel, Kauto Star and Her Majesty’s own Carlton House—when the glittering sport of racing is at its best, we should look to the future with optimism and hope, yet optimism there is not, because the sport’s financial currents are on a rip tide. However, there is hope. It begins with this Bill. The support of the House would give this finest of sports, the sport that we love, hope to compete in the world, hope that jobs can be saved and our heritage enhanced, and hope for a bright future. I commend the motion to the House.

I should begin by declaring an interest as a racehorse owner and breeder. Despite that, I oppose the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock). I do not quibble with his argument on a point-of-consumption tax on principle. My objection is that it addresses the wrong issue. In practice, the matter is far more complex and the measure is doomed to fail if it does not address the issue of tax.

As my hon. Friend knows full well as a Government insider, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Treasury are already looking at the key issues. In July last year, the Government announced a proposal to regulate the remote gambling industry on a point-of-consumption basis to enhance the protection and regulation offered to UK online customers. Following that proposal, the Treasury announced its intention to review the taxation regime for remote gambling to bring it into line with the basis of regulation for the industry.

My hon. Friend is clearly a champion of the racing industry, so I am surprised by his unquestioning enthusiasm for the measure. He said that the levy had declined, which it has, but he failed to mention that bookmakers are paying more and more every year in picture rights. The combined amount of the levy and picture rights means that bookmakers are paying more than ever for their racing product, despite its being less and less of the bets that they take. A funding deal is being negotiated, and if betting firms have to pay more than they can afford, there will be a decline in their operating profits and in what they can pay to racing.

The idea that the Bill would enhance UK consumer protection is absolute nonsense. The British market is one of the most highly regulated markets in the world, and therefore one of the most protected. If we look at the white list—my hon. Friend said that businesses offshore were unregulated; they are not, as they all have to be on that list—the whole point is to ensure that the UK accepts only countries that have similarly rigorous levels of protection. If I accepted his insistence that this was a matter of regulation rather than taxation, I would regard the Bill as a solution looking for a problem, but I can tell him that it would reduce consumer protection if enacted.

A Deloitte report, “The impact of a point of consumption tax on the remote gambling industry”, published in December 2011, concluded that

“given the low returns that a significant proportion of the smaller operators currently earn, even relatively low levels of POC tax could force some of the smaller firms to exit the online gambling market.”

Therefore, a 15% point-of-consumption tax would increase the risk to punters in an otherwise well regulated and safe market, as bookmakers would be forced to exit the UK market and less compliant operators remaining outside the tax net would still target UK customers.

The Deloitte report cautions against any point-of-consumption tax, which is interesting in itself, but clearly states that a 5% tax

“would distort competition, leading to as much as 13% of UK online gambling… moving into the grey market.”

A 10% rate of tax would see 27% of gambling move into the grey market, and a 15% rate would see 40% of punters seek a competitive offering in the black and grey markets, thereby defeating the Government’s stated policy objective of increasing customer protection.

Regulating markets in the way my hon. Friend proposes is proving extremely difficult for Governments around the world. Some have tried internet blocking and some have focused on banning financial transactions to illegal sites, but they have all been spectacularly unsuccessful; that applies not only to the gambling sector, but to other sectors. Since the Italian market was subjected to a high-level tax regime, illegal gambling in Italy is now believed to be worth between €12 billion and €20 billion a year in turnover.

The US internet gambling market amounted to around $6.4 billion in 2010, including sports betting, horse racing, casinos, poker and bingo. Only around 4% of that was on horse race betting, which is licensed in the US, and the remaining 96% derived from licensed betting companies based outside the US, for example in Costa Rica. Such gambling is regarded by the US authorities as illegal, but measures to prevent it have clearly not been wholly successful. Norway’s gambling watchdog has admitted that its online payments ban has “not been a success”, as research showed that more than half of internet gamblers now play as often as they did before the prohibition, but on unregulated sites abroad.

The Government are always vocal about formulating policy based on evidence. If they are serious about that, they should practise what they preach. The Deloitte report concluded:

“International evidence from jurisdictions such as the US, France and Italy indicates that many of the regulations introduced in these markets have failed to prevent the emergence of a large unregulated sector. These examples highlight the potential for customers to switch between licensed and unlicensed sectors, and point towards some of the challenges that are involved in introducing effective measures to prevent this occurrence… enforcement is challenging, with no existing system proven to be entirely effective and some jurisdictions losing significant shares of the market to the unlicensed sector.”

Without proper enforcement to protect the market, the reality is that only those based in the UK will be caught by the tax. We would therefore be in a perverse situation in which those operators that take out British licences and become subject to our taxation would be at a significant competitive disadvantage and their businesses would suffer accordingly. We would also create an unregulated monster abroad.

The motivation behind the Bill seems to be to raise revenue. As a result, it could even be rendered illegal under EU law. That could prove a hugely costly battle, and one that I am not entirely sure the Government could be confident of winning. My guess is that that is why they want to focus on consumer protection and regulation in an attempt to get around this particularly sticky wicket, but I am afraid that it is doomed to failure. If the POC rate were in single figures, many betting companies would accept it, but the higher the rate, the higher the likelihood of legal challenge.

Interestingly, Denmark has introduced a lower rate of tax for online gambling than for offline gambling, so that is an option now open to the UK Government. However, unfortunately there seems to be little evidence that they are reviewing such a policy. I was greatly encouraged by my hon. Friend’s view that the tax should be as low as possible, because getting 5% of something is a lot better than getting 15% of nothing.

Please do not take my word for that, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Deloitte report concluded that

“a cautious approach to the introduction of a POC tax appears to be appropriate. Setting an initial tax rate below 10% would be consistent with minimising the risk of promoting a grey market”—[Interruption.]

My hon. Friend seems to dismiss the Deloitte report, but he should bear it in mind that the Treasury Minister concerned used to work for Deloitte, so she might have more faith in its work than he does.

We need to focus on why some betting companies are based abroad. The reason is the level of taxation, and the level of taxation alone, so the Bill is a blunt instrument that does not address the need for a competitive rate of gross profits tax or allow businesses to reclaim their VAT in the UK. That would be a far more sensible point from which to start the debate, and one which many in the industry would be more willing to accept.

I fully appreciate where my hon. Friend is coming from, and I do not object to his proposal on principle, but I urge him to concentrate on the benefits of a single-figure rate of point-of-consumption tax, to weigh up the possibilities of a legal challenge from a powerful consortium and, most important of all, to address the elephants in the room—the high rate of VAT and the high rate of tax—and ensure that they are part of the solution, because if they are not, my hon. Friend’s proposal, which is genuinely intended, will be doomed to fail.

Question put and agreed to.


That Matthew Hancock, Nicholas Soames, Mr Gerry Sutcliffe, Mr Don Foster, Sandra Osborne, Ian Swales, Miss Anne McIntosh, Brandon Lewis, George Freeman, Simon Hart, John Glen and Mr Sam Gyimah present the Bill.

Matthew Hancock accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 March, and to be printed (Bill 304).