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Betting, Gaming And Lotteries (Amendment) Bill Hl

Volume 492: debated on Thursday 21 January 1988

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6.15 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I wish to declare my interest as the chairman of the British Greyhound Racing Board which is the elected representative body for greyhound racing that operates under the rules of racing of the National Greyhound Racing Club.

This is the third time in eight years that I have asked for the indulgence of the House to agree to measures which seek to amend the statutory straitjacket in which the sport of greyhound racing was placed in 1933 and 1934. I am pleased to say that on two previous occasions in 1980 and 1985, the Private Members' Bills which I submitted to the House were eventually passed and made law. Those Acts, principally the 1985 Act, removed the statutory ceiling on the number of days and races when greyhound racing could be held.

The House has heard much discussion in recent weeks of the problems that in another place can beset Private Members' Bills which have been approved by this House. However, I hope that the Bill will be supported in both Houses.

The Bill seeks to amend one of the many remaining restrictions on greyhound racing; namely, the limitation to five times the normal public admission on the charges that can be made to on-course bookmakers at greyhound racecourses. Those charges are unrealistic and accepted as such by the bookmakers themselves who make voluntary payments to the racecourse managements to supplement the low statutory returns. Their total nationwide voluntary contributions to the tracks amount to approximately 55 times the price of normal public admissions. That is not over-generous. In fact the National Association of Bookmakers has already offered to make suggestions that bookmakers increase their voluntary contributions.

My Bill simply seeks to regularise this situation by increasing the statutory multiple to 70 times the cost of the admission. I mean that as an absolute maximum, thus dispensing with the necessity of having to place so much reliance on voluntary payments. It is true that horse racing has a similar restriction of five times the admission for on-course bookmakers; but of course that sport has the distinct advantage of having the support of an off-course betting levy given to them by the Government. Greyhound racing does not have that advantage so this Bill is solely related to greyhound racing and does not affect horse racing in any way. The authorities of horse racing have written to my board saying that they will not themselves seek a similar amendment to the 1963 Act.

Whenever a Totalisator is operated at a greyhound racecourse, that racecourse must by statute permit on-course bookmaking. Managements are under a statutory duty to provide convenient space and facilities where the bookmakers can operate. The ratio of betting at greyhound racecourses is approximately 75 per cent. to the bookmakers and 25 per cent. to the Totalisator. The permitted legal deduction by the Totalisator operator is limited by statute to 17½ per cent. So clearly the Totalisator cannot itself support the operation of greyhound tracks at 17½ per cent. of an ever decreasing proportion of the on-course betting turnover. Now contrast that position with the on-course bookmakers. They have only to obtain a bookmaking permit from the licensing justices and then they have no further degree of accountability whatsoever. They can make any deductions they wish for profit and any other arrangements. There is no method at all whereby either the licensing authority or the racecourse management can intervene.

The average admission charge for greyhound racecourses in Britain is about £2, resulting in an average maximum charge of £10 per bookmaker. For this small sum he can set up his stand at a greyhound track and use all the facilities to operate his business. In total, there are 90 tracks in this country. So the bookmaker is required to make no further payments whatsoever towards the operation or promotion of the sport.

As I have said, many bookmakers recognise that the present statutory charge is quite inadequate. Nearly all of them make voluntary payments to the racecourse managements in addition to the statutory charge. It is estimated that the nationwide sum which accrues from these voluntary contributions is approximately £6·3 million per year. However, this is a very uncertain method by which to operate a business. These voluntary charges can be and are withdrawn without notice by bookmakers and indeed can be subject to legal challenge as being contrary to Section 18 of the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Act 1963. It is considered that these voluntary payments are outside the ambit of this section, but of course challenges of this nature are a continuing worry for the racecourse concerned. Voluntary contributions also invite interference from bookmakers in the conduct of racing. Regrettably, there have been a number of such instances.

So in order to take a more realistic view of the present and future arrangements, this Bill provides for the adoption of a new multiple of 70 times the admission charge as maximum. Ideally, there is a strong case for saying that this section should be repealed entirely and that market forces should prevail which would take into consideration obviously the requirements that bookmakers have to be admitted whenever a Totalisator is operated.

However, our discussions with the Government have brought forth the view that the most acceptable form of amendment is to alter the multiple. I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister whether he would consider this point very seriously and perhaps discuss it further with his experts and advisers.

After all, the restrictions basically on greyhound racing in 1933 were there to protect the working-class man from gambling away his money instead of looking after his family. This was long before supermarkets, betting shops, do-it-yourself and the hundreds of new temptations to spend money which are put in the way of everybody today. In those days, betting on horses and dogs was the only way for the lower paid (or anybody for that matter) to gamble at all.

So I have endeavoured to sketch out the present situation concerning the sport of greyhound racing and the necessity for the Bill. It is a sport which does not receive any subvention whatsoever and must stand or fall on its own feet. The Bill seeks only to amend one of the remaining statutory shackles from the outdated legislation and follows the precedents contained in the previous amending Acts. With over 4 million spectators in 1987, slightly more than the people who went horseracing, and an industry employing over 5,000 people, we cannot afford to ignore the situation. Therefore, I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—( Lord Newall.)

6.30 p.m.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Newall, for giving such a clear presentation of his Bill. I am the more grateful because I personally feel rather inadequate when confronted with these serious matters in this sport. The noble Lord has made very clear what the problems for the sport are and that there is a need for some kind of change. I also understand from what he has said that the present admission charge for bookmakers to the track is not satisfactory to the sport as a whole.

I have had one or two thoughts about this issue and I should like to put these to the noble Lord. Also at the end of my speech I should like to put another idea to the Minister, although I am not quite sure what his response to this Bill will be.

From my way of seeing it, there seem to be three separate interest groups who are concerned, all of whom have to be satisfied. First, there is the National Greyhound Racing Club, who operate the sport. Secondly, there are the bookmakers, whose interests are represented by the National Association of Bookmakers. Thirdly, there are the spectators and punters. I have been unable to find anybody who represents their interests here; although I have asked around the House this afternoon, I have found no one who satisfied me on what the punter needs.

The noble Lord has presented the case as from the British Greyhound Racing Board and made it clear that the new multiple of 70 may sound excessive over the present multiple of five. However, he maintains that the true payment is at present nearer to 55 times the admission charged by way of voluntary and statutory payments. However, the British Greyhound Racing Board concede that the multiple which this Bill seeks to raise is artificial and has no relationship whatsoever to the cost of promoting the sport and ensuring its integrity. I therefore understand that this multiple has been chosen in rather an arbitrary way as higher than the present charge but not so high as to make it unacceptable.

Perhaps I may move on to the reaction of the National Association of Bookmakers. I must admit that it seems to be rather unequivocal. They say that they are implacably opposed to Lord Newall's Bill and the reason they give is that they believe that it is unfair to raise the multiple of maximum admission fee which can be charged from five to 70. They point out that this sum must be paid by a bookmaker each time he attends a meeting which could be several times a week.

Also there are far fewer punters per bookmaker at a greyhound track than at a racecourse. Consequently, the bookmaker at a dog track has less potential revenue. This I understand is the position that the bookmakers present. The association also says that any further increase would have to be passed on to the punters. This is where the situation becomes rather more worrying. It suggests that it would lead to a decline in the number of punters, a fall in turnover and still fewer bookies on the tracks. This is what my investigation has uncovered as regards the bookmakers.

I wish briefly to mention some of the recommendations which came out of the report of the Royal Commission on Gaming chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, in July 1978. The commission at that time recommended that charges made to bookmakers should remain unchanged. The report stated:
"We are not persuaded by the cases made for adjusting the present formula limiting the charges which tracks can impose on bookmakers on course and we recommend that it should remanin unchanged".
The provision that bookmakers cannot be charged more than five times the entrance fee was:
"designed to protect the bookmakers on course, to ensure that the punter has access to a competitive form of betting when totes are in operation, partly to protect the punter and partly to prevent track management from making excessive profits".
The report concludes:
"We are in no doubt that the position of bookmakers on tracks operating totalisers should be protected. If some change were needed to ensure this it would have our support. But the National Association of Bookmakers apparently had no specific change in mind and matters can therefore be safely left as they are".
I know that that report was published in 1978, which is a long time ago, but nevertheless those were part of the recommendations put forward by the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild.

Finally I come to the position of the punters and spectators. As I have said, there seems to be doubt that the extra cost put on to the bookmakers might be passed on to the punters. So with their interests in mind I find it difficult to give my wholehearted support to the noble Lord's Bill and would very much rather put a suggestion to the Minister, which would be that perhaps we should devise some alternative form of funding, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Newall, said, is certainly necessary. That alternative form of funding could be introduced with the mutual support of the various interested parties involved in the running of this sport. That would mean that there was a fixed admission fee which was of a different nature for the bookmakers and not based on a multiple of what the spectators pay.

I understand completely from what the noble Lord, Lord Newall, said that there is a problem. I am not absolutely convinced from my investigation that his solution is the correct one. He himself admitted that he was not sure that it was the ideal way of dealing with the situation. But I shall be very interested to hear when the Minister replies whether he will put forward some ideas of his own.

6.34 p.m.

My Lords, it may be helpful if I intervene at this stage to indicate the Government's views of the Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Newall, has introduced and which he has very capably explained to us. The present law—Section 18 of the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act 1963 — presupposes the presence of bookmakers when there is greyhound racing and governs the amount which management may charge bookmakers and their staff for this opportunity.

As the noble Lord indicated, one original purpose of the provision has been overtaken by the passage of time and changes in social culture. The origin was a concern to forestall the multiplication of greyhound tracks, which were providing a new betting opportunity to working men. The social evil which the legislation sought to anticipate did not come about, whether because of the success of the provision, a change in the habits of the working man or his recourse to other leisure possibilities. The other purpose of the provision was to assist in providing a choice of betting for punters between the tote operated by the track owner and the odds offered by the bookmakers. This may be seen to retain some validity as a measure of fair competition.

It is, however, common ground that the original restriction on the amount that management may charge bookmakers is open for revision and negotiation. This is reinforced by the fact, which the noble Lord has explained, that bookmakers already make voluntary payments in addition to the charges levied on them as a result of the legislation.

As the noble Lord has indicated, the Government would favour a reform of the current arrangements should that be agreed by both parties. The two representative bodies, namely the British Greyhound Racing Board and the National Association of Bookmakers, have been in negotiation for some years about a means of rationalising the financial arrangements between their members.

As I understand the position, the measure before your Lordships is not agreed by the bookmakers. This may be because the sums generated by the proposed new factor of 70 times the admission charge could be greater than those currently provided by the voluntary payments. But it seems that it is rather the inclination of the bookmakers to keep to an informal system.

The nature of the present system of voluntary payments may be thought not to be entirely satisfactory. On the other hand, the measure before your Lordships has not secured the agreement of the bookmakers, which may be thought to be a necessary ingredient. The Bill does address a real issue. Whether the solution it proposes is the right one is a question for Parliament to judge. I most readily note the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady EwartBiggs, but in the first instance it is for your Lordships to decide whether the Bill should proceed.

6.36 p.m.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for the time and trouble that she spent in doing her research. I was extremely interested to hear what she said as well as what my noble friend the Minister said.

If the noble Baroness wants to know what a punter wants I can tell her. He wants very good racing at a reasonable cost, with good dogs, good tracks and good prizes. Unless we as a racing board have more money coming in many tracks may have to close. Then people will be put out of work, as well as putting the punters out of their flutter.

The Royal Commission chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, was not without its own flaws and they have been proved with the passage of time. But I do not think it realised that in 1988 the bookmakers would be paying up to 55 times the admission charge voluntarily. Therefore that knocks a bit of a hole in the report in some ways.

As I have already said, the informal system is no way to run a business. We must find a method to run this sport. If we are two people who cannot find a solution, it is up to one of us—which is why I am introducing this Bill—to try to find a solution which will be workable even if one side does not agree with it at the moment. I am most grateful to noble Lords and to the noble Baroness for what they have said and I shall note it very carefully. I hope that we can see this pass to the other place. I beg to move.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.