HC Deb 18 November 1947 vol 444 cc1101-12

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Nally (Bilston)

I hope the House will forgive me for raising at this late hour a question to which I have already devoted a good deal of the time of the House—the re-organisation of the football pools industry. There are a good many national institutions of which we can be proud. But there are some national institutions about which there is, and ought to be, a good deal of doubt and anxiety, among which fall the football pools. I ought to make it plain at the outset that I do not believe it is either possible or desirable to stop football pool betting. In this matter some sections of opinion in the Church, though not all, are quite wrong; we cannot stop it. But what is possible, and desirable, is that Government Departments, in their relationship with the football pools industry, ought to be guided by the real national interest, particularly in these difficult times, and ought to have particular regard to the proper and economic use by football pools organisations of labour and raw materials.

It is estimated today that the football pools industry has a turnover of at least £70 million a year—and even that may well be an under-estimate. Of this £70 million, something like 90 or 95 per cent.—say, £60 million—is accounted for by the big firms, such as Littlewood's, Vernon's, Sherman's and Copes. There remains £7 or £8 million per annum, which is a comfortable crumb falling on the table of scores of lesser pools organisations, about which firms I propose to say something in a moment or two. Clearly, an industry of this kind, involving tens of thousands of workers directly full-time, and tens of thousands part-time, and involving a whole range of other labour expenditure among Post Office workers and men and women employed in paper production, ought to be scrutinised very carefully in the demands it makes upon our resources. At present, every week there are something like 8,000,000 postal packets passing through the Post Office from football pools firms, and something like 6,500,000 coming back.

All these facts added together seem to me to indicate a far greater need for detailed interest in the pools than has been shown hitherto by the Departments of State, and particularly the Board of Trade. I contend that the football pools industry has got out of hand, and a measure of the responsibility for the fact that the industry has got out of hand rests upon the Board of Trade. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade—who in these matters has always been kind and courteous, even when provoked by long series of Questions from me on the subject of football pools—has recently had two interviews with the principal football pools promoters. In theory, the purpose of those interviews was solely to discuss a further reduction in the paper supplies of the pools. In point of fact, it was well understood, both by the principal pools promoters—speaking now of the "Big Seven"—and by the Board of Trade, that those discussions could embrace, if so desired, much wider issues affecting the football pools.

Some of us hoped that when the Parliamentary Secretary or his chief entered into those discussions, they would at least make what was the obvious suggestion to the big football pools promoters about a procedure which would have immediately effected massive economies in terms of paper, labour, and so on—namely, the re-introduction of the wartime arrangement of the Unity Pool organisation, when the seven principal pool organisations joined together in one pool, and ran something like 90 per cent. of the country's total football pool business. Instead of that, for some reason—and I hope to have my hon. Friend's answer on this point—the re-introduction of the Unity Pool was, as I understand it, never even discussed. Even if it were, the Board of Trade accepted the representations of the principal pool promoters that it was not worth while, and that it would not result in this particular economy. If the Unity Pool had been in operation last year—it would have been perfectly proper at that time for the Board of Trade to have gone to the pools and asked them to do it—we should not have had the ridiculously expensive and wasteful publicity of last summer, with tens of thousands of people employed as canvassers—

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

Is the hon. Member not referring, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to matters requiring legislation?

The Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

I think that the hon. Member is perfectly in Order.

Mr. Nally

I am suggesting what the Board of Trade are always entitled to do, namely, to make representations. I would also argue that under the Supplies and Services Act they have the power to do these things.

The Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member has so far been in Order. I advise him not to get out of Order.

Mr. Nally

I should like to know why the Board of Trade have not made representations to the principal pool promoters on this subject. On the question of paper, time and again, in response to Questions from hon. Members, including myself, figures have been given of the paper consumption of the pools. The present position, according to the Board of Trade, is that the pools are using approximately one per cent. of their prewar paper supplies. I have always been doubtful about that figure, and I still am. It was not until three months ago that even the envelopes used by the pools were included in their paper allocation, and it was not until three months ago that any paper used for pool publicity purposes was included. And so, all the figures we have had for the past 18 months to two years have been based purely upon the paper used for coupons, and have never included the mass of paper used by the pools for other purposes until quite recently.

Mr. Osborne (Louth)

Is the hon. Member accusing the Board of Trade of deliberately misleading the House?

Mr. Nally

Not in the least. There is nothing further from my mind. I am suggesting to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that he and his Department have to some extent been misled by the pool promoters, including the big ones. He has always worked on the assumption, when negotiating with the big pool promoters, that while he was negotiating with businessmen of rather an exotic kind they were nevertheless businessmen. In fact the Board of Trade were and are negotiating with gentlemen who had come up the hard way, who have developed in the main from bookmakers and bookmakers' runners to football pool promoters. It is the fervent hope of every small time spiv in the back street that his son will grow up to become a great football promoter like Mr. Moores and Mr. Sangster, and get into the ranks of high super-spivery.

I am asking an explanation about the precise basis on which these paper calculations are made. Over two years ago, I suggested to the Board of Trade—the suggestion was turned down—that they should license paper supplied to all firms engaged in the pool industry. That suggestion was rejected again and again, but three months ago the Board of Trade saw the light. They have now accepted what I have been putting forward, namely that all pools should get their paper under licence. If the Board of Trade are going to issue paper by licence to football pools, then the State has a responsibility in the matter to see the public are protected from exploitation. The State has already a responsibility, because without the Post Office services there would be no pools anyway.

I want to put this point to him: I know of pools, small ones it is true, where there has been conducted what I can best describe as a "legalised swindle." There are scores of these small firms in existence, and there were before the war, which have never paid out at any time above 10 per cent. of the total revenues accruing to them. Firms with total receipts from bettors of between £30 and £250 a week and even more have never, I repeat, paid above 10 per cent. of their takings. I go further. There are some firms which have taken steps quite deliberately to mislead the public as to what they are actually doing. I want to read, for the purposes of the record, a list of just a few of these firms. They are: Southern Pools, Balham; S.P.A., Leeds, which employ about 60 people; Zetter's International Pools, Euston Road, London; International Sporting Pools, also of London. Incidentally, the proprietor of International Sporting Pools is Mr. Chard, who, in 1938, figured I am told, in a rather amazing incident. There was issued, for publicity purposes, by this firm, a photograph showing Mr. Chard displaying great benevolence, while presenting a cheque for £1,506 to a lucky winner. This photograph was circulated, and looked very well indeed. Some time later, purely by accident, it was discovered that the delighted recipient of the cheque was none other than Mr. Chard's own brother, and that no cash had ever passed between the two. But Mr. Chard may be asking my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for a licence to get the paper to carry on conducting his pool, and I want to know whether the Board of Trade will grant that licence.

This list of firms which I am quoting also contains the following names: Novelty Pools, Swansea; Page Pools, Birmingham; Star Pools, Stockport, and a little bunch of other pools centred around Birmingham, not one of which dare submit a list of winners to any person or a newspaper. These pools, most of which were in existence before the war, will come to the Board of Trade, and, according to an answer to a Question which my hon. Friend gave me earlier in the week, when they do he will raise no question about granting a licence for paper if they were in business before the war. It is a serious situation that a Government Department should be issuing valuable raw materials to firms which without overstepping the law, are "rooking" the public. It is a disgraceful thing, and—

Mr. Jennings (Sheffield, Hallam)

Are they within the law?

Mr. Nally

Yes, this point has been gone into carefully. The position is quite fantastic. It applies to all of them—big pools and small alike. There is no legal obligation on any pool of any kind as to how much or how little it pays out. They please themselves.

Mr. Geoffrey Cooper (Middlesbrough, West)

Has my hon. Friend any information about Murphy's Pools, of Edinburgh?

Mr. Nally

So far as I know, they fall into the category of those firms which are paying out 70 per cent. and above of their total revenue. I am bound to say that in justice to Murphy's Pools. But when we are dealing, as the big firms are, with huge revenues, and 75 or 80 or 90 per cent. is paid out, what is important is to know not what is paid out, but how much is retained, what the 5 per cent. profit represents, what the expenses allowed by the Chancellor represent, and a good deal else besides. Coming back to the question of the little pools, it is an extremely serious business, and on it I would like my hon. Friend's guidance.

I want to take up now a point which affects the Board of Trade and at the same time the Ministry of Labour—the transfer of pools' personnel. I want to raise an individual case, and I want an assurance about it which, I hope, will be satisfactory. The Ministry of Labour, in conjunction with the Board of Trade, have been endeavouring, properly, and, I know, with the co-operation of the pools firms, to secure the transfer, in certain areas of the country, of pools' employees to other jobs. Among these firms is Venons, the second largest pools firm in the country. Vernons have an industrial subsidiary called, "Vernons Industries Limited," which is engaged upon the large scale manufacture of steel kitchenware. They are building up their export trade. I understand that they have arrived at an agreement whereby they will transfer some hundreds of girls from their pool organisation into their industrial subsidiary. That is all right so far as it goes.

It was then said in a Press interview, and I do not know whether it is correct or not, by a leading personality of Vernon's that he intended to apply for an additional allocation of raw materials used by the industrial subsidiary of his firm in order to employ these 500 girls. I have firms in my constituency using the same types of material, and these firms do not employ and have never employed hundreds and thousands of people in gambling. I want an assurance that in no circumstances, as part of the deal for the transfer of employees of football pools to more useful work, will industrial subsidiaries of football pools be given extra raw material to preserve their personnel. To do that would seem to give a positive advantage to those engaged in running a gambling enterprise. For that I do not think we ought to stand, and I am quite certain that some firms in my constituency will not stand for it.

To refer to rather minor matters. My hon. Friend will remember that I put down a Question that I understood that licences had been granted by his. Department for the manufacture of 10,000 desks for the Football Pool Association. I got the reply, not that licences for 10,000 desks had been granted, but that last autumn licences were granted for the manufacture of 3,900 desks for one football pool in Liverpool. This involved something like 2,400 cubic feet of recovered hard wood and 21,000 cubic feet of plywood. The original newspaper story said that 10,000 desks were wanted. The truth is that 10,000 desks were wanted. I put down a Question on the Order Paper at the stage when licences for 3,900 desks were granted and no further licences had been applied for after that Question. I put down, at a later stage, another Question in which I asked for a guarantee that no further licences of this kind would be granted. The Minister refused to give that undertaking. I wonder whether he is prepared to give it now? No valuable raw materials of this kind ought to go to football pool organisations.

I am not against football pool gambling as such. My father-in-law thoroughly enjoys his 3s. or so a week, and I want him to continue to do so. But. I am thoroughly dissatisfied with the present organisation of the pools and the weakness shown by the Board of Trade and Ministry of Labour in dealing with certain aspects of this problem. I want an assurance that the attitude of the Government and its various Departments in future will be based upon more rigid supervision of these organisations and their requirements, and a more alert and active attitude in dealing with these various problems arising from the pool industry.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

I know that the hon. Member who raised this question wants a reply, but I would like to say a word about the general position of the pools. A lot which the hon. Member has said I am in agreement with, but I think that his remarks were an attack upon football pools as a whole. I think that we should recognise quite clearly that there are millions of people in this country who believe in pool gambling. I do not think that we are entitled, or have any right, to interfere. I think we are justified in regulating it, and I am very glad to see at long last some attempt being made in that direction. I hope it will be followed up. I think that any criticism of swindling does not apply in a very large degree to the larger pools. They can afford to play straight. I agree that the margin which they take out of the pools is too large. The amount is 10 per cent. or approximately that, which is far too high, but the time has long since arrived when there should be some regulation not only of the pools, but of every form of gambling in the country. As a nation we should be wise enough to get down to it and regulate it. We have started it now and we should so regulate it that those who indulge in football pools or any other form of gambling shall, at least, be protected in a way they are not protected today.

10.21 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Belcher)

I do not intend to be led by my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkdale (Mr. Keenan) or by my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. Nally) into a discussion on the ethics of football pools. My job at the Board of Trade is not to arbitrate as between the different forms of gambling or to express myself as to the ethics of gambling in general. Indeed, I am not prepared to do that. There is an old saying that what is one man's meat is another man's poison I never filled in a football pool form in my life, but I do not see why one should not do so, if one wants to, until the time comes—I hope it does not come—when the State will decide that such activities are not desirable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bilston raised this matter as he has done from time to time in Questions in this House, and I fear—and I say this with all respect and in friendliness—he is allowing this to become a bit of a bee in his bonnet. It is all very well to scrutinise carefully the activities of people engaged in such businesses as football pools, but to be eternally engaged in a witch hunt looking for things which are not there and assuming things which are not, in fact, true, is not healthy. His assumption that I met the leaders of the pool industry on two occasions recently, and that I did not suggest a return to Unity is quite incorrect. The first suggestion that I made to the Football Pool Promoters Association was that they should return to the Unity arrangement, and they proved to my satisfaction that returning to the Unity arrangement, in fact, would not yield us any saving in manpower and paper which is my concern.

I am only concerned to save paper and manpower. There could only be a saving in manpower and paper if, in fact, there was overlapping at the present time. Until recently I know there was a certain amount of overlapping but very little of it. I am satisfied that the successive cuts which I have made in the paper allocated to the football pools rules out of the question any possibility of overlapping. In fact, the large football pool firms have had to clear their lists of quite a number of people who did ask to have their forms.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Belcher

I am afraid I cannot give way. I was left nine minutes in which to reply to a 25-minute Debate and to give way would be quite unfair. I do not altogether agree with the slur which was cast about bookmakers' runners wanting to become bookmakers. I would not say that of the football promotors I have met. So far as I am able to judge, the men engaged in that industry are perfectly honest business men engaged in a business which may not commend itself to some Members of this House but which is perfectly legal. In fact, my hon. Friend might like to know that the leading man in this industry, so far from having been a bookmaker's runner, began his life in what is regarded in this House as a most respectable occupation, that of railway clerk.

Major Haughton (Antrim)

Can the Parliamentary Secretary deny any other statements made by the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. Nally)?

Mr. Belcher

My hon. Friend mentioned the small football pool firms. I agree that they have given me some concern, as they have to the Football Pool Promoters' Association. It has been possible for these small firms to do a number of things which did not appear to us or to the association as being the kind of thing we wanted to see done. Whether we have done it late in the day or not—and my hon. Friend is entitled to claim some credit for having put the idea into our heads—we are now licensing these firms, if they require an amount of paper in excess of 2 cwt. per period. To make the amount under 2 cwt. would be quite uneconomic.

Mr. Osborne

How long is the period?

Mr. Belcher

Four months. If they want to run a football pool they will have to come to the Board of Trade in order to get the paper to operate their pool. I have an agreement with the Football Pool Promoters' Association, to which I am certain they will adhere, that they will confine their activities to sending out a coupon in an envelope enclosing a gummed label for the return of the envelope. There will be no advertising of any kind, not even in the Press, no posters and no canvassing. There will be no advertising of any kind anywhere. They will confine themselves simply to sending out a coupon and to receiving the coupon back.

I have already been subjected to criticism in the national Press. It is said that if there is no duplicate form more paper will be used because people will use stationery. I do not believe it. I believe people will use waste paper which otherwise would go into the dustbin. As I said, I have an agreement and these negotiations have been carried on with the Football Pools Promoters' Association, but the 500 or so odds and ends of football pool promoters are not represented in the association. However we have this licensing power, and I can assure the House that the licensing will be applied stringently. Firms outside the Football Pool Promoters' Association who come to the Board of Trade and ask for more than the two cwt. of paper which they can acquire without licence, will have to prove to our satisfaction that they are playing the game in that they are not advertising and not engaging in any dubious practices. We shall, as far as possible, endeavour to see that they, are playing the game by their customers.

There is only time to deal with one more point, and that is the one about Vernon's Industries Ltd. It is true that I suggested to both Messrs. Littlewood's and Vernon's that, in the event of the measures we were taking resulting in a redundancy of staff—in Liverpool, mark you, where there are 25,000 unemployed—that they might be prepared to do what they did with very great credit during the war, engage in production. They said, "Yes." Vernon's Industries is not a new firm. It was first licensed in 1945 to produce metal, domestic non-utility furniture. They have been treated by the Board of Trade in exactly the same way—no better, no worse—as any other firm applying for licences for that particular kind of product.

In 1946, before the steel position had become what it is, they did have considerable allocations of sheet steel, on the recommendation of the regional officer of the Board of Trade that Vernon's Industries were providing work in an area where jobs were none too plentiful—and that is understating the case. During this current year, in common with other firms producing non-essential articles for the home market, their steel allocation has progressively declined to some 200 tons per period, as compared with the 300 tons per period which they were getting in periods two, three and four of 1946. In period four of this year they got only 45 tons, of which 32 tons were for export purposes only. It is altogether unlikely that they will have any sheet steel at all in the first period of 1948, except in so far as we are supplying them with sheet steel to meet their export orders.

The Question having been proposed after Ten 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 Twenty-Nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.