HC Deb 10 May 1960 vol 623 cc206-14

3.47 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I beg to move, in page 5, line 36, after "than", to insert "six months after ".

It will be remembered that, when the Bill was under consideration on Thursday last, on the eve of the Royal wedding, our proceedings were interrupted at a point when the Home Secretary had given a qualified assurance that he would reconsider the provisions in Clause 6 with regard to the increased penalties proposed for street betting offences when the Bill comes into operation.

I use the expression "comes into operation" as distinct from "comes into law", because the whole point of the Amendment I am now proposing is to ask the Home Secretary to tell us something more than we have yet heard about the Government's intentions with regard to the timetable for bringing into operation not only this particular part of the Bill, but the remaining parts of it. In Committee, this aspect of the matter was left in some confusion. Clause 29 provides for the Act to come into force on an appointed day. Clause 6 contemplates that this particular part dealing with increased penalties for street betting will come into operation not on the same day as the Act comes into operation, but at a later date. My Amendment proposes that that later date should be not less than six months after the day appointed for the coming into force of the Measure.

Since the Amendment was tabled, some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have, I think, doubted whether the period of six months would be adequate. If the Home Secretary is prepared to accept the principle of the Amendment, I hope that he might be willing to go even further than the Amendment suggests and provide an even longer interval between the time when the Bill operates and the date when the increased penalties begin to operate.

It will be appreciated that this is a matter of vital concern to street bookmakers. When the Bill begins to operate the system of licensing of betting offices will begin. We do not know how long that will take. It is not yet clear what the procedure under town planning legislation will be, but inevitably there must be a considerable interval of time after the Bill comes into operation before the betting offices throughout the country which the Home Secretary envisages can be acquired, licensed and approved, if necessary, under town planning schemes.

Not until that stage will the bookmakers know which of them have been fortunate enough to obtain a licence for a betting office and which have not. The unfortunate ones will then either be deprived of the livelihood which they have hitherto enjoyed or, if they tempt Providence, they will be subject, as street bookmakers, not merely to the same penalties to which they have been subject for some years, but to the increased penalties proposed in this Clause. On any footing, it would seem desirable as an act of justice that a fairly long interval should elapse before these unfortunate people become subject to these severely increased penalties which on Thursday my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) described as savage.

In Committee, I think that the Joint Under-Secretary of State promised that there would be a generous interval to enable this interregnum to operate. The problem will be particularly acute in London and the South, whereas in Scotland and certain parts of the North of England betting offices already exist —although at present they are illegal they will become legal under the Bill —and, therefore, there should not be any great delay in the mechanics. Whether there will be any delay in Scotland I do not know, but it is obvious that there must be considerable delay in London and the South. There will be difficulties in finding accommodation. Bookmakers will be subject to extortionate demands for the new betting offices which they will be forced to acquire. Those evils will be accentuated unless there is a fairly long period before Clause 6 begins to operate.

There is a further point on which the House would welcome some information from the Home Secretary, namely, to what extent the Government's recent announcement concerning the recommendations of the Peppiatt Committee will affect the Government's timetable for bringing the Bill into operation. All that we have heard so far is that the Government are not to deal with the Committee's recommendations this Session. We understand that they are contemplating separate legislation next Session to deal with them. At one time, the Home Secretary hoped that the recommendations of that Committee might be incorporated in this Bill. It is obvious that some hon. Members are far more interested in the recommendations of the Peppiatt Committee than they are in certain provisions in the Bill.

Perhaps the Home Secretary will tell us whether it is his intention to make arrangements for appointing a day both in respect of the Bill generally and also with regard to Clause 6 without waiting for further legislative measures which would be necessary concerning the recommendations of the Peppiatt Committee.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

This is a reasonable and modest Amendment and we advise the House to accept it. In view of the remarks of the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher), I would remind the House that we are dealing with a rather narrow point, and I cannot respond fully to his invitation to deal with various other matters which seem to him to arise from it. An opportunity to deal fully with those other matters will arise on Clause 29 and, in particular, on the Amendment to it in page 23, line 27, at the end to insert: not being earlier than the first day of March nineteen hundred and sixty-one". This Amendment merely defines the period which should elapse between the coming into operation of Clause 4, which relates to betting office licences and betting agency permits, and the bringing into operation of the increased penalties under the Street Betting Act, 1906. The House will recollect that ever since the Royal Commission, and right through our discussions, it has never been disputed by anyone that there should be a reasonable interval between the appointed day for the purpose of the licensing system and the appointed day for the purpose of increased penalties under the Street Betting Act.

We are not here considering a mere period of grace after the Bill receives the Royal Assent. We are considering a much later period of grace, which may not be for another year or so, which will not start until after the day appointed under Clause 4. Bearing that in mind, we feel that the period of six months suggested by the hon. Member is about right. Six months should be long enough after the licensing procedure has been established and after the people concerned have found premises in which to work for them to get away from their old practices, which are to be prohibited in future, of steet betting and to make a clean start with betting offices.

Candidly, I think that that is all that it is in order and appropriate for me to say at this stage. Certainly, I would be right out of order if I were to discuss the potential effect of any later proposals which the Government might put before the House with reference to the Peppiatt Committee's Report.

4.0 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

I should like to express my appreciation and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who, although he cannot be with us at present, will join us later, to the Government, for we raised this point in Committee.

I must, however, express my regret— I hope that the Home Secretary will take note of this—that the right hon. Gentleman is not joined this afternoon by the Secretary of State for Scotland. At all stages of the Bill, particularly in Committee, we have learned to our horror that the bribery of the police in Scotland is a national industry. It is carried on regardless of the social consequences and it is clear that the Bill will reward it.

Last Thursday, the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) pointed out what the Bill will do. Those bookmakers in the North who have established betting shops outside the law are to be given a substantial reward. They will at once be promoted officially into the Surtax-paying class. [HON. MEMBERS: " Oh."] Hon. Members interrupt, but this is the effect of it—

Mr. Speaker

That may be the effect of it, but will the hon. Member either relate his argument to the Amendment or cease using it?

Mr. Wigg

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. If you will bear with me for a moment or two, I will come to the point. I raised it in Committee, when I pointed out how horror-struck I was to learn that the Government's proposals on this matter were conditioned by recommendations from the Home Office.

We have been given instance after instance—it is all in the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Committee proceedings— to show that the Scottish Office will be in a position of great difficulty. The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said that it would be a matter of the greatest difficulty to carry the Bill into operation because the corruption in Scotland has gone so far, so wide and so deep that a maximum effort will be required even to begin to get away from this pernicious state of affairs.

I have not the least objection to what is done in Scotland as long as it does not come south of the Border. I am, however, entitled to point out the effect in Scotland and that the Scottish miscreants who have evaded the law, certainly for the last fifty years, to their personal profit, are now, as it were, to be sanctified by the Government. On the other hand, citizens in the South, who live in constituencies such as that represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), or in Dudley or Stourbridge, are to be hounded by the law.

Mr. Speaker

I do not mind what happens in Scotland, Stourbridge or anywhere, but I do mind what happens here. The hon. Member is obliged to address himself to the Amendment.

Mr. Wigg

Your concern for what happens here, Mr. Speaker, is fully shared by myself. I am endeavouring to point out that the Government are doing not one thing, but two things, and that whilst the interval which elapses between the appointed day and the date on which the penalties come into operation has an importance for Scotland, which I mention only in passing, I am concerned also about the interval as it affects Bermondsey, Dudley and Stourbridge. As the representative of Dudley and Stourbridge, I am entitled, I should have thought, to the full protection of the Chair in putting that view. I am not here concerned about arguing whether the law is carried out in Scotland.

I want from the Government an assurance, which I am sure the Home Secretary can give, about the application of the law in England. My reason for protesting on this point is that we are entitled to have the Secretary of State for Scotland here to give us an assurance, which certainly could not be given by the Joint Under-Secretary, that an interval of six months will be sufficient to purge the police of the poison which undoubtedly circulates in Scotland now.

I make the point not because I want to interfere in any way with what happens in Scotland. The reason why the bookmakers in my constituency and in the constituencies of other hon. Members who represent English constituencies are to be hounded is that the Secretary of State for Scotland has failed to carry out his duties in the past. I have seen no evidence, nor has any statement ever been made from the Government Front Bench, that the Scottish Office even has any qualms of conscience about the intolerable position which exists in Scotland. The Secretary of State for Scotland should be here to give us an assurance on this point. I use this opportunity, therefore, first to thank the Government for their generosity in conceding the point made in our Amendment, but also to protest at the absence of the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

There is a great deal of validity in what my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has said. The Clause and the Amendment concern the penalties to be imposed on street bookmakers once the Bill becomes an Act. I understand that the Government now concede that there will be a six-month period of grace before the penalties begin to be imposed on street bookmakers.

The reason why street bookmakers are being abolished is that it has been discovered, much to our horror, that north of the Border there are already about 400 illegal betting shops. It came to me, as a Southerner, as a very great shock to know that they were being flagrantly patronised, people were going to them and they were an accepted part of the way of life. It was said again and again in Committee that that being so, the status quo must be accepted, but that down South the status quo must go. It was on that basis that we had our long and, sometimes, heartbreaking arguments on the whole question. The effect of the Amendment is that the increased penalties for street betting will be deferred for six months.

I appreciate this small acknowledgment of the fact that these people are to be made illegal overnight, which is what will happen when the Bill comes into operation, but these people will have a tremendous job to make themselves legal. It might well take more than six months before some of them can get the shops which make them legal. In my area, they are having great trouble in getting the right sort of places in the right areas. Prices now being asked for these shop premises are fantastically high. The price of the property has gone up enormously. It will, therefore, be a considerable time before they will be able to start operating legally.

I thank the Government for what they have done. As the Amendment applies to the increased penalties for street betting, I wonder why the hon. Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore) did not put down an Amendment to it—he might just as well have done, and I am sure it would have been carried—to have the street bookmakers flogged as well as fined £100. That would have been most appropriate when the Government are determined to wipe them out, and the hon. Member could have had the time of his life. I would have put down a further Amendment demanding that the flogging be done in public, so that we could all get fun out of it. as the hon. Member would have done.

Mr. Speaker

I must ask the hon. Member to observe the rules of order.

Mr. Mellish

I end on a small note of thanks to the Government for making this small concession.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Niall Macpherson)

As will emerge later at the appropriate stage of the Bill, the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) underestimates the time which street bookmakers will be given to put their houses in order. The hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has talked about what he learned with horror. It was the hon. Member who spread the horror in Committee; and it was not what he learned, but what he said. The hon. Member, however, has not given us one jot or tittle of evidence to support his suggestion of corruption in the police in Scotland and I cannot accept what he says. We believe that the six months will be adequate in Scotland, as it will be in England and Wales.

Mr. Wigg

The hon. Gentleman says that he has no jot or tittle of evidence. He has only to read what he said in Standing Committee. He said: Do not let us disregard the fact that to enforce the existing law would require a tremendous amount of effort."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D. 15th March, 1960; c. 835.] The hon. Gentleman went on to suggest that only the fringe of the problem was being touched in Scotland, yet in 1958, 16,000 people were convicted of nearly 4,000 betting and gaming offences. This was a problem which the hon. Gentleman agreed existed. He said that only the fringe of it was being touched.

Mr. Macpherson

It is true that there has been great difficulty in enforcing the law, but there is no difference in that respect between Scotland and England. The only difference is that the law has been infringed mainly in one way in England—by street bookmaking—and in another way in Scotland by having betting shops.

Mr. James Mclnnes (Glasgow, Central)

I. too. express my pleasure that the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department has accepted the Amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher). In fairness to all the book-making fraternity down here, it will considerably clarify the position.

Again, we have had observations by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) concerning what he calls the horrible practices that prevail in Scotland. He has not yet realised, however, that when he deals with the Scottish position his speeches are always regarded by hon Members, in the House as well as in Committee, as a model of non-informative eloquence. To that extent, I hops that we will hear no more about these horrible practices in Scotland.

Amendment agreed to.