HC Deb 20 July 1961 vol 644 cc1603-14

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

10.10 p.m.

Mr. John Taylor (West Lothian)

The purpose of this debate is almost wholly exploratory. It must necessarily be so, because I am, as you know, Mr. Speaker, prevented by the rules of order of the House from advocating new or amending legislation.

The subject which I wish to draw to the attention of the House arose in the following way. The Town Council of the Burgh of Bo'Ness, in my constituency, received an intimation from a local cinema company that it proposed to promote sessions of the game of Bingo each Wednesday and Sunday afternoons and possibly on more frequent occasions. The council consulted the chief constable of my area, who, after lengthy inquiries, informed the council that this form of betting was not illegal under existing legislation provided that the promoters complied with Section 16 of the Betting and Gaming Act, 1960.

The chief constable, William Merrilees, is a well-known personality who has an instinctive, inherent and highly laudable abhorrence of all forms of gambling. I can imagine with what reluctance he gave this ruling, but the town council had no alternative but to note the company's intentions. It could do nothing about it except to express unanimously, in the strongest possible terms, its condemnation of the project. The members of the council took the only possible step which remained open to them, namely, to ask their Member of Parliament to discover whether anything could be done to give a local authority some degree of control over the activities of such clubs so that they may be kept within reasonable bounds and so that the town council could be sure that the law was being strictly observed and operated.

I considered how best I could comply with this request from a responsible body of distinguished constituents. I came to the conclusion that the only way open to me before the Summer Recess was to seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment.

I am not opposed to people playing Bingo if they wish to do so provided that the stakes are modest and the game is kept free, as is the intention of the Act, from organised inducements to encourage gambling beyond the means of the people taking part in it. My philosophy is not that of the often quoted housewife who called to her husband in the kitchen, "John, go and see what the bairns are doing and tell them to stop it". I never gamble. I would not know how to fill in a football coupon. I have backed only one horse in my life, just to see what happened. It won at 8 to 1, and I thought that that was a good time to stop.

Nevertheless, I feel that, to some extent, people have the right to do what they like with their own money provided that they do not use it for anti-social purposes and that their obligations to their families are not ignored. As far as my researches and observations have been able to assure me, it seems that there is a small minority of inveterate gamblers who have been gripped by this Bingo fever to such an extent that their families and homes have suffered.

Just as we have chronic alcoholics who lose all sense of self-discipline, so, I am told, there are chronic Bingo addicts. As we have as yet no "Bingo Anonymous" institutions, it is not preposterous that we should consider how we can remove extreme temptation from their paths. It is the existence of this factor of unbridled and undisciplined indulgence in this form of gambling which worries the burgh council in my constituency. From my correspondence, it is clear that it worries a large number of people over the country as a whole. In particular, my burgh council feels strongly that Sunday is not a good day for organised games of chance.

The relevant part of the Betting and Gaming Act, 1960, has been in operation only from 1st January this year. Normally, one would say that a longer period was necessary to judge the effect of a piece of social legislation of this nature. This, however, is a special piece of social legislation, and this is a special case. I have made inquiries about how the new law is operating and I have had an astonishingly substantial mail, which I have carefully analysed with that facility for sorting the wheat from the chaff which every Member of Parliament acquires. It seems to me that in some cases—it may be only a small minority—the law is being honoured more in the breach than in the observance. When we feel that that is happening, it is our duty to examine the situation.

It seems that the widespread practice when a person wishes to join a Bingo club—and this is legal under the Act—is to apply for a form of membership and to fill in that form, which asks for one's name, address and age. On the form which is generally supplied, one agrees to abide by the rules of the club as currently in force or by such alterations in the rules as may subsequently be made. I should hesitate to sign such a document. It seems like giving a blank cheque. When that document is signed, a membership card is issued next day to the applicant. My information is that in many cases such cards do not show the rules of the club or even a resume of the rules.

I suggest that a membership card should, in these circumstances, carry at least an outline of the rules. In some cases, the rules are displayed on the premises in which the club operates, but not by any means in all cases. I am informed that Bingo parlours, by which title they are frequently known, into which anyone can go, with no challenge as to membership—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member knows my duty. I do not think that the Minister is responsible for a Bingo parlour, or the rules of the particular club. He might be responsible for the character of the premises on which Bingo is played and be might, perhaps, if legislation were introduced, be made responsible for other matters, but there are difficulties, as the hon. Member knows, about proposals for legislation in relation to this kind of debate.

Mr. Taylor

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate that fact. I hope that what I subsequently have to say will not clash with that difficulty. I will watch you carefully, and if I see you becoming uneasy I will immediately stray from the point at issue.

I think that it will be in order to point out that in some cases children are taken into Bingo clubs by their mothers with no apparent restriction. I was intending to mention several other instances where it seemed to me that the law as it exists is being ignored. I am not at this moment advocating its amendment. That is a matter for the Government to decide. I was proposing to point out several cases in which the law appears at least to be ignored. I submit that in Scotland it is the duty of the Secretary of State to see that the police carry out the duties which the law places upon them. I have not the slightest doubt that the Under-Secretary of State will refer to police responsibilities in this direction, and I hope I may be in order, or so much on the borders of order, that I may be allowed to put these points, which are borderline points.

I was about to point out that there are several devices by which the law as it now exists is in some danger of being flouted. For example, there is the extra ticket device, which is by no means unknown. What happens is that if the normal rate for a ticket is 4s., three tickets are offered at 6s. as an inducement. Thus, everyone does not stand an equal chance of winning unless all have succumbed to the inducement to buy three chances. Therefore, it is an inducement to extra gambling.

All Bingo promoters are within the law in this respect, as far as I can discover, and they do announce the amount of the prize money, as they are legally obliged to do, but not that unknown amount obtained from the sales of the cards. The Statute requires that the entire amount from the sale of cards, that is, the stake, must be distributed as prize money. Clearly, if that is not done, there is a suspicion that a portion of it is being retained as the promoter's profit. There is the accumulator device, which I will not go into tonight. Briefly, this is that a portion of the stake money is held back and is piled up in an accumulator as an extra inducement to go again the next night and night after night until the accumulator is won.

There are many other reasons which I had better not mention, in view of the suggestion which you, Mr. Speaker, have made, but there are a number of reasons from which it would seem that we in this House have a responsibility to see that the public are being safeguarded against attempts to avoid the spirit and ignore the letter of the law. I am not permitted to advocate new or amending legislation, but I hope that I have made clear how, in this particular instance, the law is being operated and that there is need for some supervisory machinery, which, I suggest, would best be operated by the local authorities.

I return to the case of my own local authority, which brought this matter to my notice. It was dismayed at the lack of any power of supervision or control on its part. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will suggest ways of helping them in their problem by existing legislation. For example, it occurs to me that when a cinema intimates its intention to use the premises as a Bingo parlour for part of the week, this might be a change of use under the Town and Country Planning Act.

Would it not require the permission of the planning authority for such a clear change of use? After all, the planning permission was given to the premises as a cinema and not as a gaming parlour. There may be other safeguarding legislation which already exists, and I shall listen with very great interest to any suggestion which the hon. Gentleman can make. It may be of very great value beyond the bounds of my own constituency.

I should like to quote an excerpt from a speech in Standing Committee by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of State, Home Office, when he was dealing with this aspect of the Betting and Gaming Bill. He was answering the misgivings and apprehensions of my right hon. Friends, and he said: … we are concerned to make certain that there is no abuse and that the commercial exploitation of gaming, as the Royal Commission set out to achieve, shall not be permitted. The difference between the hon. Member and my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet is that my hon. Friend believes that the Bill as it stands will prevent the commercial exploitation of gaming. That is the Government's view."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D; 24th March, 1960 c. 1049.] It is clear from that very firm statement that the Government did not expect the extraordinary development of Bingo clubs on a commercial basis as we see it everywhere today. It is clear that the apprehensions expressed by my hon. Friends, in particular by my right hon. Friend the Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker) and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) were justified. It is clear that the commercial exploitation of gaming which the Government said so emphatically would not be permitted is being permitted on a massive scale. I hope that the Minister will at least say that the Government will take early action to see that the intention of Parliament is observed.

It is not my intention or purpose to do anything to stop small Bingo games which have operated for many years for small stakes and modest prizes to the benefit of charitable institutions, and sports clubs and supporters' clubs and even—as is not unknown—political parties. I am concerned, however, about the organised commercial games on a much bigger scale now operating and openly advertising big prizes. I do nut think that Parliament intended that they should be permitted. Sooner or later, we shall have to do something about them, and perhaps this short debate will serve as a warning to them that they had better watch their step.

10.28 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. R. Brooman-White)

The hon. Gentleman the Member for West Lothian (Mr. J. Taylor) has raised a very interesting subject tonight. I am most grateful for the reasonable way in which, as always, he has put his case. This game has, of course, been played in various forms for a very long time, but its recent growth in popularity has been very marked and has reached a point, as the hon. Gentleman emphasised, where it has given rise to some public concern, and in these circumstances it is only right that we should have this discussion this evening.

Bingo is a game that has been known by many names. In the Forces we called it Housey-Housey. It is also called Tombola. It has been called Lotto. In gambling "joints" all over the world it is known as Keno, Po Kino, Screeno and Bolito, a great number of names in many languages, for it is an international game, almost ubiquitous. I gather that the label Bingo was first attached to it in America, where it was probably selected as being a suitably terse and satisfying shout of triumph.

The circumstances under which the game has been played for money in this country in recent years fell in the first instance under Section 4 of the Small Lotteries and Gaming Act, 1956, which makes it possible to organise entertainments for what are called purposes other than purposes of private gain.

At that time the hon. Member was very properly concerned to find out whether the game as played in various miners' clubs, British Legion clubs and such places in his constituency was or was not transgressing the law. The general position under the 1956 Act was that certain conditions have to be complied with. There can be only one payment for each session; it cannot exceed 5s.; the value of the prizes is limited; and so on.

Since 1956 it has been regarded as possible to play Bingo legally under the provisions of this Act, and this was done quite widely, particularly by clubs seeking to raise funds. This has hitherto, as I have said, been regarded as legal. The situation has, however, been changed, as hon. Members know, by a recent decision of the House of Lords in an English case; and, as the House is aware, we are now studying the implications of this decision.

But what the hon. Member was chiefly concerned about in his speech was not Bingo playing as it has been going on for some years, but the proliferation of commercially promoted clubs which have sprung up recently and which claim to operate under the provisions not of the previous Act, but of the Betting and Gaming Act, 1960.

It is worth recalling very briefly what this Act set out to do. As far as gaming is concerned, it swept away a tangle of laws many of which were obsolete, and substituted for them an entirely new code. The effect of this is that gaming is not unlawful in itself. It becomes unlawful only by virtue of the manner in which it is conducted.

What this boils down to is that gaming is legal provided that it is fair among the players. In particular, since the hon. Member referred to the inducement involved in the offer of a number of cards at a reduced rate during games, I should mention here that it is clearly laid down in Section 16 of the 1960 Act that the chances in a particular game must be equally favourable to all the players.

Another provision is that the stakes all go back to the players as winnings and that no payment, apart from the stakes, is taken from anyone who is playing. This means, in general, that every penny which is paid to take part in the gaming must be handed back to the winners; but this requirement is modified where clubs are concerned. A club which complies with certain conditions in the Act—I shall refer to these conditions in a moment—may charge an entry fee which must be a fixed sum of money determined before the gaming begins. It is this provision which it is claimed covers the Bingo clubs which are the subject of the hon. Member's concern.

All that, as the hon. Member knows, is a very much simplified version of the provisions of the 1960 Act, but I hope that it is sufficient to indicate the broad intentions of that part of the Act which deals with gaming. It was designed to ensure that nobody should have a direct financial interest in encouraging others to gamble beyond their means. That is why it is illegal to provide for a promoter's cut out of the stakes, or to make arrangements whereby a "banker" has a better chance of winning than other players.

The exception in the Act for clubs took account of the existing practice whereby card money was, and is, charged for the right to use a card room at a social club or for taking part in a session at a bridge club. The Act does not distinguish between members' clubs and proprietary clubs, but it still prevents the management of a club from having any incentive to urge members to gamble for higher and higher stakes as the game proceeds.

What is a club? The 1960 Act contains no definition of a club, but requires that, in order to take advantage of the provisions I have referred to, certain conditions must be complied with regarding membership. The Act specifically excluded the "fly-by-night" clubs, whose promoters used to move around from place to place, fleecing whoever was available for fleecing.

The hon. Gentleman has raised a number of questions about the constitution of Bingo clubs and how far they really come within the provisions of the Act. This was one of his main points, but I am afraid that I cannot be very helpful to him on it. I am sure he will understand that most of these questions are matters for the courts, and, as a result, I cannot give any definitive interpretations. It seems to me that there must come a time when a club becomes so bogus that it could not be properly regarded as a club in the ordinary sense of the word, but where that point occurs is for the courts to decide.

The hon. Gentleman skilfully avoided any proposals for legislation, but I think that the degree of his skill can be assessed by saying that he left me with the impression that some amending legislation is what he would like to see. The 1960 Act, as he himself fairly pointed out, was a major piece of social legislation which broke new ground, and few of its implications have yet been decided in the courts. The position is that the gaming provisions of the Act have been in operation for less than seven months. During this time there has been this upsurge of Bingo. No one can say to what degree this is a passing craze which may die back to more normal proportions.

A number of reputable people and reputable journals take this view. Indeed, I read today in the Economist that Bingo is the childish name of an infantile game, the solace of measled children in damp Victorian nurseries, of inactive troops bored to death by tedious passage over girl-less seas, of happy campers disconsolate on a wet summer's day at Southend. … the Genoese fathers of the sixteenth century showed their contempt for the psephological skills of their subjects by electing themselves on the results of this game —which must have saved them a lot of boring or difficult questions about policy.

Be that as it may, Bingo, in one degree or another, has been played throughout the world for 2,000 years. It is not a question so much of prohibiting a time honoured, if not intellectually very exacting parlour game, but, as the hon. Gentleman stressed, of concern about a craze being carried to excess which might be socially injurious. It is difficult, if not impossible, to legislate against excess.

What the 1960 Act seeks to do is to legislate to prevent people from making a profit by encouraging excess. We will most carefully watch both the general situation and any interpretations which the courts may put on the relevant provisions of the Act.

The other point to which he referred concerned the manner of operation of these clubs. He mentioned various ways in which he felt that the Act was being broken. These are matters for the police, as he rightly envisaged. There are questions of construction for the courts to decide, but the Act makes it clear that the admission of young people under "8 is illegal, and the promoters and others who participate may be liable to severe penalties if this is permitted.

It would be wrong to give increased responsibilities to the local authorities in a field which is one for the enforcement of the criminal law, which must remain a matter for the police. Apart from this aspect of infringement of the criminal law, the hon. Member sought to explore the existing powers of local authorities to control Bingo clubs. There are no such powers in the 1960 Act, but those that exist in other legislation are indirect. When a club operates in a cinema or dance hall which has a licence either under the Cinematograph Acts or the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act, 1892, it can, I think, generally be assumed that such things as safety and fire precautions are adequately covered. Whether a local authority has any greater powers in such circumstances is rather doubtful.

The Cinematograph Acts specifically relate to the showing of films and it seems at least doubtful whether the powers of control over places of public entertainment, which are contained in the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act, apply in relation to private clubs.

There are, of course, controls over the erection of new buildings designed to ensure good structural standards. I think that it is fair to assume that these powers of control over new and existing buildings will probably become more effective.

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

Adjourned at twenty minutes to Eleven o'clock.