HC Deb 09 July 1984 vol 63 cc792-7

Again considered.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

I was not prompted to get to my feet until the remarks of the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) in moving the amendment. I confess that I have not studied his amendment and I have not studied the Bill. What I End completely offensive about the amendment is the typical attitude of Socialists that somehow they know best and should dictate to this House and to people who watch television. I do not think that I shall ever watch cable television when it is introduced. I have no particular views on the various competitions that are popping up in newspapers, let alone something called "Portfolio" in The Times. I have yet to understand it and could not care less about it.

What I find completely and utterly objectionable is that the hon. Member should somehow think, with all the wisdom that he commands, that he should dictate what people should watch, read and so on. For that reason alone I hope that the House will reject his amendment, but I suspect that he will withdraw it in any case.

Mr. Hurd

As has been said, the amendment was discussed in Committee. Since then I have had a useful meeting with the National Association of Licensed Bingo and Social Clubs and the British Bingo Association. I arts not persuaded, after considering the matter again, that there is room or need for a change in the Bill.

There are laws on gambling in Britain, and have been for a long time. The reason for legislation on gambling is the worry that people might fall into difficulty or misery from the hazarding of a stake. The whole of the gambling legislation is built round that principle, and it will apply to cable if a stake is hazarded.

It is an offence under the Gaming Act 1968 to engage in commercial gaming other than on premises which are licensed or registered under that Act. Participation must be confined to club members or their bona fide guests, who must be present on the authorised premises. That means that it would be unlawful to offer cable customers the opportunity of participating in commercial gaming, including bingo, involving the placing of a stake of their own, from their homes.

The Opposition have not been particularly concerned with gambling as defined in the legislation which the House has already passed. As for other forms of gaming where there is no gambling as so defined, I do not believe that there are sound reasons for subjecting people to some special kind of control.

There is the argument that the games will in some way be unfair to the gambling industry proper, but any company with interests in the gambling industry can diversify into the parallel area of non-gambling competitions. Therefore, I do not think that it is a strong point.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

Is the Minister saying that, if a cable company wants to build up its audience, provided that people are not putting up the money, it can give out numbers during the evening and a prize, donated by itself, to the first person to complete the card?

Mr. Hurd

I shall come to that point in a moment. It follows logically from the criticism that has been made.

In Committee the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) talked of the unfairness of a possible cable competition which was funded by sponsors, so that the individual, sitting at home, did not have to hazard a stake. Certainly that would rightly fall outwith the gambling legislation, because there would not be an individual stake. One cannot really argue that gambling should be prevented on cable in the interests of horse racing or of any other industry. If we followed that argument, we would rapidly come to the conclusion that all cable was bad because it lured people from cinemas, video shops or pubs. It is not our role, or that of the House, to make up people's minds for them, as to where they should seek their leisure. It is not for us to restrict their freedom of choice.

Mr. Denis Howell

Can the Minister kindly clear up the confusion arising from his speech? He now says that it is justified to have national lotteries if there is no stake, but a few moments ago I understood him to be saying that it would be unlawful anyway under the Act and that such competitions could not be organised. Will such lotteries, without a stake, be lawful on cable television under the terms of this measure?

Mr. Hurd

One of the points that I have been trying to make is that where gambling is involved existing gambling legislation will apply. The sort of competitions which the bingo industry fears will take away some of its business, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in Committee, and which the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) referred to, are not gambling as defined by the House. The competitions do not involve placing a stake. Therefore, gambling legislation will not apply.

The point that I was making when the right hon. Member for Small Heath intervened was that we would not be justified in telling cable operators that they must not provide this sort of entertainment simply because it might detract from the prosperity or well-being of other, competing leisure industries. That is an important principle.

I should like to reply to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). If someone applied to the Cable Authority for a franchise and said that he proposed to offer wall-to-wall bingo or some other surfeit or excess in a gambling operation, it is clear that he would not meet the criteria for a franchise, which have already been set out by the House.

Mr. Austin Mitchell


Mr. Hurd

I know what the hon. Member is going to say. Perhaps I can anticipate him, and he can tell me whether I am right. He will say that someone will get a franchise on a highly respectable basis and will then slip, as it were, bit by bit into wall-to-wall bingo. As the hon. Gentleman knows from his close study of the Bill, the authority is to monitor that sort of application and to tell people not to do such things. In the last resort, if they defy the authority's directions, it can take away a franchise. There will not be the blanket prohibition which the Opposition amendment seeks to impose, but the authority will be able to chack any excess in that direction if it went beyond the purposes of the Bill.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

I must confess that the Minister was half right about the point of my intervention, but what he says does not really answer the point. Bingo is the recourse of the financially desperate; witness the Daily Express and the Daily Mail, those declining giants which are desperately trying to build up their circulation. They have recourse to bingo. It will be the same for the cable companies. They will use bingo to build up their audiences when they face financial difficulties. In that situation the authority will have little control over them, because they will be in financial difficulties. If it does not allow then to have programme bingo, if not a wall-to-wall bingo, they will go bust, and nobody will be left to run the contracts. I that happens, what will the authority do?

Mr. Hurd

I sympathise with the bingo companies, which dislike newspaper bingo, but not even the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should introduce a clause forbidding newspapers from offering bingo. We can sympathise with this or that part of the entertainment industry as it tries to capture the leisure hours of our constituents. They must be thinking, "Damn this form of new competition. It must be unfair." Whatever our personal sympathies may be, it is not part of our job to define how people should spend their evenings or holidays. Because we believe that that underlies the Opposition amendment, we feel bound to reject it.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

I had not intended to put forward arguments that I have already adduced in Commitee, but my right hon. Friend must accept that when we produce a technological revolution that enables things to be done without regulation which, were they to be done in public places would require regulation, control and surveillance by gaming boards, we have two different standards for people who are competing with one another. The point that arises from this series of amendments, and which arose in Committee, is one of parity of treatment between people who are in competition with one another.

If the Minister's answer is that he does not feel that there is an obligation to produce regulation or in any way inhibit cable, the alternative consequence must be, as we argued on other amendments, a consideration in future of a measure of deregulation in other areas. That proposition does not appeal greatly to Opposition Members, but in all logic this matter arises on this series of amendments and others. If we make technological progress, we also affect other interests that might have existed for some time or might have been newly created. When technological progress comes along, we must not disadvantage companies already in existence by means of unfair competition. The Home Office must consider that point in relation to those whose interests are affected by the Bill.

Mr. Denis Howell

I could not agree more with what has just been said by the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst). I was astonished by what the Minister said. He told us that all the multi-million pound gambling interests, which are carefully regulated and, in many cases, make considerable contributions to sport and other areas of activity as part of their fundamental operation, could be subjected to gambling without a stake, on cable television. That is totally new in this country. It is true that it has grown up in the newspapers. However, I think that most of the newspapers involved now wish that they had never started as it has become a monster that they cannot control. It has even spread to The Times, which now has Portfolio — rather a stupid name. One can only say "Good luck" to The Times.

However, people will watch cable television hour after hour. If bingo without a stake is provided, it will be a totally different ball game. As we heard from the organisation that the Minister saw the other day and that I also saw on behalf of the Opposition, there is a tremendous abuse of that type of sponsored betting on the other side of the Atlantic. For example, I am told that one cable television company produces three numbers during the course of the day—one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. The whole audience is locked into that. The winners must claim their prize, which is substantial, the moment it is drawn.

The Home Office is supposed to be responsible for the whole of broadcasting policy. What will be the effect on the BBC and independent television if the new gambling media emerge in the way that I described? Initially, gambling will have a considerable effect on the audiences of the competing television companies, especially if there are prizes of the magnitude I suspect. Already, petrol companies are offering prizes of £21,000, newspaper bingo is offering a prize of £80,000 and I am advised that £1 million games are not unknown. We are playing a different ball game. It would be wrong for any sponsor to take over a cable television company and lock the audience in for the whole of the day. Conservative Members may think that because bingo is a legitimate activity, the bigger the prize the more legitimate it is.

10.15 pm

We must consider other issues apart from the effect the measure might have on existing television channels. What about the contribution of present forms of gambling to various sporting activities? The football pools are already taxed at 4.5 per cent., as was pointed out in an earlier debate today, yet they make a considerable contribution to football. Those pools will be faced with an unfair form of betting competition which will attract no tax. On top of the tax of 4.5 per cent. football pools contribute to the football league.

Horse racing is in a similar position. The betting tax is about 8.5 per cent., thereby making a considerable contribution to the welfare of horse racing. I have found, from being a member of a committee on racing, that most Conservative Members believe that that tax is an essential contribution to the future of racing. Why should people bet on horse races when free betting will be provided on cable television? The Government must bear that important factor in mind. The contributions made from existing forms of gambling are closely controlled—that is right —and are of great importance.

I do not believe that you, Mr. Speaker, have been to any bingo academies, and you probably, therefore, do not know much about such matters. I am sure, though, that you play bingo once or twice a week when you draw names out of the hat to decide who will participate in Adjournment or other debates. Your constituents, Mr. Speaker, and those of every other hon. Member in the Chamber go to a bingo hall not so much in anticipation of winning, although that is a part of the reason, but for social purposes. In many ways, bingo provides an alternative to the pub. Our constituents go to meet people, to have a talk and to participate in bingo. That social purpose will be undermined if bingo is provided nationally on television without any contribution being paid.

Mr. Forth

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that, conversely, those who are confined to the home because of illness or incapacity of any other kind might be grateful for the opportunity of enjoying a diversion through the use of cable television which they are unable to enjoy by leaving their home and enjoying the social environment of a normal bingo game? Are there not two sides to the coin?

Mr. Howell

I agree that people who are stuck at home because of physical or social adversity suffer many disadvantages, but we do not legislate to provide automatically for people because they suffer disadvantages from being at home. That is an illogical concept.

I am coming to the point that I thought the Under-Secretary of State was making. If he had done so, he would have carried us with him. If the new authority can regulate the way in which gambling is conducted on a cable programme, we shall be satisfied with that. All of us, the trade, and the football and racing authorities can make representations, and we shall all know where we stand. I know that the Bill emanated from another place and must return there. Will the Minister tell us, despite the remarks to which I have taken exception, that the Cable Authority will have power to regulate gambling on cable television channels. If that is the case, I shall rest content. If he tells us that the Cable Authority cannot regulate them, we shall be extremely unhappy. I must confess that we shall not vote against the amendment because of the civilised arrangements that we made through the usual channels to allow those of us interested in these matters to pursue our interests without inconvenience to the rest of the House. If I had not agreed to that earlier, I should have been ready to register my opposition in the Lobbies.

I hope that the Minister will tell us that it will be within the competence of the cable and DBS authorities to ensure that any gambling is strictly controlled. If the Minister confirms that, I shall be pleased to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Freud

I support the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) and point out that in this country there is only a limited amount of gambling capital available. At the moment that gaming capital AS distributed among social clubs, bingo, charitable swindles, small bookmakers and unlicensed greyhound tracks. When the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) argues in favour of deregulation, I should like to remind the Minister that that means that little people are knocked out and the large bookmakers, such as Ladbrokes which sponsors the hon. Member, are the beneficiaries.

Mr. Hurd

The Cable Authority has responsibility under clause 7 to issue franchises on certain criteria. I cannot see that a franchise bidder who said that he proposed to provide a gambling station would obtain a franchise. If later an undesirable predominance of what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) calls gambling crept in, the authority would have the power to give directions and enforce them in the last resort by revoking the licence.

Mr. Bermingham

In view of what the Minister has said, we do not propose to press the amendment to a Division; and therefore I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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