§ Considered in Committee; reported, without amendment.
§ 2.3 pm
§ Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)
On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry), who is unavoidably unable to be present today, I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The House and many people in the country will be grateful to my hon. Friend for his work in bringing the Bill forward. It might be convenient if I remind the House of the purpose behind the Bill. It makes changes in the gaming legislation to allow licensed bingo clubs to join together for the purposes of playing games of bingo for maximum prizes of up to £50,000.
The Bill calls these bingo games "multiple bingo". The Bill has a little bit of history. Two years ago a Bill was introduced in another place by Lord Harmar-Nicholls with the same intention of seeking to help bingo clubs. As hon. Members may be aware, there has been a steady decline in the fortunes of bingo clubs in the past decade or so. The annual reports of the Gaming Board for Great Britain have made sorry reading for the bingo halls. The bingo clubs, which rightly believe that apart from generating income they also provide a useful social facility for their customers, felt increasingly handicapped in trying to compete with other forms of recreation. The advent of newspaper bingo added to their sense of concern.
To its credit, the licensed bingo industry considered what could be done positively to turn round the position in which it found itself. It came up with several ideas and it turned its mind to the possibility of fresh legislation, not because it necessarily wanted to turn to the Government for assistance but because it found that its scope for making more attractive the form of recreation that it provided was restricted by the array of controls found under the Gaming Act 1968. The authors of that legislation —this is an observation rather than a complaint—chose to deal with bingo in an analogous way to casinos, where hard gaming was available. The result has been that bingo on licensed premises—not the so-called bingo played by reading a newspaper—is subject to a great number of controls.
Among other things, the controls operate to limit the size of the prizes that may be offered. Thus, although the Gaming Act 1968 did not preclude bingo clubs from getting together in order to pool the stakes received to go towards larger prizes, the size of the prizes is pegged to £3,000 in any one week. That effectively limits the number of clubs that can profitably take part in a joint game of bingo—known as link bingo—to a handful of clubs. Most of the link games involve no more than four bingo clubs.
The Bill introduced by Lord Harmar-Nicholls sought to stem the tide flowing against bingo by amending the law to allow clubs to join together in games of bingo on a group, regional or national basis. By so doing, the clubs could offer more attractive prizes. At that stage the Government were not able to lend wholehearted support to the Bill but helpfully pointed the way towards further talks between the industry and the Gaming Board, and identified the problem areas.
The Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough proceeds on a similar basis to the earlier 1181 Bill debated in the other place, but benefits from the discussions that have taken place in the intervening period. I trust that today my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be able to confirm that the Government are content for the Bill to make further progress and, in anticipation of that happy outcome, I thank him on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough for the co-operative and constructive approach that the Home Office has adopted towards it.
The Bill provides for multiple games of bingo to be played within a predetermined period on licensed premises for a number of prizes, none of which may exceed £50,000. That figure represents a useful increase in the prizes that may be offered in bingo in this country, but no one can surely regard it as excessive. It does not compare with the prizes offered by some of the other activities with which bingo must compete, such as the football pools or newspaper bingo, and I remind the House that with bingo the prizes are offered in return for a modest stake. Moreover, the amount of money which may be asked of players is tightly regulated along with the conditions under which games of bingo are conducted.
The remainder of the Bill puts in place a system of control so that games of multiple bingo are organised or co-ordinated in a way that accords with the standards demanded by the Gaming Board.
I hope that hon. Members will agree that the bingo industry deserves the modest boost which this Bill seeks to provide. It is not so long ago that bingo was providing a form of social recreation for average daily attendances of 500,000 people. We all know that those who tend to look at bingo for their enjoyment are not ideally placed to find other forms of recreation. There are more than 9 million pensioners in this country, two thirds of whom are women. A recent survey found that 85 per cent. of those who enjoyed bingo were women, and that the average age was about 52.
I believe that this Bill will make a substantial contribution towards alleviating one of the difficulties of old age. For the most part, we cope with health problems and financial hardship in old age, but loneliness and isolation are very difficult to overcome. The Bill will make a significant contribution to the leisure of people in that age group. I remind the House that the bingo industry provides a source of employment for thousands of members of staff and, through the levying of duty on bingo, a source of revenue for the Government.
With those words of explanation on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, I ask the House to give the Bill a Third Reading.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)
It was with great pleasure that I listened to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley). I am most grateful to her for stepping into the breach created by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry), who is unavoidably absent today. The House will want to congratulate him and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West on steering the Bill through its parliamentary stages. He was drawn 19th in the ballot — not the easiest position. However, the Bill is here. He must have had some help.
1182 I think that the benevolent smiles on the faces of the organisers of our business prove that, so we should not forget them when handing out praise.
The Home Office supports the Bill and the purposes behind it. It will allow bingo clubs to join together in much larger numbers than has previously been possible and allow them to offer more attractive prizes. The Bill represents a second attempt in recent years to give effect to that intention. On the last occasion, a few years ago, when a Bill was debated in another place, the Government felt the need to be a great deal more cagey and circumspect. I am happy to say that many of those reservations have now melted away.
The first point of which we have had to take account has been the decline that has bedevilled the bingo industry in recent years. Attendances have fallen, clubs have closed —and are continuing to close—and the trade, quite naturally, wishes to stem the decline of the past 10 years. One does not have to be an avid bingo player to share some of the sadness of the trade at the pattern of decline. I do not suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West is a regular denizen of her local bingo club, any more than is my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough.
No one should doubt the importance of bingo in the lives of a good many people, especially women, in the community. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West brought out that point from her experience of social work in the community. For many people, a weekly or twice-weekly visit to a local bingo club provides a priceless form of recreation. The bingo club provides not only an interest but a useful meeting place away from home. Of course, there is also the attraction of winning a prize, which adds to the interest.
The decline of bingo, by itself, would not be a reason to pass legislation. Part of the reason that we thought that the time had come for legislation lies in the way in which the attempt to clamp down on the excesses of commercial gaming in the 1960s—embodied in the 1968 Act—sought to deal with bingo at the same time as casino gaming. Therefore, bingo found itself bound up with a licensing system and a very detailed network of control. Inevitably, its ability to compete with other forms of leisure is impaired by the fact that it must observe the rules over almost every aspect of bingo.
We took account of what some regard as the rather hard position in which bingo finds itself because of the inevitably difficult decisions that the Government must take about other forms of gaming. I am sure that I do not need to persuade the House that they need to be the subject of rigorous control. That is why I make no apology for the controls.
The Bill proposes an amendment that would allow clubs to choose to join together in games of multiple bingo, and prizes of up to £50,000 could be offered from the aggregated stake money. We have had to look at the issue with care, and a good deal of discussion remains ahead about the way in which games of multiple bingo will be played. We are aware of fruitful talks that have been held between the gaming board and people who might be responsible for running games of multiple bingo. They have cleared up many questions that were initially in our minds when we had to determine whether to permit the practice to go ahead.
Now that we have a better idea of how games of multiple bingo will be played, it is clear that we are talking 1183 about a grander version of what is known as linked bingo, which may already be played under the provisions of the Gaming Act 1968. Multiple bingo will be played at a specified time each evening and involve the use of a central computer, with each of the participating bingo clubs having its own terminal. Bingo clubs wishing to take part in a game of multiple bingo for that evening will indicate their intention to participate by means of the computer equipment.
There is still some way to go before the joint games of bingo contemplated by the Bill may be played in practice. It will be necessary for representatives of the bingo clubs to have further talks with the Gaming Board so that the board may be satisfied with the proposed arrangements and can issue a certificate of approval. The Home Secretary will want to consider, after consultation with the board, what regulations should be made under the Bill. I believe that such obstacles can easily be pushed aside.
I am delighted to support the Third Reading of the Bill. We believe that the measure incorporates a number of safeguards and that it may, therefore, safely proceed to the statute book. We hope that the further negotiations prove successful and that games of multiple bingo played in accordance with the terms of the Bill will provide the assistance that the bingo clubs are seeking.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.