HC Deb 11 May 1995 vol 259 cc962-8

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

8.24 pm
Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to mention a matter that affects millions of people throughout the country.

I admit that a year ago I would not have guessed that I would be speaking in a debate about bingo, let alone initiating one. My interest in that subject arose only after I was invited, earlier this year, to visit the Gala bingo club in Colchester. The club is in fact in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin), whom I am pleased to see in his place tonight.

I had never been to a bingo club before, but I thought that it would be slightly fading and a bit dingy and that it might be attended by perhaps 50 of my more elderly female constituents. It had also been suggested to me that I might enjoy calling a game, so I had been practising beforehand with such phrases as "66—clickety-click" and, indulging in a fit of nostalgia, "Maggie's den—No. 10".

My first surprise was that bingo clubs of the 1990s have changed a great deal since the smoke-filled halls that were associated with the industry in the 1960s. The Gala club in Colchester is modern, spacious and comfortable, and in addition to bingo it offers a range of other entertainment, such as cabaret acts, a restaurant and bars. It is typical of the new breed of bingo clubs, costing as much as £4 million each, which employ more than 35,000 people throughout the country.

My second surprise of the night was the number of people who were present. Instead of 50, I found close on 1,000 people in that club, both male and female, of all different ages and of many different social backgrounds. A bingo club now is not only a gambling hall; it is a leisure centre where people can meet, talk, enjoy a drink, have a meal and generally have a fun and sociable afternoon or evening of activity.

In addition, clubs often fulfil a more general social role as places where elderly people can go during the day to enjoy a cheap meal, have a bit of fun and chat with friends in a warm, safe environment. It is for those reasons, perhaps, that more than 3 million people regularly play bingo in this country.

The stakes are comparatively small; they often work out at less than 30p a go, and as much as 90 per cent. of that sum can be returned in the form of prizes. It is gambling in its softest form. Unlike casinos, horse racing and the dogs, one cannot lose one's life savings, however hard one tries, by playing bingo, the main reason being that it is literally impossible to chase losses. On a really bad night, if one played every game with the maximum number of cards and one did not win a penny, one might be down by about £30 at the end of the evening. Participation in the game is also limited by the physical limits on how many cards can be played at one time.

On Tuesday night, I took advantage of the generosity of the Government Whips Office to visit the Gala club in Clapham, of which I am now a member.

It was my first attempt at playing the game, and I was told that seasoned players of bingo usually play with six cards in a single game. I soon discovered that I was unable to keep up with the numbers being called, and I found myself trying to remember more and more numbers as I fell further and further behind. Happily, I was next to a lady who was managed to mark her own card and keep an eye on mine at the same time, and to tell me when I had missed a number.

I must pay tribute to the mental agility and skill of experienced players of bingo. I do not believe that Einstein could play more than perhaps two sets of six cards at a time, even if he were permitted to do so by the present law.

Despite those safeguards and the physical limitations, the bingo industry is governed by draconian rules and regulations ostensibly to protect the consumer. The Gaming Act 1968 introduced strict controls on hard gambling and was designed to prevent organised crime and the Mafia gaining control of casinos. However, by some curious accident of history, the Act was passed by Parliament in a form that restricted the bingo industry within the same framework. As a result, the bingo industry, which was described by the Royal Commission on gambling as a pastime where people, mostly women and often the lonely or the elderly, can meet in a neighbourly way to enjoy an agreeable flutter through the introduction of the 1968 Act, became a threat to the nation's moral and financial well-being which had to be contained within stringent and bureaucratic controls.

Having studied the restrictions, I am amazed that we still have a bingo industry in the United Kingdom. I shall give a few examples of the rules. If one decides that one would like to participate in a game of bingo—a decision which, under the terms of the 1968 Act, must be entirely unstimulated—one's first port of call may be the local or national newspapers. A bingo club can advertise in a local paper—but not a national one—and it can say that people may play bingo at that club. The advertisement can say how much it will cost to play bingo and the times at which people can play. However, the Gaming Act specifically prohibits any advertisement from telling people what they may win at the bingo club—a far cry from the national lottery.

If, as with a national game, an advertisement is placed in a national paper which says how much people can win, the Gaming Act states that the advertisement must not contain any information about where people can play the game. The Government's recent action to raise the limit on the maximum prize in the national game from £75,000 to £250,000 is extremely welcome. However, my hon. Friend the Minister will understand that its effect is blunted somewhat if the clubs cannot tell anyone where that prize may be won.

Perhaps the most ludicrous example of the restrictions on advertising that I have encountered so far involved a ruling that the Gaming Board told me about, whereby a club circulated information to its members telling them about prizes that were available in the club. That is permissible if the information is restricted only to the members of the club and it is not circulated more widely to non-members.

However, the club made the mistake of sending out the circular in a transparent wrapping. As a result, the name and location of the club and the amount of money that could be won there was visible through the wrapping. The Gaming Board ruled that that was a clear breach of the rules and that the circular should be withdrawn because there was a real danger that the postman might be corrupted by reading it.

The strong competition for the population's limited amount of disposable income is ever increasing. The national lottery has had a severe impact. I support the national lottery, but we must recognise that it is having an effect on other forms of gambling. Attendance figures at bingo clubs on Saturday nights, especially during the rollover week, are ncticeably lower. The pools and premium bond companies—both of which, like the national lottery but not bingo, are open to 16-year-olds—also compete for people's leisure time and money. However, the national lottery, the pools and premium bonds—the chief competitors of the bingo industry—have been permitted to break away from the policy of satisfying unstimulated demand.

During the passage of the legislation which provided for the national lottery, it was recognised that its success would depend upon access to advertising. That has, in turn, led to the lifting of the pools advertising ban—a move that I support strongly. However, it is indefensible that bingo—the last remaining form of soft gambling that is governed by the restrictions—should not be able to benefit also from free access to advertising in all the available media.

Should one overcome the advertising problems and manage to find a suitable bingo club—perhaps on the recommendation of one's friends or by simply stumbling across it on the street—one will encounter a second problem. When I first visited the Colchesier Gala club, I expressed a wish to play a game. I was told that it was illegal for me to do so; it was quite all right for me to call out the numbers from the stage, but I would need to become a member if I wanted to play. That did not seem an insuperable obstacle; I said that I would be happy to become a member—particularly when I was told that it was free. However, I was then informed that, by law, my membership could not be granted for at least 24 hours. Apparently that is a cooling-off period during which people have time to reconsider their momentous decision to play a game of bingo.

That restriction has a severe impact in tourist resorts, as many people who visit bingo clubs may be staying in the area for only one or two days. As a result, large numbers of potential customers may be turned away. Some of the larger bingo clubs are able to reduce the impact of the rule, at least partially, by running a system whereby membership of one club within the group entitles a member to play at any of the other clubs within that group. However, that is a benefit which the smaller operator is unable to offer.

I find it difficult to understand why that period of reflection was thought necessary in 1968; in 1995 there can be no justification for it. With the exception of casinos, any member of the public has open access—subject to an age requirement—to all other forms of gaming, most of which have unlimited stakes. I invite the House to consider the impact on national lottery ticket sales if one had to give 24 hours notice of the intention to play.

Even if one manages to overcome all of the obstacles which Parliament has put in the way of people who wish to play bingo, one will still not be free of Government interference and regulation. Having found a bingo club, become a member and waited the all-important 24 hours to reflect upon the morality of one's intentions, under the Gaming Act a person may still spend only £6.80 in any one session, including the entry fee. By law, the club must ensure that it does not take more than that permitted maximum from any one player.

Despite the fact that, in every other form of gaming in the United Kingdom, players can determine how much they wish to invest, if one is playing bingo the decision is not the individual's but that of the Gaming Board and of the Home Office. The clubs are even limited as to the amount to which they can boost the jackpot over and above the stake which the players have invested.

At any time those regulations would be regarded by all sensible people as archaic, unnecessary and anachronistic. With the advent of the national lottery, they pose a real danger to the survival of the bingo industry. I bring these matters to the attention of the House tonight in the interests of competition and justice. I have no interest to declare in the bingo industry, other than wishing to see an industry that now has to compete with the national lottery and the enhanced advertising capabilities of the pools given a fair chance.

The time for lengthy consultation has passed. The industry is falling into decline, which can be halted only by deregulation that will allow it to compete on a basis equal to that of its main competitors while it is still in good enough shape to take advantage of a level playing field. The Government have rightly championed competition and deregulation. No industry is more deserving of the chance to enjoy the benefits of those policies than the bingo industry. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give it that chance tonight by announcing his intention to deregulate the bingo industry.

8.38 pm
Sir Mark Lennox-Boyd (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

I rise to speak briefly in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale), who is to be commended for drawing a problem to the attention of the House and for clearly explaining in detail and with care the restrictions placed on a successful and so far profitable industry, which provides a public service to many people in different communities.

I imagine that all seaside towns have some form of bingo facility and that Plymouth is no exception, although I do not know of any bingo clubs there. I speak on behalf of the Gala bingo club in my constituency, which is an admirable organisation. I have visited it several times—most recently last year, when I was deeply impressed by the range and extent of its facilities. That bingo club comprises a large hall with capacity for up to 1,000 people. It is extremely well furnished, well lit and well decorated in the modern idiom. It has a pleasant bar and good food and dining refreshment facilities, and a dance floor. It offers all that one would expect for an evening's entertainment, including a cabaret and dancing.

That establishment is not a gambling den or primarily for gambling. It is primarily for social activities which include a flutter, as my hon. Friend so aptly put it. From information supplied by Bass, which owns the Gala chain, I understand that 65 per cent. of all bingo players, who number 3 million, play for pleasure rather to gamble. How Bass defines that might be examined, but it makes the legitimate point that bingo is a social and not a gambling activity.

The Government last legislated to change the bingo industry regime in 1992, with the Bingo Bill. That introduced measures of a liberalising kind, to remove some of the regulatory burden on the industry, but by no means enough. As my hon. Friend said, much of that burden remains on the industry's shoulders. Remarkably, that modest lifting of the oppressive regime was considered sufficient when, only two years later, we were all talking about a national lottery—which we have now, with a vengeance. That shows how quickly social attitudes towards the morality of gambling change. As my hon. Friend said, it is absurd that bingo was left behind and not put on an equal footing with the industries with which it competes.

My hon. Friend used nearly every argument, but he omitted to mention that—as I was reliably informed—the odds in bingo of winning a modest prize are infinitely higher than the odds of winning a modest prize, let alone a jackpot prize, in the national lottery. I advocate bingo as a much more sensible form of flutter than the national lottery.

Bingo clubs are utterly respectable places of entertainment where one may find a coach party of middle-aged or elderly people, sometimes single lonely people and sometimes married couples who are there for social activity and human contact. Bingo provides a worthwhile social benefit as well as being a profitable industry for the 35,000 people whom it employs.

It is extraordinary that the Gala bingo club in my constituency cannot advertise saying, "Come to Gala on Saturday night for a dance, dinner and an evening out with a little bingo." But using the so-called inducement of an evening out, dancing, a cabaret and a meal to persuade the public to indulge in gambling is unlawful. That form of puritanism is absurd and bizarre in the current mores of our country. As my hon. Friend rightly said, it was probably absurd and bizarre even before the national lottery, but that has now exposed the folly of maintaining such restrictions.

I invite my hon. Friend the Minister and his Home Office colleagues urgently to examine that area of the law and to make changes as rapidly as possible. The national lottery, premium bonds, pools organisations and bingo should enjoy the same unrestricted ability to advertise. If I were in my hon. Friend's position, I would consider the bingo industry as part of the entertainment industry. It should be judged in that light: the gambling element—which of course is present—is incidental to bingo's major element of providing entertainment, and a legitimate and safe leisure activity for millions of people.

8.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Nicholas Baker)

I welcome the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) in introducing this timely debate. His personal interest in deregulation is well known and he and my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Sir M. Lennox-Boyd) undertook personal researches that qualified them to speak authoritatively in the way that they did.

Commercial bingo, as played in bingo clubs throughout Britain, is a popular form of entertainment. There are more than 900 licensed bingo clubs in England, Wales and Scotland, and figures from the bingo industry suggest that every day, on average, about 500,000 people go to bingo clubs. Those players staked a total of £811 million in the year to August 1994. The industry's turnover is growing, and the money staked has increased by 31 per cent. since 1990.

Before the 1960s, commercial bingo—which used to be known as housey-housey in the Army and as lotto in homes throughout the country—and other forms of gaming were prohibited in law. The Betting and Gaming Act 1960 permitted gaming to be carried on as an activity of a club, and in so doing inadvertently allowed the introduction of commercial gaming. Large numbers of clubs sprang up offering bingo and casino gaming on a commercial basis. The new law was unclear and proved difficult to enforce; there was evidence that gamblers were being exploited, and there was criminal involvement in gaming.

The Gaming Act 1968 introduced the present system for the control and supervision of gaming. That legislation established the Gaming Board, which has wide powers to supervise commercial gaming and a general responsibility to keep the extent, character and location of gaming facilities under review. The 1968 Act applies a similar, although less rigorous, package of controls to bingo as to casino gaming. That regulatory system has been successful in ensuring that the bingo industry is stable and well run. The industry is generally free from criminal involvement and exploitation. Abuses are rare.

The system is also self-financing. The costs of regulation are offset by fees that the industry must pay for certificates from the Gaming Board and licences from the licensing justices.

That success, however, should not engender complacency. As my hon. Friends pointed out, the basic legislation governing bingo is now more than 25 years old. We must continue to ensure that the present controls are necessary, up to date and as effective as possible.

Hon. Members will be aware that we have been reviewing a number of restrictions on gambling as part of the Government's deregulation initiative. Some changes have already been made or are in hand. They include changes to the law on betting shops, lotteries, football pools and gaming machines. Bingo is not exempt from the review process. We have already made a number of changes to the law on bingo, and we have set out our plans for others. I should like briefly to outline some of them.

In 1992, we partially relaxed the ban on advertising bingo to allow some print advertising. Previously, the Gaming Act 1968 provided a general prohibition on the advertisement of any gaming premises or facilities. Earlier this year, we increased the maximum prize in the national bingo game from £75,000 to £250,000. The national game was introduced by the Gaming (Bingo) Act 1985 which the Government supported. It allows bingo clubs in Britain to join together to play multiple bingo.

In March this year, we published a consultation paper on gaming machines which has important implications for bingo clubs. At present, bingo clubs may offer either a number of £6 amusement-with-prizes machines, which pay out a maximum of £3 in cash or £6 in tokens, or two £200 jackpot machines. Under our proposals, bingo clubs would be allowed to offer a £10 all-cash amusement-with-prizes machine or up to four £200 jackpot machines.

We take the general view that traditional commercial bingo is towards the soft end of the gambling spectrum. It is a controlled form of gaming conducted in a social environment, and it was described aptly by my hon. Friend. Players' takes are low, the pace of proceedings is fairly contained and there are limited opportunities for participants to reinvest their winnings or chase their losses. The amount of money that operators may retain is strictly controlled. We believe that commercial bingo, as it is currently played, carries a low social risk. That is not to imply, however, that controls are unnecessary.

Like other forms of gambling, bingo is a cash-generating business. As such, it is particularly vulnerable to abuse by operators. Without effective regulation, there would be opportunities for unscrupulous operators to cream off money from participants which should be returned in winnings. We believe, therefore, that there will continue to be a need for controls to keep bingo free from criminal involvement and to protect participants from exploitation.

We are currently considering other aspects of the controls on bingo. They include the remaining restrictions on the advertising of bingo to which my hon. Friend referred. The partial relaxation of the ban on advertising bingo in 1992 did not allow the advertising of prize money or inducements to be linked to particular premises. There is a question of whether the remaining restrictions are necessary for the protection of the public. We hope to consult fairly soon on that and on broadcast advertising.

Another issue is the requirement that bingo halls must be run as clubs, with a 24-hour waiting period before new members are entitled to play. The 24-hour rule and club status are basic features of the system of regulation introduced by the Gaming Act 1968. We are considering whether commercial bingo requires that level of protection.

A further question is the duration of bingo gaming licences. At present, bingo operators must apply for a renewal of their bingo licences every year. We are considering whether such frequent renewal is necessary.

Those are just some of the issues that we are considering on bingo. The comments of my hon. Friends are particularly welcome and timely, and I can assure them that we shall take them most seriously in our considerations. Our thinking on those and other issues will emerge in due course.

I conclude by making it clear that important safeguards for players must be preserved. Nevertheless, there is a case for reviewing some of the present restrictions to ensure that the law does not place unnecessary restrictions on the many people who play bingo or on the industry which provides the facilities that so many people enjoy.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Nine o'clock.