HC Deb 04 February 1998 vol 305 cc1049-59 3.32 pm
Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on the resignation of the Director General of the Office of the National Lottery.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith)

Yesterday, I met the Director General of the National Lottery, Mr. Peter Davis, to discuss the issues of confidence in the lottery arising from the Branson libel case. We agreed that the likelihood of continuing controversy surrounding the running of the national lottery would increase if he continued in his post.

To ensure that public confidence in the lottery is maintained, Mr. Davis felt it was right to tender his resignation. I accepted his resignation, and immediately asked Mr. John Stoker, the deputy director general, to assume the director general's duties while we seek to make a new appointment to replace Mr. Davis. Mr. Stoker accepted. Mr. Davis will remain in post until next Monday. I have already set in motion the procedures that will be necessary to advertise openly for a permanent successor.

I make three issues very clear. First, it was Mr. Davis's decision to tender his resignation; it was my decision whether to accept it. I agreed with Mr. Davis that this was the right thing to do in the circumstances. Secondly, I stressed yesterday when I announced Mr. Davis's resignation and repeat today that there is no question mark whatever against his integrity. Mr. Davis's readiness to put the public reputation of the lottery before his own personal position bears testimony to his sense of duty as a public servant.

Thirdly, the reasons for Mr. Davis's actions are quite clear. The success of the lottery depends on continuing public confidence in its operation and its regulation. He and I both agreed that, if he continued as regulator, the Office of the Director General would be at the centre of continuing controversy, which would undermine confidence in that office and in the lottery itself. We both agreed that it was right to act before any damage could be done.

The appointment of a new director general will provide the opportunity for a fresh start and ensure that the lottery continues to be respected and successful. Mr. Stoker's immediate priority will be to carry on the work that Mr. Davis had set in hand to ensure that Mr. Guy Snowden will no longer be involved in the management of our lottery and will not be in a position to draw any direct financial benefit from it through his involvement with GTech.

Mr. Stoker will also need to study carefully the court proceedings and evidence from the Branson case, and the implications that arise from it for the relationship between Mr. Snowden, GTech and Camelot. That is the job of the regulator. I have not interfered, and will not interfere, in it, but I will continue to take a close personal interest.

The actions that I have taken, together with the proposals for reform that we are bringing forward in the National Lottery Bill, will ensure that the lottery does indeed command the respect and support of the British people. That is the Government's commitment to the House.

Mr. Maude

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the national lottery is, and continues to be, the most successful and efficient in the world, raising more for good causes and in tax than any other?

On the key question whether Mr. Davis was pushed or resigned spontaneously, how does the Secretary of State reconcile stories in today's papers, clearly based on Government briefing, with his assertion this morning that Mr. Davis's resignation was spontaneous, and Mr. Davis's statement, which was repeated three times yesterday morning, that he would not resign? Is it entirely spontaneous speculation in The Times that The National Lottery regulator … was dismissed last night on the direct orders of Tony Blair. Mr. Davis was forced to go during a marathon meeting with Chris Smith"? Is that spontaneous, or was it based on a direct Government briefing?

If, as the Secretary of State claimed this morning, Mr. Davis changed his mind over the course of yesterday morning, why was it necessary to delay the announcement so that Mr. Davis could break the news to his family? It would surely have been already on his mind. What took place during the morning that changed Mr. Davis's mind?

In the meeting, who was the first to raise the issue of resignation? Was it raised first by Mr. Davis, or first by the Secretary of State or his officials? Will the Secretary of State say categorically whether there was any discussion between the Prime Minister's office and the Secretary of State or his office before the meeting with Mr. Davis?

If the regulator was pushed—as seems certain, despite the Secretary of State's somewhat wriggling denial this morning—what was the alleged impropriety, given the Secretary of State's statement that there is no question mark over Mr. Davis's integrity?

The Secretary of State has raised the issue of public confidence in the national lottery. Does he have a better measure of confidence than the public's readiness to buy national lottery tickets? Will he confirm that sales for the mid-week draw up to last night—before Mr. Davis's resignation—were up by 7 per cent. from the previous week? Is he aware that, of 2,000 calls to the national lottery line yesterday, three were about the trial and only one was a complaint? What evidence is there of the sort of threat to public confidence on which the Secretary of State relied in accepting Mr. Davis's resignation?

Is Mr. Davis free to speak out on yesterday's events, or is he subject to a confidentiality agreement? Can the Secretary of State confirm that Mr. Davis's pay-off of more than £42,000 is to come directly out of the money earmarked for good causes? Will he now publish the minutes of yesterday's meeting? If he will not, does he not understand that many will conclude that he has something to hide?

Is not the truth that Mr. Davis was persuaded to resign; that, to convey the impression of decisive action, the press was briefed that he had been dismissed; but that, because there were no legal grounds for his dismissal, the Secretary of State is maintaining—to general incredulity, I have to say—that the resignation was completely spontaneous?

Have not the Downing street spin doctors left the Secretary of State to swing in the wind? This is no longer an issue of what he or I think about Mr. Davis's judgment, or whether Mr. Davis should still be in his job; it is about whether Ministers are telling the truth. Unless he is prepared to publish the minutes of yesterday's meeting and lay the matter to rest, it may soon be an issue of whether the Secretary of State himself should still be in his job.

Mr. Smith

I am tempted to say, "Oh, dear." I had expected some sensible questions about the future of the national lottery, about its proper regulation and about the way in which we can ensure public confidence in its operation. However, we got none of that.

I shall answer some of the specific questions that the right hon. Gentleman asked. First, he should not believe everything that he reads in the newspapers. The situation is clear, and has been set out by me both in the statement that I made last night and in innumerable interviews that I have given since. It has also been confirmed by the official spokesman for the Prime Minister in his Lobby briefing this morning that Mr. Davis decided to offer his resignation and I accepted it.

That is what happened. As for the record of the meeting, I issued a statement following that meeting; that is a public document, and it is the definitive record of the meeting. As for the delay in making the announcement, I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should not have applauded me for having ensured that Mr. Davis had time to speak with his family after the discussion, and after he had made his decision.

In answer to the question whether there was contact between myself and the Prime Minister—yes, indeed, there was contact on a regular basis yesterday between myself and the Prime Minister, in the normal way, for me to inform him of what was happening and what my intentions were.

On the question of public confidence and tickets being sold, I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that the important thing is that we maintain confidence in the lottery for the future. The crucial matter, which I had hoped that he would be interested in—but clearly he is not—is to ensure that the lottery is being run with 100 per cent. propriety. That is the crucial matter, and the new director general will address himself to ensuring that it happens.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the ludicrous and banal nit-picking that we have heard from the Opposition Front Bench comes ill from a party that created a structure for the national lottery that has resulted in bribery and corruption? Is not the result of the structure that the Conservatives created a situation in which the operating company grabs for itself every spare penny that it can, including the interest on undistributed prizes, and charges the stupid BBC £550,000 a year for the privilege of publicising Camelot—so that the people who operate the lottery can reward themselves with astronomical sums of money?

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House the categorical position of Her Majesty's Government remains as stated in the Labour party manifesto last year: When the current contract runs out, Labour will seek an efficient not-for-profit operator to ensure that the maximum sums go to good causes"? Will he further consult the Chancellor about the possibility of buying out Camelot before that date, using the profits that will accrue to pay for the sum? Will he assure the House that it is the Government's intention that we should have a national lottery in fact as well as in name, and that the people's lottery will in future belong to the people?

Mr. Smith

My right hon. Friend, as ever, makes a series of forceful points. He might have added that it also ill becomes the Conservative party to raise this matter, given that a former Conservative Minister of Sport is currently a £5,000-a-month consultant for GTech and that a former Secretary of State for Social Services is currently on the GTech board.

In response to my right hon. Friend's two main questions, I can tell him, first, that the interest on the prize shortfall is now-1 am pleased to say—coming into the pot for good causes. That is as a direct result of my intervention some months back, when the Camelot directors' bonuses were announced. Secondly, it remains our intention to seek an efficient not-for-profit operator for the lottery after 2001, and to make sure that the maximum sums possible go to the good causes.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, although the Branson judgment may not have called into question the integrity of the director general, earlier hearings by the Public Accounts Committee demonstrated that the company which he was responsible for selecting, GTech, was engaged in extremely unattractive and immoral activities in the United States, of which the director general was aware when he made that decision?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is not only the judgment of the director general which is flawed but the legislation for which the Conservative Government were responsible, which gave the director general not only the task of appointing the company to run the lottery but the subsequent duty of regulating the company which he had appointed? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that those functions should be separated, and that, in dealing with such vast sums of money going to public causes, it would be appropriate to have the lottery regulated not by an individual alone, but by a council—perhaps along the lines of the Gaming Board for Great Britain?

Mr. Smith

The right hon. Gentleman is correct to point out that the current legislation, put in place by the Conservative Government, is flawed. That is precisely why, in the National Lottery Bill, we propose to reform the way in which the lottery operator is selected.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that he does not have to explain why the regulator went yesterday—it is the Conservative party which must explain why he did not go two years ago, when the Public Accounts Committee exposed the fact that he had taken the use of a private aircraft belonging to a dubious American company that he was supposed to be monitoring and regulating?

To be positive about the future, can I draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the point raised by the Comptroller and Auditor General, that he does not have all the powers he needs to monitor the effectiveness of the regulator, which is one of his duties? He asked if he could be given extra powers. Will my right hon. Friend table an amendment to the National Lottery Bill to introduce those powers?

Mr. Smith

I shall certainly look at the point that my hon. Friend makes in some detail.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

The Secretary of State was selective in choosing which of the questions asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) to answer. Will he now answer this question: at the meeting, who first raised the issue of Mr. Davis's resignation—Mr. Davis or the Secretary of State?

Mr. Smith

The matter was discussed mutually between us.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the departure of Peter Davis was inevitable, because of what happened when the Public Accounts Committee discovered how he had accepted free flights from those to whom he was awarding the contract, and because of the subsequent bribery allegations that were proved in court? It was inevitable, and my right hon. Friend took the right action. Will he now consider separating and dividing the powers of the regulator who looks after the conduct of the industry from those who award the contract, because the regulator will be in the position of wanting to defend his own decision, rather than regulating the industry itself?

Mr. Smith

It is precisely because of concern on that point, which has been frequently expressed and which was raised by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) today, that we are proposing in the National Lottery Bill the establishment of an advisory panel to give guidance to the director general in the selection of any future operator. It is to address that concern that we have come forward with that specific proposal. It may well be that Parliament wishes to examine that and look at other options, but at least it will make for a much better process than the one that went on last time.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

Does the Secretary of State recognise that one of the most remarkable achievements of the lottery was the technological factors that went into getting it up and running within a very short time and running it continuously, with satellite uplinks and many other miracles of communication? Is it not the case that Richard Branson—admirable though he may be—cannot even make his trains run on time, and is therefore unlikely to meet those technological challenges? Will he pay tribute to the companies that were involved in ensuring that ours is one of the most technologically advanced lotteries in the world?

Mr. Smith

I certainly endorse the observation that the establishment of the lottery and its running since has been an efficient operation—no one could deny that. As for Mr. Branson, I think that I distinctly heard him say on Monday evening that he no longer intended to put in a proposal to run the lottery in future.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Will my right hon. Friend ask the regulator to look at the obscene profits made by Camelot under rules laid down by itself? Is he aware that Camelot pays only 5 per cent. commission to newsagents, many of whom have to work long hours and take as little as £30 or £40 a week, while at the same time Camelot has been making a profit of more than £100,000 a year on each of its employees—probably the biggest profit ratio in the country—and the directors pay themselves huge amounts of money?

Can the new regulator not look at ways of using some of those profits to help newsagents and ensuring that there is a proper system of appeal, so that, when they sell their shop, newsagents can sell on the franchise? There is little, if anything, that the consumer or the person who plays the lottery can do to make an impression on Camelot. Will he ask the regulator to crack down on that sort of thing?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend makes an important point about newsagents and the way in which a franchise can be handed on from one to another. We made it clear in the White Paper we issued in July and in everything we have said since that we shall seek not only a not-for-profit operator for the lottery after the franchise becomes available, but to maximise returns to the good causes.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Does the Secretary of State accept that we should be extremely grateful to Mr. Richard Branson for pursuing his legal case, because, if he had not been prepared to do that, the circumstances would not have arisen whereby the Secretary of State could take action to restore public confidence in the lottery? Although it is welcome that the Secretary of State has reaffirmed that we shall see the end of Camelot's licence to print money for itself, will he explain to the House why it took one individual pursuing a legal case to provide the opportunity to restore public confidence in the national lottery?

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman will, of course, wish to reflect on the conduct of Government up to 1 May last year. As for the present, as soon as it was obvious that the court had reached its verdict and that public confidence needed to be restored, I sought a meeting with the director general; the discussion we had resulted in his decision to tender his resignation. That was the right course of action in the circumstances; it was honourable of him to decide to take that course of action. It is clear from the questioning by Conservative Members that they do not think that it was the right course of action.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most remarkable thing about the exchange of views this afternoon is that, once again, we have another demonstration of the Tory Front-Bench team flogging a dead horse. The right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) was paid more than £100,000 by a City firm because he has good judgment—he is certainly not displaying it today.

Today's private notice question was never really necessary; my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right to get rid of Mr. Davis, whether or not his departure was spontaneous. If there was a telephone call in the night, so be it. It sounds as if somebody else's instincts were on the ball. I have one final suggestion: before the contract reaches its expiry date, my right hon. Friend should get rid of Camelot, which would make the lottery even more popular.

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend has got the right hon. Gentleman bang to rights.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

Why is the Secretary of State so protective of Mr. Davis? It is a matter of public record that he behaved in an improper way at least twice. Is it not a fact that GTech, a partial shareholder in Camelot, was twice subject to a federal investigation on account of its Mafia connections? If the Secretary of State can get past the officials who advised his predecessor to give Camelot the contract, he will probably be able to find quite enough documentation to take the contract away from it immediately, which is what he should do.

Mr. Smith

I shall be very interested to observe the discussions between the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend on the matter. Mr. Davis was found by the Public Accounts Committee to have been unwise in his judgment. That was a matter on which he was exonerated by the then Conservative Secretary of State.

If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about GTech, perhaps he will have a word with his former Conservative colleagues who act for GTech.

Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

I welcome the statement and my right hon. Friend's actions. He took decisive action, which, out there in the public—certainly among the good burghers of Rochdale—was very welcome and long overdue. I also welcome the Bill's provisions that will put right some of the wrongs.

If Conservative Members were listening and cared that much about the lottery on which they have asked for a statement, they would also welcome those provisions. One such measure is the advisory panel, which is much needed and long overdue; another involves the need for much more transparency. When the next contract is given out, will there be as much transparency as possible so that everyone, inside and outside the House, can ensure that they are truly supporting the people's lottery, both before and after the contract is given?

Mr. Smith

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I shall bring the questioning back to the conduct of this Labour Government. Did any Minister, or an official on behalf of a Minister, ask Mr. Davis to resign, seek to persuade him to resign, or suggest that he resign?

Mr. Smith

I have already explained clearly: we discussed the situation arising from the court case; it was a mutual decision that it was in the interests of the national lottery that he tender his resignation and I accept it.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that 99.9 per cent. of the people of this country think that he acted yesterday with diligence, and exercised his responsibilities fully and fairly? However, they are puzzled about why the Opposition are seeking to defend Mr. Davis and GTech.

Has my right hon. Friend read the remarkable article in The Times today, which links GTech not to former Ministers, as he said, but to a serving Front-Bench spokesman, the hereditary peer Lord Moynihan, in the House of Lords? Given the allegations made by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) about GTech and Mafia, will he be instructing his officials to look at the connections between the Conservative Front Bench in the House of Lords, the Conservative party and GTech, so that the full truth of the matter can be put before the public?

Mr. Smith

I do indeed find the actions of the Opposition somewhat puzzling. There is a term in military usage—friendly fire—which describes falling under a hail of one's own bullets.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Given that the Select Committee inquiry on the royal opera house demonstrated that there were several versions of the meeting between the Secretary of State and Lord Chadlington, will the Secretary of State be surprised if there is some scepticism about any so-called definitive report that he may have issued about his meeting with Peter Davis?

When the right hon. Gentleman first became Secretary of State and brought in the directors of Camelot to demand that they give up their bonuses, is it not the case that he failed? When he had meetings with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to try to defend the good causes and prevent the money from being plundered for the health and education budgets because the Chancellor's sums did not add up, is it not the case that he failed? Has he not made Peter Davis a scapegoat to try to preserve his own political career, come the next Cabinet reshuffle?

Mr. Smith

When I had a discussion with the directors of Camelot several months ago, I succeeded in getting £24 million extra into the good causes arising from the lottery as a result of those discussions.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Will my right hon. Friend ask the acting Director General of Oflot to satisfy himself, and in turn to satisfy my right hon. Friend, that the directors of GTech are and remain fit and proper persons to be part of the consortium running the lottery; and if not, to use powers to end the contract forthwith?

Mr. Smith

That is indeed one of the duties of the director general. I look to the new director general to exercise those duties with the greatest vigour and care.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to distance himself from some of the more rabid anti-lottery statements that have come from hon. Members behind him this afternoon? In particular, will he acknowledge that the lottery under the running of Camelot has raised millions and millions of pounds for good causes, and that he would not want to put that at risk? If he is re-awarding the contract, is it more important to award it to a not-for-profit organisation than to guarantee a continuation of the large sums of money going to the good causes? Which does the right hon. Gentleman consider more important?

Mr. Smith

I have heard no rabid anti-lottery statements this afternoon from the Benches behind me. I hope that, with a new bidding process post-2001, a higher percentage will come to the good causes than does at present.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as a result of the past few days, many employees of GTech and Camelot who work and reside in my constituency will feel sad and let down by the indefensible actions of Guy Snowden? Does my right hon. Friend accept that we need an organisation that will ensure the greatest amount of money to good causes, and which has the greatest experience in running a national lottery?

Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents who work in those organisations that, if they can show, when the licence comes up for renewal, that they have expertise and are willing to accept the Government's change towards a new national and people's lottery, they will not be ruled out of bidding for the contract?

Mr. Smith

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We will be open to any bids to run the lottery post-2001. We will assess those bids on the basis of what is best for the good causes and the future of the lottery.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Will the Secretary of State not accept the truth: he does not have the guts to tell the House today that he sacked the director general? His weasel words are a cover for the fact that he does not have the guts to tell the public what he did.

Does the Secretary of State agree that he has invented the lack of public confidence in the lottery? The truth is that, far from there being a lack of confidence, the national lottery enjoys huge public confidence, because it works. Not a single ticket holder has been let down. That is due in large measure to the fact that GTech had the technology, as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) said, and it has delivered to the people. Yesterday the Secretary of State staged a pathetic performance in response to the political requirements of his master at No. 10.

Mr. Smith

There is one small problem with making the statement to the House that the hon. Gentleman requires: it is not true. Mr. Davis offered his resignation, and I accepted it.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the lottery organisers have made a cumulative profit of £169 million on an investment of £49.5 million. That is clearly an excessive profit. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the new regulator is given a remit to regulate the organisers' profits?

Mr. Smith

We cannot change the terms of the contract that was awarded by the previous Government. However, I repeat what we said in July's White Paper: the open-ended profit mechanism, which is at the heart of the current contract, will not be entertained in any future contract.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

Does the Secretary of State understand that we must ensure that independent regulators, in whatever sphere, are not at the mercy of press hounding? They should resign—or be called upon to resign—when they fail in their duties.

Will the Secretary of State make clear in what ways he thinks Mr. Davis failed in his duties? When the Secretary of State speaks of a lack of public confidence, he may be seeking to generate that lack of confidence in Camelot. Does he acknowledge that, as the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) made clear, Camelot has been very successful and produced much more money for good causes than was promised in the original licence? It runs what is widely regarded as the most successful lottery in the world.

Mr. Smith

I have made it extremely clear several times that there is no question mark over Mr. Davis's integrity. He chose to offer his resignation in order to maintain public confidence in the lottery. That is the important point, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman shares that ambition.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, before the lottery contract was awarded to Camelot, Peter Davis flew around the United States in a private jet owned by GTech? The day after he awarded the contract to Camelot, he took the then chairman, Sir Ron Dearing, to one side and said that he was aware of the nefarious activities of GTech in the United States, and did not want to see them repeated in the United Kingdom. The events of this week prove that that is what occurred, which made Mr. Davis's position untenable. The only problem remaining for me is that the Opposition do not recognise that fact, but stand by him.

Mr. Smith

I look to the new regulator to make absolutely certain that there can be no question of any impropriety in the running of the national lottery or any of its component parts.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

On a point of clarification, the Secretary of State said that he spoke to the Prime Minister about his intentions. What intentions did he speak of, and did he intend to settle an old score?

Mr. Smith

No. I informed the Prime Minister of the discussion that I intended to have with Mr. Davis, as I wished to keep the Prime Minister informed in the normal manner.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the new regulator will investigate the whole sorry tale of how Camelot came to be awarded the contract in the first place, including the very close financial relationships between the now discredited GTech and Conservative politicians?

Mr. Smith

The new regulator will be required to fulfil his duties under the National Lottery etc. Act 1993. That will entail examining the relationships between the different companies involved and the probity with which the lottery is being run. That is the proper province of the regulator.