HL Deb 20 May 1901 vol 94 cc541-55

My Lords, since I drafted the motion standing in my name I have been informed by a high authority that in one respect it is not quite correctly worded. I am told that it is not absolutely true to say that there is an increase of public betting amongst all classes, because there is a decided decrease of it in the class to which your Lordships belong. I am very thankful to hear that this is so, because I cannot but feel that it makes this House a stronger body for taking up the whole question and dealing with the evil in other classes of society. I have ventured to place this motion before the House instead of the Bill which I had the privilege of introducing some little time ago, because I have deferred to the judgment of the right rev. prelates around me and other friends—men whose judgment I am glad to defer to in such a matter. I have done so for two reasons—firstly, because in any case there was very little hope of passing such a Bill during the present session; and, secondly, because I have thereby secured their support for this motion. Still I have to confess to a lingering hope that it may not be long before such a Bill as the one I ventured to introduce may be brought before the House for consideration. I think that the facts are in the main a matter of common knowledge. From my observation and experience I entertain a strong feeling that the time has come when we ought to begin to try to do something. I was rather thankful to see that when the Bill was made public it alarmed the betting fraternity. I interpret this alarm as an evidence that they think some such legislation would be practicable, and I accept this alarm as a good omen. I may say, my Lords, that I have even received a threatening letter from a person of some prominence in the betting fraternity, not threatening personal violence, but of a much more important character, for it threatens the whole bench of bishops. The writer begs the Bishop of Hereford to bear in mind that these sporting gentlemen—that is to say, the betting trade—are as a rule very good Conservatives and loyal supporters of the Established Church. He goes on very emphatically to say that they are so "at present," but that if we are so misguided as to make any attack upon their trade we may endanger the Establishment. The writer adds: "Why cannot you as a bishop leave this to the Nonconformist conscience?" We are prepared to run the risk, because we believe the need for action is a very urgent one. The more we see of common life the more we feel that, and we are encouraged—I am greatly encouraged myself—to proceed in dealing with the question by the success of the Select Committee appointed on this subject in 1844, and the beneficent results of the Gambling Act of 1845 and the Betting Act of 1853. I think that the experience of the interval since that legislation was passed has made another such movement very desirable, and your. Lordships will render a great public service, if you take the matter up seriously. I will venture to read a sentence or two from the Report of the Committee of 1844— Your committee think it desirable that the amusement of horseracing should be upheld because it is in accordance with the long-established national taste, because it seems to bring together for a common object vast bodies of people in different parts of the country, and to promote intercourse between different classes of society, and because, without the stimulus which racing affords, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain that purity of blood and standard of excellence which have rendered the breed of English horses superior to that of any other country in the world. On the whole, this seems to be a very reasonable defence of horse-racing. But the Committee went on to say— The Committee would further consider these advantages more than problematical if they were to be unavoidably purchased by excessive gambling and by the vice and misery which it entails. I cannot but feel that experience has shown that in the interval there has been a great growth and spread of gambling, and of the vice and misery entailed thereby. Therefore, I am quite prepared to take my stand upon the recommendation of the Committee of 1844. The great spread of the betting trade is obviously very much facilitated—and it becomes a much more dangerous trade because it is so facilitated—by cheap printing, a cheap post office, and all the apparatus of the telegraph and telephone. I venture to hope, therefore, that your Lordships will feel that this is a matter of some urgency. Without troubling the House at this stage with evidence, I would venture to quote the opinions of two or three judges. At the Warwick Assizes lately the judge said— I am inclined to regard betting as the greatest curse of the country. Mr. Justice Darling the other day stated that— if Parliament was in earnest it would prohibit the publication of betting odds. Mr. Justice Grantham expressed the opinion that— gambling with bookmakers is the cause of more crime and misery than anything else in the land. And Mr. Justice Wills said— When I first came on the Bench I used to think that drink was the most fruitful cause of crime, but it is now a question whether the unlimited facilities for illegitimate speculation on the part of the people are not a more prevalent cause of mischief and crime even than drink. The late Lord Chief Justice, Lord Russell of Killowen, said, in the year 1898, in giving his decision in a well-known case— There is urgent need for legislation on the subject of the ambiguity of our betting laws. Legislation would perhaps be best preceded by a Commission of Inquiry. I am glad to notice, in the report which contains these remarks, that they were strongly concurred in by Mr. Justice Hawkins, now Lord Brampton, who remarked— I quite agree as to the pressing necessity for legislation. I will not detain your Lordships with more quotations, although I have a sheaf of opinions from official receivers and stipendiary magistrates in London and all over the country. There is a large amount of evidence which could be produced to show what an insidious danger the betting trade is. I had evidence only the other day showing that the evil is creeping even into the nurseries of upper class homes. On inquiry your Lordships might find that there are nurses in charge of children who, as a matter of habit, regularly put shillings on horses, and the result frequently is that the children are indoctrinated with the same betting ideas as the nurses or the grooms. Again and again, as an educator of boys and young men, I have found my labours thwarted by the tastes acquired for the degrading sporting literature which is spread broadcast throughout the land. I received a letter a few days ago from a working engineer in one of our northern works. He wrote— I rejoice to see that you have introduced into the House of Lords a Bill to prevent incitement to gambling and betting. I sineerely hope your efforts will meet with success. I can assure you, as a working-man, that during the last twenty-five years of my life I have noticed to what a tremendous extent the gambling spirit prevails in the engineering workshops in this country. Then he goes on to describe the state of things in and around his own workshop— The loafing bookmakers," he says, "who are too lazy to earn an honest living by working, have their rendezvous in the beershops of the town, and they hang about our works and employ men to ply their calling, even inside the works. To such an extent has this been carried that my fellow-workmen will even mortgage part of their wages from week to week and borrow at the rate of twopence per shilling per week in order to speculate on a probable winner. It is not surprising to find that an honest, serious-minded working man should desire to see this sort of thing stopped if it is possible. This is the kind of evidence which can be produced in abundance, and it is sufficient to show the urgency of the matter. It may be well that we should pause for a moment to ask what objections there can be to taking steps for the cure of this great and spreading evil. Moderate legislation on this subject is not open to the same objections as legislation in restriction, say, of the drink traffic or of shop hours. There are many reasonable objections which have to be faced and considered when we are dealing with the mass of trades. But here, what have we? The betting and gambling trade is wholly noxious and parasitic. Even Mr. John Stuart Mill, that great advocate of individual liberty, would, I venture to think, have been with us in our attempts to deal with this evil. I notice, in his most instructive book on "Liberty," that he is careful to give arguments on either side, and we are reminded that society has a right to protect itself against injurious social acts. All the acts of the betting agent as he solicits and induces people to bet are, to the mind of most of us, injurious social acts; and Mr. Mill, discussing this question, says, in effect, that when a man incites to betting and gambling, when he offers inducements for his own personal gain or profit or advantage, he is carrying on a trade which it may fairly be contended is opposed to the public welfare. The Legislature, believing this to be the Case, is justified, Mr. Mill says, in taking care to keep the community as free as possible from the mischievous arts of such persons. I hope this view will commend itself to the House as a plain commonsense one.

There is one point in regard to such social reform which is not sufficiently dwelt upon, and it is this, that in proportion as the people have a larger voice in the framing of the laws, it is possible to go further than when the Government was less popular in the direction of restrictive social legislation. If the House gives careful consideration to the matter and proposes reasonable legislation, I venture to think that it will be simply carrying out the views of the great mass of the people. Though we constantly feel some hesitation in going one step forward in matters of social reform which may affect some individuals, we never, so far as I have observed, see anyone venturing to stand up and propose the repeal of those social reforms which have made such great changes in our life during the last fifty years. There is really nothing to fear from objections which may be brought forward against some legislation in this matter. I have no wish to interfere with any form of legitimate sport. I will go so far as to confess that I have a liking for it; but I desire to fix attention on this noxious and parasitic trade which has gathered round English sport and society, and which I desire to see, if possible, checked and eradicated. I have lately read a good many of the documents issued by the betting agents of the country, and I am surprised to find what a large amount of ability is being diverted to this trade. The amount of shrewd advice given in some of these circulars is very striking. Here is one piece of advice— Do not be deceived by the glowing advertisements which appear in the daily papers from time to time offering to sell information for so many pounds or guineas per week. If the so-called tipsters knew something really good they would invest their own money in it. But that is what they very seldom do. When I read that I thought it was a document from the Anti-Gambling League. But I found it was from a well-known sporting agency, and the only weak point about it was that it concluded by inviting readers to deal with that agency. I cannot but feel that if these very able men had taken to some other business or profession they might have done far more good to themselves and to the country. Some of them seem able enough to have become distinguished lawyers or great diplomatists. But this propaganda ought to be stopped, and it is highly desirable to consider what can be done. If there is a place anywhere in England where such consideration can appropriately be given to the subject, surely it is this House, for, though there are persons outside who do not think much of our legislative enthusiasm, yet there is only one opinion, that no other House in the world contains so many sportsmen in the finest sense of the word. Such are just the right persons to deal with this subject. If something can be done to purify English sport a great social reform will have been effected. This noxious betting trade has battened on the amusement and patronage, and sometimes on the vices, of the upper classes; and therefore this House, which specially represents the upper classes, will do specially good work in taking it in hand. When I look at the greatness of the evil I am almost surprised that I am standing here to make such a humble and modest request—a request to inquire whether any effective legislation is possible to improve our betting and gambling laws. I feel convinced that if the House takes this matter seriously in hand and brings forward some good legislation it will earn the lasting gratitude of the people of this country. I conclude by moving the resolution standing in my name.

Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the increase of public betting among all classes, and whether any legislative measures are possible and expedient for checking the abuses occasioned thereby.—(The Lord Bishop of Hereford.)


My Lords, this subject is unquestionably one of great interest. The right rev. Prelate, in the latter part of his speech, sketched out what he thought might be objections to legislation on this subject, but your Lordships will do well not to mix up the hypothetical question of possible legislation with the actual question before the House, which is simply whether a Committee of Inquiry is desirable. There is a feeling that such an inquiry would involve something like an inquisitorial investigation into the habits and practices of individuals. I for one should object to any inquiry of that kind, but I do not think the words of the motion justify any such apprehension. I am of opinion that, short of the suppression of betting, a good deal may be accomplished by the suggested inquiry, which would be well worth doing. The ambiguity of the law with regard to this subject is now such, for instance, that judges and magistrates do not know exactly how to interpret it. Again, there is a divergence between the law in England and the law in Scotland, newspaper coupons being held to be illegal in Scotland and not illegal in England, at least they have not yet been declared illegal in England. To show the extent to which this coupon system is carried on, I may mention that when it was adopted in the case of an obscure sporting newspaper in London the circulation of that paper went up to 100,000 a week, and I believe that if His Majesty's Postmaster General inquired into that particular case he would find that an extra staff had to be told off to carry the sacks of letters that poured in I think also that the inquiry would be useful in helping to form a just public opinion on the subject, and it might be helpful in enabling us to see whether there is reason for the concern which is expressed by many influential persons with regard to this matter. Not very long ago, in one of the great engineering firms at a place not far from London, the time-keeper—a man of long service—was appointed betting agent, and the head of the firm told him he must give up his agency or the firm would have to give him up. The reply of the man was that he could not afford to give up the betting business, and he would give up his situation if the firm liked. Why did the employer object to his timekeeper doing this? Because he considered it was detrimental to the interests of his business, and if it was detrimental to one business we may infer that the practice is detrimental to business as a whole. Last Saturday I happened to meet a gentleman who has made his mark, not only in his profession as a builder, but in municipal government, and I informed him that there was going to be a discussion in the House of Lords to-day on the subject of betting. He replied— In the business it is a worse curse than drink. The practice greatly interferes with work, and the other day, when I went to see how a job was progressing, I found it much behind. I asked the foreman for an explanation, and, while admitting that it ought to have been finished, he said that since the man X had been sent to that job there had Been hindrances. He was always talking about the odds, and the men at dinner-time, instead of settling down quietly to their food, rushed about to find out the latest betting, and in the afternoon it was necessary that one of their number should leave work on some-excuse to get a newspaper to see the winners. Sometimes in workshops and factories foremen and forewomen act as betting agents, and encourage the younger people over whom they are supposed to exercise superintendence to make bets. It is well understood, I am informed, that they get a commission from the bookmakers. The right rev. Prelate stated that he had good reason to know the harm which betting did in regard to education. I have heard that betting circulars are sent pretty freely to the public schools, but I have not been able to get one. I telegraphed to my boy at one of the public schools asking him if he could send me one, and he telegraphed in reply, "Many received, but none have been kept." I am glad he had the good sense to destroy them; but I know they are sent, as also are little racing calendars excellently bound, and other literature to make it easy for boys to take up betting. A boy, after rejecting ten or a dozen circulars, may decide to give it a trial, and we know what the result is. It is not only by circulars that betting is encouraged, but by advertisements. My attention was drawn the other day to an advertisement in a most respectable paper—a paper such as any person would like to have on his table, and which would give an appearance of decorum to the mass of newspapers there—inserted by a man named James Webster, of Middelburg, Holland. I remember reading a report of some criminal proceedings against an unfortunate bank clerk who had got into trouble through stealing bank notes, all of which were found in the Bank of England, everyone of them endorsed by the name of this very individual to whose advertisement I have referred. Again and again these advertisements are the cause of ruin, and; I contend that Parliament should attempt to reduce the temptations to which the youth of this country are subjected. We have an illustration of the unsatisfactory state of the law in the fact that very often when people are fined they treat the matter with contempt. Recently a man who was fined £5 for bookmaking wrote to the magistrate stating that it would be much better if he could send a cheque, and that it was very inconvenient for him to have to come to the court and pay the money. I concur with the right reverend Prelate as to the appropriateness of an inquiry into such a subject by this House, At any rate, no one could suggest that there was on the part of your Lordships anything like a puritanical desire to interfere with amusement and sport. I have no doubt that a great many foolish things have been said from time to time in opposition to betting, but some equally if not more foolish things have been said in support of it. I will quote one sentence from an organ which supports the professional betting system— The modern puritan is every whit as-mischievous and intolerant to-day as he was 250 years ago. He is unfitted for municipal work, and if the public knew his power for mischief under the cloak of hypocrisy he would go out of public life altogether. I apologise to your Lordships for reading; such canting rubbish. Turning to that guide, philosopher, and friend of the country, Punch, we find the following— The true spoil of sport is betting, Although it suits the baser sort. What is sport to them is death to sport. It is to be hoped that if this inquiry is granted noble Lords will be willing to serve whose names are household words in connection with the turf. As a sport horse-racing should not be attacked in itself, but, if abuses creep in, it is only right that an attempt should be made to remedy them. The noble Marquess at the head of the Government has often said that he objects to anything which savours of puritanical legislation, but I sincerely hope that he will regard this motion favourably.


My Lords, as a very recent member of the House I should not venture to take part in the debate had I not, as a resident for thirteen years in the middle of a great working-class quarter of London, some experience of the evils of betting. Looking out of my window I have frequently seen a man standing in the street for an hour and a half in the middle of the day and receiving slips of paper for betting purposes from forty or fifty persons, including boys and girls. After watching this for some days it occurred to me that it would be well to take action. The result was that he was prosecuted and fined £5, but he merely laughed at the fine. He had £25 on him in shillings when arrested, out of which he paid the £5. But within twenty-four hours he was seen standing at another street corner carrying on the same-tirade. As an example of the victims of this system of betting I may say that it is a common thing to have some poor lad come late at night and pale as death to tell how he has been ruined by betting. One lad who came to me told how he had been led to put money on horses, and how, after spending his own money, he had spent nine pounds entrusted to him as treasurer of a shop club. He is only a sample of boys who are ruined in the working class quarters by betting. I know of a respectable working man who appropriated £120 belonging to a thrift club on account of his probity having been broken down by gambling. It may be asked, what good will an inquiry do? An inquiry into this evil will at least do good in strengthening public opinion and the executive. Policemen are only human. They do their very best, but they cannot do as they would unless they are backed up by public opinion. The inquiry will also reveal the true weaknesses of the betting law. One is that the practice of selling tips on Sunday mornings to crowds at street corners is not illegal. No law at present touches that at all. The Act of 1876 says "any three or more persons," which, of course, does not reach the man standing alone in the street and taking bets; but the London County Council by a bye-law have provided for the individual bookmaker, and I think that bye-law should be made a general law. The third blot on the betting law is that the fine is too light. A fine of £5 is just as little as five pence to a book-maker, so enormous are the profits of the trade. I hope the Government will consent to the motion before the House.


My Lords, I do not desire to lengthen the debate, for I have very little to say. It is a common saying that the vice of betting—for it certainly is a vice when practised by those who cannot afford it—has been going on always, and that you cannot stop it because it is rooted in human nature But the important fact is that betting is increasing, that it is not what it always was, but is a growing mischief. Some may say that it is useless to inquire into the evil, because it is of such a nature that it cannot be eradicated; but inquiry may at least result in some way being found for preventing it from still further increasing.


My Lords, it is certainly from no want of sympathy with the feelings and views of the right rev. Prelates that I hesitate to follow with any great confidence the recommendations they have made. I do not suppose that any of us will differ from them in admitting the growth of betting, and that most of all it is prevalent among the working classes and young people who are not strong enough to resist the temptation. I do not think that that is a matter which it is necessary to labour, because I do not believe that anyone doubts it. Whether it is actually increasing still I do not know. The most rev. Prelate, if he will inquire into it, will find that the evil is very old indeed. But I cannot admit, without very considerable deduction, the argument that because an evil is a great one, therefore you ought to try to do something, even though you know you cannot succeed. It seems to me the weakness of this policy is that, as the matter now stands, it is likely you will not succeed; and if you do not succeed, such remedies as are proposed will produce great injustice and great social conflicts, and will only bring a hideous evil more before the world, and give encouragement for the imitation of it to those who do not practise it now. I would wish to know precisely what evils it is intended to strike against and what remedies it is intended to apply. I was much struck by an observation of the right rev. Prelate who introduced this question. He told us that one of the horrors of betting was that even nursery-maids put a shilling upon each succeeding race, and that consequently the circumstances and phrases of the betting-ring are inculcated in the children they bring up. Is that the kind of public betting you hope to stop? What machinery have you to enable you to stop nursery-maids from putting a shilling on a horse race? I imagine that if you were to contrive to pass legislation of this kind, every time a servant was dismissed he would pull his master or the other servants into the police-court with the allegation that they had been guilty of the crime of betting, and it would be exceedingly difficult, when the crime was merely committed in the course of conversation, to disprove it. If you are going to follow up all conversation of this kind with this kind of control and supervision, does it not come to something very like espionage, and will that not seriously affect the comfort and happiness of vast numbers of members of society? And, remember, the people who will be constantly accused of betting will not be the people who ordinarily do so. This espionage will be encouraged and pushed on by any such legislation as this.

Let us take another instance which came out in the course of debate. The noble Earl opposite told us of the terrible evils that were creeping into society because foremen and forewomen encouraged people who were sitting in the same room with them to bet. Do you seriously imagine that any legal machinery you could construct will stop that? And if it does not stop it, will it not produce, by the opportunities of annoyance and conspiracy which it will give, evils infinitely greater than those you desire to arrest? I feel that the difficulty is one that you would find, when you come to examine into it, very much more serious than it appears to those who are dealing with it so lightly. We have been told in the course of this debate that on Sunday morning large crowds will assemble round one man in order to give him tips.


To receive tips.


Am I wrong in my technical terms? Very well, then, to pay him for tips. But if there be such a large popular feeling in favour of such a thing as that, do you think with the means at the disposal of your Executive that you will succeed in putting it down? It has been mentioned that the mere printing of the odds in newspapers sends up the circulation by hundreds of thousands. You must look at the operation of that upon the persons who have the conduct of newspapers. Do you suppose that they will submit quietly while that means of gain is being taken away? You may be quite certain that anything you may do or any Act you may pass will not stop newspapers from giving information upon a thing which is a matter of public interest—namely, the state of the odds on various races. I cannot conceive a state of society in which that kind of censorship of the press would be tolerated. My Lords, I do not wish to dwell upon the matter. My sympathies are so entirely with those who wish to stop the general practice of betting that I do not wish to go very far into the arguments on the other side. But what I wish you to consider is that you are undertaking a business of enormous magnitude, that you are going against the feelings and desires of a vast mass of people; and I doubt very much whether the results of this crusade will be satisfactory to the minds of those who undertake it. I have tried to use very moderate language, because I am not prepared, if we go to a division, to vote against the right rev. Prelate, and I do not desire and do not wish to give the appearance of desiring to prevent information being given upon the subject. Therefore, if right rev. prelates think it right to press for the motion, I at all events will not resist them, though I must leave the responsibility entirely with them.

I have another reason for wishing to leave the responsibility entirely with them. In recent debates I have heard of a suggestion which, I confess, filled me with much alarm. It has been said by two or three men of very considerable position in this House that when a Government appoints a Commission it is bound to carry out the decisions at which that Commission may arrive. As far as I could learn, there was only one exception to that doctrine—namely, that if the Commission should split in two and vote in precisely the opposite way, then liberty is given to the Government to select one of the two Reports. That throws a very different light on a Government's undertaking any parliamentary inquiry. I feel quite certain that, whatever the recommendations of this Committee may be, a very large number of Members of this House will not consider them practicable. I will not accept, therefore, in behalf of the Government, or in behalf of any future Government, any responsibility for this inquiry, or any intention of putting on the Statute-book the enactments which it may recommend. But if such great authorities as the Episcopal Bench believe that such facts can be obtained, and that an inquiry into them should be held, I do not feel that I am justified in offering any impediment to the motion which the right rev. prelates have recommended to the House.

On Question, agreed to, and ordered accordingly.