HL Deb 16 December 1958 vol 213 cc379-92

5.44 p.m.

LORD WINDLESHAM rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what legislation they intend to introduce to give effect to the recommendations of the report of the Royal Commission on Gambling debated in this House in February, 1956 (Lord Silkin's Motion), and subsequently referred to in the course of debates on 27th June, 1956 (Viscount Astor's Motion), and on 6th May, 1958. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I ask leave to put the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper. However, before doing so, perhaps I may keep you for a few moments briefly to run over the reasons why I put this Question down on the Paper. In the last few minutes your Lordships have heard a plea from the noble Lord, Lord McCorquodale of Newton, for plain language—and I can assure your Lordships that for the next few moments you will get it.

My Lords, the story behind this Question is as follows. In April, 1949, a Royal Commission on Betting, Lotteries and Gambling was set up by the Government. The Final Report of that Commission was presented about two years later, after some forty meetings had been held and the best part of £12,000 had been spent in producing the Report. At the end of the period of five years from the presentation of the Report, nothing whatever had happened. At this point the Chairman, Mr. Henry Willink, wrote a letter to The Times complaining that the distinguished people who had given up so much time to it, and the money which had been spent, appeared to have produced no reaction from the Government. As a result of this, in February, 1956—to be exact, on February 8—Lord Silkin put down a Motion calling attention to the Report, and an exhaustive debate ensued on the subject of betting and gambling generally. At the end of that date Lord Silkin withdrew his Motion, intimating his clear intention of pursuing the matter further. I am a little sorry that the noble Lord has just left the Chamber, but perhaps he will be back in a minute or two and will say a few words. I hope he will.

In the debate of February, 1956, it was generally felt that gambling in some form or another is inevitable, whether one approves of it or not, and that to stamp it out in every form would be quite impracticable, even it that were desirable. I do not propose to take up the time of the House this evening by going over all that ground again. We all have feelings about it, and it would be quite a waste of time—and not the object of my Question—again to go over the pros and cons and the dangers of different forms of betting or gambling. However, I would remind your Lordships of the words used by the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Carlisle in the course of that debate of nearly three years ago. During what was, in my opinion, a remarkable speech, he said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 195, col. 823]: The laws…regarding betting and gambling are so chaotic that the time has come for a radical investigation and reformation of them. They are so chaotic that I believe it will be the height of folly to engage in any more patchwork legislation. Patchwork legislation will only confuse more and more the existing conditions.

Replying to that debate on behalf of the Government, Lord Mancroft—who I am delighted to see in the Chamber this evening: he will be able to see that I do not put words into his mouth which he did not speak, which I shall be extremely careful not to do—said [col. 833]: There is no dust on my copy of the Report. It is dog-eared and well thumbed, and not all the thumb marks are my own. He went on to claim shortage of Parliamentary time—even after five years, my Lords! And he added [col. 834]: With a crowded legislative programme before Parliament, with a large number of important topics to be dealt with, I ask your Lordships' sympathetic consideration of the difficulty of fitting in a topic such as this. I feel that any fair-minded person hearing those words must have formed the conclusion that the Government did not, in fact, look upon this as a particularly important matter. I really think that that is the implication, though it may not have been intended.

Later on in his speech Lord Mancroft said this [col. 837]: The Government believe that a satisfactory basis for legislation…would be roughly along these lines: first, there should be a strict control over the provision, on a commercial basis. of all major forms of gambling facilities, including the licensing or registration of all those who provide such facilities; secondly, the law should apply fairly to all sections of the community.…Thirdly, as much information as is practicable should be made available to the public about the extent of gambling and, wherever possible, about the conduct of the various forms of gambling. These seem to me to be a satisfactory basis for tackling this question of legislation.

Finally, he said [col. 841]: I hope I have expressed the views of the Government in general as clearly as I possibly can. I cannot…give an undertaking that legislation will be introduced to-morrow. I can only repeat as firmly as possible that the Government have no intention of neglecting this Report. I promise the House that the strong and carefully expressed feelings that have been put forward in this debate will be taken into account by the Government. This is a problem that has to be tackled; the Government means to tackle it… That statement must have given considerable pleasure to those who feel that something should he done, and the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in withdrawing his Motion, indicated that he was glad to hear that the Government took the matter seriously and had outlined in general terms what they intended to do, though to be quite fair the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, had indicated that it could not be done "tomorrow". Precisely what the noble Lord meant by that expression I do not know.

Five months later, in the course of a further debate, the matter of gambling came up again. I remember it well, because I brought up the question of boxing and got into extremely hot water as a result. Replying for the Government, the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said [OFFICIAL REPORT. Vol. 198, col. 119]: As to gambling, the law on which is in a state of unparalleled confusion, Her Majesty's Government propose to start again with legislation designed to bring the law into line with present practice and opinion. This will be carried out by legalising those forms of gambling which are at present tolerated, and at the same time prohibiting the conduct of privately organised gambling… …When I last spoke to your Lordships on this subject, I said it would not be possible to introduce this legislation to-morrow. Having now gone into the matter in more detail, I must warn the House that it will not now he possible to introduce this legislation the day after tomorrow. It has proved much more complicated than we thought.

Time rolled on, and in May, 1958, as a result of a Question on the unsuccessful prosecution of Mr. John Aspinall, the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, entered the lists. In his reply for the Government, he said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 209, col. 22]: I regret that I cannot give any undertaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Government that legislation will he introduced at any particular time to give effect to these recommendations and the other recommendations of the Royal Commission"— By that time it was eight years old— What prospects future Sessions may hold is something which your Lordships would not expect me to be able to foresee. If the noble Lord, answering for the Government, with a Government Department briefing, could not say, I do not see who could. We should, I think, bear in mind that while nobody will dispute the social importance of the subject of gambling, it is one which gives rise to a good deal of difficulty and a great deal of controversy.

My Lords, I shall quote no more. I have quoted enough, I hope, to convince your Lordships that the "soft soap" stage has now been passed. Is any progress being made in this matter? If so, may we be given some indication of what it is? Is it that the Government find this thing too difficult? Is it that they cannot introduce legislation, or that they do not want to do so? That is what I am asking. If it is too complicated, then I must say that I am disappointed in the ability of a Government Department to find some solution. They have had time enough. Or is it because they feel that, generally speaking, any legislation they may introduce will lose them far more friends than they will make, which, in my opinion, is highly probable? Is that the explanation? If so, I think that is a deplorable attitude to adopt.

This is a social menace—not the gambling, but the fact that nobody knows what is legal and what is illegal. That is a bad thing. The Government were informed by this Report nearly eight years ago, and nothing whatever has emerged. If, indeed, anything can be done, the noble and learned Viscount who, I understand, is to reply, will be in the happy position of being able to tell us, but it is a pity that up to now we have heard nothing. Meanwhile, the situation gets worse. The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, said that he had no evidence that the acquittal of Mr. Aspinall was causing activities of the kind in which he indulged to become widespread. The expression "wide-spread" means different things to different people. My information on the subject is quite different from that of the noble Lord.

There are other questions. If I may quote one or two lines from the Daily Mail of only a fortnight ago, a reporter describing a game called "Bingo", of which your Lordships may have heard—it is the same as "Housey-Housey" which we played in the Army—said: It is a highly organised affair which is drawing terrific crowds to halls and concert rooms all along Merseyside. The prizes are big and the craze has really got a hold. That is the sort of thing that is happening. This question may be considered unimportant compared with other issues that come before your Lordships' House, but I beg to differ. I believe that it is a moral disease, which not only contaminates a lot of people but also brings the law into disrepute, and that is much worse.

So long as there is doubt whether a person who indulges in gambling will be prosecuted or not, the spread of gambling is bound to go on. For instance, I have seen mentioned the possibility that promoters may try to start a casino near Dublin. It has not happened yet, so far as I know, but I know one promoter quite well. He asked for £4 million to start it and got £3 million in three days. So it shows that somebody thinks that there is something in it. I asked this man what was the state of the law in the Republic of Ireland with regard to the project, and he said that if the Government decided that it was a good thing, they would pass an Act in a day or two. So it will be. What I am trying to point out by this is that the position of gambling is not static. It is not only a question of people having a few shillings on the dogs or horses, or on the pools. It goes much wider than that. And I believe that it should be got under control at the earliest possible moment.

I did not get up to speak on the pros and cons of gambling but to ask what the Government propose to do about the Royal Commission's Report, and when they propose to do it. I hope that in his reply the noble and learned Viscount will not bring forward a large number of legal reasons, which are only confusing to the ordinary layman. I also hope that, with the sad story of the first Test Match at Brisbane before us, the Government will not steadily play back our bawling, but rather, as your Lordships' House is led by an eminent cricketer, go for the runs. What I really ask them for is a straight answer to a straight question.

5.49 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord's Question and the whole tenor of the speech which he has made imply severe criticism of the Government for the long delay that has occurred between the receipt of this Report and the taking of any action on it. I have noticed that there has been similar criticism in regard to the Reports of other Commissions which have reported in recent years. Having in mind the very large number of Reports that have been received during the lifetime of the present Government, I believe that, by and large, the criticism is unjustified. Therefore, I wonder whether the noble and learned Viscount who sits on the Woolsack could tell us, when he comes to reply, just how many Reports have been received by the Government from Commissions such as this and what has happened to these Reports in the interval. I believe that that would be helpful to your Lordships in coming to a conclusion on the matter which has been raised in this Question by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham.

6.2 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for raising the point in his Question, and I shall try to deal with it. I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde for raising a wider issue, because it is important at the present time that those who are asked to deal with problems by way of Royal Commissons and Departmental Committees should have an accurate picture of what happens as a result of their labours. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, tried to approach me in cricketing guise. I I am afraid that I do not compare with my noble Leader in that field, but it may be some consolation to the noble Lord to know that I do claim this: that I am the only Lord Chancellor who, when in office as Lord Chancellor, has hit an England bowler for four—and I can also tell the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, that I have not the slightest hope of doing the same with him to-night.

I do not think the noble Lord has any doubt, because he has not only listened to but has read the speeches of my noble friend Lord Mancroft, that the Government are conscious of the importance of the subject; and he need not be in any doubt that we shall pay attention (and I shall personally convey it to Mr. Butler) to what he has said to-day. I think it may be convenient if, first of all, I deal with what is in the Question, if I may put it in that way—that is, give the Government's views on the point—and then deal with its other aspect. May I take gaming first? The Government do not disagree with the Commission's proposals, which were to legalise those forms of gaming which are in practice tolerated despite their illegality, while continuing to prohibit the conduct of commercially organised gaming. That is the view we have taken, and, if I understood the noble Lord correctly. I do not think he differs from that view.

The main problem which the Royal Commission had to face was that of illegal street betting, and their solution was that licensed betting shops should be established. Again I do not think the noble Lord disagreed—he impliedly said so in one part of his speech—that that is a solution which has never commanded universal support. But, in spite of the difficulties—again I want to put it quite clearly to the noble Lord—the Government agree, in principle, that the present law is unsatisfactory and ought to be amended.

I want to say a word or two to the noble Lord about the question of amending legislation on so controversial a subject. My experience of this building goes back for something like a quarter of a century; that is not so long as that of some of those I see here, but it is now getting to be quite a long time. Just before I came there had been a particular example of the difficulty which I am just_ going to state. I do not think that anyone can say that there has been agreement with regard to betting shops. I think the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, would agree with me in this: that a number of people accepted that betting shops were better than street betting and the illegality, but when they had to face up to the number of betting shops in Lon- don running into more than four figures, they got rather a shock. I think it is fair to say that in regard to betting shops there was rather a revulsion when the extent to which they would be necessary was realised.

But even if, in regard to legislation which concerns gambling, one could get broad agreement on that, so that there would not be great offence given to many people, the experience I have always had in regard to this field is that the details themselves are liable to give rise to tension and to much prolonged argument. I turn round and see my noble friend Lord Margesson, and he will remember exactly what I mean; it was just before I came into the House. but the thunder was still reverberating in another place. I think it is a fair point that, even when you get the measure of agreement to which the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, drew attention as to its being better to risk a new difficulty than to keep the law as it is, there is an immense potential field of trouble with regard to the details.

Now may I raise another point which the noble Lord mentioned; that is, the intervention of my noble friend, Lord Astor, who unfortunately is not here to-day. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, will remember that it was in a debate which my noble friend Lord Astor introduced, if my memory serves me, in June, 1956, and again during the discussion on the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, last May, that my noble friend Lord Astor pleaded for the reorientation of the scheme for the licensing of bookmakers and betting shops so as to bring in money to help horse-racing. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, will know that that has introduced a factor which was not in actuality considered by the Royal Commission. I appreciate the point of view of my noble friend Lord Astor, and I understand the point of view of racing interests in general in supporting this idea; but I am by no means convinced and ready to agree with that reorientation.

It would be idle to pretend that this has not introduced a further complicating matter to a most controversial plan. I say that, not as a excuse but as an illustration, which we have actually seen in this House, of the way complications come into this subject, though introduced with the best of motives. Nobody questions that my noble friend Lord Astor desires to improve horse-racing and horse breeding and all the things that mean so much to him, but he has undoubtedly, by that suggestion of a new orientation to the general proposal, if I may say so without offence, bedevilled our subject which was difficult enough already.

Now I come to the second point, because I think it is an answer to my noble friend Lord Windlesham as well as to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. It is irritating I know—and I apologise in advance—when Members talk about the competition for the Parliamentary programme, because every one of us thinks: "That is all very well for the other subjects, but not the subjects in which I am profoundly interested." I hope my noble friend Lord Windlesham will not think that I am being cynical about his own views. I would not be prepared to pronounce on his views with regard to gambling generally, but I would be prepared to endorse every word he has said about the undesirability of bringing the law into disrepute. I assure him that that is the only legalistic thing I am going to say to-night, but as it is a repetition of his words perhaps he will not hold it hardly against me.

I should like to deal for a moment—and I hope the House will not be too bored—with the other side of the problem. because I think it should be said. Since we became a Government—I am going to deal only with really important Commissions and bodies of that sort—we have had thirty-four major Reports. We have completely, or substantially, implemented eighteen; we have, as I will show in a moment, considerably implemented another nine, and seven have not yet been carried into effect; but again when I refer to them shortly I think everyone will agree that a great deal of work has been done upon them.

It is important in this matter, in answering both noble Lords, to see the sort of subject and the difficulty and importance of the subject on which we have had reports. We had the Tucker Committee on Taxation and Trading Profits—the first Committee under my friend Sir James Millard Tucker. Taxation is a vitally important subject. All the practicable recommendations were imple- mented in the Finance Acts of 1952, 1953 and 1954. We had a Committee on Copyright. I will not detain your Lordships, but you may remember the days—I see a noble Lord who remembers very well—we spent in this House after I introduced the Bill, not merely to give effect to the intention, but to revise the whole law of copyright because we had had that Report. Your Lordships, if I may say so, did an immense job in regard to that technical subject.

We had the Royal Commission on University Education in Dundee and St. Andrews. I mention the importance of that subject only because I was Rector of the University myself, otherwise perhaps it is not on the same scale. Then we had the Committee presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Crook—he was here a moment ago—which propounded the scheme with regard to the registration of opticians. That became a law in a Private Member's Bill in which we were able to help. We had the Report of my noble friend Lord Ridley on the Use of Fuel and Power Resources, of which the Government accepted the recommendations which could be dealt with administratively. We had the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, which reported to me. I broadly answered that Report with the Homicide Bill. which your Lordships discussed very fully. There were Royal Commissions on Scottish Affairs and on the Army and Air Force Acts; the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, knows how vital it was to get these antiquated measures brought up to date. The Reports were implemented after a great deal of work in both Houses. The noble, Lord. Lord Strathclyde, knows how difficult was the Scottish rating system and how complex were Lord Sorn's Reports. That was implemented in the Scottish Valuation Acts.

Sir Hugh Beaver's Committee's Report on Air Pollution was implemented in the Clean Air Bill, and there was the Hurst Committee on the Adoption of Children; your Lordships will remember that I had the honour of moving in your Lordships' House the Bill which dealt with that subject. When Sir James Grigg reported on the Preservation of Government Records, I again moved a Bill last Session on that subject. The Priestley Committee's Report on the Civil Service was a matter which was dealt with administratively; the same with the Report of the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors; and the Report of the very important Committee on the Regional Organisation of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Arson Wilson Committee, was also dealt with administratively. The Sir Edwin Herbert's Committee's Report on the Electricity Supply Industry became the Electricity Act of last Session. I pass over pigs and bacon, and the security question which was considered by the Committee of Privy Counsellors before which I gave evidence, and the other Committee of which I was Chairman. These have been dealt with administratively. I want to put two points to my noble friend Lord Windlesham. Broadly, we do not ignore Reports, but, secondly, these are matters of vital importance to the economic, social and political life of the people.

Now I want shortly to deal—because I want to show I have not made a false claim—with the ones we have put into effect to some extent. First, there was the Evershed Report on Legal Procedure. I apologise to my noble friend for pausing for a moment on a legal subject, but your Lordships will remember that I introduced into this House a Bill for increasing the jurisdiction of the county courts, the Administration of Justice Bill, in order to clean up many of the old procedures, to modernise them, and in addition I have carried out a great deal of administrative reforms which I have reported to your Lordships at times. The Boundary Commissions' Reports have been dealt with. The Report of the Guillebaud Committee on the Medical Services is again a matter for implementation by administration, as is that of the Royal Commission on the Taxation of Profits and Income. A number of their suggestions were introduced into the Finance Acts of the last five years. The Report of the Committee of Crown Lands became the Crown Estates Act.

I want to deal with one other subject, which again happens to be in my own particular sphere of duty, and that is the Report of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce presided over by my noble and learned friend Lord Moreton of Henryton. There we made a three pronged attack. We brought in a Government Bill (which your Lordships may remember I introduced here) the Maintenance Orders Bill. We have helped with Private Members' Bills—that is, we have given them the help and the Government have found the time. In addition,. I have, by administration and rules of court, implemented a considerable number of the recommendations. I do not want to put it too high. Your Lordships will remember that we debated here, in a fascinating debate, if I may say so, apart from my own speech, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Feversharm, the Piercy Committee's Report on Mental Health. There again, the Mental Health Bill is one of the measures referred to in the gracious Speech which we are determined to get through this Session.

With regard to the Franks Committee, I am not going to go through that matter again, but we got the Report in August; in October we approved, I think it was, 91 out of 96 recommendations, in full or in part. We introduced a Bill early in the New Year, and long before that I had announced to this House that a number of administrative reforms were going to be introduced at once, and the Bill that comes now on that subject matter reflects in some way the spirit or recommendations of Franks. Those are the Reports on which we have acted.

I want to be fair to the noble Lord. Lord Windlesham. I should like to deal with the Reports on which we have not produced something. There are two which are concerned with more or less routine matters—two out of seven. One is weights and measures. There the Board of Trade have done a great deal of work but there has not been an absolute clamour for that work to be hastened on. The same applies to the Report on the bankruptcy procedure, which I am glad to think has not had an immediate appeal at the moment. Apart from that there is the Report by Lord Nathan's Committee on Charitable Trusts. There we introduced the White Paper declaring the Government's attitude. There was the Phillips Report on the Provision for Old Age—I give the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham this one, because he could make the reply rather in the style of his speech. On that matter the majority of the Committee reported that we should put the pensionable age up to 68. for men, and 63 for women. The two trade union members of the Committee dissented from that view. You can attack us; you may say that the fact that we have not implemented that Report shows a certain fear, but I think that to rush into that field at a difficult time like this, in the face of the minority consisting of the trade union members, at a time when it is very important to get co-operation in combating inflation, is something not to be desired. I do not want to put my case any higher than it need be put.

There is one other case—the Runciman Committee on Horticultural Marketing. I can assure the House that my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture has that subject very well in mind. Then there is the Wolfenden Report. Your Lordships heard me on one side of that Report. You will know that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has also dealt with the matter. I do not think anyone can say that we have ignored that Report. I think there is a field of disagreement and a field of difficulty in public opinion, which I ventured to put before your Lordships.

I have now dealt with the position of this Government with regard to Reports, and I think it is fair to say that, of the 34, 27 have been implemented in full or very considerably. On the others a great deal of work has been done, but we are faced with the very real competition for the legislative programme. I can only tell the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, that I have now considered for quite a number of years—although to nothing like the same extent as my noble friend Lord Margesson—the difficulties of legislative programmes and the competition of the various Bills. It is not an easy matter, and I should like to assure the noble Lord that we are determined to continue our study. We shall consider the new difficulties that have been raised, and we still hold the view that there should be these changes. We still believe that a suitable time will come for them to be introduced. I am sorry that I cannot give him any more, but I have tried to answer his Question clearly as to what are our views. I am sorry to leave the other indefinite.

I have also tried to give the general picture. I think I have made it clear—I hope that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde will agree, after my analysis—that, when one is considering the immense variety and complexity of Reports we have received, the suggestion that they are pigeon-holed is entirely false, and the achievement of this Government in bringing them into operation in these varied fields is something of which no one need be ashamed.


My Lords, as you may imagine, I am deeply grateful to the noble and learned Viscount, the Lord Chancellor.


Order, order!


I was merely going to thank him.