HL Deb 08 November 1979 vol 402 cc991-9

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Birkett.)


My Lords, this Bill touches upon a very narrow point inasmuch as it implements recommendation No. 219 of the Royal Commission on Gambling, and what it does is to remove from Parliament powers to decide the amount of money that could be won at the game of linked bingo, and in future, if the Bill receives the Royal Assent, that power would be vested in the Home Secretary, who can make an order by regulation. I supported the Bill on Second Reading, and I do not dissent from it now; but of course it has an added importance in view of the debate in another place on the 29th of last month, from which it seems that the report of the Royal Commission on Gambling is to go the way of all the other reports of Royal Commissions since the end of the war. In other words, it is going to be swept under the carpet. The little bits that peep out are those that are inescapable—they just cannot be hidden. This one is of some importance because linked bingo is tied up with a game which both the Royal Commission and the Home Secretary regard as a neighbourly occupation; so it is, in just the same way as racing taking place at Cartmel or Plumpton is also racing. But racing at those two small and very agreeable courses is not the same thing as racing at Epsom, York, or Ascot. It is in some way rather different, and it has to be treated on a different basis.

What has happened is this. The figure of £1,000 mentioned in the gaming Act of 1968 has lost all contact with reality. It is perfectly true that the majority of those who play bingo—housey! housey! in my days in the Army—do it on a neighbourly basis. But it is kept alive, in just the same way as Ascot, Epsom and York races are kept alive, because it is a great event; and those who go to smaller meetings pay some attention. Therefore linked bingo—the possibility of going along one night in the week and winning an astronomical sum—is an inducement or encouragement to people to maintain an interest in what I should regard as a somewhat boring pursuit if pursued every night of the week for ever and ever. But the amount that can be won must have a marked effect upon the interest that is maintained in that game. Both the present Administration and the previous Administration paid lip service to it in as much as there was an interdepartmental report on gambling—a report of the Home Office, may I say. They shied away from the recommendations because there was a recommendation to put a limit on football pools. Once you put a limit on football pools, the interest in that subject would quickly wane, with a marked loss to the Revenue. So that one, too, was shelved.

The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead replied—and I do not in any way condemn this; it is a difficult subject; he was new in office, and I was cautious—and he accepted in toto the recommendation of the Royal Commission. That is to say, they recommended that in future the matter should be dealt with by regulation, being taken away from the Act. But they went a little further. What they said was that the new figure should take account only of the future rate of inflation, and should not take into account past inflation. Again, I do not dissent from that. I was heartened by the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in his reply said that the Gaming Board would be consulted. May I say that the reason for my joy on that was that I have every confidence in the Gaming Board and no confidence at all in the Home Office advisers. So the fact that the Gaming Board was going to be consulted cheered me up no end. But when the Secretary of State replied the other night he did not say the same thing. He said that he recommended the recommendation of the Royal Commission which of course, as I say, limits the increase to be given to the board of £1,000 for future inflation. But he went on to say that not all the inflationary tendencies would be taken into account. In other words, whereas Lord Belstead, when he was replying, said he stood foursquare on the recommendations of the Royal Commission, the Home Secretary used the word "all"—and the use of the word "all" means it must be part of it—and hinted that the new figure is going to be in excess. I tell your Lordships, Lord Belstead and the Home Office that what they have decided has created a sense of grievance in the associations concerned with the playing of bingo, because all the other activities which are similar in character have had an increase which has taken into full account the inflationary increases. I presume that in fact the £1,000 would be several thousand pounds if that factor was taken into account.

My Lords, what one wants to do is to try to find a way round this with the least possible friction. I would not ask Lord Belstead, when he replies today, to make a definitive statement; that would be quite unfair. What I would ask him to do is to go away, see what the Home Secretary said and what he himself said, talk the matter over with the Gaming Board and then see what needs to be done. In other words, I do not in any way detract from the conclusion that the Home Secretary should make up his mind in consultation with the Gaming Board, but I think it would be quite wrong here to just say "£1,000". May I say that the Royal Commission, when they were deciding, used the word "present". When does "present" mean? Does it mean when they came to that conclusion, before the Royal Commission's report was printed, or does it mean the 12th July last year, when the Royal Commission's report was published?

Anyway, I do not want to stress this point, because I do not want to detain your Lordships too long on this subject; but it has an importance because there is no subject which your Lordships consider in any Parliamentary Session which makes a greater impact on the lives of ordinary people than does this subject. Your Lordships may feel that that should not he so, and perhaps it should not. But there is an estimate given by the research unit of the Home Office itself which shows that 80 per cent. of the adult population of this country gambled during the course of the year, and the figure given by the Home Secretary in another place ran into many thousand million pounds. So what is done in this respect is of paramount importance. It is also of paramount importance, may l say, to the Revenue, for this reason. It is very hard that the Labour Party never shouts from the mountain tops about the things it achieves, but, in this field, when it came into office in 1964 there was a total revenue from gambling of £33 million, whereas now it is touching the £400 million mark, which is a very considerable sum of money indeed.

The Royal Commission's terms of reference required that they should pay attention to the need to help British sport as a whole, and they were asked subsequently to present an interim report, which they did. They came up with what was virtually a coconut. They said, "National lottery". On this particular point, the Home Secretary has said, "No decision on this". Of course he does not take a decision on it, because politically this is very awkward indeed. I say that because if you have a national lottery you are going to cut very heavily into the activities of the pools, and, of course, not only is that very important from the Revenue's point of view, it also has its repercussions through the ballot box. So, as with the interdepartmental report, it is severely left alone. But one of the things that astonishes me more than anything else is the way in which the Home Secretary brushes on one side not only what the Royal Commision has to say but what the Home Office's own research unit says in the course of a preface to a document, which your Lordships can obtain from the Vote Office, entitled Gambling—A review of the literature.It is interesting that this research unit was operating before the Royal Commission, yet the Royal Commission was never told of its existence; and only at a later date did they see the report in draft.

What we find in this preface is the statement that information about this subject—which, as I say, touches the majority of adults in this country, produces a vast revenue and can be open to the greatest abuses—is very poor indeed. In the case of the Royal Commission, in Recommendation 4.5 they said: The conclusion is inescapable, both from the work of this Royal Commission and from that of the Home Office, that there is a serious shortage of reliable and accessible information about gambling in the United Kingdom". They went on, in Recommendation 25.7, to say: We found an almost total absence of information about the financial state of the industry and its component parts". In Recommendation I they said: The Government should establish a gambling research unit to monitor and study the incidence, sociology and psychology of gambling"; and Recommendation 2 of the Royal Commission was that the unit should be funded by the Home Office.

I do not complain that the Home Office turned that recommendation down. Although they have a responsibility to this House and to the country, the fact is that they turned it down. Well and good. I have no complaint that they turned down the setting up of a research unit into the sociology and psychology of gambling: but I do think it should be brought to your Lordships' attention, or to somebody's attention—perhaps a future Gibbon, when he comes to write The Decline and Fall of Great Britain—that, in relation to this subject, even the merest attempts to understand the facts of the situation are thrust on one side, and they are left, I would suggest, to fester, as they have festered in the past, to produce a very grave social evil.

This is not the only point. Again, I do not want to detain your Lordships too long, but this is the only opportunity one will have to deal with this matter because, judging by past experience, apart from (I must keep in order) a not very useful debate in another place, that will be the end of it; and, as far as I am concerned, I certainly do not want to take part in any debate in which no attempt is made to understand the basic facts.

My Lords, let me deal with one particular point, again of some importance. The Home Secretary, in the course of his speech, referred to what he regarded as a recommendation of the Royal Commission on what he described as "avoidance". He referred to avoidance on a massive scale of the impact of the levy; and reference is made to the Royal Commission's recommendation in this respect. There could not be a greater confusion, because the Home Secretary then goes on to say that he would be prepared to introduce a Government measure if he could be assured there would be no opposition; but in the absence of that, he would welcome and would give support to a Private Member's Bill to deal with this subject.

But the trouble which has arisen—and I want to invite your Lordships' attention, particularly the attention of members of the Labour Party, to how it has come about—has arisen from totally different circumstances. If the Home Secretary says, "I am in fact going to adhere first to Lord Birkett's Bill" and says what he understands is going to happen in another place, then, if we are going to get another Private Member's Bill, or even a Government measure, we ought to know how that has come about. It has come about because the Levy Board has run out of money, and it has run out of money because of this avoidance clause, which in fact has nothing to do with it at all. The avoidance, which was dealt with by the Royal Commission in some detail, arises where a group of companies can be restructured just before 1st April in such a way as to avoid what are regarded as their lawful liabilities.

The real difficulty arises because the Levy Board, with the approval of the Home Office, has loaned £2,700,000, free of interest, to the Duke of Richmond to rebuild Goodwood at a time when we are very hard up. Again, racing is conducted in such a way that a yearling can be sold for £650,000. An average of more than £30,000 could be obtained for each horse. Astronomical sums of money are to be made because of lax administration. The result is that advantage is taken of that and the money is not available simply because the Levy Board, in order to deal, itself and without consultation with the Home Office, with the difficulties thrown up by restructuring, chose to do so by making the levy payable not on the previous year's turnover, as has happened ever since the legislation was introduced, but on the current year's turnover. Therefore, as they can make only one assessment, they are without the means of collecting the money until the end of the year. So they spend in advance money that they have not got and run into difficulties. The Home Office, without regard at all to the consequences, propose to sponsor it, or to give it their blessing.

I am not saying that these matters should not be dealt with; but I am saying that, before dealing with them, we need to take into account the effect of the Government's lack of interest in the problems thrown up by the Royal Commission as a whole. Unless they do that, the most serious results are going to follow for British sport as a whole. One of the purposes of the Royal Commission—and they requested an interim report—was that British sport should benefit; but, as a result of local government cuts last week and of the fact that the Home Secretary has tended to ignore it or has indicated that there is no opportunity for legislation, British sport, as we know it, as it is carried on on the village green through voluntary organisations, is going virtually to come to an end. Some £50 million is going to be taken off it through local government cuts and any prospect of help from central Government is just not a starter. I am talking of all that range of sporting activities for which our nation in the past has been famous. It is said that there are 64 of them. The Home Secretary last week touched only on three; he touched on those three only very ineffectively. The result is going to be that the voluntary spirit, the voluntary efforts, are going to come to nothing.

I could weary your Lordships by giving more examples. I well understand that these are boring matters for those who do not want to listen. But so long a I am in this place I intend to take the opportunities to speak on them. It will be the only opportunity of expressing my views on the way this problem is going to be handled. So far as I am concerned, I do not want my opinions to be foisted upon anyone—even to the point of boring. But there is one difference between me and the Government. I do my homework before and not after. That is the claim I make and it is one that I can substantiate.

I have been right on previous occasions. I came along on my own, opposed the Private Member's Bill and said that it ought to be a Government measure. We have had the piddling 1976 Act. The only reward that I get for that and will get on this occasion is to be able to say "I told you so". I am telling your Lordships again now that British sport through voluntary efforts, be it racing, football, greyhound racing, is all going to suffer—and needlessly, not through lack of cash but through lack of interest; and because people will not do their homework or, when somebody else does it, they will not listen. They get bored. I am sorry that I bored your Lordships but I do not apologise.

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may say a word from this Bench. The noble Lord did not bore me at all, but he has mystified me slightly. On Monday in this House I was asked a Question by the noble Lord and, as I understood it, he was seeking an assurance that gaming and the Gaming Board were in no way related to horse racing. Here we are, having enjoyed some 20 minutes of the noble Lord in which he has been at pains to show that on a Gaming Bill it is appropriate to talk about betting and the Levy Board. However, I leave that on one side.

The noble Lord made one specific point so far as this Bill is concerned. He suggested that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in making a speech in another place on 29th October had contradicted words that I had ventured to put to your Lordships on the Second Reading of Lord Birkett's Bill. I should like to assure your Lordships and the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, that on 29th October my right honourable friend in no way intended to modify in any way what I said on the Second Reading of the Bill. The references to my right honourable friend's words are to be found (I think I am right) in cols. 853 and 854 of the House of Commons Official Reporton 29th October.

May I add only that I had not intended to intervene on this Bill because on Second Reading the Government made it plain that they supported Lord Birkett's Bill, that they would have liked themselves to have legislated on the subject. but that in this Session there was no legislative time for a major Bill on gaming. Therefore, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Birkett for introducing the Bill which has its Third Reading today.


My Lords, I am immensely flattered that this tiny Bill should have supported such an authoritative and—dare I say?—wide-ranging speech from the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, and such a crisp and courteous reply from the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. For one wild moment I wondered whether my next task should be to withdraw my Motion for Papers, but I recalled myself and instead will humbly beg your Lordships to agree to the Motion that this Bill be now read a third time.

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed, and sent to the Commons.