HL Deb 19 December 1985 vol 469 cc918-24

12.53 p.m.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I beg to move that the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act 1963 (Schedule 4) (Amendment) Order 1985, which was laid before Parliament in draft on 19th November, be approved. The Joint Committee on statutory instruments has considered the order and has made no comment.

This draft order introduces the Government's proposals for changes in the rules governing the facilities which may be provided in licensed betting offices. The order envisages that people should in future be allowed to watch television and buy a cup of tea in betting shops, if the licensee wishes to provide these services.

We see these changes as a modest progression in the rules on betting shops, which is justified by the way cash betting shops have fitted into our high streets. When the existing rules were introduced in 1961, there were fears about the problems cash betting shops might cause. In fact betting shops quickly became accepted and their introduction has not led to any significant problems. It is perhaps not entirely surprising, therefore, that there is now felt to be room to relax some of the present restrictions without disturbing the overall system of licensing these premises, and that is the view reflected in this order.

The order follows a wide consultation exercise. A paper was issued in February this year to which over one hundred interested organisations and individuals responded. This process has led to a number of important refinements. The order lifts the prohibition in the existing rules on television in betting offices. There are some people who believe that if punters can see the events on which they can bet, they will do so to excess and cause misery to themselves and their families. We have carefully considered that point of view. We have also considered the understandable wish of the majority of people in betting shops to be able to see the outcome of their bet on television, rather than being obliged to go to other premises if they want to watch the race. And we have also taken account of the fact that people who can afford a credit account can already watch the race on television in the comfort of their own home. We have concluded that television should be treated as an incidental facility, which a person can reasonably expect to find in a betting shop. The ban, which looked right in 1960, now looks very restrictive in the light of the widespread availability of television today.

We have also noted that television coverage of racing is available in a number of premises such as pubs and clubs which have traditionally been associated with illegal betting. Although I should not suggest that the ban on television in betting shops is the only reason behind illegal betting, we certainly had this consideration in mind in framing our proposals.

The order introduces some important restrictions on the use of television. First, pictures of sporting events only will be allowed. This will rule out beauty contests as well as general entertainment programmes. It was suggested in another place that we might be in for bouts of topless mud wrestling on television as a result of the reference to sporting events. The order refers to sporting events in general because we did not want to get into the business of picking and choosing between the variety of sports on which bets take place. But it may be of some reassurance if I say that we know that the plans of those aiming to provide a television service for betting shops centre upon the more conventional sports of horse and greyhound racing. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will retain the power to bring forward another order if—contrary to our expectations—there are undesirable and unforeseen consequences from this one, and I hope noble Lords will accept that this would give us enough scope to deal with the rather more exotic sports it is possible to imagine.

The new rules also limit television screen sizes to 30 inches and provide that television and video will be permissable only if the same service or video is available to other betting office licensees. This last restriction is designed to meet the concern that the development of cable and satellite television might lead to private arrangements with one or other major betting office chain so that a service was available exclusively in their shops.

The proposals for light refreshments also reflect our intention to allow facilities which are incidental to the main business of a betting shop—which will continue to be the placing of bets. We share the view taken by the Royal Commission on Gambling which reported in 1978 that the only effect the present ban on all refreshments has is to cause irritation among licensees and punters. But we are also conscious of a risk that if betting shops provide food and drink they could attract people who would previously have had no interest at all in placing a bet. There is no question of licensees being able to provide alcohol in betting offices. Moreover we are not prepared to see betting shops providing a cafe service, perhaps encouraging shoppers in with the prospect of a snack meal. I know that some noble Lords are a little anxious about the narrow list of refreshments included in the order but I hope our intention of preventing this kind of facility getting out of hand in betting shops will be understood. The distinction between biscuits and cakes may look a little harsh: we took the view here that we were just allowing basic refreshments. Some cakes would go beyond that and we felt that this was a reasonable point at which to draw the line. There will always be room to consider an extension of the list in the light of experience, although we detect no desire to see betting shops able to sell a wide range of refreshments.

The Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act 1984 introduced an important new power in enabling us to change the rules on betting shops from time to time by order. We will be looking at the effects of the present order and if we are persuaded that the rules could be still further improved, on refreshments or television, in any direction, we shall be able to bring forward fresh proposals in due course. For the present, I hope that noble Lords will agree that the order strikes the right balance between allowing some new incidental facilities and imposing appropriate safeguards to ensure that the betting shop remains a place where people go only if they are interested in having a bet. I ask the House to agree to the Motion before it. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 19th November be approved. [4th Report from the Joint Committee.)—(Viscount Davidson.)

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am sure we are all indebted to the noble Viscount the Minister for the felicitious way in which he described the terms of this order. There was a Schedule 4, paragraph 5, of the Act of 1963, which prohibited certain things, including refreshments. Since I have no point on the general purpose of the order, with which we are in agreement, perhaps I may say that I was very interested to hear the noble Lord the Minister expatiate on the question of light refreshments. I must say that when I read this order, I pictured the civil servant advising the Minister of what ought to be defined as light refreshments. Looking at the order, I saw, as did the noble Viscount the Minister, "biscuits, not including cakes". He has explained the reason for the difference. I hope that he feels that generally the distinction between biscuits and cakes is so clear that no offence will be committed when a cake is served instead of a biscuit.

But there is such a heavy weightage in favour of all products from potatoes that I ask the noble Lord the Minister to declare if he has any interest at all in the potato industry because, under this commission in subparagraph (3) of paragraph 10, one is entitled to serve potato crisps, potato sticks, potato puffs and similar products made from the potato, or from potato flour, or from potato starch". At first sight, it really does seem as though there is a heavy favouritism in favour of all potato products.

My last and possibly least significant comment is on salted or roasted peanuts. I ask why it is, since presumably one is thinking here of light refreshments to be served with a drink, all other nuts except for peanuts are presumably excluded and that solitary, salacious and extremely seductive little olive is presumably omitted. I ask the Minister, why?

1 p.m.

Lord Peyton

My Lords, I too, like the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, noted the fact that cakes were not to be permitted. I suppose that your Lordships can take comfort from the fact that the Government are proceeding with care and that they have received some solemn warning about the dreadful consequences that might flow if cake was made available in betting shops. I am bound to say, however, that they are not immediately clear to me and I should be very grateful—as I am sure would be the rest of your Lordships—if my noble friend would be kind enough to explain a little more than he has already explained what dreadful dangers would flow from the selling of cakes in betting shops which would be avoided by the presence or availability of biscuits.

My eye was also caught—and I hope that your Lordships will pardon me if I read it out—by the legislative gem in paragraph 11. It reads: Paragraphs 1 and 4 above shall be construed, subject to the restrictions in paragraphs 7 to 10 above, as not prohibiting the provision of the facilities permitted by paragraphs 7, 9 and 10(2) and (3) above.". Why any court should be tempted so to construe this order, I cannot understand for a moment. But again the Government may be wishing to receive congratulations on their resistance to rashness and to making assurance doubly sure.

When the betting shops were originally established—and there are one or two points of substance that I should like to make on the order—the Government of the day proceeded in a typically British fashion. They said, "We've got to have these things but let us compromise. Let us do something to satisfy those who don't want them by making them as unpleasant, as uncomfortable and as discouraging as possible". I welcome the Government's decision to modify that previously stupid position. But I would invite my noble friend's attention, now that the Government have decided to make life more comfortable for those who go to betting shops (where at least it has always been dry), to apply their minds to the conditions for those who go to race courses and to consider whether or not they could not do something to improve the comfort of those who do.

Racecourses are obliged to attract customers, but the customers when they get there are too often met with low-grade accommodation and with little or no protection against bad weather and overcrowding. Added to that, racecourses are obliged to have fixtures at times when they do not want them and inhibited from having them at times when they do. I would remind my noble friend that about a quarter of our racecourses in this country made less than £5,000 profit during the whole of last year.

I do not think that it would be adequate to say—and I am sure that my noble friend would not be tempted to give this kind of answer—that is it is up to the racing authorities and to the racing industry generally to put their own house in order; because that is only part of the truth. The Government could help, and in my view the Government most certainly should help.

I myself do not believe that there is any justification whatsoever for retaining the 4 per cent. on-course betting duty which is much more onerous than it seems because it is levied not just on winnings but on total turnover. Then there is the question of Sunday racing. New Zealand and the United Kingdom are alone in not allowing Sunday racing; and I believe that New Zealand are to modify their position on that shortly. We have, whether legal or not, tennis, cricket, motor racing, snooker, and rugby league fixtures in this country on Sundays.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will be courteous enough to give way. I wonder whether he would explain to the House the relevance of what he is now talking about in such an interesting way to this particular order.

Lord Peyton

My Lords, I shall be very willing to explain, but of course it will prolong my remarks. What I am seeking to encourage the Government to do, now that they are showing their concern for the comfort of those who attend betting shops, is to be more concerned with the comfort of those who go to racecourses. I am suggesting that that comfort could be materially assisted if, for instance, racing on a Sunday were permitted or took place in the same way as some other sporting functions to which I have already referred.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, it is not for me to make any other than the point that I did. But is it not as relevant as saying when we considered the Summer Time Order that we ought to have considered the regularity of clocks?

Lord Peyton

My Lords, I am so sorry that we did not have the opportunity of hearing the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, on that. I am very grateful to him for his advice. But I am afraid that the net effect of his advice, if he will forgive me for saying so, is to prolong my speech, which I would not have wished to do.

There are two more points that I would wish to make here. The result of our legislation is to inhibit racecourses from holding fixtures at times when they do want to have them, not only on Sundays but in the evenings, and also to oblige them to hold fixtures at times when they do not want to have them because the public simply do not go to them. I hope that my noble friend will give some consideration to that.

My final point as to where the Government can help in improving the comfort available to racegoers is on the question of the rating of studfarms where now an important decision of the Court of Appeal has been postponed until late next year at the earliest. I hope that my noble friend will consider these points very carefully because in my view the action to improve conditions—and it is within the power of the Government to do this—for those who sustain the sport and industry of racing on the course itself has been neglected for too long.

The Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham

My Lords, at the risk of seriously irritating the House—for which, if I do, I apologise, as the clock is advancing—I should like to thank the noble Viscount the Minister for the many assurances he has given to the House. I should like also to say that I agree with everything the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, has just said. I feel that this Order is going to make betting shops more attractive and therefore it will lessen the number of people who might like a day out at the races. Conditions on our racecourses really are getting nastier and people generally are not very well catered for there.

The point I should like to make is that the Government really ought to try to do something about increasing the grant or levy, which at present stands at 9 per cent.—that is 9 per cent. of £3 billion, which I understand was the total revenue received by bookmakers last year and which is paid towards the so-called maintaining of Britain's racecourses. In France this figure is over 6 per cent. and in Hong Kong it is considerably more. In both those places the race-going public go to racecourses with a great deal of pleasure; but going to a racecourse in the United Kingdom these days is rather a dull experience. I think this order will result in British racecourses being reduced to a state of perpetual mediocrity. I would ask the Government to consider very carefully the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, which I think are absolutely right and which deserve serious consideration.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken on this order for their welcome of it, although it was perhaps somewhat qualified in certain parts of the House. I must admit that when I first read the order and looked at "biscuits (not including cakes)" my first reaction was that this could not have been drafted by Marie Antoinette. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and my noble friend Lord Peyton that I appreciate it may look odd that paragraph 10(3) says that cakes are not included. In drafting this part of the order we were guided by the definitions used in previous statutes and found it convenient to follow the terminology of Schedule 5 to the Value Added Tax Act of 1983. That, to avoid any doubt, specifically refers to "not including cakes" when referring to biscuits and confectionery. I thought the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, would like to know that.

On the question of potatoes, I must declare that I have no interest in them whatsoever. I do not grow them and I eat them as seldom as possible, and indeed my wife tells me not to eat them at all. Their inclusion could have something to do with the fact that the Irish are very keen on betting, but I do not know whether that is the reason behind it. I cannot immediately call to mind the reason for olives being omitted, except possibly that this order may have been drafted before Spain joined the Common Market. I am afraid I cannot give any further answers on that part of the order.

In reply to my noble friend Lord Peyton, who I would respectfully suggest was going slightly wide of this order, I would say that we have taken the view that it would not be right to deny a limited measure of relaxation of the rules on betting shops because of the fears that have been expressed by the horseracing fraternity. We have taken comfort in our approach from the fact that the sport concerned has stopped short of seeking to oppose the order and our consultations have revealed a general acceptance that it would be right to introduce a measure of deregulation in the present (and now outdated) rules which apply to the facilities in betting shops.

Clearly, the horse racing interests and also the greyhound racing interests have ideas for responding by seeking to make their own sports more attractive. I should have thought that that would mean making their own grounds and comforts more attractive. But this issue is not without its complexities. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is looking forward to receiving the report of the Jockey Club's working party in order to assess the current state of opinion within the racing and bookmaking industries. I know that the racing interests expect to derive some benefit from the new opportunities which will arise from selling the rights to coverage of racing, whether shown by statellite, video or cable. I will in any case ensure that my noble friend's remarks are drawn to the attention of my right honourable friend.

On Question, Motion agreed to.