HL Deb 22 January 1986 vol 470 cc313-24

7.59 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have received the advice of the Gaming Board on "telephone bingo" and whether they are now prepared to express a view about the desirability of this experiment by British Telecom.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, lurking behind this somewhat deceptively simple Question are some troublesome social issues. I make no apology for asking your Lordships to spend just a little time considering them. I am most grateful to the other noble Lords who have agreed to take part in this short discussion. Perhaps I can say a special word of welcome to the noble Viscount, Lord Davidson, on this exploration of one of the multifarious functions of the Home Office.

Licensed bingo has been losing in attendances for some years for many reasons, including the risk of being mugged on the way home and the disappearance of public transport. Even so there are something like 5 million regular players and every day more than 300,000 people attend licensed bingo clubs. Although bingo is a form of gambling, and although a housewife can lose more than she can reasonably afford, nevertheless it provides something of a social service and offers to a large number of people living in pretty humble and often lonely surroundings the chance of meeting other people, entertainment, refreshment, light and heat.

Bingo is surely in a quite different category from casino gaming—which, oddly enough, we shall be discussing in your Lordships' House tomorrow. But, just like casinos, licensed bingo is very closely controlled under the Gaming Act 1968. For example, it is subject to restrictions on licensing and certification, opening hours, admission to take part in the gaming, and on advertising.

The 1968 Act recognised the existence as well of bingo in members' clubs and miners' welfare institutes. In recent years we have also seen the growth of so-called newspaper bingo quite outside the 1968 Act. That is a form of bingo with what might be charitably described as managed prizes, far greater in amount than anything that the bingo industry itself has ever contemplated and with no restrictions whatsoever on advertising. The organisers have hoped to stay within the law by arranging that there is no requirement to buy a newspaper to enter, but the normal expectation is that one will do so.

We now have an experiment by British Telecom for telephone bingo, which I shall describe in a moment. This is an example of straightforward gambling. There is no question of one enjoying any side benefit—for example, in the way of a newspaper to read. Nor is that the end of it. Various types of bingo are already being used by a number of commercial companies to promote their businesses. We know that the technology now exists to play a game of participative bingo by way of one's own TV set and that proposals for just such a game are now being hawked around by the promoters. I do not know what view the IBA is likely to take if such a proposal goes to it, but what with the prospect of satellite TV and all the rest of it, the pressure for some form of TV gambling is only too likely to increase.

The British Telecom experiment is only one example. I am bound to ask whether the Government are content just to sit back as the scope for gambling grows ever wider and wider, or whether they consider that the time is coming where the line should be drawn somewhere. If they do not, then how do they justify retaining strict statutory limitations on the one form of activity that offers a real social contribution in addition to the opportunity for modest gambling?

As this Question concerns British Telecom bingo, I had better talk about that form of bingo in a little more detail. A 12-week experiment in the Midlands has just finished. The idea was that if it succeeded the arrangements should be spread across the whole country. I am glad to be able to say that British Telecom have told me this week that they have decided to abandon the whole attempt as from Sunday last. They tell me that that decision was taken on commercial grounds. Satisfactory though that conclusion is to me, it does not dispose of the questions to which that experiment has given rise and about which I am speaking this evening.

Another experiment in Southampton on rather different lines ran, I believe, into troubles of its own, but under the Midlands scheme cards with numbers printed on them were distributed to households in the area. Anyone who wanted to take part could then ring up a British Telecom number to check off the bingo numbers given for that day against those on the card. At the end of the week, a score of 15 entitled the holder to claim a substantial prize for a full house—a phrase no doubt familiar to your Lordships.

The claim could be made on a Freefone number, but all the calls in the week were ordinary telephone calls that had to be paid for. In the fond belief that all of that could be kept within the law, the week's numbers were announced on a local radio station on the Sunday evening an hour or two before the final claim had to be made, so that in theory at any rate one could enter without spending anything.

On 12th November, as reported at col. 137 of Hansard, I asked whether the Government thought that that experiment was in accordance with the public interest. The noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, who replied on that occasion, is not present in your Lordships' House this evening. When I told him that I might have to make some remarks that could be construed as being mildly critical, he assured me that that was a prospect he could face with equanimity. In any event, the noble Lord made no attempt to answer my original Question. He simply replied that the decision was a matter for the commercial judgment of British Telecom.

That hardly came as a blinding revelation. What I had actually asked was whether the Government held any views about that decision. So I tried again. I asked: Is it not deplorable that this great undertaking … should go in for action which may not be strictly illegal—although I would not be too sure about that—but is certainly plainly contrary to the spirit of the Gaming Act 1968?".—[col. 138.] I also mentioned: With newspaper bingo you at least get something to read for your money". To that supplementary question the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, replied: I do not think that the noble Lord is necessarily right. He referred to newspaper bingo, and as with telephone bingo it is not essential to make a payment to take part, and the courts have not found newspaper bingo illegal". The noble Lord did agree in subsequent correspondence that he had not attempted to say either that the courts had held newspaper bingo to be legal. The fact is that this issue has never been directly tested in the courts on a specifically argued case.

Anyway. I was talking about telephone bingo. Although I am no lawyer, I am sure that I am not alone in believing that there is, to put it at its lowest, an argument that that particular activity in all probability strayed onto the wrong side of the law. Whatever the legal position, the arguments of policy remain. In those exchanges on 12th November, the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, stated that, The gaming board will be discussing telephone bingo shortly". The board has a statutory duty to watch the development of all forms of gaming and I hope that the noble Viscount, when he comes to reply, will feel able to tell the House what views the board expressed. Telephone bingo as such is evidently finished, but there will undoubtedly be other experiments and the views of the board will be of lasting interest.

There is one other quite separate point. When we were devoting so much time in this House to the privatisation of British Telecom I cannot recall that we ever had any explanation that one of the consequences might be that this great corporation would feel free to do its bit to try to turn us into a nation of gamblers without apparent regard to the social considerations involved—any more than we were told about another of its rather bizarre experiments whereby one could telephone the topless page 3 model of the day and chat to her about her love of animals or about swimming pools!

However, with my eye on the clock I realise I have said enough, but I should like to end by summarising the questions which emerge from what I have been saying. First, what advice have the Government had from the Gaming Board? Did the Government or the board make representations to British Telecom? Are the Government now prepared to express in public a view about the policy implications of this apparently unsuccessful experiment?

Secondly, have the Government received advice about the actual legality of the experiment, and do they have views which they are prepared to disclose about the legality of other comparable activities? Thirdly, do the Government contemplate trying to draw the line somewhere to stop this spread of gambling opportunities? If not, and if there is to be a free-for-all for newspapers, TV promoters, and whoever else climbs on to the bandwagon, do they contemplate relaxing the very tight restrictions on licensed bingo, which is the one form of bingo with a social benefit? If not, why not?

Finally, are the Government content, now this great public enterprise is privatised, to wash their hands of it altogether and to refrain from commenting on its activities, however socially undesirable they may be? I think that I was not overstating the case at the beginning of my speech when I said that there were social issues of some consequence here.

8.12 p.m.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, I declare an interest, having been chairman of a quite significant leisure company which had bingo as one of its products. I have continued that interest, particularly in relation to the legislation affecting bingo. I look upon this contact as a slight advantage when such matters are being discussed as it enables me to know first-hand how genuine are the protests and criticisms from the operators' side.

The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, is similarly placed with regard to having some knowledge of the real make-up of this subject, but he comes from the controllers' side; so we have the operators with the day-to-day knowledge of how it affects the actual operation and we have the controlling side with the special knowledge of how it affects the nation and the general way that it fits in. But tonight from both sides of the coin we bring identical messages.

What is this message that we both bring? It is that the bona fide bingo establishments have proved that properly run it is a harmless pastime which provides a real social service to the lonely and the aged; and now that the bona fide clubs have established that status there is a risk that outside organisations such as newspapers, television, and cable companies, as the noble Lord said, will produce pseudo games and call them bingo purely for their own sales purposes. I do not object to that, but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Allen, that it is someone's responsibility to see that the way they do it is within the law as it now stands.

They are likely to be a great problem to what I call the bona fide operators, because they are free from any of the legislative constraints which the bona fide clubs must have. If they are allowed to develop without those constraints they will submerge and, I suggest to my noble friend who is to reply, it may well be that they will annihilate the genuine article which has passed the test of coming within the law as set out in the 1968 Act and the way it has been operated.

I do not think that there can be any doubt about that and I should like my noble friend, when replying, to bear in mind this fact: that since the newspapers' pseudo bingo started about three years ago the genuine article has seen the number of clubs reduced from 1,400 to 1,200; that is, a reduction of about 14 per cent. Admissions to the various clubs over that period have fallen by 20 per cent. I do not for one moment suggest that that very clear indication that the clubs have been proved to be both desirable and helpful in a social service way was totally due to the newspapers, but I am saying that this quite significant fall has been during the period when the pseudo bingo newspaper efforts have been in operation.

A part of the message that I think we both bring is that elementary fairness insists that both the bona fide and the new participants should be under the same legal constraints. To leave it that one is free and the other is in a straitjacket of restraint simply is not fair. I do not believe that Parliament would be doing its duty by leaving the legislation with that sort of advantage being given, particularly when it could result in the bona fide games being pushed out of existence. Therefore, the Government must either do that or—and I emphasise this, because it is within the power of the Government to do so—the original bingo halls which have pioneered both the popularity and the status of the game should be freed from the straitjacket of not being permitted to advertise and other such constraints that are put upon them under the 1968 Act. All operators of either genuine bingo or pseudo bingo should compete on the same terms.

I believe that that is, briefly, the message that the noble Lord, Lord Allen, and I both bring in this Unstarred Question tonight. I want to emphasise to my noble friend who is to reply that this Unstarred Question is very significant. It is significant, in my view, because of the standing and experience of the noble Lord who introduced it. I do not believe that we ought to ignore the significance of the noble Lord's tabling of this Unstarred Question and the message that he gave.

I attach a lot of importance to that, because those who understand the significance of Unstarred Questions know that usually they are taken as a way of putting on record some point of view, often without there being much hope of it ever being carried forward, or of it incurring subsequent legislation. This Unstarred Question is different. It emphasises an unfairness brought about because of legislation in one part of industry and it must be dealt with. I have declared my interest and how I have been chairman of a company which has bingo as one of its products. If I or anyone connected with the industry had asked this Question, it would have had just the same basis in terms of the truthfulness of the message; but in its acceptance by everybody it might have been suspect, genuine though the message seemed, as to how much self-interest was involved in it.

When such a matter is raised by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who has spent almost a lifetime from 1934 as one of our senior civil servants with the responsibility of important offices of state (the Home Office, the Ministry of Housing, the Treasury itself) and who was ultimately made chairman of the Gaming Board, that adds special significance to this Unstarred Question and the noble Lord who is asking it tonight. In his capacity as chairman of the Gaming Board, the noble Lord had access to the inspectors' reports. He saw the reports which had to be given to him under the Act and he had the services of a virtual army of people to investigate the situation and see whether the law was being properly upheld. He comes here with a knowledge which is almost unequalled by anyone else who is likely to take part in this debate. His main strength is his very career. He himself shows that he is being objective. There is no quesion at all of any self-interest in the message that he brings to us.

I suggest therefore that the Government, through my noble friend, would be very well advised not to treat this as just another Unstarred Question, where members are letting off steam in the hope that it may do some good somewhere. It is the beginning of a genuine attempt to right an unfairness. It is an unfairness which has been recognised everywhere. Indeed, there are not only the arguments which have been put by the noble Lord and myself from our respective positions on both sides of this industry, but there is also the report of the Royal Commission in 1978, which admitted that bingo clubs, as they were operated under the present Act, were serving a social purpose, and they ought to be relieved of some of the constraints which would make it impossible for them to continue to exist.

I hope that my noble friend and other noble Lords who are taking part in this debate tonight will put this Question out of the realm of the normal Unstarred Question, where it is just a matter of putting a point of view on the record. It discloses an unfairness which it is possible for the Government to put right, and they ought to put it right. It is a message which comes from people placed, as I am, who have seen it in day-to-day operation, and it has been seen from the point of view of the noble Lord who has been one of the pioneers of the legislation which has brought this about.

I hope that the message which the noble Lords will give will be either that they will ensure that the unfair competition and freedom from constraints that certain groups possess will be changed, and the situation will be legally adhered to, or that they will remove the unnecessary constraints on those who already operate and who have proved how genuine and desirable they are, so that they can carry on and carry out what was intended when the 1968 Gaming Act brought bingo under the aegis of the law.

8.25 p.m.

Lord Bancroft

My Lords, with the demise of telephone bingo, I rise, not for the first time, in the presence of a shot fox; but the existence of the corpse in no way invalidates the single point that I want to make, nor the very important points and questions which have been raised by the two noble Lords who have spoken before me. I am afraid I cannot match their eloquence but, like the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, I must declare a modest interest. Among other activities, I am a director of the Bass group of companies and also a director of two of their wholly-owned subsidiaries, one of which, Coral Social Clubs, is a leading operator of bingo clubs.

My brief intervention is not primarily designed to complain about competition from newspaper bingo, or the now defunct telephone bingo which I believe is called "Ringo"; but like other noble Lords I cannot help but ruminate on the political and economic philosophers who set the mountains of privatisation in labour. Did they envisage the production by British Telecom of such a rum and doubtfully legitimate mouse as "Ringo"? I think its only qualification for being remembered is that it makes a good alliterative chum for Roland Rat. I am glad that British Telecom has put it out of its misery.

Despite the paucity of Peers present here tonight, I want to re-emphasise the points that have been made about the vast number of people whom bingo touches. In their singularly scholarly study called Women, Leisure and Bingo, Dixey and Talbot found that for many of our fellow countrymen and even more of our fellow countrywomen, bingo is one of the very few acceptable sources of entertainment outside the home. Specifically, they found: Women, more than men, and the older age groups rather than the younger, regard bingo as their main entertainment outside the home. There is little variation by region". Adding flesh to the figures that we have already been given, in 1984 an average of 340,000 people a day played bingo and a total of 124 million people participated during that year. I repeat therefore that we are concerned with a lot of people, and since the duty collected from the clubs amounted to £49 million, we are talking about quite a lot of money too.

I repeat that my main and indeed my only point is one made by both the noble Lords, Lord Harmar-Nicholls and Lord Allen of Abbeydale, and also in a singularly wise speech by the successor of Lord Allen as chairman of the Gaming Board, Sir Anthony Rawlinson. It concerns the restrictions placed on bingo clubs as compared with bingo promotions in newspapers and elsewhere. Referring to the 1968 Gaming Act, which, as has been remarked, in many ways treats bingo played in clubs as if it were hard gaming played in casinos (which it certainly is not) Sir Anthony is reported as saying: Were the legislation being rewritten in respect of advertising restrictions, I think a case could be made for distinguishing licensed bingo premises from licensed casino premises". He added that: With an eye to the future it would be useful if bingo operators were to come forward with coherent and specific proposals for reforming Section 42 in a way which they would regard as sensible". I say both "hurrah" and "amen" to that.

All research and experience has shown that it is the social facilities of the bingo clubs which form a large part of their attraction to their patrons, who are mainly women with very few other places to go and socialise. It is therefore difficult—I echo points already made—to justify placing quite ferocious restrictions on advertising on those bingo promotions that serve a useful social purpose and none at all on those that are solely gaming. The ferocity of the restrictions is real. Any noble Lord who wishes to glance at Section 42, subsections (1), (6) and (8), for example, will understand what I mean. Other businesses can freely use the bingo industry's product to stimulate their own enterprises without any restraints or any of the costs, such as the duty, that are attached to licensed clubs. Sooner or later, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen said, a line needs to be drawn to stop the indiscriminate spread of gambling.

In the interests of fairer competition and the fairer interplay of market forces—this should appeal to the Government—I hope very much that the noble Viscount who will be responding for the Government will undertake that sympathetic—I repeat, sympathetic—consideration will be given to legislation that removes some of the restrictions on the clubs, in particular their freedom to advertise. I conclude by thanking my noble friend Lord Allen of Abbeydale for introducing the debate with all the authority that the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, has described.

8.31 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I should like to add my voice in welcoming this Unstarred Question, presented by the noble Lord, Lord Allen, with great clarity and great feeling and also, I believe, with great conviction. The noble Lord says that it is now certain that this particular experiment has come to an end. Indeed, even I had heard this on the grapevine. It would therefore seem that those of us who are contributing to the debate are left with examining whether such an experiment was, in the first place, desirable, in view of other experiments that might be set up to follow in its place. The noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, spoke with great force about the unfairness of the law as it affects part of the leisure industry with which he is concerned. What the noble Lord said bore great conviction. The noble Lord also spoke of the great contribution that bingo halls make to the public enjoyment generally.

I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, made clear that the bingo hall is a place that older women feel they are able to enter alone. There are still in this extremely male dominated society in which we live many places that the older woman certainly would feel uncomfortable entering alone. There can be no doubt that she needs as much, if not more than most (because she is confined a great deal to the home), some place for social entertaining. These are strong arguments in favour of all the support that can possibly be given to the traditional bingo hall as we have known it.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, said—and it is my view, too—there seems little doubt about there being something very disturbing about a big undertaking such as British Telecom producing this so-called service, as they described it, immediately after privatisation—a service that could be described by many as somewhat distasteful. It can also be said that there was certainly no mention of the possibility of introducing such an experiment when the Telecommunications Bill was going through this House. Speaking for myself, I viewed the experiment in two lights—first, as to where it stood in the law, about which we still do not know, although perhaps the Minister will tell us, and, secondly, whether it was a practice of benefit to people generally and one about which we all felt good.

I understand that the concerns of the Bingo Association of Great Britain were mainly commercial. The association feared particularly that telephone bingo could lead to television bingo, so keeping people indoors and away from the bingo halls and the social setting that they offer. However, with a new link-up jackpot of £50,000 starting next week, the Bingo Association would seem to have acquired a fairly convincing safeguard against this happening. It is something that they have produced themselves. Furthermore, I understand that Screensport, a cable television company who have been operating a TV bingo game nationally for 80,000 subscribers, with a weekly £1,000 prize, are about to drop it after four months' trial although it was legally cleared. This seems to me, therefore, to be another experiment that has failed. Again, this draws attention to the fact that such experiments are not perhaps desirable at all.

However, the Bingo Association still voices fears about the likely method of a typical TV bingo operation and the product sponsorship that would naturally occur. It is a chilling thought that the selling of game cards at supermarkets and the presentation of nightly numbers between commercial breaks would inevitably involve advertising bias. It would, of course, be a powerfully effective method of retaining an audience throughout the evening to hear successive numbers being read out. So, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, says, we are talking about a corpse, one can nevertheless put one's views. Those are the practical and commercial aspects of the experiment put on by telecommunications.

I believe, however, that one should perhaps consider one further matter—namely, whether this practice did seem morally justifiable. Although the noble Lord, Lord Allen, did not use the word "morally", this did, I believe, run very much through his excellent speech. It is important to consider whether this practice would have been compatible or incompatible with other forms of gambling. One can only draw on one's own attitude. For my part, I must admit that I view telephone bingo with a great deal of distaste. Although I should not allow my general aversion to structured gambling to pervade my argument—or at least I should try not to—my reason for opposing it is that one of the few justifications for gambling is that it is part of a social gathering. On the racecourse, it brings racegoers together. Even the casino, amusement arcades and, mainly, the traditional bingo hall achieve the same purpose. The thought of such a practice as telephone bingo conjures up a picture of such heartbreaking loneliness of the solitary person with his telephone that it seems to me highly distasteful. Although recognising that my children will immediately say that I am sounding self-righteous and glib, I would say that I find it morally repugnant.

I should like to conclude by asking two questions of the Minister. I am sure that he will answer both of them. The noble Lord, Lord Allen, has mentioned his own Question of 12th November when he asked the Minister whether this practice was not contrary to the spirit of the 1968 Gaming Act. I hope very much that the Minister will answer that Question this evening. I hope, secondly, that he will assure the House that, considering the ease with which British Telecom started up telephone bingo, an equivalent game could not be broadcast on network television until a thoroughgoing inquiry had been carried out into the likely effects on the public and on individuals and families generally.

I should like to reiterate what the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, said. This Unstarred Question, put down by the noble Lord, Lord Allen, really does present a very clear principle and a clear fear about how such a scheme as this, although it is now finished, could lead to others. I think that there is very great agreement between the speakers on the three Benches who have spoken this evening that they would find a continuation of such a practice very undesirable indeed.

8.41 p.m.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for asking this Unstarred Question on telephone bingo. I am particularly grateful to have been given the opportunity to set out the Government's views on this telephone game which—as the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, has told us—has been given the rather catchy name of "Ringo".

I am particularly conscious of the vast experience of the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, which is so well detailed by my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls. I am also conscious of my equal lack of experience at the other end of the scale. I can therefore assure noble Lords that I take this Unstarred Question extremely seriously. I only hope that I can allay some of the fears and concerns which have been expressed and reassure those who have spoken as to the Government's views and intentions. I shall also do my best to try to answer the various points which have been raised.

As the noble Lord, Lord Allen, has said, it appears that British Telecom, after running the game on an experimental basis over three months, have decided not to continue with it. That deals with the immediate point of his Question. But as he and other noble Lords have said, there are a number of wider issues upon which I should like to take this opportunity of expressing the Government's views.

First let me deal with the concern which has been expressed about the proliferation of gambling in the form of "Ringo" and the other sorts of sales promotion with which we are familiar, such as newspaper bingo. The Government's view is that the present law on activities like this—which are a sort of lottery—is substantially right in distinguishing between cases where a person has to pay to take part and cases where he does not. If a person has to pay to enter a lottery then it is subject to the controls in the gambling legislation. The underlying reasoning is that if a person has to pay there is a risk that he will get himself into financial trouble, there is scope for cheating the public out of their money and it can serve as a magnet for attracting criminals into the activity.

If a person does not have to pay then the controls on lotteries do not apply. It is not part of our aim to prevent the sort of sales promotion with which we are all familiar, in which people are given a free chance in a draw. "Ringo" and newspaper bingo go further because, although it is not essential to make a telephone call or to buy a newspaper to take part, the intention is to encourage people to do that. These sorts of activity press the distinction in the law to its limits, and in our view "Ringo" is on the borderline of what is acceptable under the present law and what is not. However, it would be for the courts to decide if it were over the line, not for the Home Office.

I think that I have said enough to indicate the difficulties which would arise if the Government were to try to reformulate the law to bring sales promotions like newspaper bingo within the controls on gambling. There would be problems of choice and definition. We are not convinced that the end result would be better than the present law and we have no plans to make any change in this area.

Noble Lords who have spoken have rightly drawn attention to the controls which apply to bingo. The Government recognise the social value of bingo and that recognition lay behind the Government's support for the Bill last session which relaxed the law to allow a national bingo game offering prizes of up to £50,000. The industry has set a lot of store by the new game and it is hoped that it will be in operation by the summer. We know the industry would like to see the controls on advertising relaxed, but it has been the policy of successive governments to maintain these controls to avoid the stimulation of gambling. The advertising of newspaper bingo and other sales promotions, does not pose quite the same problems because it is possible to play without having to pay. I understand the resentment felt by the bingo industry but I cannot at this stage offer any hope of a relaxation on advertising.

The noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, hoped that I could be sympathetic on this point. All I can say is that if the bingo industry comes forward with coherent proposals on advertising, then of course the board and the Home Office will consider them. But it needs to be said that, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen, said, licensed bingo is gambling and, as I would repeat, we must avoid the stimulation of gambling.

I am aware that bingo attendances have been falling since at least the early 'seventies and are continuing to fall. My noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls has given us statistics to prove it. But we are not aware that there is evidence that this decline can be directly attributed to the introduction of newspaper bingo and other similar games. I appreciate that my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls may have reached a different conclusion on this point. In that case I would suggest that this could be an area for further research and I would certainly be willing to consider representations from the industry as to what extent, if any, the attendance at bingo clubs has been affected by these promotions. As I have already said, the new law on multiple bingo shows that the Government are not unsympathetic to the bingo industry.

My Lords, I have been asked about the Government's attitude to industries like British Telecom which have been privatised. It has been suggested that "Ringo" demonstrates the need for the Government to retain some controls over them. It has always been this Government's policy to give the nationalised industries the maximum possible freedom to reach their own decisions on commercial and operational matters. If that was appropriate then, it is all the more so now that British Telecom is in the private sector. The operations of British Telecom, like those of any large organisation, are rightly of interest to a wide range of people, but the Government mean what they said in the prospectus for the offer for sale of British Telecom. We said that we did not intend to use our shareholding to intervene in the commercial decisions of the company. As a private sector company British Telecom must be free to exercise their own commercial judgment, subject always of course to their acting within the law. They have exercised their commercial judgment in deciding not to continue with "Ringo".

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Allen, inquired about the Gaming Board's attitude to "Ringo". It has not been customary to disclose the board's advice. Suffice it to say that the board and the Government are at one in finding "Ringo" to be on the borderline of what is permissible under the present law. We and the Gaming Board therefore welcome the decision by British Telecom not to introduce it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, asked me a question about bingo on television. I understand that this would be a matter for the IBA. That is all I can say at this moment.

I am aware that my reply tonight may not wholly satisfy noble Lords. However, I hope that at any rate tonight's discussion will have taken this matter one stage further towards a solution. I should again like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for initiating this Unstarred Question.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, may I ask about his reference to the IBA. As I explained, there is a game of participative bingo being hawked around. Is the noble Viscount saying that this is to be left entirely to the IBA, without any hint of what the Government might think?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord an answer at this moment; but I shall write to him on the subject and perhaps we may have a correspondence about it.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

Would the noble Viscount forward a copy of that letter to me, too?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, most certainly.