HL Deb 04 March 1987 vol 485 cc687-92

7.19 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a second time.

I must begin by declaring an interest, in that I am a consultant to the British Amusement Catering Trades Association, one of the bodies which is in favour of the proposals contained in the Bill. This is a modest measure, the drafting of which is perhaps distinguished more by its brevity than by its elegance. As I hope to explain, it would be of great help to considerable numbers of our fellow citizens.

Sections 10 to 14 of the Gaming Act 1845, which this Bill seeks to repeal have been amended to some extent by later statutes. But their essential purpose has remained unimpaired. It is the imposition of a requirement to obtain a licence from the justices for places offering billiards, bagatelle and similar games, and those games include pool and snooker, if the places are open to the public and do not have a formal system of club membership. The requirement does not extend to private members' clubs or to premises having a justices on-licence for the sale of all intoxicants. But for premises caught by the Act—and there are rather more than 400 of them it is a particular irritant. There is no provision for renewals. Therefore a fresh application has to be made every year and £8.50 paid for the licence or for its transfer.

The Act requires the premises to close on Sundays, one of the most popular days for these activities, as well as on any day appointed to be kept as a public fast or thanksgiving. The Sunday ban is a particular source of complaint at tourist resorts. It means, for example, that if coin-operated pool tables are to be used they have to be kept in a separate room which can be locked up on Sundays or the whole operation has to be closed down, while oft-times the pub down the road can happily keep going and offer those facilities.

All this has driven me to the conclusion that the licensing requirement as a whole has ceased to have any useful purpose. Perhaps in 1845 the game of billiards was associated with undesirable activities, but that is not true today. Indeed, snooker has acquired a distinction which I think would have astonished our Victorian forebears. I simply cannot see that there is any reason for singling out billiard halls which are open to the public for special treatment which does not apply to many other places of public recreation in England and Wales.

I notice that the Royal Commission on gambling which the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, chaired, like the previous royal commission which reported in 1951, thought that the 1845 Act provisions had outlived their usefulness and ought to go. The recent edition of Social Trends shows that between 1977 and 1983 participation in snooker, billiards and pool increased by two-thirds. It is true to say that this is an activity in which an increasing number of people are taking part and not just watching. To remove the restrictions in the 1845 Act would put an end to an irritant in an area where there is no suggestion, as far as I am aware, of any undesirable activities; would remove the anomaly between the public billiard hall on the one hand and the members' club and the on-licence premises on the other; and would relieve the justices of one chore which serves no obviously useful purpose.

A number of interested bodies have been consulted, including the local authority associations, the police and the National Council on Gambling. I am not aware that anyone has raised any objection to the removal of this licensing requirement. The Magistrates' Association for its part is all in favour of abolishing these archaic provisions.

This is a short Bill which does not call for lengthy exposition. I think that I can keep to the time laid down for the previous debate. A brief summary of what I have been trying to say is that I am recommending the abandonment of a control which, so it seems to me, has simply ceased to have any justification. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, that the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Allen of Abbeydale.)

7.25 p.m.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, I am a little mystified by this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Allen, has not dispelled my mystification by what he said. Over 50 years ago when I was a school boy I used to play billiards rather well and enjoyed doing so. A few years later when I went into the Navy no one played billiards because snooker had already taken over, although there was usually a billiard table in the officers' mess, and I came to play snooker rather well.

I have seen the enormous growth in popularity of snooker in this country. It is now the most popular indoor game, with its stars among the best paid sportsmen in the world. But I thought that billiards had died out completely because I never see or hear of it being played, although I realise that it is one of the, other games of the like kind". The noble Lord spoke about it being associated with undesirable activities. I remember in the days when I was playing that skill at billiards was always seen to be a sign of a misspent youth, although I have never been quite sure why that should be so.

When I came to investigate the matter I found that there were over 3,000 snooker clubs in this country which were all very well patronised. The number is growing all the time. But no one plays billiards except for once in a blue moon; it is too eccentric to decide to have a game of billiards. I thought that talking about the, public playing of billiards, bagatelle and other games of the like kind, was rather like referring to cricket as being, "rounders or other games of the like kind". Rounders is not a game that anyone plays anymore.

As for bagatelle, that has not been played for decades. It is not a game of "like kind" at all. It is played on a small wooden board with little pins stuck in it and set a slant. It could not be less like billiards. A small, hard ball is propelled around the board and ends up in some number or other. The playing of this game was included in the licence which one had to obtain in 1845. but it is no more played now than any of the other games mentioned in the 1845 Act in a different context, such as quoiting and half bowl. I do not know why the need for a licence for bagatelle—which has not been played for decades—has to he included. However, with snooker clubs with membership fees of only £5 or £3 a year it is rather unlikely that there would be any billiard halls open to the public. They are still called billiard halls although no one plays billiards in them. People play snooker or pool but not billiards in billiard halls.

I inquired of the managing director of Riley Leisure, Mr. Gilban, who supplies most of the tables, and of one or two other people in the trade. I was surprised when the noble Lord, Lord Allen, mentioned that some 400 places would be affected, because the figure I was given was fewer than 30. I have certainly never seen one. If we are talking about saving fewer than 30 people, or even 400 people, from paying 16p a week for the right to have a billiard table—which is used for snooker or pool but only rarely for billiards—I do not know why that deserves a Bill at the present time. The gentlemen in the trade to whom I spoke thought that the Bill would make no difference at all. They were prepared to go on record as saying that the billiard licence affects practically nobody and it makes no difference to the people it does affect.

However, in his remarks the noble Lord gave a contrary opinion. I hope that he may be able to go into the matter a little more. I think the Bill does no harm whatever. It will save an unknown number of publicly-owned halls having to obtain a licence. I think that the Bill is completely unobjectionable and I do not believe that it is of very extreme constitutional importance.

7.31 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I do not think that I shall be able to measure up to the specialised knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, concerning the particular games that we are discussing this evening. However, I was content with the great clarity with which the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, presented his Bill. As he introduced it, I understood exactly what it was intended to do. The noble Lord made it abundantly clear that the changes proposed in his Bill are necessary, even if they do not affect very many groups. Like so many other betting and gaming Bills which have been introduced by Private Members, there does not seem to be anything in the least controversial about this. It will be welcomed by those who run the public halls where the games are played.

However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, because from my small amount of research and homework it would also seem to me that this Bill will apply to very few organisations, and that the anomaly will be cleared up so that the public halls will he brought into line with private clubs where there is no need for a licence. My research showed me that in many cases people were ignorant and had never heard of a billiard licence. That is where I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken. There are people running or supplying snooker halls who were genuinely amazed when they were told about the Bill. It was the first time they had heard that there was any such thing as a billiards licence.

Therefore my conclusion is rather different from that of the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken. I believe we can safely conclude that a Bill which repeals a law, which many people think was abolished last century, can only be welcomed as a very timely measure.

I should like to conclude by asking the Minister once again—I have done this many times before—when the Government will be making their own wide-ranging review of the whole subject of our gaming laws. Private Members' Bills making small changes and adjustments to the Gaming Act seem to occur with enormous regularity. It makes one feel that it is time that the Government grasped the nettle, carried out a review of the whole subject and brought forward their own comprehensive legislation taking in what is wrong, what must be changed and what is out of date. From my understanding of the small change—which is the abandonment of control—I feel that the Bill can only be welcomed. So many small changes have been made that perhaps the Government should look at the whole area and bring forward new legislation.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords will appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, has given a clear exposition of the case for his Bill. Let me confirm that the Government accept the case for abolition of this form of licensing, and indeed support the Bill.

When we came to review the Gaming Act 1845 a few years ago we were struck by two points. The first was the clear impression, gained from consultation with interested parties, that the licensing arrangements made under that Act serve no clear purpose. The Association of Chief Police Officers told us that they saw no justification for retaining the restrictive and elaborate licensing arrangements in the 1845 Act. The Magistrates' Association described the provisions as archaic and favoured abolition. We know too that this proposal also enjoys the support of the businesses affected.

The second impression left by our review was that the continuance in force of these provisions was imposing burdens on the businesses involved in providing public billiards and snooker halls and those providing amusements with pool tables. In the period we surveyed, from 1st July 1984 until 30th June 1985, about 104 new applications were received. These applicants and licensees were put to the trouble of making applications and paying a fee. In return for their trouble they were obliged, among other things, to close these facilities every Sunday, potentially one of the busiest days for these leisure activities. As the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, has pointed out, the present legislation does not provide equality in this respect. Most of the clubs which have opened in the snooker boom of recent years are exempt from the requirement to hold a licence and from the restrictions on Sunday opening. Their exemption arises because by and large they hold a liquor licence for the sale of all intoxicants or confine admission to members of the club.

At this stage I should like to respond to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken. The noble Lord mentioned snooker which is of course covered by the description: billiards. bagatelle and games of the like kind". I confirm that our figures show that over 400 premises are licensed. Those include amusement places with pool tables and also some surviving billard halls. We believe that in respect of these premises the 1845 Act, which is still in force, is a burden.

Your Lordships will also be familiar with this Government's drive, led by the enterprise and deregulation unit at the Department of Employment, to cut unnecessary red tape affecting business. Two White Papers, Building Businesses … Not Barriers, and Lifting the Burden, have described the Government's policies and the achievements made so far. The abolition of the licensing of billiards under the 1845 Act appears to be a modest but appropriate step in the direction set down in the White Papers. The noble Lord's Bill will remove one source of irritation felt by business at government regulation as well as one chore for the licensing committees.

I have noted the point that has been made by the noble Baroness about a piecemeal revision of the gaming laws. However, in this instance we take the view that, as there is no immediate prospect of a major Bill on gaming, it would be a pity not to take advantage of opportunities like this to deal with particular issues which can be tackled sensibly on their own.

I wish the Bill a safe passage through your Lordships' House and on to another place.

7.39 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I need only to say that it is gratifying to have the support of both the Government and the Opposition. I should like to make two small points on the matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken. Under the Act it is a term of the licence that the premises which hold the licence must display a notice saying "licensed for billiards". That is one of the absurdities in that billiards is not one of the games that are played. Snooker and pool are the two great games. Like the noble Lord, I have searched in vain in the provisions to find a reference to a bagatelle table. As the Minister has explained, the numbers are 400 or over which includes, for example, youth clubs which do not have a formal membership, and there are still a few establishments which started life in the north as temperance halls set up in rivalry to public houses.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, I accept completely the figures given both by the Minister and now by the noble Lord. I feel sure that the figure which I was given was the figure for billiard halls which existed as such, and did not include amusement arcades in which there was a pool table.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I would certainly not claim that the measure was one of extreme constitutional importance, if I heard the words correctly. But I think it is a useful tidying-up measure. My Lords, I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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