HL Deb 11 May 1987 vol 487 cc523-32

9.58 p.m.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any proposals to reform the law relating to horseracing on Sundays.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Unstarred Question which stands in my name. I should like to thank those enthusiasts who have remained to so late an hour, sitting patiently on their Benches. I hope that it is not too late for the Government to include permission for Sunday racing in their election manifesto, or indeed for any other party to do so. It would be a highly popular measure.

We are the only major racing country without Sunday racing, apart from New Zealand—and we can hardly call that a major country! In France, over three times as many people go racing on a Sunday as the daily average for the rest of the week, including Saturday. In Italy, there is a similar pattern. In Ireland, they began Sunday racing in 1985 and last year the 12 Sunday meetings had attendances double that of the weekday average. I would wager that those three countries also have church attendances on Sundays well over double ours. I am rather surprised to see that there are no bishops here tonight; I thought they were rather keen on this subject. However, many of them think that racing and religion are enemies—but they are not.

Our churches have the insular belief that they are better informed on this subject than foreign Christian churches. The hostility among churches in Britain to this innocent amusement on Sundays widens their separation from ordinary people who feel the churches have not advanced their thinking since John Knox. If he were alive he would doubtless add a blast against Sunday racing to his blast on the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women. He would certainly invoke hellfire at the sight of a woman Prime Minister.

It is still illegal to charge admission for Sunday sport. Most major sports take no notice. For example, the Wimbledon finals, the final of the British Open golf championship, professional football and cricket, rugby league matches, snooker championships and motor racing all happen on Sundays. Sunday cricket has been a boon to county cricket lovers and clubs. Last year Essex had an average attendance of 7,000 each Sunday—over double the Saturday attendances. Yorkshire had an average attendance of 4,000 on Saturdays, but 8,000 on Sundays. Hampshire has as many as three times the number of spectators on a Sunday as other days.

I mention cricket because it is a peaceful sport analogous to racing. At both, good behaviour generally prevails and there is little sign of hooliganism. Racegoers and cricket spectators are as orderly as any bishop could wish. So why do the British racing authorities not do as other sports and flout the law by holding race meetings on Sundays? It is because of the peculiarities of our betting laws. Casinos and amusement arcades with their gambling machines, which are deeply unfair to the punters, are open on Sundays and take cash. Credit betting by telephone takes place in very large amounts on the Sunday sporting events to which I have referred. If you have a credit account you can place your bets on the Arc de Triomphe and watch it at home on Sunday on television. If there were Sunday racing in Britain you could do the same. But the law is that there can be no Sunday betting on racecourses or in betting shops.

As with most of this type of nannying legislation left over from the past, it works in favour of the better-off with telephones and credit accounts and against those who do not. Interfering do-gooders always think that they know better what is good for the working classes than they know themselves. The racing authorities have a strong sense of responsibility. They know that horseracing without betting is like a bishop conducting a service without his vestments: it is unnatural. As the law stands, if there were racing on Sundays it would be impossible to stop illegal betting and the acceleration of criminality that would go with it. This would be the fault not of the racing authorities but of those who cling to obsolete laws. Nevertheless, the racing industry does not want to be a party to this.

The main objections to Sunday racing among the Churches and their more militant followers are these. First, the opening of racecourses on a Sunday would spoil the quality of the placid British Sunday; but the 59 racecourses are all well away from the centres of towns and housing estates and large populations. They have good parking facilities. If the law were changed it is not planned that there should be more than 12 racing Sundays a year, with perhaps three meetings on each Sunday. Those 36 meetings would be divided between the 59 racecourses so that most of them would not even have one. There would be less nuisance to the public on a Sunday than is caused by the opening of stately homes, museums, galleries, safari parks, garden centres and all the rest of the Sunday activities.

The second objection is that high street betting shops would be open for approximately four hours on the relevant Sunday afternoons. As these betting shops are mostly in areas where pubs, restaurants and shops are already open on Sundays, it would not make the slightest difference.

The third objection is that some people would be working on a Sunday as well as on a weekday. The working party set up by the Jockey Club on Sunday racing, of which I was a member, found that it would be easy to get stable lads, horse transport drivers, and so forth, to do an occasional Sunday shift if the money is right. As in the hotel and catering industry, and in other industries, everything can be done on a Sunday if the money is right.

As regards the Tote, of which I am the chairman, no employee would be compelled to work on a Sunday either in the Tote on course, in our betting shops or elsewhere if they did not want to. There would be quite enough volunteers who would like the extra money. Shifts could be easily arranged with other days off in lieu. That applies generally to the betting industry, which was represented on the working party.

The fourth major objection is perhaps the most important. It is that betting on horses is thought to be evil and therefore it must be still more evil if it happens on Sunday. I fear that this archaic notion is another reason why the Churches have declining congregations in a world from which they have drifted away and which they do not understand.

Statistically, over a year a punter loses on average about 22 per cent. of what he stakes. Let us suppose he lays out £15 a week. He may expect to lose only £3.30 a week over a period. He could well have spent that money on demon drink or hiring a salacious video. Instead, he prefers an intellectual entertainment to exercise his mind. He has to work out the form, consider the jockey, the nature of the course and the going, study the habits of owners and of trainers and decide which horses are tuned up to do their best and then make his selection. For millions that is the only satisfying individual, truly democratic decision they ever make otherwise they are in thrall to their superiors at work or to a union official.

When a punter makes a mistake he examines the reasons and he is better armed next time. Sometimes the punter sees that a horse he has followed is likely to start at remarkably good value at 10 to one or more. He puts on the heroic sum of £3 and pulls off a coup. That makes him very happy and the glow lasts for weeks. It is almost impossible to be more harmlessly employed than in putting bets on horses. Only a few overdo it, as some overdo drink. It is very rare for anyone to take punting on horses more seriously than as an intellectual, mildly exciting pastime for a very modest cost.

Far from scorning this harmless fun, the Churches should praise it as an extension of liberty of the spirit and individual will. The effect on the racing industry of Sunday racing would be beneficient. Those few courses to which the Jockey Club gave a Sunday fixture would double their attendance. It would be a wonderful alternative to the Sunday family outings now available. The Chancellor of the Exchequer could expect a pleasant addition to the £250 million or so a year that he now collects in betting duty from horserace bets. The levy board would get additional aid with the help it gives to racing generally.

Like cricket spectators, racegoers do not riot in the streets or break up pubs after the event is over.. They go quietly home. The gentleness of Sunday would be untrammeled by racegoers after race meetings; the pleasure of the multitude would be vastly enhanced by Sunday racing.

What a wonderful thing if the Derby on 3rd June, a Wednesday, could instead have been run on a Sunday! Last year 47,000 paid to watch it. A Sunday Derby would attract double that number to say nothing of the extra numbers on the free part of the Downs. Thousands more would have a lot of fun and feel better about the world and its Maker. The interference to traffic and the habits of those living nearby would be far less for a Sunday Derby than a Wednesday Derby. Only Britain, lost in the fog of Victorian Sundays, would stage the world's premier horserace on a Wednesday. It is a tiny minority which prevents Sunday racing by vociferous objections based on an ill-founded view of the meaning of morality and religion.

I hope that such people will come to have a little humility and will not continue to impose a somewhat conceited view of how people ought to behave on the vast majority who do not agree with them. If they do not, I hope that the Government will no longer allow this minority to dictate to the majority. On an earthly note, there are usually more votes in siding with the majority.

10.13 p.m.

Lord Manton

My Lords, may I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, for giving the House the opportunity of discussing a subject which happens to be very dear to my own heart. As a keen racing man, may I ask the Minister whether he will congratulate his right honourable friend the Prime Minister on deciding to hold the general election on the only free Thursday between the Derby meeting and Royal Ascot?

Your Lordships may remember that I spoke briefly of the need to legalise sporting events on Sundays during the Second Reading of the ill-fated Shops Bill when your Lordships were debating an issue that went very much further than the question of racing on Sundays. During that debate I was most encouraged by the point made by the right reverend Prelate the then Bishop of Birmingham who said that he was in favour of leisure on a Sunday. The point was also made by the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, who stressed the value of recreation on a Sunday. It is no secret that both were implacably against universal trading on the sabbath. I am however encouraged by their support of leisure and recreation on that day. Any legislation to allow racing on a Sunday would be a far cry from Sunday trading. I hope and expect that noble Lords on all sides would accept that racing is both a leisure and a recreation pursuit.

It is generally agreed that racing without betting both on and off course is not possible. There are some 10,000 betting shops in this country and I hope that legislation can be passed for them to be open on Sunday afternoon—I must stress the word "afternoon". I should remind the House (Lord Wyatt has already done so) that casinos and bingo halls can operate within the law on Sundays. If they can, why on earth should not betting shops be allowed to do so? There is nothing seedy or anti-social about the modern betting shop. If 77,000 public houses and licensed premises can open on a Sunday, surely the addition of 10,000 betting shops would not be unreasonable, especially as they would be open only in the afternoon.

I should at this point declare my interest to the House. The Jockey Club working party on Sunday racing was set up in January 1985 under the chairmanship of General Sir Cecil Blacker, when I was Senior Steward. Its report was published in January this year, after two years of very detailed research, soundings and deliberations. Since that time the Jockey Club has been going through a process of consultation and it has been very pleased with the results it has received.

I should like to draw the attention of the House to three of the report's major findings. First, the market research people commissioned by the working party indicated a very clear demand among racegoers and punters for racing on Sundays. Secondly, as I have already said, a race meeting without betting is, quite frankly, a non-runner. The concept of Sunday racing with on-course betting only was very clearly rejected by the working party because of the danger, identified by the market research, of permitting illegal off-course betting. This concern is, I understand, shared by the Home Office. The third vital point suggests that Sunday racing should start on a limited number of Sundays to test the water, although if successful the number of racing Sundays could extend. The Irish experience suggests to us that to be profitable Sunday racing needs to be a special occasion. This will in itself impose strict limitations to the number of Sundays involved. However even to test the water an amendment to the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act 1963 is required.

At York racecourse, where I am chairman, we would hope to have perhaps two Sunday fixtures a year out of a total of fifteen fixtures a year. The Jockey Club is aware that some opposition to the concept of Sunday racing has been expressed by certain sections of the workforce. The report recognises that Sunday racing will not succeed without the willing cooperation of those employed in the racing and betting industries. Stable lads have indicated that they would have no objection to racing on a Sunday provided that they were adequately remunerated for so doing. I feel sure that this would also apply to those employed in the betting and the catering industries, very many of whom are part time workers anyway.

Church officials have, sadly, already indicated to the working party that there will he opposition from them to the idea of Sunday racing, but I have not yet understood the logic of their opposition. Racing takes place on Sundays in France, Ireland and Italy: all countries where the Church enjoys an undeniable influence. In fact we are, as Lord Wyatt, has already told us the only major racing country in the world, except New Zealand, not staging racing on Sundays.

Other sports operate in defiance of the Sunday Observance Act to hold some of their major functions on Sunday and continue to attract spectators who might otherwise have gone racing. I shall not list them as Lord Wyatt has already done so. They range from the Open Golf tournament to the Wimbledon Finals. All these fixtures are currently held in defiance of the spirit of the law if not in breach of it. What is more, BBC and ITV are regularly televising those events which may well be in themselves illegal.

Sunday racing lends itself particularly well to a family day out and the Irish experience has shown how popular and enjoyable these special meetings can be. Racing is part of Britain's heritage and if it is to survive in an increasingly competitive market it must be allowed to compete fairly both with its international competitors and with other sports at home. All supporters of Sunday racing have been much encouraged by the Home Secretary's personal support—I stress the word "personal"—for the principle of Sunday racing. I hope that the wind of change is in the air. My noble friend Lord Montgomery of Alamein has already succeeded in a minor but extremely important reform in the licensing laws. I hope that we shall soon see a reform of the law relating to horse racing on Sundays.

10.21 p.m.

Lord Crawshaw

My Lords, I should also like to say a few words to support my noble friend Lord Wyatt, who is always a first-class entertainer as I know from having heard him frequently at functions to do with the Tote. I am only sorry that there were not more noble Lords in the Chamber to hear him tonight, and in particular no representatives of the Churches. I thought at teatime that this event might be something of a walkover so I did my best to encourage the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, to come and speak; but I am afraid I was unsuccessful.

Believing as I do that the two sides are not poles apart, I thought I would say something in my capacity as an ex-churchwarden of a village church in the Midlands. In the absence of higher authority my text for this purpose comes from Psalm 20, verse 7, which your Lordships will know goes like this: Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God". It goes on: They are brought down and fallen", which you will note are the exact words used to describe the mishaps of steeplechasing. Then it says: but we are risen, and stand upright", which is the kind of confidence that really does invite a disaster and a case of pride coming before a fall.

The two sides have a lot in common. There are profits on both sides, as your Lordships know. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Oaksey is not here tonight because I suppose one could describe him as a twentieth century Elijah. I believe that we could learn quite a lot about racing on Sundays from the Roman Catholic countries, especially from France and Ireland and Italy where, as we have already heard, Sundays are shared between the Church and the racecourse and other recreational places. I am involved in a small way with what is loosely known as the stately homes business and Sunday is certainly the day for this; so why not racecourses, many of which are in superb surroundings? They could provide a wonderful day out for the family.

Obviously people will want to have a flutter, but as the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, has already said, very few are gambling addicts and most come with a fixed view of what they can afford to spend and once that has gone they stop. I also believe that the present situation, with the Derby on a Wednesday, and so on, is a relic of the concept that you must have racing on weekdays in order to keep the aristocracy and the criminal classes occupied. There are a lot of other classes nowadays for whom Sunday is the most convenient day.

I should also like to say a quick word about the workforce, especially the stable staffs who are the most important people involved. Anyone going into work with horses knows perfectly well, or soon finds out, that a horse has to be fed and looked after seven days a week, and that includes Sundays, Christmas Day, Easter, whether he is at home, whether he is at the vets, or whether he is at the racecourse or any other venue. I know that you cannot expect one person to do all this on his own all the time, so a rota system is already practised.

Sunday racing must increase employment because of the extra racing involved. I am sure that the lads who travelled yesterday to Rome with the extremely successful English contingent for the Italian Derby had a marvellous time and were thoroughly well rewarded. To work with good horses is a marvellous job. The manager at -the Dalham Hall stud in Newmarket—that is where the great Dancing Brave is at stud—told me the other day that he regretfully has to turn down hundreds of people who want to go and work there, such is the attraction of looking after horses of that sort of calibre.

In view of the events earlier today I do not expect my noble friend Lord Caithness to promise all that much tonight, though I know that he and his right honourable friend the Home Secretary agree with what has already been said. My noble friend Lord Manton indicated something of the Jockey Club's plans, and so far as concerns this House a Private Members' Bill in the next Parliament may be the way to proceed. In conclusion, however it is done, for most people's sake I hope that we shall see Sunday racing in this country before very long.

10.28 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, what an entertaining end to an adventurous and dramatic day in your Lordships' House! A speech always scintillating from the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt. We rejoice in this House that we have some of the enjoyment that another place had for many years, and that we are able at times to read him in the papers in his style which all of us appreciate, even if we do not always agree with the content of the article. It is some such experience that many of us might have this evening.

I wonder whether, for example, the noble Lord, who has just spoken to us, Lord Crawshaw, realised how apt he was in quoting from the Psalms in support of the case that the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, was putting to us. If I may suggest to him a more appropriate Psalm, it would be that of the sad punter, who would recite very solemnly: 1 lift up mine eyes to William Hill, Whence cometh my help. The entertainment that we also had came from an unusual theological discussion to which the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, entertained us. It was a crusade—if I may use that phrase—against some of the bishops, and one wishes that the bishops had been here to answer, as I am sure they could have done.

All this amounts, in what is going to be a brief speech from me tonight, to this: I have not the slightest doubt that there are arguments that can be put forward in logic—as put to us by the noble Lord, Lord Manton, with all his experience—for horseracing on Sunday. However, there are many sincere people in our land who attach an important significance to Sunday. We heard them express their views in this House when we discussed Sunday trading. From their point of view, it was most important that Sunday should have its distinguishing features. For Parliament to try to roll over the sincere beliefs of many of our citizens, without any kind of consideration, is something it ought to do with a great deal of hesitation. Holding the religious beliefs which I hold, I say that with a sincerity which I hope your Lordships will appreciate. I repeat that there is a logical case; but there is equally a case against.

The most sensible thing in the world would be to adopt the suggestion made in the course of this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Crawshaw. It was that some Member, in either this House or another place, should discover what is the reaction of the public and Parliament to a Private Member's Bill. To commit the Benches on which I have the honour of sitting to a view on this matter would be absolutely wrong. I feel that the opinion of the public should be sought, at a time when the Church can express its views both in this House and elsewhere. This ought to be the time for testing the opinion which may be felt with regard to this very tricky matter. One is dealing with tricky matters when dealing with issues of conscience of this kind.

My last word is on the subject of employees in the industry. I listened with great interest and I learned from the remarks which were made by the noble Lords, Lord Manton, Lord Crawshaw and Lord Wyatt of Weeford. I think that there is little doubt that some people may hesitate before accepting the assurance, which I know was honestly given, that those who do not wish to work on Sundays need not do so. We heard that in the debate on Sunday trading. The questions that were asked were very pertinent. They were whether the continuance of employment for someone not prepared to work on Sunday would necessarily be there as against those employees who were prepared to work on Sunday.

It has been an interesting and entertaining debate, not least when the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, with that gay eloquence of his (I use that adjective in the best possible sense) talked in terms of the intellectual activities of punters. I thought that I was in a dream world. I was perfectly prepared to float along with him in those dreams when he spoke of the intensity of the intellectual exercise; concentrating on the history of the horse, the trainer and the jockey, and coming to a conclusion which I suppose may one day lead to a degree in our Open University.

10.34 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I, too, should like first to thank the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, for his Question initiating this short debate on Sunday racing. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, that it has been a most fascinating discussion.

We welcome this debate, which provides a timely opportunity to test opinion on the issue of Sunday racing—and on that I would say there has seldom been a debate where I have found the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, as heavily out-voted as he is this evening.

As a number of your Lordships have suggested tonight, the racing authorities have become more persuaded than ever that Sunday racing would be viable and ought to be tried. We shall want to reflect on the views which have been expressed tonight. As things stand, there are no plans for Government legislation on this subject. This does not mean, however, that we are opposed on Sunday racing; far from it. We might find that we were able to support a Bill which might be introduced by a Private Member in another place or by one of your Lordships in this House.

As the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, said, of course the real crux is the law on betting. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary does not believe that this needs to prohibit betting on Sundays in order to achieve its wider objectives. The Government will reach a collective view on this issue as and when a Bill is introduced. In the meantime it may help to make some observations and to respond to some of the points made in the debate today.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made clear his personal support for Sunday racing, subject to two preconditions. The first is that the law on betting should be changed before any Sunday racing takes place. The second is that the climate of opinion should be prepared before any Bill is introduced. I should like to begin with the law on betting. We should be opposed to any experiment with Sunday racing before a change in the law, and I should like to explain why.

At present the only form of betting which could lawfully accompany Sunday racing is credit betting. This is not the most popular form of betting. People like to bet in cash either at the racecourse or at betting offices. Here I agree with my noble friend Lord Crawshaw that it is now generally agreed that there would have to be some form of lawful cash betting if Sunday racing were to proceed. We go further, however, and would suggest that the betting offices would need the freedom to open on Sundays if there were to be Sunday racing. The working party set up by the Jockey Club came to this same conclusion. Commonsense tells us that horseracing is too attractive a sport for punters for it to be possible to imagine racing taking place without bets being struck away from the course. If the betting offices are not open while Sunday racing goes ahead, we could be back in the days of unauthorised bookies and the industry would have taken a step backwards. Evening racing is a different proposition in this respect since the betting offices are open until 6.30 p.m. and keen punters can put their money on up till then.

I know that many people are sceptical about arguments related to illegal betting. We note with interest, however, the evidence in the market research commissioned by the Jockey Club's working party. This found that among punters who bet more than once a month 36 per cent. said that they would seek the "unofficial channels" for betting if betting offices were not open on Sundays. Those who believe that Sunday racing should go ahead with on-course betting only will need to persuade your Lordships that these fears can be answered. We would not view sympathetically a switch to a proposal on these lines merely as a way of avoiding criticism from those who are concerned at the prospect of the betting shops opening.

I would support the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, in saying that we should need—and this is the second precondition to my right honourable friend's support—a thorough public debate and the most careful preparations before a Bill could be introduced. The debate today is a step in that direction, and this needs to be built upon.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said there were those who held strong views on this matter, but I was interested to read that his right honourable friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath, Mr. Denis Howell, has been able in his mind to separate racing on Sunday from a general change in the law on Sunday trading. He also thought that the trade union opposition could be overcome; so I am glad to see that there is some support on the Labour Benches for this.

Your Lordships will continue to have views on the effects of such changes on the traditional Sunday. I should perhaps confirm, as my noble friend Lord Manton suggested, that not only do other major sporting events already now take place on Sundays but other forms of gambling are available: bingo clubs and casinos, for example, are already allowed to operate. Sunday racing, with betting, would not be breaking new ground in this respect.

Your Lordships may wish to reflect on whether the advent of Sunday racing would make a decisive change in the character of Sundays or, alternatively, fit in with the character that Sundays now have, as a major leisure day for many families. Some, we know, fear that the opening of betting offices would be a prelude to a more general liberalisation toward trading on Sundays, on which views clearly differ widely. It may be worth confirming that Sunday betting would require an amendment to the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act 1963. The Shops Act would be unaffected and the amendment would not benefit any premises other than betting offices and betting facilities at the racecourses.

I should like to refer briefly to the Sunday Observance Act 1780. We are sometimes accused of double standards and of unfairness towards horseracing for suggesting that this Act should also be amended to cater for Sunday racing. The argument runs that we have not insisted on such a change in connection with other sports. The main point here is that other sports have been able to go ahead without needing legislation to allow for betting, since there is little if any betting associated with them. Had they needed to introduce legislation we would have suggested that the legislation also needed to remove the prohibition in the 1780 Act. That is what we say to racing now. Legislation to remove one of the obstacles to Sunday racing—the prohibition on betting—should deal with the other, the prohibition on charging the public for admission to sporting events on Sundays.

To sum up, while we have no plans at present for legislation on Sunday racing, we are happy to see if progress can be made on this subject. We hope that critics will look fairly at the case which can now be made in support of Sunday racing. For our part we know of no reason why Sunday racing should not be tried—the intention appears to be at a modest level to begin with—and no reason why the law should continue to prohibit betting at racecourses or indeed in betting offices.