HL Deb 20 January 2004 vol 657 cc983-8

7.56 p.m.

Baroness Amos rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 12 January be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the purpose of the draft Betting and Gaming (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 is to relax some of the existing statutory controls on betting and gaming in Northern Ireland. In doing so, the order will, for the most part, bring the Northern Ireland law in these areas more closely into line with the corresponding law currently applying in Great Britain.

The draft order will amend the 1985 order to ease restrictions on betting and gaming in the following areas: the regulation of football pools competitions; betting on race tracks, including a change to allow on-course Sunday betting and the provision of employment protection rights for track betting workers; the licensing and conduct of bookmaking offices; the registration of clubs under the 1985 order for gaming machine purposes; gaming machines, including the premises in which they may be used and the conditions applying; and the advertising of bingo. The order will also transfer responsibility for the grant of bookmaking office licensing from courts of summary jurisdiction to county courts.

During the recent consultations on the proposals for a draft order, interest focused mainly on the issue of a change in the law to allow on-course Sunday betting. The response to the consultation demonstrated clearly that there is strong support among race-goers and other racing interests in Northern Ireland for on-course Sunday betting. The consultation exercise, however, also recorded the concerns of those for whom Sunday is a special day. I have the utmost respect for their views, but of course this is a matter of personal choice. When the law is changed, people will be able to choose whether they wish to go to a racetrack and bet on a Sunday. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 12 January be approved.—(Baroness Amos.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that explanation. For many generations, gambling has been an integral part of Irish life. On many occasions, it has led to considerable social hardship in many of the poorer areas of the 32 counties of Ireland, not merely the six counties. For many years when I served on the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, there was a considerable and strong Presbyterian movement against any form of active recreation or sport, which even included allowing the opening of public swimming pools and recreation centres anywhere in the Province. Only in recent years has that changed and mellowed, largely because of the excellent management of such centres.

I took some time to make inquiries about the consultation that took place and about the number of those who responded who were in favour and the number of those who were not. On reading the note that I received from the officials, I was satisfied that there was certainly a significant positive response. There was also a large negative response but, in my opinion and obviously in that of the Government, not sufficiently so to stop the order going through. However, we should not think that there are not a significant number of objectionists to gaming of this kind—on Sundays, in particular.

I am encouraged by the order. I know that another Bill is to be introduced on betting and gambling in the United Kingdom. I believe that the more open the laws, the better they are managed and the better and more easily they can be policed, the less opportunity there is for significant illegal betting on all kinds of things—that has always been part of Irish life—and it is hoped that that will lead to a reduction in social hardship of one kind and another. I may be dreaming. I see a smile on the face of the noble Lord, Lord Mclntosh. But drinking and betting, and all that goes with it, have always been a problem in Northern Ireland. I believe that when a government change the laws in this area, they need to be aware of the social problems relating to legal and illegal gaming, gambling and betting on Sundays. If the order is to help the policing and management of such activities, as I believe is the Government's intention, I support it.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, we on these Benches echo the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. I believe that the order brings Northern Ireland into the 21st century. We accept that some people believe that the Sabbath should be kept. However, I do not believe that the order affects the rights of such people because, as the Minister pointed out, this is a question of individual choice. Those who want to keep the Sabbath can keep the Sabbath and those who want to make merry can make merry.

Lord Laird

My Lords, I am most grateful for the Minister's outline of the order. I rise today to make a few observations on it but, from the outset, I wish to add my support for the legislation as it seeks to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

First, I welcome Schedule 1, which concerns the rights of betting workers as respects Sunday working. I am pleased to see that the new protection rights against dismissal purely on the grounds that a track betting worker does not wish to work on a Sunday will apply irrespective of age, length of service or hours of work. Your Lordships will be aware that a great number of people in Northern Ireland do not wish to find themselves compelled to work on a Sunday for whatever reason—family, social or conscience—and it is only right that their views are respected.

However, perhaps I may suggest that where, under the prescribed form "Statutory rights in relation to Sunday betting work", the words, your employer… does something else detrimental to you", appear in paragraph 8(4) of Schedule 1, the word "detrimental" should be more clearly defined. The form gives the example of the employer failing to promote the employee, but other scenarios are apparent here. Does "detrimental" include failing to offer overtime or training opportunities, or does it go so far as to include a negative attitude, manifested in how the employee is spoken to and generally treated by the employer, which could seriously affect the employee's working life?

Moreover, if we are building into the legislation protection for those who disagree with Sunday working, should we not also be looking to protect those of other religions, such as the Muslim and Jewish faiths? Should we not protect the right of workers from other religious groups to observe religious holidays and respect their requests not to work on them?

I should also like the Minister to clarify the reasoning behind why the employee must give his employer three months' notice in order to opt out of Sunday working. That is absurd, given that most employers require only one month's notice to terminate a contract of employment. Why does the Minister expect it to take so long for a written notice to be adhered to?

I am slightly concerned about the potential impact of Article 4 relating to the relaxation of some restrictions on betting on horse and dog tracks and, in particular, allowing permanent structures on licensed tracks to be used for bookmaking purposes. With opportunities for betting on all kinds of sporting and other events substantially increased, it logically follows that a larger amount of money will change hands at the track. Therefore, is there not room for concern regarding security at these premises and the safety of bookmakers and their staff?

I also wish to raise some concerns about the reduction to one year of the notice and waiting periods for non-sporting clubs seeking registration under the 1985 order for gaming machine purposes. Can the Minister explain why that has been reduced and assure us that non-sporting clubs will undergo the same assessment procedure as before?

I also ask the Minister to explain why the Department for Social Development would look more favourably upon certain licensed bookmaking offices when deciding how many gaming machines they may have. Indeed, why is the department to be involved at all, given that, as it would appear from other sections of the order, the responsibility for granting permits for gaming machines at other venues, such as amusement parks, lies with the district council?

Article 10 outlines restrictions of access to gaming machines to people under the age of 18. I understand the intention of these provisions but wonder just how reasonable it is to expect all premises to ensure that£25-prize gaming machines are located in a separate area and protected by an effective physical barrier. Your Lordships will be aware that young people have a habit of duping bouncers into thinking that they are older, and they are often quite adept at knowing which establishments are more likely to let them in. Are we expecting someone—say, from the district council—to carry out routine assessments of such premises and instigate action against those who are not complying? Otherwise, how does the Minister expect these well intentioned provisions to be enforced?

Finally, I hope that the Minister will say a few words to explain the staggered commencement date of the order. By not allowing the legislation to commence immediately, the Government are suggesting that they are somehow concerned about its implications and about how well it will be received.

8.8 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken for the support they gave the order. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was concerned about possible social hardship. As the package of measures is so modest, we do not consider that it will increase the social dangers of gambling for vulnerable people, but I take the noble Lord's point and I welcome his comments on the importance of transparency in the policing and management of the issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, asked a number of questions. On detriment he was particularly concerned about employment protection. All track betting workers employed by bookmakers and Tote operators based in Northern Ireland, except those contracted to work only on Sunday, will have the right not to be dismissed, not to be selected for redundancy, nor subjected to any other detriment such as exclusion from a general pay rise or bonus and discrimination in promotion and training opportunities for refusing to work on Sundays.

Should an employee consider that he or she has suffered detriment, their employment rights may be enforced by way of a complaint to an industrial tribunal. The noble Lord, Lord Laird, will be aware that detriment is well defined in employment law and through case law.

On whether we should be looking to protect those of other religious faiths, the employment protection provisions are included in the order because it introduces on-course betting on Sundays.

On the issue of three months' notice, employers will be required to give every track betting worker who enters into a contractual agreement that includes Sunday working a written explanatory statement setting out their right to opt out. If an employer does not issue such a statement within two months of the worker entering such a contractual agreement, the three months' opting out notice period is reduced to one month. I hope that that response addresses the noble Lord's concern.

I turn to the issue of permanent structures on licensed track. The security of these premises and the safety of bookmakers and their staff are primary commercial issues for the trade interests involved and, if appropriate, the police.

The order will reduce notice and waiting periods for registration of clubs to one year to achieve parity with the notice and waiting periods for clubs applying for registration under the Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. The assessment procedure is otherwise unchanged.

On the question of the involvement of district councils, bookmaking offices are adult-only environments considered suitable for the use of higher-prize gaming machines. When they are licensed by the courts for bookmaking purposes, they will be automatically entitled to a maximum of two gaming machines. The department has no operational role in the process. It is also considered unnecessary to involve district councils.

Age was a major concern for the noble Lord, Lord Laird. If the conditions applying to a permit are not complied with to its satisfaction, the relevant district council may refuse to renew the permit. In addition, Article 120 of the Betting. Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 provides that where any condition to which an amusement permit is subject is contravened, the permit holder will be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine of the statutory maximum, or six months' imprisonment, or both. On indictment, a fine, or imprisonment for two years, or both, apply. A court also has the power to cancel an amusement permit if the permit holder is convicted of an offence under Article 120.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, raised the issue of commencement dates. The Government do not have any implications about how well the order will be received. The staggered commencement dates are required mainly for administrative reasons. Those provisions coming into operation after three months are those for which trade, legal and other interests require notice to make the necessary arrangements. Those provisions that come into operation by commencement order will require subordinate legislation by both the Department for Social Development and the Northern Ireland Court Service. I hope that that response addresses the points made.

On Question, Motion agreed to.