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Standing Committee B
Thursday 11 November 2004
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
The Chairman: I have not, of course, had an opportunity to read this morning's debate, but I have been briefed. The two amendments that we are discussing are relatively narrow. My understanding is that the Minister's response has been fairly wide-ranging and that some interesting arguments have been introduced.
It is fair to tell the Committee at this stage that I propose to broaden the debate to allow discussion of slightly wider issues relating to the clause on the understanding that I shall not then permit a clause stand part debate.
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 25, in
clause 9, page 5, line 3, at beginning insert 'Subject to subsection (1A),'.—[Mr. Hawkins.]
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendment:
No. 26, in
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn): I was about to conclude by saying that we cannot accept amendments Nos. 25 and 26, which would effectively remove certain events from the regulatory regime and are neither appropriate nor desirable. Therefore, I ask the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) to withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): May I say, Mr. Gale, that I appreciate your ruling, which is immensely helpful to us when planning what to do with these amendments?
The Minister, in a cavalier fashion, threw in a few minor comments in his response to the amendment, such as a bit of registration, a bit of licensing and ''Let's move on quickly, lads.'' Unfortunately for him, one or two hon. Members picked up on his points. Can he be a little broader in what he says and throw a little more light on the scene? The debate has been quite heated and two or three throwaway comments must be fleshed out a little before we can go further.
In his evidence to the scrutiny Committee, the chief executive of the British Association of British Bookmakers, Mr. Kelly, was asked whether he had a view on what
'' 'in the course of a business' ought to mean and''
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whether it should
''be made clear on the face of the Bill?''
Mr. Kelly replied:
''One of the deficiencies in the current legislation is that there is an ambiguity surrounding that particular phrase''—
I do not think that anyone has a problem with registration. When someone clocks in with an account, they fill in whether they are an owner, trainer or jockey and provide any other relevant information to enable a more effective audit trail. Is the Minister suggesting that ordinary bookmakers with bookmaker's accounts will require the same information from their customers when they register?
While the Minister is chewing on those points, I return to the question of having to obtain a licence to operate. If someone operates an exchange account without parallel access to a bookmaker's account or another account, there is a difficulty because they are running a straight book, which anyone could do, without the bookmaker's advantage of being able to judge the odds to their benefit. In a two-horse race, a bookmaker does not give even odds on both. One horse will be so many points on and the other will be a few points against. There is a margin for the bookmaker who is operating the book. The position for betting exchanges is entirely different. We are not dealing with apples and pears and I ask the Minister to consider the point.
Bookmakers need a permit because they deal with the public. I mentioned this before we adjourned for lunch. Betting exchanges, however, do not have exactly that responsibility, so I do not see how giving licences to exchange users will provide any more advantage than already exists, unless the hand of the Treasury and the Inland Revenue is involved and they are saying, ''Ah, if someone is using this system and making a profit, they should be paying a form of tax.'' That is why I ask the Minister to come clean and not just throw out a few casual words and try to move on as quickly as possible. I can see his mental feet working like mad under the desk to try to get away from the problem, but Opposition Members will return to the matter to ask why if there is not a revenue consequence he wants such a system.
Mr. Caborn: The hon. Gentleman knows that taxation is a matter for the Treasury and not for this Standing Committee. Whatever taxation system we have, it will be the responsibility of the Treasury. Other than the collective responsibility of the Government, there has to the best of my knowledge been no undue influence by the Treasury.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Caborn: I will in a moment; let me just deal with one or two points raised by the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page).
On registration, we have been round the course before. To think that we are running away from the whole question of exchanges is a little ludicrous, to say the least. The subject has probably been debated both here and in other places ad nauseam. At some stage, one has to come to some decisions. As I said this
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morning, one reason for the Bill is the need to deal with the ever-moving world that we live in, which has been affected by the movement of information electronically. This sector, this sport, this industry is no different from many others. We have to manage it, which is why the Bill is before Parliament. Exchanges are but one element of the massive changes that have taken place as a result of new technologies. That is why we are doing what we are in the clause.
Registration means proof of name and address and taking payment details. I cannot go beyond what I said on the question of the definition of ''business''. We have given that to the best of our ability. If people want to put their own interpretation on it, they will, but I have given what we believe to be the definitions of business and registration.
Mr. Page: I understand exactly what the Minister is saying, but I am trying to make the point that, on a betting exchange, he could not lay a book as bookmakers can during their ordinary race course activities. That is a fundamental difference. I just wonder why the Minister is skirting around the issue. People cannot lay a book on a betting exchange, but one can if one has a bookmaker's licence and is operating, say, on a course, and as a result take a margin of profit. On a betting exchange, people can lay a 95 or 97 per cent. book, but not a 100 per cent. book. Therefore, if people do those things, they will eventually lose money.
Mr. Caborn: I must admit that I do not follow all the hon. Gentleman's arguments. I return to the point about registration and taxation. The answer to the question that I think that I was asked is no. Registration is there to assist integrity and support the gambling commission in excluding unfair bets. There have been many discussions with the industry—including the Association of British Bookmakers—on that. I am led to believe that all the bodies are positive and think that the proposals will work. If there are things that do not work and if some of the issues that hon. Members have raised do arise—probably not the worst-case scenarios—the gambling commission has the powers to deal with that. We have come to a judgment and that is reflected in the Bill.
Exchanges have been debated ad nauseam; they were a major part of the pre-legislative Committee's scrutiny. It did not come to a decision in any definitive way; it wanted to revisit the matter, because it was not as black and white as some people would have us believe. That was the situation, and the substance of the explanation I gave this morning and this afternoon. The amendment would not take us any further forward, and I ask that it be withdrawn.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): I am glad that I tabled such probing amendments, because they have produced an absolutely fascinating debate. We shall have at a later stage to return to the issues raised, particularly those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire. The House will have to return to them on Third Reading, and they will have to be dealt with in another place when the
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Bill, whatever its final form, leaves the House of Commons.
I had hoped that tabling probing amendments would open up a discussion on betting exchanges, and I have clearly succeeded in doing so. There was a little difference between what the Minister said this morning in his throwaway remarks about licensing and what he has just said, and my hon. Friend has just confirmed that that was his reaction, too. There may have been some more mature considerations during the luncheon Adjournment.
My hon. Friend referred to some of the issues raised by the Minister during this widened debate, in particular the evidence given to the scrutiny Committee on which my hon. Friend sat. I am reminded by him to examine again what was said by the Association of British Bookmakers witness in evidence to the Joint Committee on 20 January:
''Our concern is that we have people acting as bookmakers who are not licensed, who have not passed the fit and proper test, who can be located anywhere in the country and could be anyone from the local vicar to the local Mafiosi. We do not know who they are. They are driving a coach and horses through the licensing system''.
That goes to the heart of the licensing issues, which all parliamentarians have to consider carefully when we examine the Government's proposals. The Government will have to put a lot more flesh on the bones. My probing amendments have produced a useful debate and, on the clear understanding that we shall return to the wider issue, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.