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Mr. Foster: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point. Following on from the hon. Member for East Devon, is he aware of how many prosecutions there have been in the UK, under our tough regulatory regime, for attempting to bet when underage? Can he guess the answer that I received to a parliamentary question on that matter?
Mr. Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman knows that the answer is the same as that given before. Legislation is not working in the UK because it can be bypassed by going elsewhere, which leaves us to ask why one would bother applying to the UK and whether it is worth having UK rules. I repeat the question that he put forward: who will police the companies that choose to operate from Antigua?
I spoke to the Gambling Commission yesterday to find out its role in checking out such websites. Clearly it is under pressure to deal with the thousands of websites that it needs to patrol. As we have heard, it is unable to cope, yet there will be another flurry of websites from another corner of the globe, and that will place more pressure on the commission. I will be interested to hear from the Minister who will pay for the extra policing. Will it be the companies themselves? The Gambling Commission is failing to police the companies that it covers now, without it having to police an increased number of companies that can advertise in the UK.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): The hon. Gentleman says that the Gambling Commission is failing. Can he give examples of where it is failing? It is fine to raise the potential for a problem, but where is the substantive evidence that there is a problem?
Mr. Ellwood: I do not know whether the Minister heard the first contribution this afternoon. It was very clear that there was failure in one third of the cases that were tested. Where were the prosecutions from those cases? Where were the corrections to go back to the companies and say, “Pull your socks up; your standards are not high enough and you should not be allowed to advertise in the UK.”?
How can a member of the public complain? Should they complain to the Advertising Standards Authority, and what is the relationship between the authority and the Gambling Commission?
All this costs money, so who pays? Antigua is just one country that will be added to the many to which companies wishing to throw their nets over the UK may apply. They could be based in Gibraltar, the Isle of Man or any country in the European economic area. Every place has different standards, yet the problem that we face is that each one has lower standards than the UK. It is not surprising that none of the companies have decided to register in the UK.
Let us look at the standards in Europe, as opposed to other jurisdictions on the whitelist. This leads us into the hazy, murky world of double standards, questionable objectives and the consequently incompetent gambling legislation of the European Union. This is the one area in which the EU, in its bid to enter every corner of our lives, could do some good, but it fails catastrophically. The whole ethos of the EU is to offer a common trading platform so that any bona fide company trading in one state is free to trade in them all. That is stipulated in articles 43 and 49 of the EC treaty, within the principles of the EU’s free trade movement of goods, services, capital and persons. That means that if one sets up in one corner of the EU, one should be able to trade anywhere.
That is not the case, however. Internet gambling is outlawed completely in Germany—it is impossible legally to gamble online. France and Sweden operate monopolies; it would be illegal for a British-based company to set up there. In Italy, as the example cited earlier showed, the internet is being controlling so that there is full control over any company wishing to open its market to the Italians.
Britain is the only country in the whole EU to have embraced these EU laws in the true spirit that they were originally designed. The dilemma that we face is that there are different standards within the EEA. To circumnavigate such differing national views, the Government have decided to approve other jurisdictions around the world, and we are adding Antigua and Barbuda today.
The system is becoming unmanageable and the entire structure of gambling legislation is becoming unworkable. We have not had any prosecutions, yet as the Gambling Commission illustrated in its 2007 prevalence study, the number of problem gamblers is between 7 and 10 per cent. That figure is far too high and needs to be addressed.
We heard an interesting statement just last week from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in which he made clear the importance of developing a digital super-highway for the growth of our economy. However, at the same time, that super-highway is becoming unpatrolled. We talk about the 9 o’clock television watershed, but that is almost superfluous now that one can watch anything on the internet. We talk about the restrictions placed on books. If one went into a bookshop such as Borders and asked for a book on how to make a dirty bomb, one might even get arrested, yet one can go online and find the ingredients almost immediately. The Government are not addressing such double standards. The one organisation that could easily assist us with that would be the European Union, but it does not because every member of the EU will vote for the status quo. That is why it is so important that we are debating this issue today. It is possibly the first time that we have debated one slice of the impact of the internet on our daily lives.
The Opposition recognise the popularity of internet gambling, but we deplore the poor standards of control that have been allowed to slip through. We believe that the EU should review the mess of the policy that now exists, but we have little faith in its ability to sort things out. Nothing will happen soon, certainly, which is why, to protect British citizens, the Conservatives propose a direct link between any company’s ability to advertise and its competence to meet British standards.
Mr. Sutcliffe: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether he supports the idea of whitelisting to protect UK gamblers? Will he also take this opportunity to refute the allegation in this morning’s edition of The Times about a donation of £200,000 being made to the Conservative party by Mr. Trevor Hemmings, a gaming machine operator?
The Chairman: Order. I ask members of the Committee to keep their remarks to the regulations that are before us and not to go outside their remit.
Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful for your guidance, Dr. McCrea. We always know that the Government or, indeed, Ministers are on a losing wicket when they have to resort to such tactics and bring a completely irrelevant issue into the debate.
The Minister referred to the whitelist. I want to see the high set of British standards that his Government introduced under the Gambling Act 2005 repeated across the board, whether a country is on the whitelist, part of the EEA, or anywhere else in the world. If a company wants to advertise in the United Kingdom, it should meet British standards. If we cannot lean on the EU to provide those standards, we need to distance ourselves from it until the EU standards are raised. That is why we want to introduce a direct link between the ability to advertise in the UK and the standards we expect of any company, whether it is in Antigua and Barbuda, Alderney or Britain.
Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman seeks my support in voting against the statutory instrument, but he must try a little harder. My concern is not that whitelisted countries do not have in place a similar regulatory regime to ours. That is exactly what whitelisting is about. He seems to be objecting to it, but I believe that it is a sensible approach, given that websites will operate throughout the world. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that unless there is an identical scheme, he is against companies being able to advertise here, or does he agree with me that the schemes are very similar—I have no problem with that—but the issue is our ability to check whether there is proper enforcement? I am confused.
Mr. Ellwood: I think that I agree with the latter. The trouble with the whitelist is that there are problems with it, as has been illustrated in our debate. We are not able to allow or encourage a company that has based itself on distant shores to make a contribution towards the levy to help with the social responsibility that comes with the whole world of gambling. We are looking at one set of rules. We seek an even playing field, yet we do not have that at the moment. The more we make the playing field uneven, the more we are endorsing a system that simply does not work. The system needs to be reviewed from the very bottom.
Will the Minister say how the instrument sits with the Prime Minister’s views on creating British jobs for British people? What changes will be made to the Gambling Commission to allow the effective monitoring of gambling sites based in countries such as Antigua and Barbuda? How will Antigua and Barbuda contribute to the Responsibility in Gambling Trust and the voluntary levy that is used to assist those affected by problem gambling? What efforts are being made to reconcile the uneven playing field within the European Union itself? What is the point of having British high standards for internet companies, which we now readily accept, when we accept lower standards in other parts of the world?
Would the Minister support our having a proper debate on the growth, power and influence of the internet as a whole, which, of course, is changing our lives and growing at a pace well beyond our ability to legislate? I do not think that both sides of the House appreciate that important factor.
The Government started off by wanting to simplify gambling law; instead, they have made it more complicated. They tried to attract gambling companies to the UK shores; instead, they have scared them off. They said that they wanted to protect British children and vulnerable adults; instead, we are increasing their exposure. The House is well overdue a sober, honest and frank debate on the impact of the internet on our society, not least in the context of gambling. Until that happens, the Conservative party cannot support the expansion of the current convoluted, confusing, unmanageable and unenforceable structure.
3.9 pm
Coming from a Quaker background—to explain my prejudices—I find it astonishing that a Government, whom I thought rooted in Methodism, have so rampantly promoted gambling in this country. The Minister is in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Gambling clearly is not a sport and it is clearly not media, so we now have a Government who see gambling as culture. If we accept that £1.4 billion is spent on internet gambling in this country, very little of that will come back to the UK. I have to say to Labour Back Benchers that poor people in this country are spending money to benefit increasingly wealthy people overseas.
I must point out again that I did not ask to be on this Committee, I was summonsed. In a previous incarnation I was a junior Minister in the Foreign Office, where part of my brief was the West Indies and Atlantic Department. If I were asked to summarise the briefing that I had from officials for Antigua, I could do so in six words: the Bird family, drugs and corruption. Labour Members apparently want to allow that kind of regime to have almost unrestricted access to people in the UK through internet gambling, without any kind of check of the regulatory regime in Antigua.
I should be interested in knowing how many members of the Committee have visited Antigua and seen the strength of its regulatory ability. I suspect, judging from the looks on the faces of Labour Members, including the Minister, very few have. If they are happy to allow their constituents to be involved in internet gambling with a country which I suspect does not command a huge amount of respect for its regulatory regimes around the world, that is a matter for them. However, the Committee would do well to reflect on whether it should not adjourn to see what the strength of the regulatory regime in Antigua is.
As parliamentarians, when our constituents get caught up in scams or difficult situations down the line, we are quick to say that Ministers or the Government or someone should have done more to protect them. In this case, we have an opportunity to decide whether that should happen, yet all that is happening is that Government Members seem willing just to tick the box to allow whatever the Minister wants. I am willing to predict that in a few months’ time or a few years’ time there will be serious regrets about having allowed UK citizens to be preyed upon by internet gambling companies registered in Antigua. Because the burden of proof must be on Ministers to demonstrate that the regulatory regime in Antigua will be sufficient for the purpose, and as Antigua has never managed to do that for the benefit of Her Majesty’s Government, we should vote against the statutory instrument.
The Chairman: Mr. Fabricant, I do not think that is a matter for the Chair, so we will carry on with the business.
3.15 pm
Mr. Swire: Dr. McCrea, I am most grateful to you for calling me to contribute in small part to the debate. If it is the Committee’s will and yours that we adjourn and go on a 15-day fact-finding trip to Antigua, I hope that you will consider me worthy of coming along.
Alas, much of what has been said this afternoon makes it appear as though we are looking at a blank canvas—as though there were no such thing as internet gambling and no legislation. There is legislation—we have heard that there is—but the Government have never applied it. It seems that in the months and years to come, when historians decide to write about this Labour Government, one of the things they will look at with a mixture of incomprehension and perplexity will be the Government’s mixed messages on and mixed attitude towards both fixed and online gambling, and their regrettably rather empty words about the protection of the most vulnerable.
When the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I was her opposite number, she stated that she wanted the UK to
“become a world leader in online gambling, in order to provide our citizens with the opportunity to gambling”—
as she said—
“in a safe, well-regulated environment.”
I suggest that little has happened since then. Under some pressure, as the hon. Member for Bath will remember well, the Government set up an international summit on remote gambling in the lofty environs of Ascot race course, to discuss with overseas operators how best those operators could be regulated. I said at the time that the summit should not be a talking shop and that we wanted concrete results. I also said that the Government had no way of incentivising offshore operators to come onshore. I believe that I was right then and that I am right now.
Following that international summit on remote gambling, I wrote to the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), informing him that we wanted something concrete to come out of the meeting, as well as a copy of the minimum international standards for internet gambling, a document that was given to the delegates at the meeting. At the time, no agreement on minimum standards had been obtained from the countries represented. Has the Minister ever seen those minimum international standards for internet gambling, and if so will he share them with the Committee?
The problem is that although the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood stated in 2005 that there would be a
“crackdown on advertisers and publishers who knowingly break the law”,
the Government had issued only guidelines to raise awareness of the law on internet gambling advertisements. Again, nothing much has happened. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East that we need to pay much more attention to the regulation of the internet, but I do not agree that there is little that we can do about it.
I had a debate in February 2008 on internet gambling and the internet itself. I quoted a Home Office Minister, who wrote that the Government’s
“aim is to make the United Kingdom (UK) the best and safest place in the world for children to use the internet”.—[Official Report, 4 February 2002; Vol. 379, c. 671W.]
We had Dr. Byron’s excellent report as well. I said during that debate that the problem is that
“eight Government Departments have an interest in internet content: the Department for Culture, Media and Sport”—
that is one Department, not three—
“the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Health, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. There is a real lack of ownership within Government of internet content regulation”.
I called for one lead Ministry to take overall responsibility for internet content. That, of course, has not happened. Attracting the opprobrium of some people on a website called “ConservativeHome” or something, who thought that I was calling for yet more regulation, I suggested:
“a new co-regulatory structure, an internet standards authority, to fight illegal and harmful content, promote a safer environment and raise awareness. ”—[Official Report, 6 February 2008; Vol. 471, c. 1089-90.]
I believe that that is the way forward, to look at the internet as a whole, of which gambling is a part. Clearly, allowing other countries to come into the family of remote gambling is not the way forward until the Government can satisfy people that they are doing more to regulate online gambling, to protect the most vulnerable, which they have always said that they want to do. Until they can do that, I for one shall not vote in support of the statutory instrument.
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