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18 Mar 2009 : Column 239WH—continued

9.55 am

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on raising this issue.

My interest stems from being contacted by the press following a football match between Norwich City and Derby where strange betting irregularities had been described at half time. The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and I raised the matter in Parliament, and we have tried to find out what went on. During the game, nothing peculiar seemed to be happening. A goalkeeper was sent off early in the second half, but that is not irregular, as the Minister will know, having been a goalkeeper for the parliamentary team. I have defended his goal area many times as a centre-back. The hon. Gentleman and I had meetings with the Gambling Commission and the Football Association, and we are due to have a meeting with the Central Council of Physical Recreation, which has helped me with this debate, to discuss the matter further. We have not got far in finding out what went on. We were told that at half time a lot of money was put on in the Asian-Chinese market, and that it was put on Norwich City, which eventually lost the game.

People can now bet online on single events such as who will get the first yellow card or put the ball into touch during the first five minutes of the second half. People can bet on any event. Someone told me that bets can be made on whether the referee wears spectacles.
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Odds are available on almost anything these days, which opens up betting to the possibility of seducing, inducing or tempting people to fix an event without losing it. Someone could lose the first set in a tennis match but win the match, and make a tidy sum of money. I must declare that, having been a professional footballer, I know some of the iniquities that went on in dressing rooms at half time when £5 notes might change hands—that was a lot of money for a football player in my day. Such things happen, but are they isolated events or the tip of an iceberg? The CCPR confirms that there is a real threat of corruption. It says:

It told me that a big scandal involving a football match in this country is about to blow, and that the police have been involved.

David Taylor: Will my hon. Friend commend the attitude of Betfair, the online gambling organisation, which is very quick to report to the Gambling Commission any unusual pattern of bets, whether in timing or nature, particularly during sporting events? That has led to several investigations into possible fraud, which can only be good for sport and gambling.

Dr. Gibson: I thank my hon. Friend for that comment, which is true. The case to which I referred, which will be a sensational one, has involved some clever investigative work on identifying betting patterns by Betfair and others. Bets were made in a small, precise area of England, and that was tied up through intelligence. However, when it happens in the Asian markets, it is very difficult to deal with. It is difficult to know, for example, how much money was put down in the game that I mentioned. What event during the game was the money put on? Who won the money? How many individuals were involved? These bets are just a blip on a chart, but they look strange. If they happen in this country, we can tie them down and investigate, but there are all sorts of problems when they happen abroad. That is a problem caused by the internet.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): The hon. Gentleman said that there are 47 ongoing investigations, and City of London police are involved in a long-standing investigation of more general betting scandals in the football industry. Is he as concerned as I am that none of those investigations seems to lead to successful prosecutions? The public feel that much of this regulation and many of these high-profile investigations are pretty toothless when it comes to getting results and tackling the concerns that he mentioned.

Dr. Gibson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I agree, although I also think that there is some conservatism—with a small “c”, of course—in the organisations involved. They do not want to raise the issue or to see it on the front pages of the newspapers, because that would break down the integrity of the sport and make the public suspicious. There is plenty of evidence in Europe that crowds have flocked away from matches where they believe that corruption is taking place. The organisations involved are on the back foot and do not want to take things too far in case that destroys the whole sport. It is a difficult balance to strike.

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Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The Gambling Commission is responsible for keeping crime out of betting on sport. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the information that it publishes for punters is good enough? Is it accessible enough, and does it use the right language to reach the people that it should be targeting? I have looked at it, and it does not seem very punchy.

Dr. Gibson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. The Gambling Commission has been in operation for only a year. I have met the people who run it, and they are gingerly feeling their way forward on how far to take things in a sensitive situation. They will have to interact with the police eventually if criminal charges are to be laid. However, he is right to suggest that things will reach a breaking point.

From the 18th century onwards, sport and betting have been linked, and many laws developed because betting was taking place on games. I will not go back to the Romans in their chariots, although I bet that a few bets were put on such things as well. I cannot mention all the classic cases of problems with betting, but the case of Hansie Cronje was the big one in cricket. He induced some of his mates not to perform at the high level that they might have done because there were big bets behind the scenes. There have been other big cases like that.

Somebody mentioned all the different tricks that can be played. Betting during a match is an interesting example. The hon. Member for North Norfolk and I were told about what can go on. Somebody can be sitting in the stand at a football match talking to somebody else in Hong Kong, and because of the time delays involved, they can say, “The Derby County goalkeeper got a red card five minutes ago and was sent off. Get a bet on that.” I am not saying that that is what happened in the case that I mentioned—although I could, because we can say anything in this place. However, I am alleging that that could be the event that lots of money was put on, although it is hard to prove. Making such bets is seductive, because fixing an event in a game is an easy way out for individuals with a money problem. There is also spread betting, which goes across the board. At Betfair, people can bet on a horse winning or they can lay their money, as they say, on a horse losing—they can bet any way they want. Betting is open, which is fine, but it will be difficult to trace corruption and fixing, although organisations are on their way to trying to find out.

What can we do and say to make something happen in the meantime? Organisations such as the CCPR and the Sports Rights Owners Coalition, which works with the CCPR, are trying hard to make the point that sport is like intellectual property. All Governments struggle with intellectual property rights. Each sport has the right and integrity to govern itself. People want to see the abilities, talents and skills of those involved, as well as real competition, and sports provide that, but some people are making big money off the back of such activities. We should set up a structure to deal with these issues, just as we should for writers, film writers and so on. Protecting the rights of creative people in sport and elsewhere is a live issue at the moment. How do we reward ability given the huge sums that betting organisations make? The sport itself should get a payback to allow it to develop grass-roots activity, which is essential.

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Mr. Mark Field rose—

Philip Davies rose—

Dr. Gibson: I can see that I have stirred hon. Members up.

Philip Davies: The idea of giving sport the proceeds from a levy on the gambling industry is a hoary old chestnut that comes up every now and then, although the Government are trying to get rid of the horse racing levy, so I cannot see them being very enthusiastic about introducing a sports levy. Has the hon. Gentleman not argued against his own case? He argues that bookmakers and gambling organisations should contribute to a levy to protect integrity in sport, but he said that many of these events take place in the Asian market and the far east, so targeting British gambling operators would do nothing to protect the integrity of sport.

Dr. Gibson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, but I have a great confidence in people, and I think that they want sport to be preserved. If people have a part to play and see new talent being created at grass-roots level for the future, we will build a different attitude—they will not just milk organisations, but be real stakeholders in it. We have to try that. The Australians and the French are doing so, and it seems to be paying off.

Mr. Field: Much as I share the hon. Gentleman’s optimism about the public being properly served, is not the nub of the problem, which he mentioned implicitly, that governing bodies in too many of our sports are far too weak? Their concern is to keep the integrity of the game from being criticised by the press and to maintain the position of the big players, which are often the big financial interests in the sport concerned. During the football scandals of the 1960s, it was generally minor players in third and fourth division clubs who went down, although Peter Swan and Tony Kay were involved as well. Broadly speaking, the problem was seen as one involving small scandals at clubs such as Mansfield Town, not something that happened at premier clubs. In many ways, the general public are poorly served by the inadequate governing bodies of these sports. There has to be a different way forward.

Dr. Gibson: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Yes, there has to be a way forward, but people must contribute. These sports organisations stay in the shadows, and I understand why. They have real problems in getting intelligence systems, research, monitoring of betting activity, legal and compliance functions, disciplinary arrangements, education and training, rulebook amendments, the media and Government liaison to work together. They need help to come out of the shadows and to be perfect organisations for the sport itself.

Online gambling has changed sport dramatically. It still has to emerge from the shadows to be part and parcel of the great sporting activities in which people indulge. However, it can do that only by sharing what goes on; betting and sport must become truly intertwined. I doubt whether we will get rid of these classic cases—there will always be one or two—but there are too many opportunities to fix matches now, and we have to stop
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that. The way to do so is to get organisations together to support the people who do the intelligence work and keep the sport intact, and the Government can do that quite quickly.

10.9 am

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on introducing the debate. The issue is of great importance; indeed, we have come back to it, and I suspect that we will do so again. I hope that the Minister is not getting too bored of responding on these matters.

My constituency is at the heart of many of the creative industries, and many large technology industries are also based there. In addition, many bookmakers are based there, and I have visited a branch of Ladbrokes on Charing Cross road in the past few weeks. Increasingly, of course, even the old-fashioned providers supply a high-profile, innovative online offering to their shops.

I do not know whether this applies to other Members, but over the years during which I have been a Member of Parliament I have had the benefit of a close connection with the Betfair organisation, which was referred to earlier. It has assisted by providing me with general and specific briefing on technical matters. I shall touch on one or two of the issues that have been mentioned, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.

There exists a significant threat that United Kingdom remote gambling companies will be permanently impeded from trading freely and fairly across the European Union, despite operating under the robust UK regulatory regime. Although betting companies that are large-scale employers are committed to staying in this country rather than going offshore, they take the view that if they are playing the game under the Government’s regulatory and licensing regime, they understandably expect the Government to stand up for that regime abroad. It is not meant as a threat by Betfair or any of the other operators, but they have the opportunity to go offshore, and they may use that option if they find not only that UK regulation is overly robust but that the regulatory playing field is not being defended abroad by the Government.

The Minister will be aware that a number of EU member states, including Germany, France, the Netherlands and Greece, are seeking to implement, or already have in place, licensing regimes that restrict operators holding full UK remote gambling licences from operating in those other jurisdictions. As has been pointed out, that is in direct contravention of the free market principles of the EU and at odds with the UK’s own regime. I regret to say that the Government have done little to demonstrate either defence or advocacy of their regulatory system as compliant with EU free trade principles. Neither have they been willing to support remote gambling companies based on our shores.

One could take a purist view and say that we do not want gambling companies onshore, perhaps because of the nefarious activities to which the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) referred. Indeed, we all
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have some concerns about the integrity of the gambling industry. My preference would be to encourage the gambling industry to stay onshore. From the Government’s point of view, that creates significant income and employment; but it also gives us the opportunity properly to regulate the industry, so that we do not end up with a wild west show.

Many Members will be aware, as is the Minister, of the European Court of Justice case between Betfair and the Dutch Government. It has pretty wide implications for the effective operation of the internal market. I shall not go into great detail about that case, as time is somewhat short, but the Government have the opportunity to make a submission to the ECJ in support of British companies and in defence of the principle of the free provision of access to services across the EU. That is the principle upon which the UK’s regulatory regime is based. I respect our regime, and I wish that we were able to stand up and make that case. Have the Government any plans to revisit their decision not to make a written submission in support of Betfair in its ECJ case against the Dutch Ministry of Justice, given that no fewer than 15 other member states have written in support of the Dutch?

On a slightly more serious note, given the banking crisis of the past six months and the Government’s reaction to it, what will be the Government’s position on the Dutch Government’s recent request of ABN AMRO? We should not forget that it is now wholly owned by Royal Bank of Scotland, more than 75 per cent. of which is now owned by the taxpayer. Given that the Government have a majority share, they should ensure that we implement financial transaction blocking against online gambling operators.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred to the report by the Danish MEP Christel Schaldemose. One disappointment—I suspect that it was in part caused by many MEPs not understanding precisely what they were voting on—is that all 19 of the governing Labour party’s members voted in favour of the report, as it actively undermines the UK’s regulatory regime for remote gambling. I realise that they may not have appreciated all the implications. Indeed, probably all Members of Parliament know of various times when we have voted, perhaps on a particular subsection, and only when our constituents get in touch with us subsequently do we realise that we may not have understood quite what was being voted on. It is a worry, and I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of how to ensure that all our MEPs make the case on behalf of British companies. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, it is a matter that goes well beyond the confines of partisan politics.

I fear that the Government have too often failed to stick to their principles and defend their own regulatory regime. Moreover, in these troubled economic times, the Government should actively support British companies. I speak only for myself and my party, but I believe that the Minister would receive support from both sides of the House for so doing. I take this opportunity to ask why the Government believe that companies in remote industries will stay in the UK if the Government choose not to defend their own regulatory system by supporting such companies in the EU and elsewhere.

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10.15 am

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I inherited from my late father a number of things, one of which was a William Hill telephone betting account. He would have been very pleased that it was in credit at the time of his death; it contained £7.33. I love gambling, and I make the occasional modest return. I have guarded my father’s inheritance well.

I am not an online better, but I am an avid reader of I recommend it to the House, as it is one of the best commentaries on political odds—who is likely to win the next election, or who is likely to be the next leader of a party. Indeed, political betting is a growing part of online betting.

In a previous debate, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) laid out the tremendous economic potential of online betting. In many ways, the Government were ahead of the game when they set up the present regulatory regime under the Gambling Act 2005. However, although the Gambling Commission is four times bigger than its predecessor body, not many of its staff regulate online gambling.

A report about the commission’s performance is to be published soon; we are looking forward to the Hampton review, as the commission has not undertaken a study of online gambling. There may be a variety of reasons for that. Tax may be one. That subject has not yet been mentioned, but the tax on online gambling is 15 per cent., which could tempt many online operators to go offshore.

The Government were very progressive a few years ago when they abolished betting tax. The replacement tax has led to an increase in revenue. That was a brave move. I believe that we should integrate tax policy with regulation policy; otherwise, many in the Gambling Commission will be sitting around waiting for people to come onshore. So far, they have not done so in large numbers.

My personal friend and neighbour, the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), said that a code across Europe is essential so that those who operate in the European Union meet common standards. Equally, I support the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) in asking the Government robustly to defend our regulatory regime in cases such as the Betfair one.

I exempt my hon. Friend and fellow Bradford City supporter, the Minister, from this accusation, but because of all the political fuss that took place over the Gambling Act, I believe that the Government are reluctant to engage with gambling issues. When civil servants bring files on gambling to Ministers, many of them less knowledgeable than the Sports Minister, they must be tempted to put them in a far-away tray, as they are fearful of engaging with gambling issues.

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