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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 13 May 2009

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Sports Betting

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Ian Austin.)

9.30 am

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I welcome all right hon. and hon. Members to this debate, and I thank them for entering into the spirit of things. We touched upon some of the problems of sports betting a few months ago, but we have the opportunity today to consider the matter in some depth and to hear contributions from across the House. I see that some of the sharpest brains in the House are here—I say that in the nicest sense. I am prepared to take bets, from general elections down, but we can talk about that later.

Sports betting is not a new phenomenon. It has been delimited for many years. Golf rules came in during the 17th century, because of alleged match fixing. Cricket came in during the 18th and 19th centuries, and again there was a bit of corruption here and there. I have a list of the various sports about which allegations have been made, some of which were proven and others not. They include football, baseball, boxing, basketball, American football, horse racing of course, snooker and so on. Betting goes on right across sport. It is a real concern. No one thinks for a minute that this is prevalent, but we must ensure that moves are made to prevent the odd event resulting in the police becoming involved, or the sporting organisations having to discipline the sports.

The Gambling Commission was set up under the Gambling Act 2005. It aims to monitor betting patterns and possible corruption; and the Financial Services Authority has considered spread betting. Indeed, the commission has identified some 47 cases since its inception. Last year, I watched the Norwich-Derby game after a tip-off, but it proved hard to gain any evidence. The Football Association and others looked into the game, but they found some difficulty in accessing all the information. However, it was clear that large bets had been placed on the Asian market at half time. Serious things are going on, and we ought to be able to trace them and prevent them from happening again. We all love sport, and we want to ensure that it continues.

I am flattered that so many people have been in touch to help me with this debate. They include bookmakers’ organisations—the Association of British Bookmakers and the Remote Gambling Association, which are taking the matter seriously—the Gambling Commission itself; various individuals; and the Central Council of Physical Recreation and the Football Association. All of them have the deliberate aim of preventing such odd events—even one is too much—in sports that are loved across the nation and across the world.

After our last debate, there was a move to consider the Accrington Stanley and Bury game. We cannot say much about it, as the case is sub judice. The FA is considering the matter, but five players allegedly put
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money on their team losing. That, of course, sours the whole process, not only for the fans but for everyone who loves sport.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He has spoken of widespread concerns and given numerous examples, but does he share my concern about the briefing that we received from the Gambling Commission? It states:

Does not the hon. Gentleman believe that the commission is being a little naive?

Dr. Gibson: Far be it from me to be critical, but there is enough dismay and concern for the Gambling Commission to take the matter seriously. Indeed, our debate may have precipitated the Accrington-Bury decision. I shall mention later something of what the Minister has said about corruption and the possibility of stamping out such things. The problem is being taken seriously by many. Indeed, the commission has picked up apace; it is almost in top gear, but not quite.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): How many of the 47 notifications received by the Gambling Commission have been investigated to a conclusion? Is it that the commission does not have teeth, or is it not biting?

Dr. Gibson: I cannot be sure of the number, but I remember from the previous debate that it is small. We could investigate that, but I am not sure. It starts from a low base, of course, getting the right people into the commission to investigate matters with professionalism, with the right contacts and so on, but it is a difficult arena in which to get evidence.

The commission is not quite there yet; but in such debates, we should be asking the question, “Do we need to help organisations such the Gambling Commission, giving them more support with intelligence units and so on, so that they can do their jobs properly?” I find it difficult, and not only because of Norwich City, bless their souls. One cannot find details on the Asian market, but that is not what happened here with the Accrington-Bury situation. In that case, the commission, with the help of bookmakers and others, nailed it down to those individuals who allegedly perpetrated the actions that the FA is investigating.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He has done the House and the world of sport a service in securing today’s debate. He comes to it primarily from a football-loving background. I am a cricket fan, and I remember Hansie Cronje, a one-time Leicestershire player, who was at the root of problems in the 1990s and who was banned for life in 2000. The key to the problem is the illegal betting markets, not the legal one, which is transparent. We must always remember that corruption and crime in gambling on sport is rooted in the illegal markets. We shall never root it out entirely, however, because it is a global market, and there will always be illegal black markets in betting.

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Dr. Gibson: I agree with my hon. Friend to some extent, but that is no excuse for not trying to root it out completely. I am trying to stop the syndicates and others involved in illegal acts as they emerge. They may be small in number, but they cause a lot of disruption for little effort, and we have to stamp it out. If we ever lose the belief that sport has integrity, we will lose the public. We must ensure that that does not happen, but one event could be enough.

Since the previous debate, the Minister has said that betting corruption is one of the major issues that threaten sport today. I welcome that statement. He said that he wants to ensure that everything is done to stamp it out. He wants to ensure that

He has gone on—bravely so—to create a taskforce on betting corruption in sport. We will hear later who its members might be, and how it might work.

The Gambling Commission published a policy paper on betting integrity in March 2009, in which it went into detail on subjects that include information sharing, specific bets, terms and conditions, investigation and prosecution. I hope that the House will consider that paper. Betfair, the online gambling company, has launched a legal action against the Dutch Government, who have urged Dutch banks to block transactions to online gambling companies. Legal activity is developing on that subject.

The Gambling Commission’s policy called for better information sharing between sports governing bodies and the industry, to scrutinise and investigate betting patterns. That is a firm policy aim. However, the commission believes that that should become a non-legislative agreement. There may be some argument about whether that sort of path is tough enough, but further data sharing is to be welcomed. Sports governing bodies do not know the extent of bets on their sports, and they therefore do not know how to assess whether their sport is at a higher or lower risk from match fixing. We welcome such contact.

The commission is engaging with sport governing bodies on their rules about who may bet and what sanctions can be used against players involved in betting corruption. The Professional Players Federation has criticised sports governing bodies for not educating players well enough on the consequences of foul actions that could completely spoil the sport. That needs to be well thought through, and we must use plain language—the Alex Ferguson sort—on the consequences if one is caught acting in that way.

The commission can restrict betting types, but, in general, it does not want to tighten the rules. A huge diversity of bets is now available to the market; that is of concern. According to a Salford university academic paper entitled, “Risk to the Integrity of Sport from Betting Corruption”, novelty bets are creating the biggest problem or, at least, run the highest risk. For example, bets can be placed on how many cricket players will come on to the pitch at 11.30 am wearing hats or black spectacles. We might consider that trivial, but if it is fun and people want to do it, I guess that it should be allowed. However, we must handle the situation, because it is open to deviant behaviour in terms of where the bets go, who puts them on and so on.

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The commission is considering employment terms when bets are made. An agreement should be reached, when a bet is placed, that there is no conflict of interest with the individual. For example, if they are a professional player or coach, they should not be allowed to bet on their team. Through section 42 of the 2005 Act, the commission can investigate suspicious betting patterns, although it is ultimately up to the police to investigate and bring prosecutions. According to the commission, the best way to deal with any prospect of match fixing is through sports governing bodies, but some confusion surrounds that. When should the commission initiate and close an investigation? When should governing bodies start and close theirs, and initiate disciplinary procedures? Some people feel that the Accrington-Bury thing was extended because of confusion about the different stages of the investigation. Will the Minister expand on that?

Betfair has a model for information sharing with sports governing agencies and their investigative programmes, but it does not always know the criteria for reporting suspicious bets. I learnt about the suspicious bet that started this debate from a newspaper, although I shall not name it, because it is not that friendly to us at the moment—it will get no more publicity here today. People in the media said to me, “You see, it was a Norwich match”; they know that I am—yes, I still am—fanatical about Norwich. It was difficult to get this debate moving, however: we tried to ask questions in the House, but we were not allowed to name the two teams; but then the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) managed to name them in a question—and so it went on.

We need guidelines on industry standard practice to inform sports governing bodies on how decisions are made to follow up suspicious betting behaviour. The commission’s intelligence unit, which I have met, is severely limited. It is not big enough. It needs to be sharper and to be able to investigate all sports and markets, to interact with different sports and to have greater jurisdiction, so that it can investigate these betting patterns and bring successful charges. An organisation can always be judged by the number of charges that it brings. I have already asked a question about that. Too few cases are being carried through to the end. There are some, but others are dropped, including the one on the Norwich-Derby game, because the evidence cannot be obtained.

The Salford university study identified the billions of pounds entering the betting industry—it went from £7 billion, in 2001, to £38 billion, in 2008—which, it says, increases

There is an appetite for moving forward. The Asian market presents us with real problems. I am told that the premier league is the best football league in the world—I am not sure whether that is accurate, but we would probably all agree with it. It attracts more than $500 million in bets each weekend in the Asian betting market. That is big bucks and presents considerable opportunities for people to be tempted down funny pathways.

I mentioned that people can place bets on spectacles and hats worn on a pitch. A tennis player could win a first set, but throw the second and third and get beaten.
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It is quite possible for a second seed to look good and be playing well, but be beaten by the 487th ranked player. Of course, that could happen legitimately—it is what sport is all about—but, at the end of the day, if a match goes a certain way, a suspicious betting pattern might indicate that the match was thrown, that somebody did not play hard enough or that something was set up. We need to keep tabs on these betting markets across the world and on the size of the sums being bet.

I am pleased that some European countries are starting to take an interest. Often, in debates on Europe—on copyright, for example—people will dismiss an argument saying, “We can’t get all the other European countries to engage in this.” The taskforce gives us an opportunity to do that on this occasion. UEFA—on the football side—the Jockey Club and other groups could sit on the taskforce and play a part. It could be a wide taskforce with sub-committees and so on. However, as long as it is independent and sets its own terms and conditions, it will be acceptable to the public.

We need to fund education programmes. The all-party football group has produced a sterling report on what needs to be done in British football. For example, as the Minister has said, the four top clubs have all the money and resources. How can we devolve some of that down to the minor leagues and other groups? Delia Smith said that the demise of Norwich into a lower league was all about money. We have not got enough to buy the players. At all stages—including from youth—skills gravitate up to the highest level. The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) and I visited Cambridge United and saw its youth policy. It has some smart young people dedicated to playing football, but no money comes down to them, because they are not in the full league. Compared with other clubs, Cambridge United needs about £200,000 a year to help its youth academy.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the point that there must be some way of getting this vast amount of money flowing through sport into the lower leagues. However, youth development faces other problems. Youth development schemes, including the one at Cambridge United, are judged not on how successful they are, but on whether the club is in the Football League. At the same time, the Football League Trust is not spending its full budget. Football itself can do something to improve the situation.

Dr. Gibson: I concur with the hon. Gentleman. Some players at that level end up in the championship or the premiership. I saw a match in the former when at least three or four players came from that level. Some also come in from Sunday league football and go on to become stars. We must encourage that in this country. The all-party group has suggested that the number of foreign players might need to be limited.

We need to get the money down to the minor leagues, to encourage those young people with skills, but, at the same time, they must be educated. Youth academies help them with their schooling, so that if anything goes wrong, such as a bad injury, they can move on and develop other skills that they have learned—a talent for law or business, for example. The opportunity is there to combine with the betting industry and say, “Look, here are worthwhile causes where we can support grass-roots sport.” The Minister might be tempted to take over that
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area and develop it very quickly to the benefit of sport in this country. The education and thrill that young people get from sport can be imparted into schools. Youth academy players go out into schools and bring the better players back into the academy. It could be so exciting.

Our fetish for the four big clubs will not do football any good. By widening perceptions, we might also address the essential problem about intellectual property. I am involved with writing and films and so on. Intellectual property is a big concept now. There are lawyers who work in that field alone. The rights are important not only to science, medicine, new discoveries and books, but to the skills in the sporting world as well. We have to protect such skills. Betting industries, associations and sports governing bodies should combine to form a taskforce to ensure that the whole sport gets the whack that it needs to develop and remain safe for the future.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I am slightly concerned about linking sports rights to integrity issues. My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to look at sports rights, but we should separate them from the integrity issues. The danger is that, by focusing on the sports right issues to get funding into the sport, we will detract from the serious issues on integrity. I caution my hon. Friend against linking the two issues.

Dr. Gibson: There is an argument there, but it is the job of the taskforce to say how each organisation should play its part. The taskforce may want to separate issues or keep them intact. I am not putting down a formula; I am suggesting that we need to get the right people around a table to talk about the ideas. I will bring my speech to an end, because I think that I have put across my message. We need some kind of intelligence to be carried out by an organisation that is seen to be independent and active. It should look for ways to resolve issues and give the impression that, if there are any suspicions, it is really trying to find out what has gone wrong. We have not got there, so I encourage the Minister to think seriously about the matter. As we all know, if we let things drag on for too long, the situation will only get worse.

9.51 am

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this debate. He has raised the issue of integrity in sport on a number of occasions in the House, and I understand his concerns, particularly in relation to gambling. None the less, it would be fair to put the whole issue in context. The hon. Gentleman has raised his concerns about the Norwich game on several occasions because such occurrences are so rare; if this was an everyday occurrence, people would not raise these issues when they happened. The fact that it has been so noteworthy is a tribute to the fact that they are so rare.

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