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13 May 2009 : Column 237WH—continued

Frankly, that is a disgraceful position. It intends to “terminate DCMS interest” by “showing progress locally”. The important distinction is between the appearance and the reality; showing progress is not making progress.

I understand the Minister’s frustration over this matter. I hope that his last crack at reaching a voluntary agreement by reconvening the working party produces a UK-wide solution. Should that not happen, secondary legislation will be the only option. We should put the message out that we intend to use it if there is no agreement.

Thank you, Mr. O’Hara, for your indulgence in allowing me to say those few words.

10.20 am

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) not only on securing this debate but on the interest he has long shown in this important issue? It pains me to say this and it is a rare occurrence, but I agree with almost everything the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said. My remarks will be shorter than they might have been because he has said much of what I was going to say.

It is important to place it on the record that sports betting in the UK is big business. According to various sources, it has seen about a fourfold increase over the last few years. Whether we believe it is the responsibility of sports governing bodies or others to pay for it, integrity work in each sport is expensive and the cost is rising. No major sports governing bodies have been able to give me a precise cost because such work is often integrated with other activities. However, many millions of pounds are spent by major sports governing bodies. It is critical that they do that work. A number of cases have been mentioned in this debate. The hon. Member for Norwich, North referred to various examples and I will speak about a couple of those later.

I was delighted that a number of hon. Members used this opportunity to raise other outstanding business in relation to gambling, and in particular to horse racing. The hon. Members for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) and for Livingston (Mr. Devine) spoke passionately. I, too, believe it is vital that we resolve the question of on-course bookmaker lists. I have attended Westminster Hall debates on that topic over the last two years. I hope the hon. Gentlemen will not mind if I do not comment further on that; they can find my views on the matter in Hansard. I share their view that the issue must be resolved soon, in the interests not only of
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on-course bookmakers but of the people who go to the races and enjoy the benefit brought by on-course bookmakers.

I will not follow other hon. Members in pressing the Minister to tell us about the sale of the Tote because we have debated that on many occasions. However, it could legitimately have been brought into this debate. I will not even ask him for the latest details in the saga of the horse race betting levy, although a comment from him would be interesting.

My point is simple. A lot of money is made from sports betting by the betting industry in this country. A lot of costs are incurred by sports governing bodies in relation to integrity. The question is whether a greater contribution to those costs should be made by betting organisations. Like the hon. Member for Shipley, I do not think the case for that has yet been made. I do not believe we should go down that route now.

The question that remains is, what more can we do if there is a continuing problem? There are a number of cases of matches being rigged for betting purposes. I welcome the Minister’s establishment of the expert panel. I look forward to hearing more details from him today and in the near future about who will serve on that body and what its remit will be. That body must help to resolve a number of ongoing problems, which centre around two things. The first is how we gather information about what is going on. The second is how we provide help to sports governing bodies so that they can put in place appropriate rules and sanctions to deal with any incidents.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North raised the matter of the Norwich City versus Derby match, about which my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has asked a number of parliamentary questions. The issue concerned betting on the Asian-Chinese market. It became apparent from the debate on that issue that the Football Association finds it extremely difficult to act and to prove a case of match fixing. The FA has made it clear that it is able to act only if a whistleblower comes forward. It needs help in looking at these issues.

An interesting article in The Independent on 24 April said that the FA was “powerless to act” in such cases. It stated that

I hope that the expert panel will consider what help can be given to deal with those difficulties.

I share the concern that the hon. Member for Shipley touched on about the role of the Gambling Commission. In an intervention, I asked the hon. Member for Norwich, North whether he had confidence in the commission’s work in this area. He said that it was almost up to top gear. That is in marked contrast with the view of the hon. Member for Shipley. The commission document of March this year contained a degree of complacency. At least it is acknowledged that more work needs to be done, and I welcome the fact that the commission will focus more on this matter in future. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.

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The recent worrying incidents demonstrate why it is difficult to have confidence in the Gambling Commission in this area. Many hon. Members will have read the reports of the recent mystery shopping exercise in bookmakers’ shops. The commission discovered that a 17-year-old was able to place a bet illegally in 98 of the 100 shops that were visited. However, the only resulting action that seems to have been taken is that a letter has been sent to each of those betting shops, telling them they must have procedures in place to prevent that from happening again. Similarly, we have discussed many times white-listed jurisdictions and the promise of mystery shopping as a way of checking that they are behaving correctly. However, as we have discovered in other debates, no mystery shopping took place on overseas-regulated, white-listed regulated betting sites until very recently. The Minister has told me in a letter that that has now started to happen; I would be grateful if he told me what progress we have made and what information we have received.

Philip Davies: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a rather damning indictment of the Gambling Commission that the Minister is having to set up an expert panel? Surely, if it were good at its job, it should be the expert panel.

Mr. Foster: I have already said that I welcome the setting up of the panel and I hope it will help to inform the Gambling Commission, so that it can do more effective work in that direction in future. The hon. Gentleman is perhaps being slightly unfair on the commission, which has made it clear what it plans to do—I just wish it had been doing it rather sooner.

Let me say to the Minister that the issue of internet gambling is critical. There are some 6,500 internet gambling sites around the world, only 1,000 or so are regulated anywhere in the world, and very few are regulated in the UK. The Gambling Commission’s briefing tells us that it is going to work hard on its licence condition 15.1, which is on the business of sharing information. It is critical that we get some assurance from the Minister that that licence condition applies to gambling sites regulated in the European economic area and within white-listed jurisdictions. Will he assure us that there will be regular checks that that is happening and that information is flowing?

I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Shipley, who praised organisations such as Betfair, which has gone out of its way to share information. The critical issue we now have to address is ensuring that all the organisations involved—whether the sports governing bodies or the betting organisations—are given help with knowing what to look for, and we must check that they are looking for it. We must also make sure that we support the sports governing bodies, not necessarily financially, but in adopting procedures to ensure that we have information flows, so that action can be taken if and when illegal gambling affects the outcome of a sporting activity.

10.32 am

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to work under your tutelage today, Mr. O’Hara, and to participate in this important debate, which has
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been entertaining, educational and informative. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to the many questions that have been asked about this industry, and it is worth echoing some of the comments that have been made.

We can be very proud of the sport offering that the UK provides and the general level of integrity that we have. If we glance over our shoulders at some other places around the world, we see that corruption is rife, so we can hold our heads up and be proud of where we are today. That should not mean that we are complacent, however, which is exactly why we are here today debating this subject.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate and commiserate with him about where his football team are going, although he probably does not want to hear that again. If it is any consolation, should they have the misfortune of going down another division, I shall be delighted to meet him in the directors’ box when they come to play AFC Bournemouth in the second division, but I am sure that that will not happen.

The hon. Gentleman stressed the importance of sharing knowledge and of the communications required to ensure that the governing bodies can do their work and the Gambling Commission can have an overview. It is also important that the customer is aware that we have a transparent and fair system so that people will want to place bets in the first place.

What has changed the situation from that of 15 or 20 years ago is the advent of the internet, which has provided a new dimension in which sports betting can take place. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) stressed the importance of establishing who is responsible for match fixing and who should be penalised if any match fixing takes place. Whether it should be the responsibility of the governing body or the individuals who participate in a team or act on their own is an interesting question.

As my hon. Friend said, we should not forget the symbiotic relationship between bookmakers and sports. They need each other and we need both of them to ensure that the industry as a whole continues. We should never forget that. There are those who frown upon gambling as a whole, but in the correct, regulated environment, gambling can be seen as fun and a form of entertainment. When it slips over into being a short, fast form of investment, there should be processes in place to isolate and help those individuals who use it to try to make money, rather than as a form of fun and entertainment. That is where other responsibilities need to kick in.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) mentioned the enjoyment of sports betting. It was a pleasure to meet him up in Thirsk on the weekend—perhaps I should confess, or make a declaration about that. I am not a betting man, but I have been introduced to this wonderful environment thanks to the portfolio for which I am now responsible, and I have to say that the event to which I was invited on the weekend, which the Minister also attended, was a wonderful evening of entertainment. I congratulate the Yorkshire race courses on that operation.

The wonderful sense of community at that event was noticeable, and people came not simply to place a bet, but to enjoy themselves. It was very much part of the
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fabric of the community there, which is exactly what we should be moving towards. We do not want people to feel that they cannot place a bet because they are worried that the outcome is preconceived or that a jockey will inadvertently throw himself from his horse at the last hurdle. Such things have happened, but I am glad to say that they do not happen regularly. Long may that continue.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough mentioned the on-course bookmakers dispute. That issue wanders slightly away from the title of the debate, but I hope that the Minister will not use that as an excuse not to comment on it, because it is a concern. The dispute has been rumbling on for some time and is one of the three big issues of horse racing, along with the future of the Tote—clearly, there needs to be some security regarding what will happen to it—and the levy. I make a personal request to the Minister to try to solve these issues because I really do not want to have to deal with them if I take over his portfolio after a general election. I will be very grateful if he works hard on them in the next 12 months.

The point about the on-course bookmakers dispute made by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough is important because the dispute is the Government’s responsibility. There is a dispute purely because of a legislative cock-up in the Gambling Act 2005, which did not understand the legacy that on-course bookmakers had and their intellectual property rights, as it were. Nor did it fully understand their relationship with the race course, which is so important.

On the Gambling Commission and its relationship with the governing bodies, the objective must be to keep gambling fair and open, and to keep crime out of gambling. One question that has been asked several times, including by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), is, can the Gambling Commission do its job? He mentioned the mystery shopping exercise, which is where the commission is supposed to zip around the internet, posing as an individual or whoever, to catch out internet companies. We do not see enough of those results coming through, and we do not see scrutiny on the level required to ensure that standards remain high.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North, who opened the debate, also raised an interesting issue about the types of bet that someone can now place. I agree with him. This is my personal view: I have concerns about whether someone should be able to bet on how many players come out to play wearing spectacles or place a bet on an outcome when the event is yet to conclude—for example, what the score will be three quarters of the way through a match. I do not have the answers, but I think that many people do in that, at the end of the day, it is up to the individual to decide whether they place a bet.

It opens up the possibility of types of corruption when someone knows that they can create, or design, a situation and then make up, or compensate, for it—for example, in relation to who scores the first goal in a match, that outcome might not affect the final result. I have concerns about interference with outcomes when that might not impact on the final result.

Philip Davies: Perhaps I can set my hon. Friend’s mind at rest. If some of those novelty markets were being manipulated in the way he suggests, bookmakers
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would rapidly stop laying prices on them, as I believe has happened with, for example, the time of the first throw-in. Some footballers were hoofing it out straight from the kick-off and making a killing. Bookmakers soon cottoned on to that and started withdrawing those novelty bets, so if there were any great manipulation, those opportunities would soon diminish.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend makes an important point, but, again, the fact is that bookmakers constantly have to review and scrutinise the next type of imaginative event that might take place. Therefore, as a punter, someone is almost playing catch-up in deciding whether they are placing a legitimate type of bet or simply a novelty bet, which perhaps has no place in gambling at all. As he suggests, that is for the industry itself to market. The problem has not manifested itself on a large scale, but I raise the matter as a general concern.

In the next couple of minutes, I shall talk briefly about internet gambling as a whole. On white-listed companies, Antigua and Barbuda is the latest country to join the rather bizarre list of legislative areas that are allowed to operate companies in the UK. I understand from the answer to a parliamentary question that not one person from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport or the Gambling Commission visited Antigua and Barbuda to check out the standards.

Philip Davies: That was an oversight.

Mr. Ellwood: Perhaps the Minister went there on holiday, but clearly he missed out on that particular visit. I have huge concerns, particularly in relation to Allen Stanford, who was involved with cricketing. The financial situation in Antigua is not good and I am concerned about allowing companies based in Antigua to operate and advertise in the UK via the internet. On top of that, they do not come under the direct scrutiny of the Gambling Commission and are not paying any money to GamCare, the Responsibility in Gambling Trust or whatever the successor organisation is in relation to education and research on problem gambling. Such companies are completely outside the loop.

The Minister made an announcement in relation to that last week. I am sorry that he did not have time to come to the Chamber to do so, but perhaps he can compensate for that by letting us know a little more about how that study will take place. It is very serious when there are different standards across the board. I met the Alderney Gambling Control Commission last week and it expressed concerns that when it looks over its shoulder, it sees that there are different standards within the white list itself. That means that we do not have the same integrity across the board.

As I want to give the Minister a full 15 minutes to conclude, these are my final questions. Can the legislation keep up with the developments and trends in technology, and is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport competent enough to be able to keep up with those changes, because the legislation is not being updated to keep up with the changing trends caused by use of the internet?

In addition, is the Gambling Commission able to keep up with the scale of scrutiny expected of it? It has talked about its relationship with the governing body, but the Gambling Commission’s report talks about a
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memorandum of understanding. When I was in the City, we worked on memorandums of understanding and they were simply used to say, “Yes, we’re going to be friends and have occasional meetings and coffee around a table.” We need something more robust if we are to get governing bodies to take full responsibility for how their sports are acting.

The hon. Member for Bath mentioned that 50 cases have come through. Is that right?

Philip Davies: Forty-seven.

Mr. Ellwood: Almost 50 cases have come through. What are the results of those? Perhaps the Minister can clarify where those cases have taken us. Finally, I would also welcome his views on the on-course bookmakers dispute.

Mr. Don Foster: It is important to put it on the record that the vast majority of those 47 cases were drawn to the attention of the Gambling Commission by the betting industry itself. We ought to be grateful to the industry for the work it is doing in that area.

Mr. Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman prompts me to say, although I think I mentioned it earlier, that we can be proud of the work that our betting industry does here in the UK. My concern is that going overseas means losing that control and the relationship that we have. We all know the betting community well and encourage high standards, but we do not have that same relationship with companies based abroad. The Minister needs to clarify what level of suspicion triggers an investigation and allows the Gambling Commission to act.

I do not know, and it is not clear from the report, whether the Gambling Commission is familiar with every type of sport. Sports can be so different in many ways—from snooker to football to horseracing and so on. I worry whether the Gambling Commission has the necessary expertise and whether it is itself playing catch-up in understanding the diversity of the world in which it is working.

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