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13 May 2009 : Column 243WH—continued

10.46 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this important debate. From the contributions that have been made, may I say that it has been a constructive debate on the issues that we face in relation to integrity? This is a timely debate, given the cases and issues that are out there.

I want to return to the point that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made about the context of the debate and making sure that we put on the record—as has been done by all hon. Members—the fact that British betting is the safest in the world. We are proud of the way in which gambling operators and sports’ governing bodies operate in the UK. We need to put the matter in context of what is happening and what has happened, but we should certainly not be complacent about the issues that we face.

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I shall go straight to the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the levy. The Government certainly do not support a sports levy—indeed, we want to see a fair return in the relationship between sports and betting. However, that should be achieved through a voluntary arrangement. Discussions are already taking place about the possibility of that being done. We certainly would not want to pursue another levy, given the issues that have arisen about levies.

May I update hon. Members about the research, education and treatment issues, in relation to which we threatened to impose a levy if we could not get voluntary contributions? I am happy to say that we are well on track to securing the required funding, but some small issues remain in relation to the offering of contracts and ensuring that we have the money for three-year contracts. I am confident that we will receive those assurances from the betting industry. Again, I pay tribute to what has been done.

Mr. Don Foster: I am grateful to the Minister for that information. I am particularly grateful to the sectors of the gambling industry that have made the contributions that have allowed the Minister to make that statement. However, will he confirm that a large number of betting organisations that are based in this country or regulated by this country in some way still make no contribution whatsoever? Notwithstanding that there will be no compulsory levy, what will the Government do to persuade those organisations to make a fair contribution, too?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; he has raised that issue with me before. Certainly, in the context of the voluntary arrangements, I am satisfied that the betting industry itself is considering the issue of people who do not contribute, with a view to ensuring that they do so. The new arrangements that have been put in place will facilitate that, and when we conclude the agreement, I will be happy to report back and give an update on progress.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to ensure that those companies and organisations that are not contributing do so. He will be aware of my announcement last week about how we view overseas people who are able to advertise here and how that issue should be looked at in the consultation that we are undertaking.

So, no to a sports levy. We sorted out the research, education and training position, and I am happy to say that we concluded negotiations on the levy with the British Horseracing Authority and the negotiating bodies of the betting industry. I am pleased with that work, which will give the industry an opportunity to have a stable position over the next period. I hope that it will take advantage of that, look at the issue of modernising the levy system, and, as I know is happening, move forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North has raised these issues regularly. He is a keen sportsperson who wants the integrity of sport to be maintained, which was the basis of his securing the debate. I congratulate him on doing so.

I do not accept the challenge of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) who said that the Government have not done anything. We have actually done a great deal.

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Mr. Ellwood: I did not say that.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Okay, not “not done anything” but not enough. [Interruption.] Some hon. Members say that we could have done more, sooner. The reality is that we have done a great deal to regulate the gambling industry in recent years. The old Gaming Act 1968 was out of order and needed amending to reflect the development of internet technology in particular. That is why the Government introduced the Gambling Act 2005 and set up the Gambling Commission, whose remit included focusing on betting integrity. We all know that people still like to visit the high street bookies, but there are now numerous ways to place a bet, especially on sport.

We spoke about sporting issues, and I share the concerns that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East raised about the number of corners in a game and so on. Such things do not materially affect the result of the game, but there are concerns. The hon. Member for Shipley is right to say that the bookies may get on to it, but we have to get the balance right. Betfair and bets in running are a concern as well, but I hope that there will be an opportunity to look at the integrity issues that may come from that.

People can bet with their TV remote. Anyone with a Sky subscription can place a bet with Sky Bet. We know that having a flutter can add to the enjoyment of watching sporting events. From the regular racing punter to the football fans betting on the result of their team’s game on a Saturday, betting on sport is an accepted, everyday occurrence.

As the hon. Member for Shipley said, the likelihood of serious, widespread corruption is small, but the threat and risks to reputation are real. We want the UK to maintain its standing as an honest and well-regulated country for gambling. Therefore, it is vital that the threat of corruption, especially from overseas and online betting, is reduced. A major sports betting scandal could damage the concept of sport and conceivably affect public interest in and support for a particular event or sport.

Significant corruption, or a series of betting scandals, would also call into question the regulatory ability of some of the sports governing bodies and the effectiveness of the betting regime, which could have implications for the wider gambling industry. That is why we must do more to ensure that the threats of betting corruption do not become real.

The solution is to bring together all the relevant organisations to support the people who do the intelligence work and to work with the Gambling Commission. The commission has come in for a bit of stick today, but I believe that it is doing well. It is the main player in regulating betting that is licensed in Britain, and its approach to what we are trying to achieve is now heading in the right direction.

Mr. Don Foster: On the role of the Gambling Commission, is the Minister telling us that he is perfectly satisfied with a situation in which 98 out of 100 betting shops allowed an under-age 17-year-old to place a bet, and the only effect of that was for the bookie shops to get a letter from the Gambling Commission basically telling them to get their house in order?

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Mr. Sutcliffe: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. Let me say from the start that the actions of the bookmakers were totally unacceptable. We need to find out what happened—we need to hear their responses. The letter that went out demanded action and a response within 28 days. I agree with him that just sending out a letter may have looked a bit complacent, but the reality is that action and a response were demanded within 28 days. That level of problem—98 out of 100—is totally unacceptable. I said earlier that the betting industry does all that it can, but it must do more. We cannot have vulnerable people and people under 18 put into such a difficult position.

In setting out and clarifying the regulatory position on integrity, the Gambling Commission is moving in the right direction. We need to give confidence to the public and ensure that the regulations are given a high profile. People felt that the cases in the horse-racing industry were not followed through or collapsed because of insufficient evidence or other problems, so it is important that the Gambling Commission recently published its policy position paper on betting integrity, which outlines the work that it has done and the direction that it wants to take.

As ever, time will overtake me. I am happy for hon. Members on both sides of the House to suggest people who should be on the expert panel that I want to set up. It will include eight to 10 people who will be taken from betting, sport and the police. I had a meeting with UEFA the other day, which is keen on the panel because it spends a great deal of money on integrity issues in football throughout Europe. The expert panel will give advice and support to the Gambling Commission on processes, procedures and what needs to be looked at. It is right and proper that experts in the field offer such support to the Gambling Commission.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) was right to raise the 47 cases. More than half of them did not involve serious issues, but the Gambling Commission was right to ensure that they were investigated. The remaining cases that are under consideration, in some cases by sports governing bodies, include a number of active cases in which the commission will be further involved. It is difficult to work out the full extent of the underlying problem, particularly as the Commission can work only with gambling operators who are licensed in the UK.

Mr. Ellwood: Time is running out, so I want to take the Minister back to the Antigua and Barbuda situation. He spoke about having the ability to look at UK issues. How can we sign up a jurisdiction without anyone going there to see whether its gambling commission stands up to scrutiny and can do the same job that ours is able to do here?

Mr. Sutcliffe: The Antiguan authorities came to see us. We checked their credentials in terms of the criteria for whitelisting. I am satisfied that they met all the criteria in respect of the like-for-like responsibilities that we asked them to undertake. We were happy to whitelist Antigua and Barbuda, although we did not do so initially. We looked for further information, which was forthcoming. I do not think that there was any need for anyone to go to Antigua and Barbuda, but I might follow the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion and go myself
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to have a look. Whitelisting is important for the reason that the hon. Member for Bath gave, and as I announced last week, we will be looking at all the issues again in that wider context.

Let me deal with on-course betting in the last two minutes of the debate. The situation was outlined by my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) and for Livingston (Mr. Devine). I am frustrated by the fact that no progress has been made, although I am heartened by reports in the Racing Post this morning. I made it clear to the working group that there should have been discussions between the racecourse operators and the Federation of Racecourse Bookmakers. I will try to arrange such a meeting. I have given the racecourse operators another opportunity, and some have taken it up, but, if we cannot make progress, I shall reconvene the working group in the near future to have one last crack at it. If we do not get a solution that meets the requirements of all sides, I will consider legislation, because this can and should be resolved. I will not allow discussions to take place until we reach the deadline with nothing happening. That would be the wrong thing to do. I give assurances to my hon. Friends that we will deal with the matter.

This has been an important debate. We could have discussed many other issues, and they will be discussed as we take matters forward. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North for raising the issue. We will keep under review—

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. We must turn our attention to the next debate.

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Gangmasters (Construction Industry)

11 am

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I am delighted to have had this debate chosen today. It is important for those who work in the construction industry. [Interruption.] If the hecklers stopped heckling, perhaps we could get on with the debate.

I shall always be proud that the Government gave their support to passing and implementing my private Member’s Bill targeting illegal gangmasters, which sought to flush out those who were exploiting both migrant and indigenous workers. Despite the powerful argument put forward, the Bill covered only agricultural and related industries. Along with the trade unions and the legal gangmasters, I argued at the time that, should the Bill prove effective, the unscrupulous gangmasters would move into other industries. The evidence suggests that that is exactly what has happened.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s diligence in bringing forward the original gangmasters Bill. Does he agree that although that Bill was narrowly focused on agricultural activities, it enabled the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which it established, to prove the value of an approach that engaged all the participants?

I remember having discussions with my hon. Friend—along with Tim Bennett, then president of the National Farmers Union, and Jack Dromey, from the Transport and General Workers Union, who one might think were not natural bedfellows—to produce something that would work. That strengthens my hon. Friend’s argument for going further into other industrial areas.

Jim Sheridan: I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention and pass on my appreciation to him. He was a Minister at the time and was supportive of and helpful in guiding the Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill through the appropriate Committee to get it to its destination. I wish to put on the record my thanks for his work and for the work of the others he has already mentioned.

At the time the Bill was being discussed, we used the construction trade as an example because of its diverse, mobile nature, and this is where we find the illegal gangmasters working now. Those of us who worked in construction and related industries are well aware of the dangerous environment faced by those in the job. I will return to this later.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he will be aware, the unions in construction, including the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, have been calling for some time for an extension of the gangmasters regulations to include construction because of the size of the migrant labour population in that sector. If we could extend those regulations, would they bring greater protection to that migrant labour force while at the same time allaying the fears of the indigenous labour force and reassuring them that their wages would not be undercut? There seems to be a feeling that that is happening.

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Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is right. Again, I put on the record my appreciation for his support for the initial legislation on gangmasters and for his work on health and safety in construction and related industries. He is well respected throughout the industry for the work that he has done on health and safety and on promoting workers’ rights. We need more of that in this place, particularly at this time.

There was a major lobby last week in the House of Commons. Hundreds of construction workers came to this place to tell us about the difficulties that they face. People who are desperate for work and others who took time off work came to the mother of Parliaments to tell us exactly what the problems are. Those people were angry and frustrated that they could not get jobs because of the cowboys operating in the construction industry, who are often organised by the gangmasters. Those construction workers are looking to this Labour Government to do something to help them to try to get decent jobs and decent conditions in the construction industry, which is vital for this country.

Migrant workers who come to this country for legitimate reasons and for legitimate work are often lured into the twilight world of illegal gangmasters. I caution those who blame the workers and ask them instead to focus on the real villains, who are the illegal gangmasters. Anecdotal evidence from those who have suffered under those unscrupulous people suggests that they are experiencing the same desperate conditions as those who were exposed in the agriculture industry—none more so than the Chinese workers who perished on the shores of Morecambe bay. That was the rationale behind our introducing the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004.

Despite the financial situation, most commentators agree that we can build our way out of this downturn with major construction projects, such as the house building that we are proposing, the Olympic village and related projects.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this issue to the fore and giving a Minister the opportunity to allow it—I hope—to progress even further.

I recently met my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration, with colleagues from the Chinese community, to give him evidence of gangmaster involvement in the Chinese community in respect of the hospitality industry and other industries. I have asked him to try to get the rest of Whitehall to come together to look, with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and his Department, at a comprehensive approach to gangmasters, not just in the construction sector, but in other parts of the economy where they are clearly operating to the detriment of the health, safety and well-being of the people employed by them.

Jim Sheridan: My right hon. Friend is right. He has a proud track record, while in ministerial office, of looking after and promoting the rights of workers. The construction industry is a major problem, but it is not the only problem. Some of those people are operating in the service and leisure sectors in this country and people are being exploited in the most terrible ways imaginable. We are talking about people in the United Kingdom—not just migrant workers, but indigenous workers.

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