Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, this is a disconcerting occasion, because every speaker seemed to know what they were talking about. That is a first for me. It was also interesting that nobody had the same solution. Despite their enormous knowledge, all the speakers had different solutions to offer.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, said that he had been traduced by a magazine called The Lady--I assume that that was the one he was talking about.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, I did not want to besmirch your Lordships' Chamber by mentioning the name of the newspaper, but it is better known for its telephone numbers and its ladies.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I wonder what on earth the noble Viscount was doing reading such a newspaper. It is plain that he never had a chance in life. He went to a public school and the racecourse that he chose to visit was Newbury. As every schoolboy knows, it was at the battle of Newbury that his noble ancestor, the second Viscount Falkland, Lucius Cary, died fighting on the wrong side in the Civil War.

I must declare an interest, as I often have to do, and then the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, says that I am making a joke of it. In the past I have had previous convictions and acted for Coral, Mecca, Ladbroke, Arthur Prince, William Hill, the Tote, Surrey Racing and Victor Chandler, to mention just a few. Although I have never had a bet in my life, subject to one proviso that I shall introduce parenthetically shortly, I believe that racing is an important part of the fabric of our national life as is betting, for many people. In a free society, people should be able to enjoy themselves as they please, either by going to the races, breeding or training horses--the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon, is a

26 Jul 1999 : Column 1383

notable contributor in that capacity--or simply having a bet. One should not be to censorious about other people's views.

The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, reminded me that the old jokes are always the best and produced them gratefully this evening. Is it official Opposition policy that the Tote should be disposed of with no benefit to the tax payer?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, if the Minister would care to read the Home Affairs Select Committee report, the Minister at the time, Peter Lloyd, said that there was a possibility that the Tote could be handed to racing. The point I made in my speech--I am sure that the Minister took careful cognisance of it--was that the taxpayer could benefit from the pool.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I know that it is late at night, but I always listen carefully to what the noble Viscount says. The Committee reported in 1991. Peter Lloyd has never been a member of the present Government. My question was--I am happy to give way again--whether it is official Opposition policy that the Tote should be disposed of with no financial benefit to the taxpayer.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the Minister presses me, but we are here to ask about Government policy, not Opposition policy. I may say that our policy is that the argument must be won that the taxpayer deserves something. That case has not yet been made.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Viscount's comments are not a surprise to me or to my noble friend Lord Donoughue, who has a significant interest in and knowledge of these matters. The fact is that the Opposition have no policies and I am happy to record that point.

The Tote is a significant asset, as we all agree. Who owns it? That was the question that the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, put to me on a more crowded and earlier occasion. The fact is that the directors do not own it. They are able to direct the assets and the conduct of the business, but there is no reason why legislation should not be introduced to enable the Tote to be sold. I do not think that anyone objects to that as a matter of principle.

The real question is how the Tote should be organised for the future. It was suggested by several of your Lordships in different ways that it should be given to racing. I do not understand what racing is as a concept, because it is diverse. The noble Lord, Lord Sandberg, has enormous knowledge of the workings of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, where betting is dealt with differently. I have been there myself to see how matters obtained.

Racing comprises at least the following--those who own horses, those who bet on horses, and those who are employed in what is, after all, an industry, such as those who work in the betting shops. Although the number of betting offices has declined from about 20,000 to nearer 10,000, they employ a vast number of people. Many

26 Jul 1999 : Column 1384

ordinary punters like betting. They do not always claim to win, but they like the subtextual skill of picking the early morning prices. There is no earthly reason why, in a free society, people should not be able to do that.

It would be a surprise to me if the Tote ever became the only monopolistic method of betting in this country. I know that the world spins and times change, but it is interesting that the noble Viscount seems to be coming to the conclusion that he wants no private industrial competition in the betting industry but simply a monopoly--the Tote. I do not think that that would suit most people and I am not satisfied that it would benefit racing.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister. I presume that when he talked about the noble Viscount and a monopoly, he meant the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and not myself. For the record, I have never proposed a monopoly.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Viscount is right, I was just teasing and testing to see whether he was still focusing on my deeply appropriate argument.

The noble Lords, Lord Sandberg and Lord Rowallan, and the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon, said that there have been too many reviews over the past years which have not always been deeply considered. We owe it to the Tote as an organisation, and also to the staff who work there, not to disrupt their lives and expectations unnecessarily. It seems to me that the conclusions, signed by Peter Jones, Chairman of the Tote, on behalf of the steering group, are perfectly sensible. The recommendations are that Ministers should announce the intention to sell the whole of the Tote business without specifying the method of sale. I imagine that that is to achieve the best possible consequence, which is not always the same as the best possible immediate price.

Viscount Astor: Ah!

Lord Williams of Mostyn: The noble Viscount says "Ah". We should learn some lessons from the sale of Railtrack, which consisted of the sale of vast public assets with no possibility of recovery for those members of the public who, one way or another, had some expectation of benefit from it.

It was recommended that the sale should be planned on the basis of a national exclusive licence to conduct pool betting and appropriate regulation to be put in place to oversee the operation of pool betting on horseracing. That was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, and the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon. One must bear in mind that those are subtle interrelationships. Appropriate regulation should be in place, the cost of which to be borne by the pool operator; and the respective legitimate interests of taxpayer and racing should be the subject of further discussion.

I cannot think of a more rational, open-minded menu than that. All the points are taken on board. No one pretends that there is an easy answer. There is a

26 Jul 1999 : Column 1385

recognition there that in a society which is rightly regarded as open, diversity of view and difference of approach should be recognised.

Ownership is extremely expensive, as is training. If one looks at what happened on Diamond Day on Saturday, one can see that the industry is capable of thriving with outside sponsorship. That was an extremely enjoyable day for all who were present. First, we need to focus on the fact that this is an industry. Many people not only work in it but also dedicate their lives to it. Therefore, it is foolish to treat the Tote as a political football. Neither the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, nor the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, who speaks from the Back Benches, tried to do that. No one did that this evening.

There is little future utility in looking at what happens in Australia or the United States because their historical approach to the issue has been utterly different. I repeat to your Lordships that many millions of people like to have a punt at the bookies. They do not want to go on course because they are working; they do not want the Tote because they like the early morning prices and the accumulators. That is part of the fun, even when you lose at the end of the day. Other people like doing crosswords, coming to Question Time and reading Hansard. One might have thought that those are all rather bizarre activities but some people enjoy them and are extremely reluctant to give them up.

26 Jul 1999 : Column 1386

This has been a helpful debate. The more ideas that are put forward, the better it will be for racing. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, asked whether we should look at some sort of national lottery model. The answer to that must be yes. No one pretends that in every aspect of its operation and subsequent donations the National Lottery has been perfect. But that is something which we should consider.

I have a certain amount of experience of acting for bookmakers, although not contributing to their profits--quite the reverse. I believe that this provides a good opportunity for people to say that there is a blank sheet of paper. We are all interested in the future of racing, bookmaking and the Tote. Should the Tote have been able to act more freely in the past? Should it have developed its high street bookmaking operations? Many people believe that that should have been so, while others hold a different view, as the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, mentioned this evening.

This is an opportunity to co-operate and achieve the best possible outcome. To my mind, no solution should be dismissed on the basis of dogma or past experience. Racing has a marvellous future, with great opportunities. There are difficult financial constraints. But if everyone sits down with an open mind and says that they will think about the ideas, then we can achieve the best possible outcome. But no government can sensibly overlook the legitimate interests of the public purse and the taxpayer. I am most grateful to your Lordships.

        House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before nine o'clock.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page