Motion to Regret

Part of Gaming Machine (Circumstances of Use) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 – in the House of Lords am 6:30 pm ar 23 Mawrth 2015.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Llafur 6:30, 23 Mawrth 2015

Too little, too late. Really, those four words say all that is perhaps needed tonight in the face of these regulations, but I will crave the indulgence of the House to speak a little longer.

I will start with “too late”. I really have nothing to add to the slightly tongue-in-cheek findings of the House’s Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which wrote in its report, which is before us this afternoon:

The House will be interested to see that the Government have now laid these Regulations. They will come into force only in April 2015, a full 12 months after the Government announced the need for the new requirement, and six months later than was foreshadowed in that announcement … We question whether the Government could have brought forward the latest Gaming Machine (Circumstances of Use) (Amendment) Regulations more expeditiously, given the concern about problem gambling which they address”.

The House should generally pay attention to the findings of its own committees, and that was a pretty severe condemnation.

In case noble Lords have missed the point, I will summarise it more succinctly. In our previous debate on FOBTs on 24 February, called by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I said that those who play these machines were practising onanism. The House will forgive me if I resort this evening to the vernacular: the Government have shown themselves to be a bunch of tossers over this one. That, then , is the “too late”.

More important, however, is the “too little”. Again, I set out my views on this in the excellent debate on 24 February, and I will not repeat tonight all I said then. I hope that noble Lords have realised just how small the impact of what the Government are proposing will be. An exceptionally hard-crafted impact assessment of the measures shows that on the department’s central estimate it will reduce FOBT spend by 1.4%, which is about six months’ growth. Therefore, the six months we have been waiting for the Government to get round to doing that has totally dissipated its effect. This is fig-leaf government. It is saying, “Oh dear, there seems to be a lot of pressure to do something about this—what are we going to do? Oh dear, we’ll spend a year thinking about it. Oh dear, we’d better bring something before the House before the election”. It really does not measure up in any sense to the seriousness of the problem.

I have got very bored with hearing Ministers and bookmakers saying, “We haven’t got the evidence”. There seems to be quite enough evidence to proceed on a precautionary basis—which is the argument the Government give for these regulations: that they are precautionary. However, given the scale of the problem, this is a pretty pathetic precaution by any standards.

I said in the last debate that a consensus had grown up among campaigners that a £2 limit would be the right figure. That may turn out to be too harsh, for reasons I will give later. However, the figure, when the Government finally get round to taking a serious measure on this, should be nearer to £2 than to £100. Indeed, it should be nearer to £2 than the £50 that is embedded in this order.

One thing that has gone completely unnoticed since our last debate is that the Government have now, deliberately, made it very much harder for them to do anything about this—or at least they plan to make it very much harder. I do not know how many people noticed the announcement by the Chancellor in his Budget speech that the Government would go for a “racing right”. That has been one of the most curious episodes that I have ever seen in government. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport produced two different possible futures for the levy, published in the autumn, despite the fact that the Chancellor had said once before that he would quite like a racing right. To be fair, the Government then published a consultation on the racing right. What do the Government do when those three consultations were just terminating? Without waiting for the department to summarise the results or to find out what those best informed about them wanted or what the public wanted, the Chancellor of the Exchequer—who cannot have much time in his busy portfolio to give attention to racing matters—announced that there would be a racing right.

How does that relate to the FOBT question? Doing anything serious about FOBTs will cost bookmakers money. It will cost them a substantial sum of money—a lot more than 1.4% of their FOBT revenue. But at the same time as the Government are dithering over that, they have suddenly decided to impose an enormous new charge on the betting industry to pay horseracing. The impact assessment on the racing right suggests that on a low yield the costs will not increase but that on the highest yield—50%, which is in the impact assessment—it will cost the bookmakers an extra £390 million a year. If you add a similar bill, as you easily might, for curbing FOBTs, what will be the result? Will it not be the mass closure of betting shops, the removal of a local facility that many people appreciate, shops rotting on the high street because nobody will take them over, and a huge loss of jobs among betting shop staff? That is the Government’s prospectus for the betting industry.

There is a consolation here—that the racing right has not only not yet come about but may well never come about. As the Conservative MP Philip Davies and I argued in our response to the consultation on the racing right, as presently conceived it seems to us unlikely to survive the test of competition law in Britain, let alone to survive the state aid test that would be applied by Europe. The Chancellor, to put it kindly, has not thought through not the idea of the racing right, which has something to be said for it, but the idea of a racing right that gives British racing a monopoly of its product and enables it to ask whatever price it may choose, never mind the effect on the betting shops.

I close by saying that here we have two things that the Government could do that will cost the bookmakers money—and what is the priority? Doing something to FOBTs would no doubt at some stage cost jobs and shops, but it would stop the bookies from picking the pockets of hard-working people—and, as has been said in this debate already, very often those of poorer people—with all the social costs that are involved in that. But the racing right picks the same people’s pockets not to deal with a social evil but to subsidise some hugely rich owners of racehorses and some very rich trainers for their holidays in the Bahamas, as well as some very rich jockeys gallivanting about the country in their helicopters and some ludicrously rich breeders, who exist only because of the practice of banning artificial insemination in horseracing. Strangely enough, in this bonanza feast, the one lot of people who do not benefit by a penny, in my long experience, are stable staff, who are still exploited very badly. So that is it—deal with the FOBT problem or help all these very rich people at the expense of poor people. I know which I would put first.