Offshore Gambling Bill

Hugh Robertson responds to a debate on the Second Reading of the Offshore Gambling Bill which will regulate remote gambling on a point of consumption basis.

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) for securing a debate on such an important topic, and I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), for his support in the earlier stages. Despite much of what has been said today, I am delighted to see that there is a considerable amount of cross-party support, in almost every corner, for the regulation of remote gambling on a point-of-consumption basis and for the requirement that all remote gambling operators engaging with British consumers hold a Gambling Commission licence.

In the limited time available to me, I shall go through some of the questions that were asked and try to cover as many of the points as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), asked about the timetable for the Government Bill. As both are aware, the draft Bill is before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Providing it passes that stage, it will go forward as a third Session Bill. Clearly, it is then up to the business managers in the House to decide whether and when to take it forward, but it is our intention to do so, if legislative space can be found, as a third Session Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton asked about the levy, which is the subject of clause 4. The best thing I can do is read to her the legal advice that I have been given by the Government Law Officers, which says that although a levy is permitted in its current form, since it originates from before 1972 and therefore pre-dates state aid rules, the European Commission is likely to consider that the collection of contributions from overseas operators would substantially alter the levy, such that it was no longer compliant with state aid. I am afraid that, regardless of how many high-priced opinions are obtained elsewhere, once the Government Law Officers have opined that the Bill is therefore defective in that respect, the Government cannot accept it.

Let me turn to the reform of the levy board, which was the second part of my hon. Friend’s question. Given the success of the levy board in concluding the most recent negotiations, and the fact that the advice that I was given, both by the industry and by the lawyers, was that the proposed solution around secondary legislation was unlikely to withstand legal challenge, should it appear, and since the advice that I received from the chairman of the levy board was that there was much more good will in the industry—I pay tribute to the work that he and his organisation have done—it seemed sensible to allow him six months to see whether he could put together a voluntary agreement.

I think that is the right thing to do. No Government want to legislate unless it is absolutely necessary, and they need to exhaust all avenues before they do so. The chairman of the levy board is aware that the bar in that is quite high, because such an agreement would have to be sustainable, it would have to carry the confidence of both sides, and it would, I hope, bring security and stability to the industry in the medium term.

Philip Davies: At present the levy situation has to be resolved on an annual basis. Will the Government be able to facilitate longer-term agreements, rather than having to go through an annual procedure, which is sometimes a bun fight?

Hugh Robertson: The best way of answering that is that I have not in any way restricted the chairman of the levy board over that, but I have made medium-term stability a key criterion by which we will judge any deal. If is he able—I wish him the very best of luck—to conclude a three-year or five-year deal that brings stability to the racing industry and commands the confidence of both sides, which I realise is a high hurdle to jump over, I would look at such a deal very carefully.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton talked a little about integrity and sports. I seemed to spend a considerable amount of my time last year locked in rooms in Switzerland talking about integrity and sports betting before the Olympics, and it is worth saying here that the system that was set up for London 2012 worked so well that it is now being imported into other games as the model of how these things should happen. Rather to our surprise, there was very little of that sort of activity around London 2012. We might find, as we discover more about it, that it is quite sport-specific, and more specific to football and cricket than to some Olympic sports, but the system worked well.

The key point, of course, is that many of the threats come not from established betting markets here and in Europe, but from illegal betting markets in the far east. When I was in Delhi for the Commonwealth games, a journalist got access to one of the illegal dens, and one could hear the buzz about it. I do not know how these things are calculated, but it is rumoured that for a one-day cricket match between India and Pakistan $1 billion was traded—

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