On-course Betting

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I too shall speak briefly, because I know that the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) wishes to say a few words.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on having procured the debate. I know from my own experience of initiating Westminster Hall debates that it is often on the second or third bite of the cherry that one sees action. He is absolutely right that the Department has a duty of care to ensure that the allegations of preferential treatment are put firmly to bed. He did not use the word “corruption”, but the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) did. There should certainly be a level playing field?that is essential. Many of the concerns that were brought to light in my right hon. Friend’s speech would undoubtedly be open to judicial review.

I suspect that outsiders who are watching the debate might think that some of the discussion has been at cross-purposes. I say with the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) that he was talking about online betting. I shall do so, too. I believe that online betting is here to stay in this country. It should be encouraged and promoted to ensure that the best managed, most innovative and most ethical players can succeed, so that players who would tar the industry can be pushed away, rather than pushed underground. Remarkably, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, some 5 million bets a day are made on Betfair, and I suspect that we ain’t seen nothing yet. We shall see far more online betting. However, that is not to say that the antics of the National Joint Pitch Council can be relegated to the past, because the sector of betting with which the council is connected will remain an important part of betting.

I confess that I am not a great racegoer. I was offered the chance to go to Cheltenham today, but because I am not a racegoer and because of the important debates that are taking place in the House today, I turned the offer down?although, as it happens, I shall miss the vote tonight because I have to attend a state dinner with the President of Ghana at the Guildhall, which gives me an excuse on matters of conscience. None the less, I should like to say a few words about the in-running betting that is offered by the UK betting operators.

I am close to Mark Davis, who is one of the managing directors of Betfair, and he has alerted me to some of the issues. It is only fair that some of them are put on the record, because when all is said and done I think that Betfair does a tremendous job. It is at the cutting edge of online betting, which is the way of the future. We need to embrace online betting, because it could bring tremendous tax revenues into the country. More importantly, we need to ensure that there is an acceptable regulatory framework so that those tax revenues do not go offshore, as has happened in the past.

All betting operators?including all the traditional high street UK bookmakers?offer in-running betting on most sports. Punters who bet on those sports generally watch the relevant events by means of what might be described as live TV pictures. The hon. Member for Livingston alerted us to the high-profile campaign in the News of the World about some of the problems that can arise in that regard. Depending on which TV channel an individual is watching, they might see the action with a few seconds’ delay. That applies also to normal television, if one compares satellite transmission with terrestrial channels. By definition, that means that other punters, or traditional bookmakers offering services to those markets on a race course, might have a slight advantage if they are watching the event on a different channel with a smaller time delay. However, it has always been the case that a host of variables can give an advantage to one gambler over another. The punter who has a copy of Racing Post might have an advantage over one who looks only at The Daily Telegraph. Likewise, an online punter with access to a broadband internet connection will have an advantage over another who relies on a slower connection, such as a dial-up service.

Mr. Devine: Is the hon. Gentleman able to give an example in which someone is betting on the outcome of an event that has already happened?

Mr. Field: If we look beyond sport, it might be argued that some of us would know a by-election or general election campaign result half an hour or so before it became public knowledge. I doubt that the result in Cities of London and Westminster or in Livingston would be so important that tens of thousands of people across the nation would want to bet on the outcome, but a small number of insiders would clearly be aware of the result before it was publicly announced, and it could be subject to ongoing betting.

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is only fair to put on record the fact that Betfair is the only operator that alerts its customers to the potential for picture delays. It includes a health warning when it advertises its spread betting and its various other options for betting on events, and that alert takes the form of a clear notice on the screen showing each of the horse racing markets in which Betfair offers the in-running option.

In September 2007, as has been pointed out, the Gambling Commission will become the regulator for all gambling in the UK. That is a positive step forward. One of the commission’s regulatory objectives will be to ensure that gambling is fair and open. Logically, therefore, it falls within the commission’s remit to consider whether the platform provided by a certain form of betting or UK betting operator undermines that objective. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the commission has the power to look at such issues and that it will have a vision of the way in which the gambling industry will develop over the next 20 to 30 years in terms of bookmaking, the issues raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and online betting, which is definitely the face of the future.

There is much more that I should like to say, and I hope that we shall have an opportunity to debate some of the broader issues?particularly online betting?but I appreciate that the hon. Member for Hove wants to make a contribution. I shall therefore bring my comments to a close and ask the Minister to give serious consideration to what has been said.