§ 3.57 p.m.
§ Second Reading debate resumed.
§ BARONESS YOUNG
My Lords, after that very serious Statement, perhaps I could bring the House back to the Bill moved by the noble Lord, Lord Goodman. It is, I think, a short and uncontroversial Bill, and it has been admirably explained by the noble Lord. Briefly, it is to permit small bridge and whist clubs to make larger table money charges than the Gaming Act 1968 allows. Although the purpose is simple, it has to be achieved by an amendment of a 1301 Statute which is now of the greatest complexity. I think it may be helpful, therefore, if I explain the Government's attitude to the Bill, and how the need for it has arisen and what action the Home Secretary would propose to take in the event of it becoming law.
My Lords, rubber bridge, when played for winnings, falls within the scope of the Gaming Act 1968. Under that Act, "gaming" is defined as "the playing of a game of chance for money or money's worth, whether any person playing the game is at risk of losing any money or money's worth or not" and a "game of chance" is defined as including "a game of chance and skill combined". In rubber bridge, a player's relative success depends at least to some extent on the chances of the fall of the cards, and this form of the game is, therefore, clearly caught by the definition in the 1968 Act. I must emphasise this because I know that there is some feeling in bridge circles that their game is so much one of skill that it should never have been brought within the scope of the Act in the first place.
I should also point out that, although the gambling element in bridge is usually a minor feature of the game, this is not always so. Moreover, of all forms of gaming, bridge is the only one in which the amount of the player's liability is not known until the play has finished. He cannot decide in advance the limit of the sum he is prepared to hazard and withdraw when that has gone.
These arguments do not, however, apply to duplicate bridge. In this form of the game each player has the opportunity of playing the same hands as all the other players and success turns on the relative skill in playing those hands. The element of chance is eliminated and in our view this form of the game is not subject to the provisions of the 1968 Act. When we talk of this Bill affecting bridge clubs, therefore, we are thinking particularly of those activities which involve the playing of rubber bridge. These considerations apply also in respect of whist.
The special problems of bridge and whist clubs, with which this Bill is designed to deal, arise out of the provisions of the Gaming Act 1968 which relate to the charges which may be made for the right to take part in gaming. One of the principal objects of the 1968 Act 1302 is to control commercial gaming and, to this end, the Act imposes strict controls on the charges which may be made. Section 3 prohibits any charge in respect of gaming other than, in certain circumstances, an annual subscription or entrance subscription. This prohibition covers compulsory, customary or voluntary charges and tips.
There are, however, specific exceptions to this general prohibition. Certain charges can be made in clubs licensed or registered under Part II of the 1968 Act. Licensed clubs are broadly those which are owned by a proprietor and operated for his own gain, and registered clubs are those which most of us would call bona fide members' clubs. In licensed or registered clubs, charges are controlled by regulations made by the Home Secretary. The effect of these regulations in respect of bridge and whist is that no restriction is imposed on the amount a licensed club may charge for participation provided the sum is payable not more frequently than once an hour. In the case of registered members' clubs, the regulations permit a charge of £1 a person a day. A further exception from the general prohibition on charges is provided in Section 40 of the Act under which a genuine members' club (provided it has at least 25 members and is not of a temporary character) or a miners' welfare institute may make a small charge. Under this section, only a single charge may be made to any person on any one day up to a specified maximum. The maximum originally fixed in the Act was 2½p but, under a power contained in the section, the Home Secretary has since increased this amount to 5p.
The difficulties which have been caused to bridge and whist clubs by these provisions—and I must apologise if here I trespass on some of the ground already covered by the noble Lord, Lord Goodman—are broadly as follows. Although Section 40 of the Act allows members' bridge clubs to charge up to 5p a person a day, without any further formality, these clubs are often very small and have to bear relatively high overheads. The present maximum limit is insufficient to meet their needs. The only way in which these clubs could make higher charges is by registering under Part II of the Act, but the fee for such a registration is £20 and £10 on renewal—although this may be for a period of up to 10 years. 1303 These fees are much too high for the budgets of many small members' bridge clubs.
So far as proprietary bridge clubs are concerned, they cannot make any charges at all under the present law unless they are licensed under the 1968 Act. The fee for the grant of a licence is £1,000 and £200 on yearly renewal. These fees were designed for the control of large scale commercial gaming clubs and they are well beyond the finances of most proprietary bridge clubs, which are dependent on charging table money for their survival. Even if proprietary clubs could afford a licence (and we understand that one or two of the larger ones have done so) they then suffer the additional inconvenience as the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, pointed out, that their proprietors or employees would he prohibited, under Section 12 of the 1968 Act, from taking part in the gaming.
The Government fully recognise that unintended hardship has been caused to bridge and whist clubs by the provisions of the Gaining Act 1968 and accordingly accept that the Act should be amended to take account of the special difficulties. The method adopted in this Bill is to extend the exception from the general prohibition on charges which is already to be found in Section 40 of the Act. First, it would extend Section 40 of the 1968 Act to proprietary clubs. This would be achieved by Clause 1(2) of the Bill. Second, in the case of bridge and whist alone, the Bill would enlarge the Home Secretary's power to vary the amount of the permitted charge by enabling him to prescribe a greater maximum in the case of bridge and whist than that permitted for other types of gaming. This would be achieved by Clause 1(3)(b) of the Bill. Thus, the Bill would enable proprietary bridge clubs to make small charges for the right to take part in gaming without having to go to the expense of obtaining a licence, and enable both proprietary and members' bridge clubs to meet their expenses by charging more than the limit of 5p per person per day.
There are two other provisions of the Bill to which I would draw your Lordships' attention. Clause 1(3)(a) would allow more than one charge to be made 1304 in the course of a day so long as the total charge on any one day does not exceed the prescribed maximum. This will meet the needs of clubs which hold two or more sessions a day. The other provision is the proposed addition of a new paragraph (a) to subsection (2) of Section 40 of the 1968 Act. This is also contained in Clause 1(3) of the Bill. This provision was added to the Bill as an Amendment at Committee stage in another place. Its effect is to enable the Home Secretary, in the case of gaming other than that which is confined to bridge or whist or both, to distinguish between members' clubs and proprietary clubs.
Clause 1(3)(b) of the Bill is—as your Lordships will by now have realised—complicated and technical. Summed up as simply as possible, its effect is to produce three categories of gaming in respect of which the Home Secretary can exercise his power to increase the present maximum permitted charge of 5p. These are: first, gaming in proprietary clubs, other than gaming confined to bridge and whist; secondly, gaming in members' clubs and miners' welfare institutes other than gaming confined to bridge and whist; and thirdly, bridge and whist, whether played in a members' or proprietary club.
It remains for me to say something about the level of charges in respect of bridge and whist which the Home Secretary would propose to prescribe if the Bill became law. I am in no position at the moment—as I am sure your Lordships will appreciate—to mention a specific figure. I should like to emphasise that, before reaching a decision the Home Secretary would wish to receive the views of interested organisations and individuals in the bridge world. He would also want to consult the Gaming Board. I can, however, repeat the assurance which was given by the Minister of State in another place that, although there is no intention of making a very high charge, the Government's general aim will be to make a charge which is justified and reasonable for the facilities which are provided by these clubs and which will enable them to avoid operating at a loss. I should therefore like to take this opportunity of 1305 inviting any organisations or individuals who wish to make specific representations about the amount of this figure to do so as soon as possible so that there need not be any unavoidable delay after the Bill has passed before the Home Secretary is in a position to make an order under it.
In conclusion my Lords, I should like to thank those who have taken part in this debate. I commend this Bill to your Lordships as having the Government's support.
§ 4.8 p.m.
§ LORD GOODMAN
After the detailed clarity of that statement there is really nothing more for me to say. I should like to say how appreciative I was of even a faint suggestion that the game of bridge might be removed from the area of the Gaming Act. It will give immense satisfaction to those who play bridge. I would remind your Lordships that the original purpose of the Gaming Act was to avoid discouraging the activity of archery. It was because people, instead of practising their bows and arrows, were engaged in playing games that the Gaming Act was introduced; but I do not think that that is a situation about which we need have any special fears at the moment. I should like to make one further comment, and that is that I certainly should not wish to be associated with this Bill in any way if I thought that it was encouraging gambling. I hope that one day the Government, or some Government, will look at the utterly ridiculous situation prevailing in this country at the moment, where we have casino gambling in the capital city which is permitted nowhere else. That has very little to do with this modest measure which I commend to the House and thank the House for the courtesy with which it has received my information.
§ On Question, Bill read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.