March 18, 2009
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on introducing the debate. The issue is of great importance; indeed, we have come back to it, and I suspect that we will do so again. I hope that the Minister is not getting too bored of responding on these matters.
My constituency is at the heart of many of the creative industries, and many large technology industries are also based there. In addition, many bookmakers are based there, and I have visited a branch of Ladbrokes on Charing Cross road in the past few weeks. Increasingly, of course, even the old-fashioned providers supply a high-profile, innovative online offering to their shops.
I do not know whether this applies to other Members, but over the years during which I have been a Member of Parliament I have had the benefit of a close connection with the Betfair organisation, which was referred to earlier. It has assisted by providing me with general and specific briefing on technical matters. I shall touch on one or two of the issues that have been mentioned, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.
There exists a significant threat that United Kingdom remote gambling companies will be permanently impeded from trading freely and fairly across the European Union, despite operating under the robust UK regulatory regime. Although betting companies that are large-scale employers are committed to staying in this country rather than going offshore, they take the view that if they are playing the game under the Government’s regulatory and licensing regime, they understandably expect the Government to stand up for that regime abroad. It is not meant as a threat by Betfair or any of the other operators, but they have the opportunity to go offshore, and they may use that option if they find not only that UK regulation is overly robust but that the regulatory playing field is not being defended abroad by the Government.
The Minister will be aware that a number of EU member states, including Germany, France, the Netherlands and Greece, are seeking to implement, or already have in place, licensing regimes that restrict operators holding full UK remote gambling licences from operating in those other jurisdictions. As has been pointed out, that is in direct contravention of the free market principles of the EU, and at odds with the UK’s own regime. I regret to say that the Government have done little to demonstrate either defence or advocacy of their regulatory system as compliant with EU free trade principles. Neither have they been willing to support remote gambling companies based on our shores.
One could take a purist view and say that we do not want gambling companies onshore, perhaps because of the nefarious activities to which the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) referred. Indeed, we all have some concerns about the integrity of the gambling industry. My preference would be to encourage the gambling industry to stay onshore. From the Government’s point of view, that creates significant income and employment; but it also gives us the opportunity properly to regulate the industry, so that we do not end up with a wild west show.
Many Members will be aware, as is the Minister, of the European Court of Justice case between Betfair and the Dutch Government. It has pretty wide implications for the effective operation of the internal market. I shall not go into great detail about that case, as time is somewhat short, but the Government have the opportunity to make a submission to the ECJ in support of British companies, and in defence of the principle of the free provision of access to services across the EU. That is the principle upon which the UK’s regulatory regime is based. I respect our regime, and I wish that we were able to stand up and make that case. Have the Government any plans to revisit their decision not to make a written submission in support of Betfair in its ECJ case against the Dutch Ministry of Justice, given that no fewer than 15 other member states have written in support of the Dutch?
On a slightly more serious note, given the banking crisis of the past six months and the Government’s reaction to it, what will be the Government’s position on the Dutch Government’s recent request of ABN AMRO? We should not forget that it is now wholly owned by Royal Bank of Scotland, more than 75 per cent. of which is now owned by the taxpayer. Given that the Government have a majority share, they should ensure that we implement financial transaction blocking against online gambling operators.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred to the report by the Danish MEP Christel Schaldemose. One disappointment—I suspect that it was in part caused by many MEPs not understanding precisely what they were voting on—is that all 19 of the governing Labour party’s members voted in favour of the report, as it actively undermines the UK’s regulatory regime for remote gambling. I realise that they may not have appreciated all the implications. Indeed, probably all Members of Parliament know of various times when we have voted, perhaps on a particular subsection, and only when our constituents get in touch with us subsequently do we realise that we may not have understood quite what was being voted on. It is a worry, and I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of how to ensure that all our MEPs make the case on behalf of British companies. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, it is a matter that goes well beyond the confines of partisan politics.
I fear that the Government have too often failed to stick to their principles and defend their own regulatory regime. Moreover, in these troubled economic times, the Government should actively support British companies. I speak only for myself and my party, but I believe that the Minister would receive support from both sides of the House for so doing. I take this opportunity to ask why the Government believe that companies in remote industries will stay in the UK if the Government choose not to defend their own regulatory system by supporting such companies in the EU and elsewhere.