Punters call for safer betting: Andrew Bibby on a group of gamblers who are seeking greater protection at the bookie's

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ANYONE checking the odds at their bookmakers should also consider checking the small print of their bookie's rules, at least according to Mark Coton.

As chairman of the National Association for the Protection of Punters (Napp), he claims that the million or so regular customers of betting shops are among the most poorly served of all consumers.

'Punters are offered no protection under the law,' he said. His own organisation, which was set up about a year ago and now has 200 members, argues that punters need to defend their interests more actively. Napp recently drew up a 10- point Punters' Charter, calling among other things for greater vetting of bookmakers' financial status, a new official arbitration body to resolve disputes and a compensation fund to protect punters from insolvent or fraudulent bookmakers.

'If a bookmaker says 'I'm not paying out', there is absolutely nothing you can do to get the money,' Mr Coton said. Equally, as the bookmakers' trade association, the Betting Office Licensees Association (Bola) is keen to point out, its members can suffer from unpaid punters' debts. Gambling debts remain unenforceable in law, a throwback to the days when off-course betting was illegal. 'We would like to see a review regarding the legal recovery of debts, but there are arguments on both sides,' said a Bola spokesperson. In practice, the vast majority of bets are paid and settled without disputes arising (and there are also two arbitration schemes in place, to which disputes can be referred).

Nevertheless Napp argues that the present system allows bookmakers scope on occasion to use the rules to their advantage. Shrewd punters who are winning too often can be penalised by having the odds shortened, their credit arrangements removed or even their bets declined.

'We think you should be able to go into a betting shop and know you have a right at least to a minimum bet, perhaps of pounds 50,' Mr Coton says.

Ladbroke, one of the three firms dominating off-course betting, claims that it knocks back (rejects) only eight bets in every million it takes. However a spokesman argued that it must reserve the right to do so. 'At the end of the day, we may be bookmakers but we are also a business,' he said.

Racing is a conservative world in which punters have traditionally had little role to play, apart, that is, from providing much of the finance. The money comes from the Levy, part of the compulsory 10 per cent surcharge added normally to the stake, although optionally payable as a deduction from winnings.

Of this 10 per cent figure, 7.75 per cent is Betting Duty paid to the Government while the Horserace Betting Levy Board collects slightly more than 1 per cent, which it uses to subsidise race meetings, provide prize money and also grant-support riding organisations. (The remainder of the 10 per cent is retained by bookmakers).

'Two groups of people, the racehorse owner and the punter, put money into the industry. Everybody else takes money out. The punter is quite an important person,' said Tony Fairbairn, chairman of the Racegoers Club. The club provides its 8,000 members with concessions and reduced admission to races and also tends to be the official voice for punters within the industry. Mr Fairbairn is hostile to any suggestion that punters should pay more to the racing industry (there have been suggestions that the Levy be doubled) but is not convinced that punters need improved rights.

'There are areas that need attention, but you can nanny people too far. I think the betting public by and large can take care of itself,' he said.

In the perennial tussle between bookmaker and punter, it is the punter who normally comes off worse. Nevertheless, for a small number of people betting is a source of income. Mr Coton estimates that there are a handful of full-time professional punters and rather more who, like him, regularly supplement their income from betting. Any gains are tax-free, provided that gambling is not being treated as a business activity.

The techniques require considerable dedication. 'The aim isn't to back winners, it is to back winners at longer prices than they should have. It's not easy. You've got to be well-informed about horses and have a keen sense of getting value for money when you bet,' says Geoff Greetham, a director of racing publishers Timeform.

Alternatively, of course, you can just take your chance. The odds may be firmly stacked against the small amateur punter, but, after all, you never know. Earning money from a Tessamay be easier and safer, but somehow it's rather less fun.

NAPP, PO Box 1329, London SW1V 2HY.

(Photograph omitted)