MPs object to night betting

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The Independent Online
THE PROPOSED evening opening of betting shops may yet be debated by Parliament as disquiet grew yesterday among MPs from both sides of the House over the methods used by the largest bookmakers to ensure that their employees signed new contracts committing themselves to later hours.

Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, Tony Blair, and his deputy, Graham Allen, are to 'pray against' the decision of the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, to permit betting shops to remain open until 10pm during the summer. Filing a 'Parliamentary prayer' is a way of ensuring the proposed legislation is not simply nodded through. If the Government decide there is sufficient strength of feeling against the proposal then a set-piece 1 1/2 hour debate in the House of Commons or in Committee could take place.

Labour have issued a 12-point list of objections against the decision announced by the Home Secretary on Tuesday. Among their objections are that greyhound racing will contract, threatening the jobs of 10,000 people; that small bookmaking firms will be squeezed out to the benefit of the three companies with multiple branches; that of 199 representations to the Home Office since debate on the subject was opened, five were in favour of evening opening and 194 against (a 97 per cent vote against), yet the Government complied with the wishes of Ladbrokes, William Hill and Coral, the 'Big Three' firms.

'My greatest concern is the way the bookmakers have treated their staff,' Mr Allen said. 'I'm staggered at the feudal industrial relations in the betting industry. I hope it isn't a reflection on industrial relations in racing as a whole.

'I particularly deplore the threat by bookmakers, even before a decision on evening opening was announced, to sack staff that do not comply with new contracts. In this they have been both premature and obnoxious.'

Should his 'prayer' be answered, he will find support from the other side of the House from Tim Devlin, MP for Stockton South. 'I have evidence that revised contracts had been forced on staff,' he asserted yesterday. 'I most certainly will speak in debate against the decision.'

The claim that the threat of dismissal played a part in securing employees' agreement to contracts embracing later hours was not denied by the personnel director of William Hill, Steve Olive, who maintains that his firm 'have done more than any other company in the business to consult with our employees over this issue'.

'We started talking to staff as long ago as January 1991,' Olive said. 'We don't have trade unions but consult with our employees through regional staff councils and a national staff conference.

'Since the end of September we have had individual discussions with 8,000 shop staff. They were told that 'if at the end of our discussions we cannot come to an agreement within the terms of the new contract we may have to consider termination of your employment'.'

Nevertheless, Olive believes it is his firm's swiftness at dealing with anxieties over evening opening rather than the threat of dismissal that has led to a 98 per cent acceptance rate of the new contracts. 'The industry has been going through hard times,' he said. 'This is an opportunity to secure work for the staff we already have, and to create new employment.'

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