Punters must be left to suffer in private

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HIGH STREET shoppers are no doubt engulfed by delighted anticipation after the big sporting development announced last week - they will soon be able to stop and stare through the windows of betting shops that at the moment are blocked by law from revealing the secrets of their interiors.

The right of passers-by to get a clear view of the glittering scenes is enshrined in a consultation document issued by the Home Office with the intention of deregulating the laws blanking out betting shop windows, thus allowing bookmakers to provide better facilities for their customers.

The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, perhaps wants to brighten the long trudge homeward of those carrying two bags of groceries by allowing them to pause and witness the sight of the punters' faces as their selections go down. It would satisfy a need that has existed since public hangings were stopped.

Maybe he also thinks the punters are pining for an audience as they go through what for many of them is at best an irresistible ritual, and at worst an addiction. There's also the Government's concern for family values to consider. Among those pressed up against the window could be the kids waiting to see if Dad's won enough money for tea.

For sure, neither punters nor passers-by have given the slightest indication that seeing in or out of betting shops was important enough to entail an Act of Parliament and I believe the majority of punters would be against it. It is a safe bet that no one has bothered to ask them.

I can't imagine where someone with as many important problems as the Home Secretary gets the idea that these are matters of extreme urgency. Not for the first time do we wonder if there is a stronger or more effective lobby in Parliament than that mounted on behalf of the bookies.

It may be on this occasion that the Government are eager to soften the blow to profits that the bookmakers fear will result from the national lottery because the only possible reason for the measures is to entice more customers into the betting shops.

Howard's puzzling intention to 'give the consumer more freedom' may, of course, refer to the other proposals contained in the document, one of which is to allow bigger television screens. I'm in a betting shop only once a week but I know men of more regular attendance and the size of the screens has never figured in the inquests on the day's racing. Neither has a cheese sandwich, but the shops are also to be allowed to offer a wider range of refreshments.

Here again, we might be missing the point. This could be an excellent opportunity for a fast-food chain to introduce a new product for betting shop consumption, horseburgers. What better to cheer a munching punter than the knowledge that the loser he backed three weeks ago did not turn out to be completely useless.

Anyone who remembers the advent of the betting shop almost 40 years ago will have seen the simple matter of placing a small bet on a horse turn full circle. One of the arguments used then to persuade the Government to license the shops was that the activities of bookies' runners in pubs and on street corners was not a pleasant sight. Their furtive dealings, it was argued, should be out of sight of the general public.

But has there ever been a better way of betting for the small punter? You sat in the pub, sipped your pint, studied form, and the bookmaker's representative would be waiting for your commission. They were the most trustworthy of men and the odds, certainly for place betting, were much kinder than today.

Suddenly, this idyllic arrangement was changed and the runners found themselves stuck behind counters in dingy shops equipped with a telephone, blackboard and piece of chalk. It might have been legal but it was boringly sleazy and was certainly not done for the benefit of the punter who had the inconvenience of a long walk from the pub.

Betting shops have improved considerably in comfort but it is the punter who has paid for them, plus a lump of tax on top of his bet. Now he finds his pleasure is described as furtive and must now be conducted in the open. This is where many of us came in.

'Spookily mysterious' was how the Tote chairman, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, described betting shops last week when he supported the proposals. Perhaps the noble lord will allow us to observe him next time he makes a bet, which I am sure will not be in a betting shop. Or he may even support construction of spectator stands at the posh casinos where we can watch the money changing hands over the card tables or the roulette wheels.

In his position as Tote chairman, Lord Wyatt's time would be better spent championing a Tote monopoly so that much more of the money raised by wagering on racing can go back to the sport. You will be amazed to hear that the bookies are not yet satisfied. They want also to install fruit machines in the shops and sell national lottery tickets over the counter. But why should they take custom from establishments where fruit machines are already installed? As for lottery tickets, their main appeal is that most of the proceeds will be going to good causes. Betting shops are not the ideal homes for that principle.

Having a flutter is nothing to be ashamed of and many citizens who have never ventured a penny on some whim or other will no doubt be tempted when the lottery tickets go on sale. But there are those whose sporting pleasure is invigorated by a bet and I count myself among them. There are also those who can't help themselves and whose weakness is not a matter for public display.

Ladbrokes' racing division increased profits by 29 per cent to pounds 70m last year, an indication that the industry is not in severe trouble and that most betting shops are profitable on one side of the counter. As a humble representative of the unprofitable side may I suggest this is not a desirable proposal, much less an urgent one.

MEANWHILE, I have been accosted by men of normally quiet disposition anxious to wager money on England to beat Wales on Saturday.

Positively dismissive of plucky little Wales's Grand Slam chances, they are flourishing tenners to prove it. In contrast, the Welsh have been truly humble about our chances, as proved by Celtic Press who produce newspapers in the South Wales valleys and have been running an 'Ode to Will Carling competition' to be sung to the tune of 'Clementine'.

Hundreds penned an appreciation and one of the winners was a gent from Bridgend who wrote:

Oh Will Carling,

Oh Will Carling,

Oh Will Carling, it is said

That at rugby you're the greatest

Don't let that go to your head

For now Wales have someone better

Whom at rugby does excel

And by now you will have guessed it

Yes, his name is Scott Quinnell