Racing: Home Office to give punters a hearing: MPs will be given the SP on the lack of consumer rights existing for those who like a flutter

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THE RARE appearance of punters in Parliament, where the bookmakers' lobby has held sway for so long, was achieved yesterday when the National Association for the Protection of Punters (NAPP) launched its campaign for official funding with a meeting at the House of Commons. And the organisation, now 2 1/2 years old, has been promised the ear of Peter Lloyd, Under Secretary at the Home Office, before the parliamentary recess at the end of the month in order to press its case for punters' rights.

Punters' rights, what are they? At the moment it is the right for the backer to lose money - the options are to lose it slowly or quickly - and to be barred from betting if showing the temerity to win consistently. NAPP's proposals aim to give punters the same sort of protection that other consumers enjoy and to establish a code of practice to regulate bookmaker activity.

The Home Office holds the key to progress, as it could appoint to the Levy Board someone to voice the needs of the betting consumer. It is, after all, the punter who provides the cash, through deductions from bets, that gives the board its funds. 'No taxation without representation' is the rallying cry.

Financial backing from the board would enable a punters' organisation to cater for the welfare of its constituency on a full- time basis, just as the Betting Office Licensees Association (BOLA) speaks on behalf of the major bookmakers.

Mark Coton, NAPP's chairman, said yesterday: 'We trust that the Home Office can judge it appropriate for the Levy Board to provide funding at a time when it recently announced a profit of pounds 8.5m. It would be a disgrace if various horse and pony societies see an increase in Levy Board grants when nothing is done for the punter.

'The betting consumer is the worst protected person in the high street. Even estate agents have a code of practice,' Coton pointed out.

'Bookmakers have a legal requirement to display their rules in betting shops, but no reference is made in them to many of the practices which are of concern to the betting consumer, such as the shortening of starting prices on-course, the furnishing of betting shows, the knocking-back of bets, the secret monitoring of winning punters and the closing of accounts. Minimum standards should apply as in other industries.'

In the absence of an official body to stand up for punters, several self-proclaimed champions of their rights have come to the fore, including the director- general of BOLA, Tom Kelly. His contribution to the cause is not altogether appreciated by Coton, particularly when BOLA temporarily witheld payment after successful recent gambles on Jo N Jack and Old Hook.

'That Mr Kelly has again suggested that his organisation acted to protect the interests of punters is absurd,' Coton said. 'To do so, after being so heavily criticised by the 1991 Home Affairs Select Committee for making the same claim, indicates the cynical and complacent attitude taken by the big bookmakers towards their customers.

'In reality, the bookies look after the interests of punters in the way a farmer fattens the pig for market.'

One constant criticism levelled at NAPP is that, with only 150 members, it cannot claim to be truly representative. Alan Meale, the Labour MP who is also NAPP's vice-president, countered that yesterday. 'That's still more than the Jockey Club. Once you get representation you get recognition, and once you get recognition then larger membership follows.'

In any case, getting punters to join an organisation is a bit like persuading 16-year-olds to join the parish youth club. Both groups see themselves as rebels, beating the system rather than signing up for it.

And if NAPP fails to secure official backing, what role then? 'We will remain as a kind of gadfly,' Coton said, 'stinging the bookmakers whenever possible rather than being able to square up to them, as we would like, in an equal fight.'

(Photograph omitted)