Racing: Levy Board turns its back on punters

There is no effective consumer protection for the two million people who visit Britain's betting shops each week. Greg Wood finds that punters campaigning for a better deal have suffered a new setback.
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The Independent Online
It is difficult for the British consumer to move these days without tripping over an OF. There's OFGAS, OFTEL, OFWAT and the rest, looking after the interests of the customers of the major industries. Yet there is still one industry which turns over almost pounds 5,000 million a year but does not provide a shred of worthwhile protection for its consumers.

There is no OFBET to look after Britain's punters, and after the latest response by the Levy Board to a series of proposals which might improve the situation, it would appear that those in charge of both racing and betting are eager to keep it that way.

The ideas were submitted to the Board by the dedicated, unpaid campaigners who form the National Association for the Protection of Punters (NAPP). Their recommendations included: a betting ombudsman to adjudicate on all disputes, a bonding scheme for the betting industry similar to the ABTA scheme which operates among holiday firms, and stricter rules for firms which offer bets via Switch and Delta debit cards. An officially funded and recognised punters' organisation were also on the list.

Before considering the Board's response, it is worth recalling where it gets its money. The Levy, which the Board distributes in prize-money and low-interest loans to racecourses, comes almost entirely from betting shop punters, where it is bound up in the 9 per cent deduction for tax on bets. Having considered NAPP's submissions on Wednesday, the bulk of the Board's findings were revealed to one of the racing trade papers.

Only yesterday, though, was Michael Singer, NAPP's chairman, allowed the courtesy of a letter from Rodney Brack, the Levy Board's chief executive.

There was not much for Singer to celebrate. On the issue of a betting ombudsman, he was informed that, in the Board's opinion, "the Tattersalls' Committee and The Sporting Life Green Seal Service offer ... an effective means of settling disputes.''

In fact, they offer no such thing. The Tattersalls' Committee rules only on problems related to racing, and only then upon the payment of a non- returnable deposit by the aggrieved punter. Its decisions are not enforceable, and its only sanction is to ``warn off'' non-payers - hardly a terrifying penalty for off-course bookies.

The Green Seal Service, meanwhile, is unaccountable and offered by a newspaper which takes advertising from bookmakers. As such, its impartiality will always be open to question in some quarters.

A betting ombudsman, Brack insists, ``would involve a considerable extra cost to either the Treasury or the Levy''. Again, rubbish. ``What about thebookmakers?'' is Singer's response. ``We didn't say a thing about the Treasury or the Levy. All industry ombudsmen are funded by the industry.''

What then of the ABTA-style bonding scheme to protect punters from fiascos such as the collapse of the Bowmans credit betting operation just a few months ago with debts estimated at almost pounds 200,000?

``Impractical,'' according to Brack, since ``its funding would be likely to be unfairly weighted against the largest bookmakers who pose little risk of default.'' Perhaps, but it is fortunate for many holidaymakers who would otherwise have found themselves stranded abroad by the collapse of their travel firm that the likes of Thomas Cook and Going Places do not take a similarly narrow-minded view. They realise that bankruptcies reflect badly on their entire industry, and act accordingly. Surely the major bookies would not take secret pleasure in the distressing failure of a smaller operators in the belief that it might push extra custom their way?

Another insult is saved for last. As for an officially funded punters' organisation - funded, remember, with punters' money - ``the Board could see no reason why NAPP should not continue ... relying upon its officials contributing their time on a voluntary basis.''

Singer has devoted his time - entirely unpaid - to NAPP for several years now. Colleagues have done the same. They are attempting to represent 2m punters, and receive dozens of requests for help each week.

The Levy Board, by contrast, meets once a month. For this, its appointed members are paid pounds 13,000 per annum. Somewhere, the betting industry's priorities seem to have gone hopelessly awry.