Racing: Napp tests Levy Board's relish for the chase

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The Levy Board is "allowing racing's life blood to drip away" according to a group which represents punters. Greg Wood hears how negligence could also allow rogue bookmakers to operate unchecked.

When someone sends you a bill for pounds 9,567.82, most people would expect a little urgency on the part of whoever is doing the asking. A gentle reminder to start with, perhaps, followed swiftly by a series of letters carrying an escalating degree of threat. The Levy Board, however, does not seem to operate like that.

This, for those who glaze at the mention of racing politics, is the statutory body charged with collecting Levy payments from Britain's bookmakers, who in turn take the money from punters as a portion of the nine per cent "tax" charged on off-course bets. According to the National Association for the Protection of Punters, though, the Board is failing in its duty to collect the Levy, and they believe they have evidence to prove it.

Exhibit A is a betting permit obtained by NAPP's treasurer, Andrew Grocock, in July 1996. This in itself is a striking demonstration of how easy it is to obtain a bookmaking licence - which was precisely his intention - since at the time of his application, Grocock had a little less than pounds 500 in his bank account. The magistrate due to assess his application went missing and his permit was simply popped in the post, as was a replacement when it came up for annual renewal.

Exhibit B is an almost empty folder, which should, you might think, by now contain several dozen letters from the Levy Board enquiring why someone who has held a betting permit for the last 15 months has not paid a penny in Levy in all that time. The first hint of any interest from the Board came in March, eight months after the licence was issued, with a request to fill out the relevant forms. This was ignored. Four months later, a bill finally arrived, for pounds 9,567.82, since the Board had estimated Grocock's annual betting turnover to be pounds 700,000. If this assessment was not disputed within 28 days, he was warned, the sum would "become due without further demand".

Again, the demand was ignored, and nothing has been heard of it since. Instead, a further assessment arrived yesterday morning, for the 37th year of the Levy scheme. The previous bill was for year 35. There has never been any mention of the pounds 10,000 or so which should presumably be due for the year in between.

In fact, NAPP owes nothing, because it has not been taking bets. The Levy Board, however, does not know this, and its procedures therefore appear sloppy, to say the least. "This is evidence that off-course bookmakers are being allowed to trade for well over a year, and perhaps indefinitely, without the need to make any payments to the Levy Board, while continuing to collect the money from punters' bets," Michael Singer, NAPP's chairman, said. "If we had been a rogue bookmaker, or simply gone bust, either way the Levy Board would not have received payment."

The Board thus stands accused of failing in its duty not just to racing, but also to punters. In the past year alone, three bookmakers have gone bust owing large sums to their customers and to the Levy Board. On reflection, then, Rodney Brack, the Board's chief executive, may wish he had not told a trade paper recently that Customs and Excise could do more to monitor bookmakers who fell behind with their monthly duty payments. "We noted," he was quoted as saying, "that in a number of recent failures, something like nine to 10 months of payments were outstanding. If Customs could take action after, say, three months they might prevent certain bookmakers incurring bigger and bigger debts to the point where they can't pay punters."

As NAPP points out with typical directness, "talk about the kettle calling the pot black". Brack was unavailable for comment yesterday, but promised to release a statement today having digested NAPP's allegations. That is a process which may require plenty of Rennies.