Racing: Punter power topples bookmaker

Greg Wood reports on a historic verdict which announced a rare win over a bookie
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A RACECOURSE bookmaker who continued to trade after his betting permit was revoked by a magistrates' court has had his application to renew a separate betting licence refused. It is thought that the case marks the first successful challenge to a bookmaker's permit by a member of the public in the history of betting legislation.

The case of John Henwood, 49, a rails bookmaker, was detailed exclusively in The Independent on 13 March this year. Slough Crown Court decided on 3 April 1996 that he was not "a fit and proper person" to hold a betting permit, following a complaint by Customs & Excise over the non-payment of betting duty. However, he has continued to trade on British racecourses using a permit issued by Ealing magistrates court to a company - the Victoria Blower Company Limited - of which he is the sole director. He was appointed a director of VBCL just nine days after his personal betting permit was revoked.

Once a betting permit has been issued, its annual renewal is normally a formality. Punters who feel they have been dealt with unfairly by a bookmaker have, on occasion, challenged the renewal of a licence, but before Wednesday, not a single such complaint had been upheld. Indeed, in some instances, the punters concerned were left with significant legal costs following the failure of their objection.

None the less, when Henwood applied to Acton Magistrates two days ago to renew the permit of the Victoria Blower Company, an objection was raised by Andrew Grocock, formerly the treasurer of the now-defunct pressure group, the National Association for the Protection of Punters.

Grocock presented his case himself, while Henwood was accompanied by both a barrister and a solicitor. He argued that his opposition was "based on a point of principle. Mr Henwood is using this company as a device. He is not a fit and proper person to hold a personal permit, and it is not in the public interest that this company's permit be renewed". The magistrates, in their summing up, agreed that "the company is run for the benefit and advantage of Mr Henwood", and declined to renew its betting licence.

In a statement issued yesterday, Henwood said that "the decision was against the weight of evidence", and that "an appeal would be lodged forthwith". It added that "the Company will continue to trade pending the hearing of the appeal. The Company is confident that it will succeed".

Henwood has 21 days in which to lodge an appeal, which cannot then be heard for at least another 21 days. Whether he will indeed be able to trade beyond the limit of the VBCL's current permit, which expires on 31 May, remains to be seen.

David Boden, who was recently elected chairman of the National Association of Bookmakers, said yesterday that "from 1 June, he will not be allowed to bet. He will retain his pitches but he will effectively be suspended. He has the option to appeal, and in the unlikely event that he were to succeed, and I had forfeited his pitches in the meantime, that would be against natural justice. But obviously I cannot allow a man who does not have a betting permit to offer betting facilities to the public. I cannot second-guess the magistrates, they are at a higher level than I."

While Boden is not prepared, in effect, to ignore the magistrates decision, however, there are others who were prepared to overlook the original loss of Henwood's personal betting permit. An appeal hearing which allowed him to continue betting using the VBCL permit was attended by Stanley Jackson, who was at the time the managing director of the Race Course Association. The (pre-Boden) NAB was also fully aware of the circumstances under which he was continuing to trade, as was the Levy Board, which is theoretically charged with representing the interests of punters.

A spokeswoman for the Board said yesterday that confidentiality would not allow it to comment on the case. At the Race Course Association, Morag Gray said that "at the time it was a substantial majority decision based on the facts which were provided. He had a permit at that time, and there were no grounds to remove him from the list".

In the end, it required action by an unpaid member of the public, at considerable financial risk to himself, to demonstrate that VBCL was "a device" to allow Henwood to continue to trade once his own permit had been revoked. It is the latest, and possibly most striking, example of the desperate lack of worthwhile consumer protection afforded to Britain's punters.