Racing: Punters' crusade winning the arguments: A tenacious campaign is being fought for the only customers in the high street to be denied consumer protection

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The Book of Samuel does not record the odds offered against David by the on-course bookies as he walked out with a sling-shot to tackle one of the hottest favourites in history. It is likely, though, that they were several points shorter than those available two and a half years ago about the newly- formed National Association for the Protection of Punters (NAPP) making the slightest impact on British betting.

Punters, its critics said, were thoroughly unclubbable. They did not want, need or even deserve an organisation to look after their interests. The cynics will no doubt also be swift to point out that NAPP's third annual general meeting, in the grand surroundings of the House of Commons last Tuesday evening, was attended by only about 60 of its 175 members. Irrelevant whingers, they say. Ignore them.

But it must be more than coincidence that it was the same carping voices which, two years ago, tried to persuade a committee of MPs that bookmakers themselves were the best guardians of punters' interests (the honourable members treated the idea with appropriate contempt). As Mark Coton, NAPP's chairman, pointed out at the AGM, 'punters are the only customers in the high street to be offered no consumer protection whatsoever.' Any organisation standing up for them should be applauded, no matter how small its membership.

And the roll will only grow if the persuasive common sense which filled Coton's speech can find its way to a larger audience. It would have been easy to descend into bitter name-calling, but he wisely chose to restate the simple facts of the British punter's lot, and the inescapable conclusions to which they lead.

Coton's case can be separated into two parts, representation and protection. First, representation. The pounds 50m returned to racing each year by the betting levy is, in theory, the price off-course bookmakers are charged for the right to bet on the sport. In practice, even the layers now seem to have abandoned the pretence it is anyone other than the punters who pay, via the 10 per cent 'tax' charged on all bets. The Government's betting duty is, in fact, 7.75 per cent. The bookies keep the difference.

'Bookmakers and the racing industry sit on the Levy Board,' Coton said, 'and take up to pounds 50m of punters' money each year and spend it on everything from prize money to pony societies, but not a penny on protecting and advancing the interests of their paymasters.' More than 200 years after the Boston Tea Party, taxation without representation is alive and well.

Consumer protection for punters ranges from disputes to payout limits and much in between. Yet as Jeremy Mitchell, a NAPP member and former director of the National Consumer Council pointed out, industry-sponsored ombudsman schemes in parts of the financial services sector offer a useful model for a similar system in betting. It is a fresh and worthwhile suggestion which should not be neglected.

But was anyone who matters listening? For once, the answer is yes, since Tuesday's meeting was attended by no less a figure than Tristram Ricketts, chief executive of the British Horseracing Board.

After formal business had ended, Ricketts took part in a question and answer session and soaked up criticism of racing's new ruling authority, while pointing out it has been in existence for just nine months. (It is also encouraging that Ricketts joined the party as it retired to a nearby pub. It is difficult to imagine the senior steward of the Jockey Club doing the same.)

Recognition of a problem is one thing, of course, and action quite another. Ricketts was careful to make no firm commitments, and the war for punters' rights will not be won quickly or easily. The big bookmakers are rich, well organised and have a powerful lobby in Parliament to protect their interests.

Yet now there are MPs on the side of the backers too (Alan Meale, a long-standing campaigner, is NAPP's vice- president). After 30 years of contempt from the government, bookmakers and the racing industry's rulers, the belief that punters deserve to be treated as human beings is growing. For this, NAPP can claim much credit.

The momentum must be maintained, despite worthwhile acceptance of punters' grievances remaining an outside chance. The odds are shortening, though. And who is to say there were not a few Israelites who cleaned up by backing David?

NAPP, PO Box 1329, London SW1V 2HY. Membership pounds 10 pa.

(Photograph omitted)