Racing: Punters' war waged with a slingshot

Greg Wood on the organisation aiming to end taxation without representa tion
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Less than 24 hours earlier, many of racing's great and good had donned black tie and ball gowns to dance the night away at a West End hotel, but there was rather less standing on ceremony yesterday as representatives of the people who, ultimately, foot the bill for many of the turf's smartest functions gathered to meet the press in a pub near Victoria station.

When the National Association for the Protection of Punters was formed several years ago, there were many who hoped they would quietly fade away. Yet thanks to the efforts of people like Michael Singer, the chairman and, in effect, a full-time, unpaid worker for the organisation, NAPP is still doing what it can for everyone who is backing in Britain. Funded only by subscriptions (pounds 10 per annum), Singer and his companions face up to the bookies' lobbying organisations with their telephone-number budgets and attempt to highlight the scandalous lack of protection available to customers of one of the country's major industries.

By now, NAPP's activists are well used to official indifference, but even so, a letter sent to the organisation on 20 December by Rodney Brack, the chief executive of the Levy Board, was little short of an insult. The Levy Board is the organisation which administers the pounds 50m raised each year from deductions within the punters' betting "tax".

Brack was responding to a letter from Singer, dated more than two months earlier, requesting a meeting to discuss Levy Board funding for an organisation to represent the interests of punters. After all, as the NAPP chairman pointed out, "this year's Annual Report shows that the Bookmakers Committee received funding to the amount of pounds 266,000. How bookmakers can receive this money when punters, who pay the Levy, receive absolutely nothing . . . continues to be a matter of grave concern."

Brack's response was extraordinary. "I have consulted with the main representative organisations within the bookmaking industry [and] . . . none of them supported the idea." To which a true punter's only response must be: I bet they didn't. Not, at least, while Singer and his companions are overwhelmed by complaints from backers, who are not even required to join the organisation before their problems are investigated. "There are so many queries and problems," Singer says, "but we are increasingly forced to put things on the back-burner."

As an illustration of how inadequate the system for "protecting" punters is, consider the case of Charles Robarts, who took the bookmaker Sonny Purcell to the Tattersalls' Commitee, betting's high court, in pursuit of pounds 11,000. The Committee found in his favour, but when its deadline for payment passed at midnight on Tuesday, Robarts's winnings had not appeared.

Or the disappointment of a woman in South Shields who placed a 50p each- way accumulator on the first six of Frankie Dettori's seven Ascot winners. When she returned to claim pounds 4,500, the bookmaker informed her that a clearly separate bet written on the same slip, a losing pounds 1 win double, had been taken as having been included in the Ascot bet. More scandalous still, The Sporting Life's Green Seal committee, a self-appointed and anonymous body, agreed with the bookie, even though experienced settlers from all three major bookmakers have stated that the accumulator is clearly a winning bet.

NAPP would like to see an independent ombudsman similar to those overseeing the privatised utilities - OFBET, if you like - to arbitrate in disputes. Sonny Purcell, meanwhile, can expect to find his betting permit under threat when it is next due for renewal, though if NAPP persuades the local magistrate to remove it, it will be the first time a permit has been refused simply for the non-payment of debts.

The campaign for a better deal for Britain's punters from those who spend their money will surely be a long and difficult one. Singer's shoestring foot soldiers deserve our thanks and support.