Before Christmas, I was asked to find time for a debate in the Commons on the future of the horse racing levy. For those unfamiliar with the turf, this is a statutory levy on the horseracing business of bookmakers and the Tote which is then distributed to improve matters equestrian and to advance veterinary science. While horses in North West Hampshire cannot vote, their welfare is of political importance. The Balding clan in Kingsclere and Kimpton generate jobs and trophies, as do other trainers and breeders. And of course we have betting shops a-plenty. I had a lot of sympathy with the request for a debate and was delighted that the Backbench Business Committee found time for one during the month.
While there is legitimate interest in betting in the House, gambling on the premises is discouraged. There is a Bridge Team, for the more cerebral members of both Houses, but I am assured they do not play for money. Sporting Life can be found in the tea-room with circles ringed round certain fancied runners; colleagues may own all or parts of a race-horse or greyhound; some are spotted at race-courses around the country; but the conspicuous placing of bets in Parliament is, as I say, frowned on.
But there have in the past been ventures that sailed quite close to the wind. In the 1970’s, a group of Members would meet before lunch in Annie’s Bar and pour over a puzzle on the back page of one of the daily papers. The puzzle would comprise ten jumbled up letters, and the challenge was to find as many words of three or more letters as possible; and, crucially, the 10 letter word that used all the letters once. The word would be, for example, hypsometer, proscenium or narcolepsy. That was round one, which produced a sharp-witted winner familiar with crossword puzzles and anagrams.
Round 2 involved less intellectual energy, but a lot more nerve and imagination. Round 2 was won by the member who mentioned that word first in parliamentary proceedings later in the day and got it into Hansard (the Official Record) This meant looking at the Order Paper and finding some proceeding in the Chamber or in committee which related to the subject; concocting a speech which was both relevant to the subject of debate and contained the key word, catching the Speaker’s eye and delivering the speech without being ruled out of order.
Along with Annie’s Bar, the competition came to an end a few decades ago. No money changed hands; but the winner didn’t have to buy a round for a day or two.