Memorandum submitted by the Local Government Association
1. The LGA was formed in April 1997 as the national voice for local communities, with membership comprising the local authorities of England and Wales, representing between them over 50 million people and spending £65 billion a year on services.
2. The Association welcomed the Government's White Paper, A Safe Bet for SuccessModernising Britain's Gambling Laws, and its proposed reforms, including the new responsibilities for local authorities for licensing premises.
3. The Association has already been invited to present oral evidence to the Committee, and this memorandum should be viewed as a complement to the oral evidence. Please note that this submission is selective within the inquiry's terms of reference, focusing only on those aspects with direct relevance to local government. As such, the submission will consider primarily the social and economic implications. The Association would also like to take this opportunity to be present some of our views on the licensing function which we expect to be explored further in the oral evidence session.
THE LICENSING FUNCTION
4. The Association is of the firm view that local authorities are best placed and capable of administering the licensing function. Local authorities already have a wide experience of administering licences for areas as diverse as cinemas, zoos, boarding kennels and taxi cabs. While licensing gambling premises will bring some novel challenges on specific details, the overall process is likely to be familiar to local authorities. Authorities will already have Licensing Committees (or similar) with experience of considering applications and objections made by local residents, businesses and statutory consultees like the Police and Fire services.
5. Bringing the licensing function within the sphere of the local authority, will provide the significant advantage of placing administration within a democratically elected body with a specific duty to enhance the well-being of the community. The local authority is likely to be viewed as a less intimidating forum than the alternative which is considering the licence application in the courts. By placing responsibility for licensing with local authorities, the Government is creating a "one stop shop" where all relevant licensing and enforcement affecting these premises is dealt with at local level.
LOCAL AUTHORITY RESOURCES
6. Although the concept of administering the licensing function should present no fundamental problems to local authorities, appropriate resources will need to be put in place to ensure that this does not place an undue burden on local authorities.
7. Additional staff may be needed, depending on the number of premises which require licensing within an authority's catchment. Inevitably, metropolitan cities and boroughs will face a bigger workload than rural districts. The proposals within the White Paper to allow local authorities to fund the costs from licence fees are very welcome and should provide sufficient resources for the process of administration and enforcement to be self-financing.
8. The Association does not envisage that there will be an overwhelming number of new applications and feels that authorities will be able to cover demand within the resources financed by the licence fees.
9. The Association is committed to ensuring consistency in providing regulatory services in England and Wales. Through our associated organisation the Local Authorities Co-ordinators Body on Regulatory Services (LACORS) we have been producing guidance on better regulation for several years in the trading standards and food safety field. Since April 2002 their remit has been extended to other regulatory services like licensing.
10. The Association welcomes the establishment of the proposed Gambling Commission, and will seek to work with the new agency on a partnership basis. We would hope to see the Commission established as a transparent and inclusive body from the beginning.
SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC IMPACT
11. The social and economic impact of the proposed reforms is of considerable interest to the Association and its members.
12. There are both positive and negative interpretations of the likely impact of the new regulations. Considered in a positive light, gambling can be considered a legitimate and enjoyable leisure pursuit, which can contribute to tourism, regeneration and fund-raising for good causes.
13. Understandably, the implication of the Committee's terms of reference is that the proposals could have a negative effect on society, particularly with relation to "problem" gamblers, young people and other vulnerable groups. The Association appreciates these concerns but is comfortable that the Government's proposals, and the enhanced involvement of local government, should alleviate many of them.
14. For example, the Association feels that the proposals for tightening the laws on gambling machines to restrict use by children is particularly important. On the other hand, we have concerns that the relaxation of restrictions on the use of credit and debit cards could encourage an increase in personal debt arising from problem gambling, and would urge Government to reconsider this.
15. Given the appropriate checks and balances outlined in the White Paper, however, the LGA has doubts that the new proposals will lead to an increase in problem gambling (other than the point raised above on credit cards). Encouraging responsible gambling, and providing support for those who are harmed by inappropriate or excessive gambling (families and dependents as well as individuals), will remain a primary concern for both central and local government.
16. The LGA believes that the new responsibilities for local authorities with regards to gambling, will have the added benefit of placing gambling more firmly within a holistic approach to community welfare. Local authorities already have a range of duties covering public protection, community safety, planning, building regulation, social services, education and social inclusion, as well as culture, tourism and leisure.
17. By placing gambling within this framework, local authorities will be able to target the social problems which arise with gambling, as well as exploiting the regeneration opportunities which gambling may bring.
18. Some local authorities, particularly resorts, will have an interest in the gambling proposals as a means of developing gambling within tourism and cultural strategies. With this, may come an element of "planning gain" whereby authorities are able to capitalise on new facilities by aligning them with other cultural or even (for example) social housing developments. By creating casinos as tourist attractions, some authorities will be able to deliver regeneration strategies, with added benefits to other local leisure attractions and businesses.
19. This regeneration aspect, however, will run parallel to the authority's responsibility for the welfare of its residents. Concerns arising not only from "problem" gambling by individuals but also potential public disturbance issues, will impact directly on the local authority, with its responsibilities for social services, public protection and so forth. The inclination for the local authority to maintain an approach to gambling that is socially responsible is exceedingly strong, therefore. Indeed, there may be scope within the current proposals for local authorities to divert some of the licence fees directly to a social responsibility fund (once staffing and administration costs are accounted for). This is an idea which the LGA would wish to explore further with the Department and the new Commission.
10 May 2002