Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Right Reverend Alan Chesters, Bishop of Blackburn

  I have been Bishop of Blackburn since 1989. The Diocese of Blackburn with its 235 parishes covers most of the County of Lancashire together with the Unitary Authorities of Blackburn with Darwen and Blackpool. Blackpool has the largest population of the towns and cities in the Diocese. The Diocese with the other churches is a member of the Blackpool Challenge Partnership on which it is represented by the Revd. Christopher Wren, Vicar of St Paul's Marton.

  This response, which addresses the particular proposal, subject to the introduction of new gaming laws, to establish hotel casinos in Blackpool, has been discussed in outline with the Bishop's Council and Standing Committee of the Diocese. Canon Graham Rainford, Area Dean and Blackpool and I had earlier made a fact finding visit to Las Vegas and to the hotel casino resort of Biloxi in Mississippi where we met a wide ranging representation of people, including the Mayor of Las Vegas, the management of major casinos, gaming addicts, standards enforcement officers, those involved in social projects, the Bishops of Nevada and Mississippi and through the churches numbers of local people. We also toured the County Goal in Las Vegas. This evidence is in part based on what we saw and heard on that visit and also on knowledge of the local situation in and challenges facing Blackpool.

  I feel that it needs to be pointed out that the Christian churches and indeed individual Christians hold a wide range of views on the morality or otherwise of gambling as a leisure activity. All recognise that there are dangers to the young and impressionable and that sadly some people do become addicts. One ex addict in Las Vegas believed that this was an inherent character trait in some people. The promotion of gaming and hotel casinos has to be put into the context. My own involvement with games of chance amounts to charity raffles and draws which very many churches promote but I have yet to buy a national lottery ticket!

  The Budd Report makes it clear that some of our British gaming laws are in need of review and the DCMS response—"A Safe Bet for Success" makes it clear that change is to come when parliamentary time can be found. If that is to be so I welcome the commitment from Tessa Jowell to ensure that gambling is safe, not only for those who take part in it, but also in the way that it impacts on wider society. Gambling must continue to be conducted fairly, remain free from criminal influence and infiltration and operate within a regulatory framework that offers protection for children and vulnerable adults.

  It is clear from the experience in the USA that this commitment to police and regulate gaming is essential and we need to be sure that Government will ensure that the funds are available for this. I was impressed by the Gaming Standards Commission in Mississippi and the strict control in the casinos there and in Vegas. We must ensure that such is the case here.

  However that said I am especially concerned about the "victims", potential as well as actual which may (will) arise if major casinos are introduced into the UK. It is vital that this is recognised and proper provision with adequate funding is made both by way of prevention of such addiction and the proper care for the addicts and their families.

  Having set out these concerns I turn now to the specific proposals for the establishment of hotel casinos in Blackpool. In the last few months in addition to conversations as part of my normal work in Blackpool I have had meetings with the Manager of the Blackpool Challenge Partnership, with representatives of BCAGE, Leisure Parcs, the Anglican and Methodist clergy and the MP for Blackpool North.

  No one can be in doubt that parts of Blackpool are in need of major regeneration. Along with most English seaside resorts in the last 50 years Blackpool has seen the decline in overnight visitors and yet has attracted many who seek employment or are down on their luck. The work is often seasonal and lowly paid. The churches and other voluntary bodies along side social services are stretched to cope with the need. Indeed areas of Blackpool behind the so called Golden Mile have as great if not greater deprivation as any urban areas in my diocese which includes Blackburn, Burnley and Accrington. Blackpool would like to be the family resort it once was. I support that aim but sadly it is not that at present.

  The Christian faith commits us to a deep concern to enable regeneration (communal as well as individual) and to that eradication of poverty which blights so many lives. In partnership with others the Diocese of Blackburn has worked hard to address the evil of urban (and indeed rural) deprivation. We have welcomed the invitation of the Blackpool Unitary authority to engage us in partnership in this. Many churches have their own social projects to meet the needs of the poor and homeless in the town. It is clear that Blackpool needs a massive injection of capital to transform what it now is into the resort it could and should be. Without that, the spiral of decline and the evil of social deprivation will continue. For me, and I stress that this is a personal view, the hotel casino proposal for Blackpool seems to present what I would describe as a lesser of evils. I wish there were other options on the table but presently I am not aware of others which would bring so much new investment and potential employment. It was clear in Mississippi that the hotel casinos had reduced (massively in some places) unemployment and regenerated local areas by the provision of better services. The level of financial investment in resort hotel casinos in Biloxi had raised the standard of hotel accommodation and leisure/tourist attractions. The success of expansion in Blackpool would improve the holiday experience offered to the visitor but a diversity of experience needs to provide for people of all ages, including families with young children. The resort hotel casinos we saw were far more inclusive than simply the casino and gaming. High quality shopping, eating, entertainment and conference facilities were very much part of the provision. Blackpool really does need to rediscover the total experience of being a seaside resort with a significant conference facilities. This may seem rather pragmatic but the vision is for a town in which the vast majority of the people can live without the damage to individuals and families which poverty presently brings.

  Since for me the hotel casino is linked with the potential for regeneration of a particular place I support the thrust of the argument in chapter 3 of the DCMS report, namely that decisions about the provision of casinos should be taken locally but within a regulated structure. Local planning regulations need to be in place to control the development. We found a real concern in Las Vegas about the expansion of local casinos. A clear distinction has to be made between the high quality resort casino hotel and the local casino. It is here that we experienced the more negative aspects of the proposed changes in the gaming laws and identified possible danger signals for Blackpool if such expansion is not carefully controlled.

  However if that is the case then the Committee has to address a number of significant issues and to persuade the DCMS and the Government of their importance.

  These are:

    (i)  The recognition that if Blackpool is to be a location for such casinos with the possible upheaval that may bring and if many who are now deprived are to helped a local levy on the profits of the gaming should be made. This is common practice in the USA and you can see the benefits. If the tax profits are simply to disappear into general Exchequer then much of the opportunity for the regeneration of Blackpool or anywhere else will be greatly reduced and local opposition increased. Surveys show that to be the case.

    (ii)  The casinos must be made to recognise that sadly some people, (it may be a minority though in BCAGE evidence GA suggest that the number of addicts may be as high as 1.5 million in the UK at present, as opposed to the 275,000-370,000 cited in "A Safe Bet for Success 7.2)" will be adversely affected by the easier access to gambling in the congenial surroundings the hotel casino provides. Many of those I met in the USA repeatedly stressed that the law should be framed to insist that the casinos provide adequate resources to those statutory and voluntary agencies to care for the victims and their families. I feel that chapter 7 of the DCMS response is rather complacent about the issues. It needs a much tougher approach to ensure that responsibility properly rests with those provide the gaming facilities and not with charitable bodies, the churches or the already overloaded NHS. It needs to be remembered that "the vulnerable" will not just be in the immediate area of the casino but more widespread. The response does not sufficiently take account of the effects on families.

    (iii)  In the USA the minimum age for gambling is 21. I think Government needs to review DCMS recommendation (7.6 & 7.7) for 16 and 18 as the ages. Some work was done by the Lancashire County LEA Youth Dept., the churches and the arcade proprietors in Blackpool in the early 1990s to show the effect of arcades with slot machines. The unpublished results were then a cause for anxiety.

    (iv)  Again I welcome the commitment to education in DCMS Report 7.13, though it has to be asked how all this will be fitted into the curriculum and what resources will be needed to provide this outside the structures of formal education. How is all this to be resourced and at what level of funding?

    (v)  I welcome the commitment to research in DCMS 7.14. I met a researcher from the University of Nevada Las Vegas and the research undertaken by that university is worthy of consideration before final decisions are taken.

  Contrary to the DCMS response in 4.30 given those concerns, and the serious questions they pose I wonder if the Government would consider using Blackpool where the proposal for hotel casinos as part of a programme for urban regeneration seems most advanced as a pilot project before a general change in the law is made for the whole of England. This would serve not only to test the prospects for regeneration but also that the social and moral effects of such casinos had been properly assessed based on actual experience rather than theoretical speculation.

6 May 2002


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