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House of Commons

Monday 1 November 2004

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): How many theatres in England and Wales receive public subsidy. [194566]

The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris): Some 236 theatres receive public subsidy from Arts Council England. In addition, local authorities invest more than £220 million in the arts each year, some of which goes to theatres. The figures for Wales are a matter for the Welsh Assembly.

Chris Bryant: Notwithstanding the fact that my right hon. Friend has no responsibility for Wales, I hope that she will visit the new millennium centre theatre in Cardiff soon. I believe that it holds the prospect of being one of best theatres in the land.
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I want to ask my right hon. Friend about west end theatre. She knows that it is one of Britain's greatest assets, especially for foreign tourists. Yet 46,856 seats in London's west end theatres do not receive a single penny of state subsidy simply because they are run in the commercial sector, despite the fact that many are listed buildings. Is that fair? Is not it time that the Labour Government discovered some new way, perhaps a third way, of helping?

Estelle Morris: I look forward to visiting the new millennium centre—I wish it well. It is nice to go to places for which one does not have responsibility now and again.

I readily acknowledge the excellence, worldwide reputation and contribution to the nation's economy of west end theatres. That contribution is estimated at approximately £1.5 billion. As my hon. Friend knows, there is a genuine problem about publicly subsidising commercial theatres. However, I acknowledge theatres' problems and, earlier this year, the Secretary of State and I brought together all interested parties, including theatres, local authorities and our Department. We asked people to try to devise what might be a third way; we certainly hope that it will be a strategy. We look forward to the report, which we expect some time before Christmas.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): Does the Minister also appreciate that many important listed buildings provide wonderful productions throughout the country, not only in the west end? If the Minister and the Government are considering supporting great historic buildings in which theatres perform throughout the year, they should examine not only the specific problems of the listed theatres in London but of those throughout the country.

Estelle Morris: I readily accept that. Let us be clear: Ministers will not decide where the public funds go. Many buildings, including theatres that are listed and
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those that are not, are vital to their community and often need repair and refurbishment. It is a long haul because there are many theatres and not as much money to go round.

Approximately half the money that is believed to be generated through theatres comes from the west end. Although I do not belittle or fail to understand the importance of theatres in their communities, there is something extra special about the London west end. If we witnessed its demise, everybody, no matter where our constituencies are based, would view that as a cause for sorrow. Let us hope that we are considering a question of not either/or but, over the years, both.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend referred to the role of local government in supporting local theatres. I know that she has visited the arts centre in the mechanics building in Burnley but not the theatre. Does she acknowledge that councils such as Burnley find it increasingly difficult to fund such arts centres and theatres and need more assistance from the Government, especially when local council budgets are being squeezed so tightly?

Estelle Morris: It may be that some local authorities find it difficult but many make it a priority. When they decide that the arts and culture are essential to their community, the money is found. I congratulate and thank local authorities that have prioritised those matters and urge those that have not to do so.

Gambling Bill

2. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): What assessment she has made of the level of protection that the Gambling Bill gives to (a) young people and (b) other vulnerable persons. [194567]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): The Gambling Bill, the Second Reading of which the House will debate later today, will provide significantly greater safeguards for children and vulnerable adults than the present law. The status quo is dangerous and unacceptable because the current law does not allow Government or the Gaming Board to regulate the many new technologies, such as video roulette machines, in betting shops or online gambling sites. Without the Bill, which has been strengthened by pre-legislative scrutiny, problem gambling is likely to increase. The safeguards will enable the regulator— the proposed new gambling commission—and the Government to keep the position firmly under control and to act swiftly to cut back the supply of gambling opportunities, should that prove necessary.

Simon Hughes: I hope that the Secretary of State accepts that the best estimate is that 300,000 people are defined as problem gamblers. During the scrutiny process, she told the Committee that, if the Bill produced more problem gamblers, it would have failed. Does she maintain the view that the 10 per cent. of the Bill that is controversial will not add one more problem gambler to the number? Given that no one else shares that view, will she reconsider the basis of her opinion?
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Tessa Jowell: Maintaining the current low level of problem gambling is one of the Bill's objectives and protection from harm is a theme that runs all the way through the Bill. What has been lost in recent controversy about the Bill is the sheer scale of the gambling commission's power to wind back any liberalisation of the gambling regime in the event of harm being established. Moreover, through the gambling survey, we shall have clear figures providing a baseline on which we can judge future trends. The success of—and, indeed, continued access to—gambling technologies will be judged on their ability to provide entertainment rather than generating problem gambling.

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that, given more gambling opportunities, there will not be a single extra problem gambler. It would be ridiculous to say that. People are at risk now from gambling on the internet and from unregulated offshore sites. But—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Other Members may wish to ask questions.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, Central) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State accept that the greatest protection for gambling addicts is related to the number of casinos? I support the broad aims of the Bill, but I am worried about the potential for increase.

Let me give an example from my constituency. Two casinos serve north-east Scotland and, so far, Aberdeen city council has had to deal with six applications for outline planning permission for future casinos. I am particularly worried about the local authorities that will be involved in the licensing. I want to ensure that they are protected properly, because at present they are squeezed between protecting the interests of local electors and the enormous cost of appeals. I want a robust licensing system. Can the Secretary of State reassure me?

Tessa Jowell: Let me make three quick points. In countries such as Australia, where problem gambling has become a major issue, the proliferation of machines rather than casinos has been responsible. We have learnt from that lesson. We also see the need for a tough regulator who can act to prevent harm. Finally, local authorities will have a clearly defined power to decide that they do not want any casinos in their areas. It will be effective for three years, and renewable thereafter.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Can the Secretary of State explain why the gaming machines to be found in chip shops, for instance, which offer a £5 maximum payout for a 10p stake, are so corrupting to children? What evidence has she? Can she also explain why, given that local authorities already have power to ban such machines, they have not done so?

Tessa Jowell: I welcome the hon. Lady's newly discovered interest in gambling, but we are pursuing the Bill's key objective, which is to protect children from gambling and, in particular, from the risks of ambient gambling—chancing on a machine when they happen to be standing around doing something else. We intend to
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remove those risks from children, which is why the 6,000 entirely unregulated machines in chip shops, minicab offices and the like are to be withdrawn.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): I welcome much of the Bill, but I find it offensive that large American companies will be able to buy planning permission for casinos from local authorities. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that that will be dealt with in Committee, and will not happen?

Tessa Jowell: American companies are already considerable investors in the United Kingdom economy. We will accept American investment, Japanese investment and Australian investment, but we will subject it to a British regulatory regime that is right for the people of this country and acceptable to them.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): All the experts, including the Secretary of State's own Ministers, agree that accessibility to gambling opportunities is the key factor contributing to a rise in problem gambling. How then can the Secretary of State claim to be increasing protection for children and the vulnerable when greater access is to be encouraged by withdrawing the membership rules, allowing ambient access to unlimited-prize category A gaming machines for the first time ever in this country, and when regional planning policy, run through the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, positively skews the location of the new regional casinos towards the greatest density of population in our city centres?

Tessa Jowell: To deal with the third point first, that is not necessarily the case because the gambling commission may well decide to issue advice to local authorities by which they will be bound about the criteria that should be applied when considering the location of the very large casinos. But that is a perfectly reasonable question.

With regard to getting rid of membership rules, modern gambling is not about membership of gentlemen's clubs. People gamble as a leisure pursuit in ever increasing numbers, so we seek to strike a proper boundary between the legitimate right of adults to choose to spend their leisure time as they wish within the law, while at the same time regulating for human frailty, protecting the vulnerable, and, in particular, protecting children from the harm that gambling can create.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I recognise that perhaps as much as 90 per cent. of the Bill can be supported, but is my right hon. Friend aware that there are two anxieties—that there is no maximum number of casinos and, that that, inevitably, along with other clauses in the Bill, is bound to increase gambling? Why should we be involved in doing so, when already too many vulnerable people are in gambling debt and that can only increase? There is a great deal to be said for the Cabinet and my right hon. Friend reconsidering the controversial aspects of the measure and then coming back to the House. As it stands, some of us will find it impossible to vote for it at 10 o'clock.
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Tessa Jowell: I respect my hon. Friend's views. I know that gambling is an issue that will divide the House on other than the normal party political lines and I respect the views of those who feel that gambling is quite simply wrong. But in relation to the very large casinos that have been the subject of much of the controversy and publicity in the last week or so, the estimate—it is an industry estimate, not a Government one—is that there are likely to be between 20 and 40. I will not now but later set out in detail the tough regulatory regime, a combination of the role of the gambling commission and the planning regime, that will determine whether they develop in any part of the country at all.

Gambling in this country is lawful and it is increasing. Millions of people choose to gamble as a leisure activity. The urgent need is for regulation to ensure that we do not see an increase in problem gambling and that people are not exploited.

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