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Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab): Is it not the case that the relaxation of restrictions on casinos was included in the White Paper that was published in March, and that the March edition of "Conservative News" welcomed plans to liberalise the laws on gambling? What has changed since then?

Mr. Whittingdale: As I said, we are not opposed to liberalisation of the laws of gambling, but we believe that we need to proceed cautiously. The announcements that the Government have made since the publication of the Joint Committee report have given rise to our greatest concerns, because they show that in those areas the Government are clearly not proceeding cautiously.

Mr. Kevan Jones rose—

Tessa Jowell rose—

Mr. Whittingdale: I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Tessa Jowell rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman has given way to Kevan Jones.

Mr. Jones: In fact, the Government are proceeding cautiously, because the Bill will not liberalise high-jackpot machines, but will limit them to certain casinos— unlike in Australia, where things have gone wrong because of their unlimited use.
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Mr. Whittingdale: The Bill takes us from a situation in which there are no such machines to one in which there may be 50,000. That is not, in my view, cautious liberalisation—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State asks where we get the figure of 50,000 from. She has said that there will be up to 40 regional casinos. There may be up to 1,250 machines in each of those, so that equals 50,000.

Tessa Jowell: It is absolutely essential that this debate is conducted on the basis of fact, not fantasy, myth and mistaken beliefs. The expectation is that about 10 per cent. of machines in regional casinos will be category A machines that do not have a specified stake or prize. If there is any evidence that they are causing harm, it will be for the gambling commission to reduce the stake and the prize. That deals with the hon. Gentleman's concerns. Whether in relation to this or to my very clear assurances on seaside arcades, it is important that he sticks to the facts instead of writing a novel.

Mr. Whittingdale: The fact is that regional casinos will be allowed up to 1,250 machines, which, as they can be of any category, could all be category A; it is not sufficient for the Secretary of State merely to say that her expectation is that they will not be. I hope that she will take seriously my suggestions on how further limits could be imposed.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): As my hon. Friend knows, I have been following these issues for many years. The Government have not accepted the concerns expressed by many people in the industry and on both sides of this House and in the upper House, as reflected in the excellent report by the Joint Committee chaired by our hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), that if the Government's proposals are proceeded with we will lose the regenerative effect of the casinos on some of our run-down resorts, whereas if the Committee's recommendations were accepted we could ensure that the regenerative effect occurs. Does my hon. Friend agree that the real problem is that the Government have ensured that there can be huge casinos in major cities, not only in resorts?

Mr. Whittingdale: My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I wish to deal with that point later.

I want to return to my point about the Government's original intention, which, as the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) suggested, appeared to be based on cautious liberalisation. We were first told that there would be a limited number of resort destination casinos and that they were so called because they would be located in seaside resorts and away from centres of population. Limiting the accessibility of jackpot machines was said at the time to be crucial to the Government's objective of protecting children and the vulnerable. However, the Government have been seduced by the prospect of the millions of pounds of investment being offered by the overseas operators who want to come and set up in this country. According to some of those companies to which I have spoken, they are willing to invest tens, if not hundreds, of millions of pounds in each one of the new mega-casinos; in doing so, they would provide thousands of jobs. Of course that is a tempting prospect, but those companies are not
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proposing to make that investment out of altruism. The return on their investment will come from the 20,000 people they are hoping to attract through the doors of each casino every week.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has had time to look at the report of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which looked at the original draft of the Gambling Bill some time before the Joint Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), produced its report. The Select Committee—which included several of the hon. Gentleman's Conservative colleagues, none of whom demurred for an instant at the time, although they are now doing so—listened to the Bishop of Blackburn putting very clearly the argument in favour of the regeneration of Blackpool. He wanted to see that financial investment being made. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the bishop has succumbed to temptation?

Mr. Whittingdale: I would say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, the proposals on the table today are very different from those that were on the table when his Select Committee was examining the issue. Secondly, he cites the Bishop of Blackburn, but I hope that he is not suggesting that the Churches generally support the Bill. He only has to look at the remarks of a number of archbishops, and of representatives of the Methodist Church, the Salvation Army and many other religious groups, to see that they are bitterly opposed to many of the provisions in the Bill.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that while the Bishop of Blackburn might want to see Blackpool being regenerated through the possibility of one resort casino being established there, that is a very different matter from splattering casinos around every major city and town in the United Kingdom? There are so many questions that need to be answered on the Bill, particularly in regard to the super-jackpot machines. If we were to pilot these new casinos in a small number of areas—perhaps Blackpool could be one—we could test their impact on the country.

Mr. Whittingdale: That very sensible suggestion has also been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

Miss Kirkbride : I think that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) chose to misinterpret the conclusions reached by the Conservative members of the Select Committee, of whom I was one at the time to which he referred. The simple fact is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has said, establishing a resort destination casino in Blackpool while we test the market is one thing, but introducing casinos with category A gaming machines in 40 cities across the country is very different.

Mr. Whittingdale: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for setting out her position, and to the other Conservative members of the Committee. As several of my hon. Friends have suggested, the original hope that this proposal might lead to the regeneration of seaside resorts such as Blackpool will actually be undermined
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by the proposals before us, as there is no doubt that the operators of the casinos would much rather locate them in central Manchester or Liverpool, for example, than in Blackpool, if they had the opportunity to do so.

Mrs. Humble: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as he is talking about Blackpool. Does he believe that the regional casinos could lead to the regeneration of towns such as Blackpool? If so, will he tell me how his voting against this Second Reading would enable that to happen?

Mr. Whittingdale: We are concerned that the original intention to locate the casinos in seaside resorts and other places that need regeneration will be undermined by the shift in the Government's strategy towards locating them in centres of population. That is one of our deep concerns about the Bill, and one of the reasons why we cannot support it this evening.

Jim Knight: The logic seems to be that the Bill will receive its Second Reading tonight and that we shall then have an opportunity to improve it in Committee. If the hon. Gentleman supports the 90 per cent. of the Bill that is in favour of protecting people from gambling, I cannot understand why he is opposing it on Second Reading.

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