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Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): First, I want to express my admiration for the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who chaired the Joint Committee.

Over the past few weeks, considerable criticism— some justified, some not—has surrounded the publication of the Bill. I was a member of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee and I certainly found the whole exercise very positive in helping to create, by and large, a good Bill. I remain cautious, however, about some of the Bill's provisions and I will want amendments in certain areas before I give it my wholehearted support.

One of the criticisms is that the Bill is being rushed through, but I do not accept that. To counter it, I would say that, over the past 30 or 40 years, the gambling laws have been tidied as deemed necessary at the time. For instance, when casinos were first permitted in the early 1960s there were more than 1,000 of them, but serious problems about their legitimacy led to their being regulated and reduced to a realistic number soon afterwards. According to Library statistics, we now have some 131 casinos.

Another review was conducted at the time of the Gaming Act 1968, but it was not until the mid-1990s that it became apparent that serious reform was required. Indeed, it could be said that the Gambling Bill before us now was initiated in 1996 by the Gaming Board's call for substantial reform of the 1968 Act. In March 1997, the then Conservative Government were in the process of significant deregulation of the casino industry via two deregulation orders, which were introduced to avoid the need for primary legislation. It is worth noting that a significant element of those orders was to increase the number of casinos in the UK by 21 without primary legislation, so I am surprised by the Leader of the Opposition's current stance, especially given that he was Home Secretary at the time.

The Bill clearly provides more protection for the vulnerable and children while allowing for a more regulated industry, coupled with possible regeneration of many areas of the UK. The safeguards and benefits have largely been absent from previous reforms. Fortunately, the general election stopped the Conservatives' proposals for 21 more casinos being passed without the proper scrutiny of primary legislation, hence the Bill before us today.

After the election, the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), announced that there would be no change in respect of permitted areas and their extension, but did accept that minor changes, such as the ability to join a casino by post, were acceptable. The Gaming Board still urged major reform, spurred mainly by technological progress and by people's ability to gamble in a less regulated and protected environment through the relatively new betting exchanges, remote gambling and betting on horse racing via TV from the comfort of their own homes. In other words, we were in an era of 24-hour, seven-days-a-week gambling, much of which was unregulated.
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When the Gaming Act was enacted in 1968, none of those technologies was available. The original scope of the Act addressed the issues very well, but the industry has moved on. I was pleased, therefore, when, in 1999, the Home Secretary announced the setting up of an independent review body to look into all aspects of the gambling industry, which led to the publication of the Budd report in 2001. After significant consultation, the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee was formed last year and reported earlier this year, leading to the Bill before us today. I certainly do not intend to go into too much detail, as many right hon. and hon. Members either have, or will, raise their particular issues of concern. I intend to be brief to allow other hon. Members to express their views.

The concept of resort, regional or destination casinos, as the Committee wanted to call them, provides an opportunity for the regeneration of many areas of the UK, particularly seaside resorts, by enabling local authorities to make gains from section 106 moneys for other add-on facilities. However, the number of casinos must be restricted: it is no good allowing market forces to dictate how many and where they will be put. There must be an element of direction, and I suggest that a maximum of two resort casinos in each region would be more than enough, as they would represent a fair geographical spread of the investment. Perhaps as an interim measure, we could restrict the number to one per region.

That investment would result from regional planning bodies being able to determine the permitted areas, taking into account the regional economic strategy and, just as importantly, discussion and consultation with the local planning body and the local community. If we allow market forces to determine the location of resort casinos, without a regional spread, I will certainly have to consider whether I can support this part of the Bill.

Another area of concern that directly affects my constituency and those of many other hon. Members are the new restrictions on existing family amusement centres, which have been an integral part of the British seaside resort for many years. I can remember when I was a child visiting the amusement arcades during the summer months. Even then, anyone under 14 was summarily kicked out by the attendant for being under age—not that I was, of course, I hasten to add.

In my view, the British Amusement and Catering Trades Association's code of conduct protects children, who will not, I believe, face any more risk of becoming problem gamblers under the Bill. Currently, children under 16 have to be accompanied by an adult, which provides even more insurance that such venues will not turn children into the problem gamblers of tomorrow. I am sure that there will be some isolated cases against that argument, but the experience and knowledge that I have gained from having lived in Great Yarmouth all my life lead me to believe that these centres are an accepted, well regulated and necessary part of the British seaside resort.

Another matter of concern is the restriction to be placed on family amusement centres, which could reduce their viability. Members of the Joint Committee visited Blackpool and Great Yarmouth and found that one problem relates to category D machines and the new definition of "amusement with prizes". It is proposed to lower prizes to a maximum of £5 instead of the current
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£8, and to reduce the maximum stake for cash machines to 10p from the current 30p maximum. There is no evidence to suggest that problems are being created for children or for whoever plays these machines. I would certainly welcome funding for a report to look further into that matter. Another issue is the protection of existing amusement centres through "grandfather rights"—a matter of great concern to many working in the industry at seaside resorts. Those and other issues must be dealt with in Committee.

Overall, it would be foolish for us not to agree with many of the measures that the Bill will introduce. Recent negative press reports have whipped up hysteria based on fears rather than facts and have done no service to the debate on a serious issue. Indeed, comments from across the spectrum—from the industry itself to the charities that deal with problem gamblers—have welcomed many of the Bill's proposals, which in some cases give real protection to the vulnerable in our society and to children for the first time. The critics tell us that if the Bill goes through, it will create another "Australian model" with a huge increase in problem gambling, when the truth is that there is more chance of the Australian model coming to the UK if the Bill fails.

I have already outlined some of the changes that I want, and other changes will follow. I am confident that we will end up with a Bill that not only delivers what the Gaming Board asked for back in 1996–97—more protection for children and the vulnerable—but takes into account much of the technological advance that we have seen since. It will also provide real opportunities for regeneration. I shall support the Bill on Second Reading, but I will press for amendments on the issues that I have highlighted—unless, of course, the Tories and Liberals have their way and stop the Second Reading. In that case, there will be no Bill and no further protection for children and the vulnerable from such problems as internet gambling.

7.9 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): My colleagues and I will vote against Second Reading for the reasons set out in our reasoned amendment. I want to say something about the tenor of the Bill, and the philosophy behind it, that is more personal than political.

I find the Bill deeply unsatisfactory. I intend no disrespect to the Joint Committee, which did a good job of scrutinising the Government's proposals and the Budd report. It is dispiriting that we have a Government who set out a vision of being a world leader in all fields of gambling activity, because it shows poverty of imagination and leadership.

One thing that we have not acknowledged in the debate so far is the harm that gambling does to society and to families throughout the country. We have mentioned the 300,000 problem gamblers as though they were some select group of people whom we can put to one side and treat separately. Gambling pervades society, and it harms society.

Governments are no longer prepared to tolerate the harm caused by alcohol and tobacco, yet the Government are prepared to be lobbied and bullied into extending and facilitating gambling, which is very dispiriting and unfortunate. The mothers and fathers of
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socialism would find it particularly dispiriting. It is not patronising, elitist or snobbish to stand up and say that gambling harms society and the poor and the working class disproportionately—indeed, when one did so it used to be called socialism and fighting for one's class and a better society. Now, the Government are smuggling through the back door a change in regulation that will control and alter the way in which we run society, which is very unfortunate.

It is also deeply dispiriting that the Government's vision of the regeneration of our seaside towns is based on making money from gambling—from a mug's game, by fleecing people. We are considering regeneration not based on education, skills, manufacturing, libraries or culture but built on gambling. What a lack of imagination. What a poor state we are in when the only thing we can offer our decaying seaside towns, including some in my constituency, is regeneration based on gambling and on taking from those who do not have and giving it to those who have plenty.

People talk of reality and say, "Support the Bill. It's only 20 or 40 super-casinos—nothing much." The reality is that gambling is already growing exponentially. Last year alone, 12 million people gambled via the red button on the Sky interactive service. Gambling is being introduced into our homes, making it easier than ever before to participate. Before long, it will be possible to gamble on a mobile phone. [Hon. Members: "It is now."] Perhaps it is; it is not something that I use. Where are the controls on young people's access to that? There is increasing evidence that suicide, bankruptcy and domestic violence have risen in towns and cities where casinos have opened.

The Government say that the purpose of the Bill is to regulate the growth in remote, online gambling, but the basic question is whether such gambling should be happening in the first place—whether it is good for society. Any Government, and certainly the House of Commons, should be asking that question. Should we not be thinking of different ways to tackle the problem? We live in a society where debt is increasing by £1 million every four minutes. While I am on my feet for my 10-minute speech, there will be a £2.5 million increase in personal debt in this country.

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