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Mr. Simon Thomas: We do not have Cabinet Government any more.

Mr. Horam: I quite agree. Under Conservative Governments, we had a Willie Whitelaw factor—someone who said, "No, I don't think this will wash." Perhaps Labour now needs a Frank Dobson factor, with someone saying, "Look, this is not what the Labour party is about." I am very surprised that old or new Labour can support such a Bill. The Government should think again, scrap this Bill and introduce a new one to do the sensible things that are a part of it.
 
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7.59 pm

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): The fact that the country's gambling laws need to be tidied up and brought up to date is not in dispute. Most Members will also welcome the proposal to consolidate into a single Act of Parliament all the legislation relating to the various categories of gambling. I am equally confident that the formation of a gambling commission to license operators and key personnel working in the gaming industry with significant powers to regulate, supervise and enforce high standards of conduct and social responsibility throughout the industry will be welcomed. The measure of democratic control given to local authorities by conferring on them responsibility for licensing gaming premises also has the broad support of Members of Parliament and of much of the gaming industry and the public at large.

Having said all that, I believe that that is where consensus on the Bill in its present form comes to an end. The Bill's publication has triggered an outcry from Church and religious groups as well as charitable institutions and welfare organisations. It has caused anger and resentment in many parts of the leisure and gaming industry, and it has caused great alarm in the minds of many Members and among the public.

The issue of greatest concern to us all is problem gambling. The British gambling prevalence survey suggested that we have somewhere between 275,000 and 370,000 problem gamblers. Gambling addicts, like those who suffer from alcohol and drug addictions, are usually in denial of the problem. Those who accept that a problem exists are keen to hide it. It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that the official estimate of the number of problem gamblers significantly understates the problem. Even if we accept the official estimates, taking the mid-range figure of one third of a million problem gamblers, most of those people will have parents, spouses, partners and children, and it is perfectly reasonable to assume that in excess of 1 million of our citizens' lives have already been blighted by problem gambling.

The Budd report highlighted many, but by no means all, the potential negative consequences of problem gambling, including financial hardship, debt, exposure to loan sharks, bankruptcy, resorting to theft, imprisonment, neglect of family, the breakdown of relationships, domestic and other violence, poor health, absenteeism, stress, depression, anxiety, suicide, burdens on charities and burdens on the public purse. We can all imagine the psychological scars left on the children of families whose lives are shattered as a result of a parent's gambling addiction.

It seems to me that a top priority for the Bill should be the introduction of measures aimed at reducing the incidence of problem gambling and procedures designed to mitigate the effects of gambling. We must ensure that the Bill's passage does not exacerbate the situation by bringing about a significant increase in problem gambling.

The Bill starts well enough. The measures to establish a commission and protect young people and children, as well as the promise of a gambling prevalence study every two to three years, show a commitment by the
 
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Government to tackle problem gambling. However, the lack of detail on what is to be done and how the Bill will be applied makes an objective assessment of those measures' effectiveness impossible. If the Bill were simply about establishing a gambling commission to oversee and regulate all aspects of gambling in Britain and to introduce measures to tackle problem gambling, protect children and transfer the licensing of premises from magistrates to local authorities, I would, even given the lack of detail, be more than happy to support it.

Of course, the Bill does much more than that. It removes a number of regulatory measures, which will allow a significant expansion of gaming in Britain. The only limits to expansion appear to be market demand and local authority resistance. On one hand, we are considering a series of non-specific measures designed to tackle problem gambling, while, on the other, we are considering removing existing regulations to allow an unknown, but probably sizeable, increase in gambling. That will undoubtedly lead to a significant increase in problem gambling. To allow a virtually uncontrolled expansion of gambling without having put in place and tested the protective measures that the gambling commission may introduce is, frankly, a recipe for disaster. I could not support that.

Surely a far more sensible approach, as many hon. Members have said, would be to allow a limited number of pilot projects in designated areas and to evaluate their impact on gambling behaviour. That would present an opportunity to identify and address any problems that arose before the Bill's full provisions were introduced throughout Britain.

It is self-evident that just as alcoholics do not become alcoholics by choice or overnight, but do so through repeated heavy drinking, so gambling addicts become that way because of repeated participation in gambling activities. It logically follows that increased participation in gambling among the population will involve a proportionate number of people who have the social, psychological and emotional characteristics that make them vulnerable to gambling addiction.

I shall make a couple of observations about the Government's proposals for casinos. The first relates to the decision to allow alcoholic drinks to be served at gaming tables. I am very uneasy about the wisdom of that decision for two reasons. First, casinos tend to have a highly charged atmosphere, in which it is easy to get carried away. Consuming alcohol while gambling is fraught with danger, and it should not be encouraged. Secondly, having to leave the gambling area to have a drink provides an opportunity for punters to chill out and take stock of their situation. I ask the Minister to give further thought to that.

The other issue that I wish to raise regarding casinos has caused much anger and concern in the gaming industry. It is the arbitrary and prescriptive way in which casinos have been classified. I am unable to detect any logical, moral or commercial imperative that led the Government to draw up their plans for casinos. I believe that those plans should be removed from the Bill and that the gambling commission, local authorities and the industry should be allowed to develop a limited number of pilot projects that meet the needs of the area in which
 
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they operate as well as those of the operators. They should be able to support the objectives of the gambling commission as stated in the Bill.

Finally, I raised earlier this afternoon an issue that concerns me as the Member of Parliament for a seaside town and which causes similar concern to businesses that have amusement arcades in Morecambe and BACTA, which represents them. Clause 56 states:

I must ask once more, because I do not think I had a sufficient answer earlier, whether the Government are really contemplating bringing in a law under which a parent could be prosecuted for allowing a child to roll a 10 pence piece down a chute or operate a crane in an attempt to win a small cuddly toy. If they do not intend to do that, why can they not remove clause 56? For what reason should it remain if it is not to be implemented?

I hope that the Government will work with BACTA—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Lady has had her 10 minutes.

8.10 pm

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) on her speech. I wish to be equally frank and put my cards on the table.

I do not believe that legislating to allow the proliferation of gambling is in the interests of individuals, communities or the country. Gambling is a particularly pernicious activity when it affects poorer members of society who cannot afford to lose, but who will always do so. The problems with the Bill are synonymous with the problems with gambling itself: it gives a little, but takes far more back and on an ever-increasing scale. The result? Only the Treasury in the short term and the casino companies in the long term are winners.

The only value in the Bill is the attempt to modernise and streamline gambling laws that have been unreformed for 40 years. I welcome the establishment of a more powerful gambling commission and the extension of the legislation to cover internet gambling, although the proposals duck the worldwide nature of internet gaming. However, I fear that any winnings that could be reaped from such reforms will not be banked but lost, as deregulation permits a rash of super-casinos to be created across Britain, making the inclusion of measures to protect children appear no more than a sop to our conscience.

The Prime Minister has estimated, we are told, that in the absence of a statutory limit the Bill will lead to between 20 and 40 new super-casinos with 24-hour access and unlimited jackpots. The Government have rejected the Joint Committee's proposals for higher minimum casino sizes and non-gambling facilities, even though those proposals would limit the number of casinos and where they could be. The Bill would leave casino corporations free to use section 106-type agreements to seduce cash-strapped local authorities and pave the way for what I would call a plague of casinos throughout the country, despite the Prime Minister's reassurances.
 
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Increased ease of access to gambling is the key problem. People will be able to gamble day or night across the country immediately they choose to do so. Prior to the Bill, the 48-hour, then 24-hour, cool-off period during which new members could not use casino facilities was deliberate. It ensured that the decision to gamble was a considered choice. The removal of that safeguard will allow people to act immediately, lured by the false promise of financial gratification or acting on impulse.

Previous legislation was also based on the premise that gambling facilities would be sufficient to meet the unstimulated demand for them. In contrast to that, the Bill will sanction the development of casinos across the country, and that increased supply will in itself stimulate demand. That is a complete reversal of what went before.

The Budd report recognised the link between deregulation of gambling laws and an increase in problem gambling. That connection has been well proven in Australia, where deregulation of the gambling industry, and in particular, the increased immediacy of access through slot machines at casino entrances has become a major cause of poverty. The cost to the community in Australia is 5.6 billion Australian dollars, on top of the 1 billion Australian dollars already staked and lost. The logic is indisputable. If something is more widely available, it is more easily available to people who risk becoming involved beyond their means. One does not need to be a bookmaker to realise that that is not a very good bet for this country.

Problem gambling is defined as

and it affects some 350,000 individuals and their families across Britain. It would be splitting hairs to try to distinguish between problem gamblers and people with problems who gamble. The net effect is the same. Gambling addiction is best considered as a continuum—a slippery slope made more greasy as more opportunities to gamble exist. Ease and speed of access is provided and the pernicious promise of unearned, instant gratification is promoted.

I am not an absolutist. I recognise that there is a considerable difference between a weekly £2 flutter on the football pools and gambling in casinos or online. However, the general principle remains. Gambling does not do individuals any good, nor is it to the common good. It does not increase the wealth of the nation, but sucks in and makes more destitute the poorest in our society, leaving them with nothing except the desire to try their luck again.

Although I accepted the national lottery with some reluctance—we were told that otherwise we would be invaded by foreign lotteries—I continue to oppose, as I did then, scratch cards. The market at which they are aimed is nearly always those who can least afford them.

Responsible opposition to the deregulation of the gambling industry should not be derided, as it has been, as an illiberal extension of the nanny state or snobbery. However, the fact that such initiatives are coming from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport raises the question: what type of culture the Government are trying to promote? Do we really want a culture that penalises saving and actively encourages the waste of
 
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gambling? My motivation for opposing the Bill is not puritanical but utilitarian. Any Government have a duty to reduce the harm that individuals can do to themselves and their families rather than to facilitate it.

Why are the Government therefore legislating to deregulate casinos? We know that the promised regeneration that doing so may bring will not be cost-free, and will be undermined by the accompanying social degeneration. We know that 93 per cent. of the population are against the Bill and that the vast majority opposed casinos opening in their neighbourhood. In this instance one can acquit the Government of trying to be populist.

The Bill, particularly the provisions on casinos, seems to be driven by a financial consideration, whether as an objective or a welcome side effect. Her Majesty's Customs and Excise collected £1,530 million in gambling duty between 1998 and 1999—22 per cent. of the gross gain in yield. It is estimated that by 2010 deregulation of gambling will have delivered at least £400 million a year more in taxes.

Tax revenues from gambling, combined with the regenerative measures that casino companies will have to implement in exchange for planning permission mean that the Government's pockets will be lined by the deregulation. I can see no other reason for that relaxation in gambling. However, in years to come, the inevitable damaging impact of gambling will have to be dealt with and paid for. If the Bill becomes law, expensive initiatives will have to be developed and financed to combat the effects of gambling on individuals and society.

The financial myopia of the Bill, and a desire for taxation by stealth, typifies the Government's entire strategy. They give with one hand, then take back far more with the other, while ignoring the harmful side effects. I hope that the House will reject this damaging, short-sighted and blinkered proposal, which would do some good, but would do a great deal of harm as well.

8.19 pm


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