Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I salute the Secretary of State for being here today, given the sadness that she has been through recently, and for the example that she sets to others on the Treasury Bench. In her opening speech she said that she was prepared to listen, although the normal procedure is that when Secretaries of State have finished speaking and the Opposition start, they do not appear again until the winding-up speeches.

Having listened to the debate, my right hon. Friend will know that there have been two themes that have knitted together almost every contribution to it. The first theme has been that there is no contention but that most of the Bill is needed to bring up to date the legal framework within which gambling operates in this country. Equally, there has been a concern about the possible or likely side effects of licensing mega-casinos, and I wish very briefly to develop three themes that bear on the consequences of those mega-casinos.

It is significant that, in the arguments that the Government have used in defending the existence of that part of the Bill, they have not been playing the ball; they
1 Nov 2004 : Column 100
have been kicking the players. A number of allegations have been made against those who may oppose the introduction of mega-casinos in this country. It has been suggested that we might be against gambling. The record shows that I have supported every gambling Bill that the Government have introduced since I have been a Member of Parliament.

It is also said that there is more than a whiff of anti-Americanism about those who oppose the casino proposals. When the Government are really under pressure on the Iraq war, they sometimes give the nod to the Lobby that I am prepared to go out and defend them. I willingly do so; I am proud of the special relationship that we have with America. I am just so sad that it is not strong enough for us to convince our American colleagues that there is a difference between policing and bombing. I speak as somebody who is very pro-American and who knows that Europe is free because of the lives that Americans gave, so there is no hint of anti-Americanism in what I have to say.

Neither am I part of that lobby—it has had some recent conversions, thank God—that believes that people should not spend their own money. I cite just one example. Back in 1975, which I know is before many of my hon. Friends were born, I tried to persuade our party that our policy should be to sell council houses and use the revenue to build new stock. I was told that our supporters were not capable of managing their own homes. I find it just slightly galling that some of the people who say I am being patronising in opposing the new super-casinos opposed the sale of council houses in those early days in the belief that our supporters were not up to spending their own money and running their own lives.

So none of those arguments holds as far as I am concerned, but the Welsh nationalists put a very serious argument earlier. What does it tell us about the Government's regeneration schemes if we now have to depend on mega-casinos to reach those parts of our poorest areas that none of our other regeneration policies has touched? I use the phrasing from a lager advert, which shows that I am a drinker as well. We have to accept the argument that the Welsh nationalists put in saying that, despite all the initiatives that the Government have taken to try to bring some of our poorest areas towards the level of the average areas of our society, let alone the richest ones, we have not succeeded as we had hoped.

There is therefore an attraction for me in the Government's argument that we should think of mega-casinos as an agent of regeneration, but I do not believe that they can hold that line unless they are prepared to concede a cap on the number of casinos. If we have more than one casino in the north-west, no casino will be situated in Blackpool, despite the eloquence of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). They will go to Manchester, Liverpool or some of the other richer places. Indeed, if more than one licence were granted, and one casino went to Blackpool and another went to Manchester, the Secretary of State would need all the resources that the armed forces have in this country to drive people up the motorway away from the Manchester casino and into Blackpool. Regeneration will not take place in the
1 Nov 2004 : Column 101
areas for which she is holding out hope in the Bill unless she is prepared to limit severely the numbers of super-casinos for the whole country, and I believe that she should limit them to one per region. I know that some of my hon. Friends will think that I am weak in thinking that we might have six or so pilots around the country, but I believe that experiments should be tried in each of our regions.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend consider another measure to which the Secretary of State—I say this while she is in her place—might like to like to give some thought? If the Government are serious about ensuring that the super-casinos can happen only with the will of the local communities and authorities, they should write into the Bill in Committee the ability for local authorities solely to determine any planning application and not allow the casino operators the right to go to appeal. We all know what happens when giant corporations can, in many ways, hold local councils to ransom over the planning appeal process.

Mr. Field: We know precisely that, but I intervened on the Secretary of State earlier because of my fear that, under the European convention on human rights, she will not be able to hold the position of not allowing appeals. Although the Government will have a lesson dealt out to them by the referendum in the north-east—I think that we will get the result this week—I believe that the only way of guaranteeing that local people will have a say will be to give them a vote on this matter in a referendum. Even in the European Court, there would not have to be an appeal if the people themselves so decided.

If we are serious about using the Bill as another agent of regeneration where all our other policies have failed, we cannot have more than one casino per region. Otherwise, the casinos will not go to the poorest areas; they will naturally go to those that are most attractive. [Interruption.] I shall speak very slowly so as to use the whole of the nine minutes and 43 seconds that I now apparently have. I had wanted to come within the target.

My last point is about whether we should vote against the Bill on Second Reading. We heard a most helpful intervention from the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who specialises in strengthening his own Front Bench, but I fear that his skills have beguiled some of my colleagues. The thought is that we are involved only in high politics, but our concern on Second Reading is on the principle. As to the thought that we might vote against the Government to try to influence them and risk the Bill, that is precisely what I ask my hon. Friends to do this evening. We have never defeated the Government. They know that, if they have a tough time on Second Reading, a number of us are prepared to vote against them in the Lobby and many more are prepared to abstain, and their hand will be weakened on Report. If my hon. Friends seriously believe they will get concessions from the Government severely limiting the number of super-casinos, the lessons of this Parliament teach them that they would not have got concessions on top-up fees or foundation
1 Nov 2004 : Column 102
hospitals. They may consider it a matter of principle that we vote for Second Reading, but we can argue with the Government and deal with the matter on Report.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I have listened carefully to my right hon. Friend and agree with some of the points that he is making, but will he explain to me what principle would be served by throwing the Bill out tonight, together with all the good things in it, on which hon. Members from all parts of the House agree—the protection of children from internet betting and other issues that the public would support? What kind of principled stance would it be to throw all that out?

Mr. Field: We will never throw the Bill out. We have never been able to throw out a Government Bill on Second Reading, but the more of us who tell the Government that we are unhappy with their proposal and that we will vote against it or abstain, the more power we will have on Report. Of course the whole House wants, say, 90 per cent. of the Bill. Should there be a major uprising and should the Government be defeated, we know perfectly well that they would announce from the Dispatch Box that they would introduce that 90 per cent. tomorrow in a separate Bill. They will not be defeated. That is not the issue. We do not wish to defeat the Government. What we need is a large vote against and an even bigger abstention, so that when we come to the Report stage the Government hand is so weakened that our wish will carry the day.

8.30 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and to agree with many of the points that he made. However, the award for the most profound and impressive speech tonight should go to the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who captured the mood of the nation in his opposition to the Bill. The Labour Front-Bench team do not know quite what they are doing by introducing a measure that engenders so much deep opposition among so many of our communities throughout the land.

I made my decision several weeks ago that, whatever my party said on the Bill, I would vote against it. I did not reach that decision lightly but I made it because I so profoundly disagree with the contents of the Bill and its potential impact, particularly on vulnerable people. I am extremely concerned that if the Bill becomes law, as I hope it does not in its current form, one of the obvious and almost immediate consequences will be a significant increase in the number of people who suffer from gambling debts and gambling addiction. I certainly did not come into this place to make life more miserable for our constituents.

There is something about the Bill that takes the country in the wrong direction. I do not want to major on that tonight, but in addition to our many existing social problems, the impact of the Bill is not what we need. Following the right hon. Member for Birkenhead in his advice to colleagues on how we should go forward, I used to be in the Whips Office when we were in government and I know a little about how these things work. Colleagues who believe that we can vote for the measure tonight and that the Government will make
1 Nov 2004 : Column 103
major concessions in Committee, with the inbuilt majority that they will have on that Committee and with colleagues who are surprisingly placed to serve on the Committee for very particular reasons, are living in cloud cuckoo land. I strongly urge all hon. Members to follow the leadership of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and vote down the measure.

Of course we want some of the better aspects of the Bill. I want them too, but, as has been said, they can be brought back very quickly either tomorrow or in the Queen's Speech and, with all parties supporting them, they can make speedy progress through the House and become law within the same time scale as is currently envisaged. Those who have profound reservations, as I do, about the impact of the Bill on vulnerable people have only one course of action open to them tonight: not to support the Bill, and to vote against it.

I would support some kind of pilot scheme, whether in Blackpool or Great Yarmouth. Both places have massive attractions. Something that has never been tried in this country before should be tested, and there should be a pilot. I would not object to that, but what the Government are proposing is wrong.

Like most of my hon. Friends, freedom and individual choice are my starting point in approaching a subject of this nature. We must also recognise that many people out there suffer disproportionately from the impacts of some of those choices. In respect of smoking, drinking alcohol, drug taking, access to credit and gambling we already restrict people's choices. We have laws about drugs, tobacco advertising, alcohol sales and gambling because of the individual and social consequences that would flow from a free-for-all. I make no apologies to those from the libertarian camp when I suggest that by continuing to restrict gambling, we are becoming or continuing to be a nanny state. We start from freedom and individual choice, but that is not the end of the matter. There must be protection. Freedom must be tempered with responsibility and order.

It has been said that our current gambling regime is one of the tightest in the developed world. We also know that we have one of the smallest proportions of people with a gambling addiction and gambling debt. Those two facts are not unrelated and we disconnect them at our peril. If we were to vote the Bill into law, we would see a significant increase in gambling debt and addiction.

I am not against gambling as a whole. I am not a great supporter of it, but I have the occasional flutter on the lottery or the Grand National. As far as I recall, I have never won anything. I am not in one of the Secretary of State's categorisations of people who are against gambling on principle. However, I am not in favour of the explosion of gambling that the Bill represents.

As we have heard, up to 400,000 people have a problem with gambling and that means that many other people suffer within the circles of their families. Proposals to introduce super-casinos in accessible places—whether 20, 30, 40 or even more—and unlimited-prize machines, and to remove the 24-hour cooling-off period, are bound to increase the number of people who gamble and, therefore, the number of people who fall into gambling addictions.
1 Nov 2004 : Column 104

Whether we like it or not, gambling disproportionately affects those with the least disposable incomes. Recent research has shown that more than three times as many problems arise for gamblers in households where there is an income of less than £15,000 compared with those in households with an income of £32,000 or more. This July, personal debt in the United Kingdom topped £1 trillion for the first time. Citizens Advice tells us that it has seen a 44 per cent. increase in the number of people seeking help with debt problems over the past six years. Average household debt, excluding mortgages, is now £7,000 per household. Problems of personal debt are becoming worse by the day and the Bill would only add to the numbers of those who become mired in gambling debt and fall into unsustainability.

Why would that happen if we passed the Bill? Experience in this country and elsewhere shows that, if we make it easier for people to do something, more of them will do it, even though that might harm them and their families. If the Bill becomes law, it will make it easier for people to drop into a super-casino that is placed in a highly accessible location, either in the high street or out of town. Is it fanciful to imagine that new super-casinos might be placed in a new development with a supermarket on one side and some sort of cinema complex on the other? They will be placed where people will be enticed to pop in once they have done their shopping or, even worse, before they have shopped for the family for the week.

Many new players will be attracted by the prospect of a life-changing jackpot from category A machines. Less time to reflect on the consequences of stuffing money that someone can ill afford into a one-armed monster will mean that more people will, on impulse, do precisely that. The Bill will lure more people into casinos, and some of them into the swamp of addiction and debt.

What will be the gain? Where does the pressure to allow these super-casinos and unlimited prize machines come from? Where are the public demonstrations in London demanding more gambling rights? Is this why we face every day the protest in Parliament square? Is that the noise that is being made? Are people demanding more gambling rights? I do not think so. The pressure, as we have heard, is coming from international gaming corporations that want to open our markets for their profits, as they have elsewhere.

There is nothing wrong with making profits, but why should we open ourselves up to the inevitable social consequences that will follow just to add further to the already bulging waistlines of foreign fat cats? We should not go down that route.

We have heard about the Australian experience. Of course, it is different from what we are discussing. Although the Secretary of State has tried to reassure us that there will be some sort of restriction because of market or industry predictions about the number of super-casinos, if no restrictions are placed in the Bill there is no guarantee that over the next five or 10 years there will not be a major casino in every community.

The House feels strongly about this matter. The right thing for the House to do is to vote down the Bill on Second Reading. The right thing for the Government to do is to listen, take note and bring back a better Bill.
1 Nov 2004 : Column 105

8.39 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page