Gambling Bill

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Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government were wise they might return to something close to the recommendations of the Joint Committee, so ably chaired by our hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), and that if they were to do so they might find that they had diffused a lot of the critical storm that they have most unwisely stirred up?

Mr. Whittingdale: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. He is right to say that, if the Government had accepted the recommendations of the second report of the Joint Committee, many of the issues would have been diffused, there would have been less concern and they would have perhaps found it easier to get the Bill on to the statute book. I am not sure, however, whether that would now be enough. The level of concern that has been expressed requires additional measures, and although I hope that the Government will adopt the recommendations that they additionally rejected, we will press for further safeguards. In particular—this will form part of a debate this afternoon or later this week—the level of concern is such that it makes sense to adopt a pilot scheme to try out the provisions and assess their impact on a small number of areas.

The Government have given us an undertaking that they are willing to listen, and we hope that they will be open to our suggestions and amendments during our proceedings, but we do not have that long in which to go through such a substantial Bill, so although I do not oppose the programme order, I must make it clear that we have a lot of ground to cover in a short time. It is unfortunate that there has been barely a week between Second Reading and the beginning of proceedings in Committee. The old convention about the length of time that Committees are given to draft and table amendments seems to have gone out of the window completely; it has become quite common to give us just a week. The Government say that they are willing to listen and at least entertain arguments about the ways in which the Bill can be amended, but that task is made more difficult if we are not given sufficient time to consult with those affected and to draft and

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table amendments. We will abide by your rulings throughout, Mr. Gale, but we will be operating under some pressure to table in time amendments to what is inevitably a detailed and complicated measure.

Mr. Hawkins: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly unfortunate that the Government appear not only on this occasion but with several recent Bills to have completely abandoned that convention, and that there seems no reason at all for such indecent haste when they have already made it clear that the Bill will carry over into the next Session? There is plenty of time, and it suggests to me—I do not know whether it does to my hon. Friend—an air of desperation from a Government faced with hostility from the media and so many organisations.

Mr. Whittingdale: Again, my hon. Friend makes an interesting point. We accepted that the Bill should be carried over so that there would be more time and it would not run into the buffers at the end of this Session. There should be plenty of opportunity for debate. There is some apparent concern about another possible event next May, which might get in the way, but that is completely outside our control, and I am sure that the Minister has no regard for it either. Rather than rush the Bill on to the statute book in order that we can get it through Parliament before anything that might or might not happen next May, it is important to get the Bill right.

The Bill is potentially dangerous, but if we build in the right safeguards we can avoid realising many of the concerns that people are expressing. If we get it wrong, it could result in considerable hardship and misery for many. That is why it is desperately important that we go through the Bill very carefully to be absolutely certain that we have built in the right safeguards. So, rather than rush at it in a desperate race to get it through Parliament, we are determined to take our time in order to get it right.

9.45 am

The Chairman: I am about to take up a minute of the Committee's time, but I will add it as injury time to the half hour available for this debate. We clearly have a problem in the Public Gallery: a large number of people wish to hear the proceedings, but there is inadequate space. I do not know whether I will be able to do anything about that later. We do not normally address the strangers in the Gallery, but I will just say to anybody who holds a press card that there is a Press Box, and using that would release another four seats for people waiting outside who would like to come in.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Once again, I am delighted to serve on a Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. I welcomed the contribution from the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), particularly when he referred to the cross-party coalition that exists when expressing concerns about some aspects of the Bill. However, on the programme motion, I am rather more optimistic than he is about how much time it will take to deal with the issues.

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The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that there is a great deal in the Bill that every member of the Committee, and I have no doubt the whole House, supports. Many Members spoke on Second Reading and made that clear. There was clear support for bringing remote gambling—whether it be internet gambling or interactive television gambling—under regulation. There was a great deal of support for enshrining in the Bill social responsibility requirements for casino operators, and for some of the measures that attempt to give greater protection to children. There was certainly cross-party support for the introduction of a new, more powerful regulator, with the move from the Gaming Board to the gambling commission.

On those issues—whether we are talking about 80 or 90 per cent. of the Bill; the proportion does not really matter—there is a great deal of support, and I am optimistic that, subject to a few minor technical amendments from the Government, we will be able to make progress quickly through those parts of the Bill. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to draw our attention to the key areas of concern, which may well require considerable debate in Committee.

Those issues are the introduction of the new super-casinos, the so-called regional casinos, and the introduction in those particular establishments of the new, highly addictive unlimited prize machines—the so-called category A machines. There are considerable concerns about those matters and the Committee will need to spend time deliberating on them in some detail. I have no doubt that Members on both sides of the Committee will wish to explore with the Minister their concerns about how the provisions could create an uneven playing field for our home-grown, indigenous casino operators, who over the past 40 years have been successful in developing a reputation for integrity and crime-free operations.

There is a need to consider the speed of the introduction of unlimited prize machines, and there will be concerns—they were expressed by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford and many others on Second Reading—about the likely impact of the new types of casinos, with their unlimited prize machines, on problem gambling. I referred in my Second Reading speech to my extreme surprise at the statement by the Secretary of State to the Joint Committee. She said:

    ''If this legislation gave rise to an increase in problem gambling then it would have failed and it would be bad legislation''.

No one who I have spoken to on any side of the argument, other than the Secretary of State, believes that the Bill is unlikely to increase the problem, even with some of the amendments that may be made.

The Committee will also need to debate in some detail the location of the new super-casinos. We are well aware that the original intention was that they should be destination casinos, which would require people to make an effort to get to them. It was not intended that they would be on the high street, with the opportunities for ambient gambling and the increase in problem gambling that would ensue. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the Joint Committee, the Government changed their view on the

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matter at the last minute and the proposal in the Bill is no longer for destination casinos but rather for ubiquitous regional casinos. We will need to consider that in some detail.

The Committee will have difficulty in its deliberations because of the absence of crucial information. For example, the code of conduct that will be drawn up by the new gambling commission may have a significant impact on people who are considering whether to open a new super-casino, yet we have no idea what it is likely to contain. The Committee will also be conscious of the significant number of additional powers for the Secretary of State, and therefore of the secondary legislation that will arise from the Bill, but we have not had an opportunity to see any of the details. I hope that some of that information may become available during the Bill's passage.

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman raises the important issue of as yet unseen secondary legislation. Does he agree that it would be enormously helpful if the Committee were able to include some of the most crucial points in the Bill? Clearly, there would be huge uncertainty for many people in the industry and in local communities if what were to emerge from the Bill were a blank cheque. The Government would come along later and, through secondary legislation, deal with vast swathes of important issues that would not get the scrutiny that this Committee would give them.

Mr. Foster: I agree in large measure with the hon. Gentleman's comments. I hope that when the Minister winds up this debate he will give us, at the very least, an assurance that the Committee will be able to review some of the secondary legislation, even if only in draft form, if matters cannot be dealt with through amendments.

I made it very clear that I am rather more optimistic than the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. I hope that the Committee will agree to amendments, whether introduced by the Government or any member of the Committee, which will control the proliferation of super-casinos; significantly reduce the likely rapid growth in the number of category A machines; redefine the new super-casinos as destination casinos; deal with money laundering and problem gambling by requiring people who enter the super-casinos to produce some form of identification; and introduce even stronger powers for local councils to reject casinos. If such amendments were tabled soon, we would make quick progress.

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