Gambling Bill

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Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I add to the comments already made that it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mr. Gale? I apologise if I am not very well heard this morning, but as sod's law would have it, I have had a massive cold over the past few days and I am finding it difficult to speak. As long as the Minister can hear me, that is the most important thing.

I wish to move amendments No. 71, 72, 73 and 80, but before that, I wish to make a quick comment about amendment No. 1, moved by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster).

The Chairman: Order. At this point I had better explain the arcane methods by which we operate. The hon. Gentleman will realise, but some newer members of the Committee may not, that although it is open to any Member to speak to any of the amendments, they will not be moved until we reach the appropriate place in the Bill, at which point they will be moved formally. It is open to any Member to indicate later in the proceedings when the appropriate point is reached that they wish to initiate a formal division, and, if so, the Chair will consider that wish sympathetically. For the moment, however, the only amendment that can be moved is amendment No. 1.

Mr. Moss: I take your guidance, Mr. Gale.

As far as amendment No. 1 is concerned, the idea of public nuisance was introduced as an amendment in debates on the Licensing Bill. For whatever reason, the Government saw fit not to accept it. In retrospect, it might have been a very useful addition, bearing in mind the increase in binge drinking and the problems associated with it in our towns and city centres since those debates and the enactment of the Licensing Act 2003. If that increase is to be complemented—I cannot think of an alternative word—by large numbers of people visiting large casinos in the same town and city centres, we may have even more of a problem.

If the regional casinos at the top end of the scale are to open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and if the rules on membership are swept away as the Government propose, the binge drinkers will simply turn out of the pubs and head for the casinos where the bars are still open. That will place an enormous amount of responsibility on the shoulders of those people running the casinos, and something in this Bill that relates to public nuisance may indicate to them that they have serious responsibilities.

Turning to amendment No. 71, which refers to paragraph (a), we have no problem with the Government's proposals and the licensing objectives for

    ''preventing gambling from being a source of crime or disorder, being associated with crime or disorder; or being used to support crime''.

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We agree with all those objectives, but do they cover preventing people with a criminal record from becoming involved in the operation of casinos, or anything relating to gambling and betting? No doubt the Minister will explain why the words in my amendment are not needed. They are intended to tease out whether the words used in the Bill would include people with a criminal record. Those people may now be going straight—if that is the right term. However, we do not want those kind of people associated in any shape or form with gambling.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): To pursue that point, are we talking about a criminal record anywhere in the world?

Mr. Moss: I would have thought so. A criminal record is a criminal record. We do not want people from abroad with criminal records coming to run our betting and gambling organisations. So, yes, the provision would be all-embracing. This is a probing amendment to discover whether the Government have considered that and whether in their view the wording in the Bill would cover that point.

Amendment No. 72 would insert the words ''socially responsible'' after the word ''fair'' in paragraph (b). At the heart of the Government's problems with the Bill is the fact that there is no control—or does not appear to be—over the number of larger or regional casinos that might develop. Numbers in the region of 20 to 40 have been bandied around at the top end. Forty regional casinos, each with a maximum of 1,250 category A machines, would mean that suddenly we could go from nothing to, potentially, 50,000 category A machines in casinos around the country.

To many people, that is a huge leap in the dark in the sense that there is little evidence to hand on the impact of the machines in this country and on problem gambling in particular. Some work has been done in Australia, but it is fairly threadbare at this point. The Government seem to expect Parliament and the electorate to embrace an idea of what might be described as proliferation. Mr. Haslam from Blackpool said that in his view that number of regional casinos and category A machines constituted ''proliferation''. If that goes ahead, the impact on local communities will be immense.

At the heart of the Government's problems is also the conflict between what they are saying on one hand about their desire for protection—the thrust of their comments so far has been that the Bill is all about regulation and protecting the vulnerable and children—and what they are saying on the other hand about not knowing how many regional casinos there might be and not really caring, because market forces will determine that.

The initial plan was that the regional planning bodies would decide where the casinos would go and local authorities would then take that on board. However, the numbers would not be constrained by any limit imposed by Government or in any other way. In the end, it would be those who wish to invest in such facilities who would decide whether the market would

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stand 40 or 50 casinos, or whether there should be fewer than that.

The thrust on the planning side is to place the facilities where regeneration would be easy to obtain, and more obvious and measurable. That brings us into city centres and to run-down areas of our large conurbations. So, it is possible that casinos will be placed right in the heart of large populations of people. Of course, that is where the regional casino developers want them to be, so that there is the greatest market potential and the greatest access by the majority of people to their facility. Any business man in their position would think in exactly the same way. That would mean that the problems of convenience and of ambient gambling would raise their heads in a way that is different to anything that we have experienced in this country hitherto.

10.15 am

Mr. Foster: I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but will he reflect on the representations that I and, no doubt, he have received saying that we already have an ambient gambling problem with the growth of opportunities in high-street betting shops, not least because of fixed-odds betting terminals? I hope that we return to that issue.

Mr. Moss: I agree with that point: there is a problem but it is nothing like on the scale of the potential problem if we had 40 or 50 regional casinos with huge numbers of machines in them.

So there is a problem. The Government say that the Bill is about protecting the vulnerable and, especially, children. However, because of the way in which the Bill is structured, there could be 40 or more huge casinos, which will be in our city centres, not in the countryside. Some may be in coastal resorts, but the majority will, under the planning conditions, go where regeneration benefits would be greatest. That will be in city centres, right in the middle of the so-called vulnerable populations that the Government say they are trying to protect.

One reason why there has been such a massive reaction to the proposals is that people do not know what they are signing up to. Parliament does not know what it is signing up to. If there are changes to the Bill, it will be fine. We hope that we will come on to those changes later and that the Government will move in the direction that is desired not only by us, but, judging from the small rebellion on Second Reading and the speeches made by many of their colleagues, by many Government Members.

We feel that the words ''socially responsible'' ought to form a key ingredient of one of the Bill's objectives so that the gambling commission, who will be managing those objectives, can say to regional casinos, ''There are problems, not just with the operation of your facility but with the knock-on social effects of where you are and what you are doing.'' That may mean that social organisations are brought into the consultation process. Mandatory environmental impact assessments are part of many

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planning applications. Why not have social impact assessments in this context? I am not suggesting that we put them in the Bill, but I believe that there needs to be some constraint and some acceptance of social responsibility.

Amendment No. 73 would insert paragraph (d), with the objective of

    ''ensuring the development of new gambling opportunities is gradual and controlled to minimise the potential for social harm.''

I covered many of the points that relate to the amendment. We have tabled an amendment to clause 7 which raises the issue of restricting the number of regional casinos through pilot schemes. I do not want to rehearse the arguments that we will use at that time. It is an attempt on our part to ensure the gradual development of regional casinos, which are the main problem. The larger of the smaller casinos will take care of themselves in time. However, a huge explosion in the number of regional casinos over a short period would take us into an area into which we have never been. Indeed, I do not think that any country of the UK's size and density of population has given such huge numbers of people access to such casinos. Parts of Australia have liberalised gambling, although we perhaps do not want to go down the same road. However, the population density in Australia is nothing like what it is here, and access to category A machines is nothing like what it would be if regional casinos were established in our city centres and other densely populated areas.

We therefore want development to be gradual so that we can measure the impact of the new casinos on the social and economic fabric of their areas. That means taking things slowly, adopting a piecemeal approach and ensuring that we get things right before allowing further expansion.

 
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