Gambling Bill

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Mr. Moss rose—

Clive Efford: I shall finish the point before giving way to the hon. Gentleman. It is a shame that we are so close to an election. We are clearly seeing Members of Parliament posturing in preparation for a general election. This is the sort of Bill that, generally, MPs can deal with in a mature way that benefits constituents. There is a duty on those on both Front Benches to deal with the Bill in a sensible way that benefits the public, not party positions.

Mr. Moss: It would be interesting to know when my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk made the comments reported. I suspect that he was in that post four years ago, before the scrutiny Committee considered the Bill and the reports were written. At that time, no one knew—in fact, no one on the scrutiny Committee knew—that the Government's proposals would be such that there might be up to 20 or 40 regional casinos. That was not even on the horizon. We are in favour of liberalisation; we have not said that we do not want to liberalise the law. All we are saying is that we must proceed cautiously.

Clive Efford: I can answer the hon. Gentleman's question. The comments were made on 26 March 2004, so it was nearer four months ago than four years ago.

Miss Kirkbride: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is sufficiently broadminded to accept that the Bill is before us today because the Government chose to introduce it less than a year before we all expect there to be a general election. Furthermore, he criticises MPs who oppose the Bill for playing politics with it. Surely he has been in the House long enough—I think that he has been here longer than me—to know that any measure dealing with gambling is bound to cause a great deal of concern among Members of Parliament.

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Clive Efford: I accept that point. My point is about the change, the sudden volte-face, in the position that certain people have taken on the issue.

Miss Kirkbride: As we have said many times, on Second Reading and even today, we can all be happy with 90 per cent. of the Bill, because that 90 per cent. is modest and reasonable. The concern relates to the 10 per cent. that deals with casino gambling. No one has changed their position on that matter—it is a new phenomenon that the Government are introducing, to which many of us object.

Clive Efford: The hon. Lady continues to make my points for me. I thank her very much. Given that we agree with 90 per cent. of the Bill, and if there is so much that is good about it, I am surprised that hon. Members have voted against it. The duty of hon. Members is to amend legislation. Our duty is to improve that 10 per cent. of the Bill, so that we can move forward with consensus. It is important that there be consensus on such a Bill.

Let me move on. I sympathise with the intention behind the amendments, but I have to question whether this is the right part of the Bill to deal with the issues that they raise. If, as a consequence of the Bill's introduction, we finish up with disorder on our high streets as a result of people over-indulging in alcohol, the legislation will have failed. Frankly, if the Bill sanctions over-indulgence in alcohol as an accompaniment to gambling, it is a squalid Bill that will fail to protect people from the worst forms of exploitation that we can imagine on our high streets. However, I do not think that the Bill is going in that direction.

I say to Opposition Members that the place to deal with the issue—I am putting my hon. Friends on notice that I might propose an amendment in a future debate—is clause 23. I am surprised that that clause does not mention anything to do with alcohol and gambling. We need to deal with the issue in the code of practice. If we create a situation in which, while gambling in casinos, people can indulge in alcohol to the extent that people fear, the legislation will have failed. It is essential that the code of practice includes a reference to alcohol to the effect that expectations are high.

11.15 am

I had the privilege of speaking yesterday to people employed in the gambling industry in America and I was astonished at the level of regulation in the American casino industry. They were very complimentary about the level of regulation. They also explained that staff are trained, including in how to spot people who are over-indulging in alcohol while gambling. There are notices in some casinos warning the public about drinking alcohol while gambling and asking people to come forward if they identify anyone who is too much under the influence of alcohol while gambling. The Bill should deal with those matters, rather than public disorder on our high streets.

Mr. Foster: I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's point about alcohol. However, can he address the issue of public nuisance, to which my amendment relates? Does he accept that there is a distinction in law

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between disorder and public nuisance? Many members of the public are already deeply concerned about public nuisance in relation to pubs and clubs. Does he not think that it would be appropriate to have the words ''public nuisance'' included in the Bill as one of the objectives to be avoided?

Clive Efford: I do not think so. We are discussing establishments whose primary function is gambling but, as a result of the Bill, they may cause nuisance and disorder on our streets. I do not think that the Bill is an appropriate vehicle for trying to deal with the question of nuisance on our high streets, which is caused by elements that are licensed under other legislation, such as that covering alcohol. The hon. Gentleman is confusing the issue by trying to introduce a provision to deal with that matter under the clause. To ensure that we protect the public, we need to deal with that matter through the operators' code of practice.

Mr. Foster: On that argument, I presume that the hon. Gentleman would propose deletion of the word ''disorder'' in relation to clause 1(a). I would be surprised if he wished to do that.

The hon. Gentleman has already referred several times to the code. Clause 23, which is clearly related to this clause, provides that the code will have regard to the licensing objectives. If the code refers to the licensing objectives, it is vital that we get those objectives right.

Clive Efford: I accept that that is correct, but I believe that the hon. Gentleman suggests in his amendment that the nuisance caused will be similar to that seen at late-night drinking venues and discos. I do not believe that this licensing legislation can deal with that element of public nuisance and public disorder. The clause concerns the regulation of the gaming side of the operation. He confuses the issue by introducing that aspect into the clause. If an operator is providing alcohol in a way that is creating a nuisance, that should be dealt with in the code of practice. That is the most appropriate and strongest way in which the gambling commission can handle the matter. Regulations already exist under which local authorities can deal with nuisance and licensing.

Mr. Foster indicated dissent.

Clive Efford: Yes, they do, because local authorities are becoming the licensing authority.

Mr. Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is ironic that the Liberal Democrats have tabled this amendment about nuisance, when they opposed the measures that the Government introduced to tackle antisocial behaviour?

Clive Efford: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will conclude by reiterating what I said earlier. We need to strengthen the code of practice, because that is the most appropriate way in which to deal with the concerns raised by the amendments. The provisions in clause 1 are sufficient, and I shall not support the amendments.

Mr. Page: As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said, the hon. Member for West Ham and I served on the scrutiny Committee.

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I am in a little difficulty at the moment, because having listened to what the hon. Member for West Ham said, I find myself to the left of him politically. That will put me into an extremely difficult position, but I shall try to overcome those problems.

As I am talking of degrees of difficulty, the scrutiny Committee had a difficulty in that the whole Bill was not available on day one to be gone through and seen as a piece. It emerged from some osmotic process, which shows the difficulty in getting the drafting of the Bill exactly right. I think that everybody agreed that the Bill was not exactly right on Second Reading.

Amendment No. 73 goes to the heart of the difference between the scrutiny Committee and the Government, and produced a torrent of concern from the media. I think that the media overdid it and exaggerated, but why let the facts get in the way of a good story? There has been plenty of publicity about the issue, and there we are. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), with her journalistic background, may wish to comment on the accuracy of journalism and the various areas that have an impact on politics.

The scrutiny Committee asked for comprehensive planning guidance and advice to be available from the various regional bodies, so that anybody making any form of application could know exactly where they were and what they were about to do in their application. We would all agree that those regional bodies are as new-born babes compared with the existing county council structure, and they do not have the tried and trusted case law to advise them on how to go forward with various planning applications. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath was cruel to refer to the recent result from the north-east, but I wonder what that will do for the effectiveness of the various regional assemblies.

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Mr. Hawkins: Very briefly, as I am conscious of the time, one of the results of the Government's humiliation in the recent referendum in the north-east was that the chairman of the South East England regional assembly called for the abolition of his own assembly and others like it yesterday.

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