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Standing Committee B
Tuesday 9 November 2004
[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]
The Chairman: May I indicate to the Committee that I will be chairing the sitting on Thursday morning and, in accord with the Speaker's statement, at 11 o'clock we will stand and have two minutes' silence to observe Remembrance day? I tell you that now, although I will also remind you on Thursday morning, as it would help if people were not going in and out of the Room at that time. I will simply call for the two minutes' silence and Members will stand.
The licensing objectives
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 1, in
clause 1, page 1, line 7, after first 'crime', insert ', public nuisance'.—[Mr. Don Foster.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:
Amendment No. 71, in
Amendment No. 72, in
clause 1, page 1, line 9, after 'fair', insert 'socially responsible'.
Amendment No. 36, in
Amendment No. 37, in
Amendment No. 73, in
Amendment No. 80, in
Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike. I am delighted to see you, as I was having a little trouble just before we adjourned. I am sure that, with your fingertip control, all will go smoothly from now on.
If I remember correctly, I was saying that the Government made a big mistake in not agreeing with the scrutiny Committee's advice on a more coherent
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pattern of guidance to the regions. I remind hon. Members what the Joint Committee said:
''While we acknowledge the Government's reluctance to publish national guidance relating specifically to regional/leisure destination casinos, we believe that it could help to ensure a consistent approach between regional authorities and avoid the need for applications to be called in for determination by the First Secretary of State.''
Amendment No. 73 goes to the core of the debate and touches on this matter to a significant extent. In response to the Joint Committee, the Government stated:
''The Government accepts that national planning policy guidance should, where it is appropriate, deal with casinos.''
The response then says that various papers
''and the two joint statements already provide a comprehensive policy framework.''
I was taken aback by that response, and subsequent events have shown that the public and the media have come down very much on the side of the Joint Committee rather than that of the Government, hence all the media excitement of the past couple of weeks.
Amendment No. 73 is key to the whole debate. If the Minister were inclined to accept it, we could all pack up and go home. If we could be clear about how new gambling opportunities will be developed and expanded, everyone would know exactly where they were.
When my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) spoke to amendment No. 73 and was asked what he had in mind, he mentioned pilot schemes. Perhaps the Government should actively consider that route. The Joint Committee suggested that the Government examine very closely the French system as a means
''of ensuring the development of new gambling opportunities is gradual and controlled'',
to quote from the amendment. In France, central Government say to various cities and towns that they can have a casino, and then the city or town negotiates with the various bidders to get all the benefits that it thinks it needs.
We visited one centre that had recently been granted permission to have a casino. The casino operator built a new theatre, and many roads and other means of access were improved. That type of benefit could accrue, but the interesting thing was that the new casino developments were dictated by central Government. I am not saying that that is the way to go, but it is obvious that the public have comprehensively taken fright at the idea of unbridled expansion. The Government are on record as saying that the market should decide. In an issue such as this, the market should not decide. We need careful regulation and development, and we want to ensure that everything goes the right way.
There have been comments about rowdiness in casinos. I am not a great casino attendee, but in those that I attended as part of the work of the Joint Committee we saw no drunkenness or rowdiness. In fact, the people playing the tables and slot machines looked decidedly miserable to me. They did not look
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as though they were enjoying it at all; they looked like they needed a bit of cheering up.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD) rose—
Mr. Page: The hon. Gentleman is going to tell us about his rowdy experiences in the local casino.
Mr. Foster: No, I entirely concur with the hon. Gentleman's comments about the 131 existing casinos. However, does he not share my concern about the new breed of casino, the new super or regional casinos, in the Bill, where circumstances might be very different because of the large number of people likely to attend?
Mr. Page: The hon. Gentleman has obviously seen exactly what I am going to say next, because I have a little note that says ''50–50''. He is absolutely right that, going on the experience in America, the new super-casinos—whether they are called resort or destination casinos is by the by—will take their revenue with an almost 50–50 split. Some 50 per cent. of revenue will come from gaming, and the greatest percentage of that will come from slot machines, but the other 50 per cent. will come from various leisure activities, including shows, entertainment, meals and so on. [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) waving at me?
Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham) (Lab): There is an assumption in this Committee, and before it becomes received truth it should be examined, that the large casinos will somehow inevitably lead to rowdy behaviour. That problem can be dealt with by a raft of measures, and the hon. Gentleman has already said how well ordered existing casinos are. Why can we not assume that that will be extrapolated to the new casinos?
Mr. Page: I have no objection to what the hon. Gentleman says. Dredging my memory banks, I do not think that I have said anything to the contrary that should make him leap to his feet. Casino staff are trained; they are not the average lad, with no training in how to deal with drunks and rowdiness, who has been asked to serve behind the bar at the Pig and Whistle for half an hour on a Saturday evening. Due to their training and numbers, casino staff are perfectly able to deal with problems if they occur, so I do not make any of the assumptions that the hon. Gentleman tries to put into my mouth.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): As I think my hon. Friend knows, I agree with several of the points that he has made. As far as a number of current casino operators and, indeed, many potential operators, are concerned, there is no danger. Does he recognise, however, that when, as in the case very close to my constituency that I mentioned, the very same person who operates all the late-night drinking venues currently causing problems also applies for the casino licence, one must consider whether the Bill will ensure that only the reputable people who will take the precautions about which my hon. Friend talks get the chance to run casinos?
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Mr. Page: I happen to know the string of wine bars and pubs in Guildford to which my hon. Friend refers, and I can only agree that they cause enormous trouble, particularly on Friday and Saturday evenings. A great deal of police time is occupied in trying to sort out a very young clientele who are behaving in a perfectly disgraceful fashion.
I beg your indulgence, Mr. Pike, because I am about to move slightly away from the subject—
The Chairman: Not too far.
Mr. Page: I shall be back in 30 seconds. The answer to my hon. Friend is that the granting of a licence is not a simple process. Permission must be granted by the gambling commission and then various uses must be granted by the local authority. If I was on the local authority and I saw that the area was causing nothing but riots and chaos every Friday or Saturday night, I would be disinclined to give planning permission and the casino would not get the licence to operate anyway.
I will now quickly return to the subject; last time, I was led astray, but I am trying to reform. This is where the role of the gambling commission is going to come in. The whole thrust of amendment No. 73 is that the development of new gambling opportunities needs to be
''gradual and controlled to minimise the potential for social harm.''
It is all there. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State, realising that she was being sent out to bat on a rather sticky wicket and seeing yawning chasms under her feet and all the other clichés that come to mind, did a lot of back-pedalling and made a series of quite substantial promises. The amendment is the Minister's big opportunity to put flesh on the bones of the Secretary of State's words. What are the gradual and careful developments that are necessary to ensure the minimisation of social harm? The obligation is on the Minister and I look forward to hearing what he will say.