Gambling Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: I do not think that my hon. Friend's amendments are rubbish and in the bin. I rather suspect that the Minister's wise words acknowledging their value simply pave the way for the enforced retreat that the Government know that they will have to make under pressure from Labour peers in another place.

Mr. Moss: That may or may not be so.

It is my pleasure to speak to amendment No. 74, which is a simple amendment. The Minister probably has an equally pleasurable way of saying that it is not necessary. In looking down the list of councils in the clause, I noted that unitary councils were not included. Of course, that may be another oversight by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, or unitary councils may well be covered by some other clause at the back of the Bill. I wait to see what the Minister has to say about it.

Mr. Caborn: I shall get in my usual courtesies to the hon. Gentleman and try to be as helpful as always, but I shall resist the amendment. It would introduce a reference to a unitary authority where one is not necessary. At a basic level, ''unitary authority'' describes an authority that exercises all the principal

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local government functions for its area. A county council to which the functions of a district council have been transferred is therefore a unitary authority. Unitary authorities are already covered by clause 2, so I cannot advise the Committee to accept the amendment, and I ask that it be withdrawn.

3.15 pm

Mr. Hawkins: I suspect that I am not alone in being slightly puzzled by the words that the Minister just read out. They sounded like the kind of thing that Sir Humphrey might have said in ''Yes Minister''. There may well need to be some further explanation. The amendment brings forward wider issues. I mention that now in case the debate is extended, although I may have the opportunity to talk on stand part.

One reason for inserting ''unitary council'', in addition to the avoidance of doubt in the light of what the Minister has just said, is to make it absolutely clear that the principal decisions will always be made by the authority closest to the people. I am very concerned indeed—this came up briefly during the exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire this morning—about the way in which the Government are continuing to pursue their agenda of pushing as much decision making as possible from local people to regional level.

I have already referred to the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister's plans were severely derailed by the massive and sensible vote by the people of the north-east last week, but it is crucial to ensure that everyone knows that vital decisions on these issues will be taken by the level of government closest to the people who elect that government. I tabled an amendment, which was not selected but may be able to be covered in a stand part debate, seeking to state in this part of the Bill, for the avoidance of doubt, that no such decisions should be taken at regional level. That is not germane to the amendment before us and I would stray out of order if I talked too much about that, but it would be helpful not only if the amendment were accepted, for the avoidance of doubt, but if we made it absolutely clear to those who send us here—

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one reason that the Minister is resisting the amendment is that the vote in the north-east was not only against the north-east regional assembly, but against unitary authorities? Perhaps the Government are cooling on the idea of unitary authorities. While my hon. Friend is responding to that point, perhaps he would also comment on the fact that there are no such things as metropolitan boroughs in the list of councils.

Mr. Hawkins: I do not know the answer to my hon. Friend's second question and no doubt the Minister can deal with that when he responds, but I heard my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire raising the same query sotto voce.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold may be right about his first point—I do not know—but it is important that those who follow our proceedings with great care know that we as an all-party Committee have tried to ensure that the local authority closest to those people will make the crucial decisions. In

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another debate—perhaps on stand part—we shall return to the role, or otherwise, of regional decision making, but I wanted to place my concern on the record at this stage.

Mr. Foster: Purely for the avoidance of doubt, I would like to ask the Minister to assure me that my local authority, Bath and North East Somerset council, will be a licensing authority. It is in neither Wales nor Scotland, so it is not covered by paragraphs (b) or (c). It is not a council of the Isles of Scilly. It is not a common council of the City of London. It is not a London borough council and it is not a district council. As I understand the Minister's definition, Bath and North East Somerset council has suddenly become a county council for a county—not that I knew we had one—in which there are no district councils. It is certainly not a county and, to my knowledge, to this day it has never been known as a county council.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Foster: I am in difficulty, but I give way to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones).

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Newcastle city council is not a district council, but a metropolitan borough council. North Tyneside and Gateshead councils were in existence before the Conservatives did away with Tyne and Wear county council. Does he agree that Newcastle city council is not covered?

Mr. Foster: The honest answer is that I have not the foggiest notion, because of the gobbledegook that came from the Minister. I hope that he will get up and, instead of just reading his brief, explain the position in common language that we can all understand. I want to know how Bath and North East Somerset council has become a county council for a county.

Mr. Page: The answer is remarkably simple. Unitary authorities will not be able to have licensed casinos, and nor will metropolitan ones. That is the Government's way of limiting the number of casinos around the country. It is relatively simple, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not spotted it.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but we are all now desperate to hear from the Minister, so I shall resume my seat.

Bob Russell: What about Sheffield?

Mr. Caborn: Sheffield is okay; I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that.

Several questions have been asked about the role of the various councils. I have asked my officials to check with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. [Interruption.] It is not the ODPM's fault. I wish the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) would wait. He argues that there has been no dialogue, and now I am supposed to have accused another Department.

There are some concerns. We shall get the absolute definitions, and I shall bring them back to the Committee. I shall ask the ODPM to make clear exactly what they are. As I understand it, the definitions have been taken broadly from the Licensing Act 2003. I shall check it and respond to

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the hon. Gentleman's concerns and questions at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Foster: Regardless of whether the wording is correct, will the Minister assure us that it is his intention that unitary authorities such as Bath and North East Somerset council, Newcastle city council and others like them would be considered licensing authorities under the Bill?

Mr. Caborn: The answer to that is yes. In trying to evolve local authorities' ability to be the driving force for regeneration of their economies, we are increasingly putting powers into their hands, whether that is to do with gambling or licensing, so that they are not reactive, but can become proactive. That is the Government's clear position. We are trying to work with authorities in respect of licensing on liquor and gambling and in other areas where levers can be pulled to move forward the economies of the local authorities. The rationale for that is to put them together and to bring them as near to the point of action as possible.

Mr. Foster: So the answer was yes.

Mr. Caborn: With a good explanation.

Mr. Moss: We have learned a second lesson in record time this afternoon. When the Minister gives a gabbled response that no one can understand, it means we are on to something, and I think that we are on to something here. It would be helpful if the Minister checked with the ODPM, which has landed him in the proverbial, that we had the appropriate list of licensing authorities.

There is a difference between the licensing functions of various councils and the planning functions, which also come into an assessment of where casinos and gambling institutions are to go. I cannot see how unitary councils are covered, but if there is an assurance from the ODPM that they are, and the definition of a county council for a county in which there are no district councils covers it, fair enough. A valid point was made.

In the interests of clarity, why do we not use the term ''unitary council'', which everyone understands? It is understood in the minds of the general public, who would not understand what a county council for a county in which there are no district councils actually means. I am making a plea for simplicity. If we mean ''unitary'', let us include that in the Bill. If there is a gap in relation to the metropolitan boroughs, they should also be included. They are certainly not district councils in my view. Following the Minister's assurance that he will return with the appropriate definitions, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

 
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