Gambling Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: I take the opportunity to thank the Minister for what he said, because I spoke before his response. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire that we have learned the

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valuable lesson that, whenever the Minister reads out an official brief very fast, we can assume that we are on to something and keep pressing the matter. The Minister's comment that he will return to us with a definition was helpful.

Under clause stand part, I can refer in more detail to my concerns about the regional aspect of the issue. I know that it will, to some extent, be dealt with by a later part of the Bill but it is relevant here, because there is a danger of confusion in the scheme that the Government have put forward, which is unnecessarily complex. The best body to decide whether there should be a casino and its related developments in a particular area is the local authority. That issue is covered by the licensing authorities clause—clause 2.

There is also the spectre of regional bodies deciding where in the region the casino might be appropriate. Only after that will the more local local authority, if I may put it like that, consider the proposal in relation to licensing. The scrutiny Committee and, in particular on Second Reading, its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), whose work on the Bill has been widely recognised on all sides, made the point that it would be more sensible if Parliament took a national decision about what is appropriate. Many people on the Opposition Benches, and on the Government Back Benches, who are less in favour of liberalisation than I am, also believe that it is the responsibility of Parliament to decide on issues such as the one that we are talking about.

I remember vividly that, on Second Reading last Monday evening, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), a widely respected Member, whose view of the legislation is different from mine, said that Parliament ought to decide that there should be just one new casino—a pilot one. He said that he would be perfectly happy for it to be in Blackpool. Whichever view one takes on whether there should be one, four, six or any number of new casinos, surely that decision could be taken nationally, with the subsequent licensing decisions taken by the most local councils as set out in clause 2.

What worries me is that the Government and, in particular, the Deputy Prime Minister and his closest allies, including the Minister, want to use the Bill as a mechanism for giving more power to regional bodies. We know why they want to do that. They have always wanted to turn the UK into a place divided into regions, fitting in with the European Union's regional agenda. That is in the face of huge public hostility such as we saw in the north-east, where they tried out the regional referendum because they thought that it was their best chance of getting it through. We know from last week's vote that, if that was their best chance, they have no chance in the rest of the country. That is what they are up to. Anyone who does not realise that has not read the Deputy Prime Minister's speeches of the 10 ten years.

Mr. Banks rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before I call Mr. Banks, I note that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) is straying from what is in the clause. There is no mention of regions. We are discussing

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licensing authorities. However, he has given way to Mr. Banks, so I call him. Let us make sure that we stick to what we are debating.

Mr. Banks: I had better not get up then.

Mr. Hawkins: I accept your ruling, Mr. Pike. Perhaps I can return to the Government, the Deputy Minister and the Minister's real agenda later. I will certainly give way to the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), because I agreed with much of what she said on Second Reading.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Who am I to say that there should not be one pilot and that it should not be in Blackpool? However, other people might disagree with that.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the point that I made on Second Reading, which was about the need for transparency. If the Government are going to give directions and say ''There, there and perhaps there'', the Bill could be open to all sorts of challenges and people could reasonably ask, ''Why?'' Will he therefore consider a national framework and the setting of some rules within which the Government can properly operate, so that the local authorities that are interested in the proposals would have some idea of how to bid or to compete?

3.30 pm

Mr. Hawkins: That is a helpful intervention. I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of transparency, but for that argument to be valid it does not matter who is making the decision. As I am sure she realises, with the huge amounts of money behind some of the overseas companies, even if the Government were to get their wish—I do not think that they will—and the decisions were to be made regionally, there would still be challenges through the courts. Many of those huge, international conglomerates have literally got money to burn if they wish, and they can keep challenging the transparency of those decisions if they are made regionally. There would be a greater guarantee of transparency if Parliament and the Government made the decisions.

As the hon. Lady knows, I was not adopting the argument of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, saying that there should be only one pilot, in Blackpool; I would prefer to liberalise more. I want to ensure that after the Bill is implemented we see regenerative effects in the rundown resorts, including Blackpool. There is very little between her views and mine, but I hope that she understands that her transparency argument, which is a good one, could apply at any level. I want the main decisions to be made in the Bill and the local decision making made by the councils most local to the people. It would be a defensible system.

Not wishing to infringe on your ruling, Mr. Pike, and knowing that we will return to that issue, I just wanted to make the point on stand part that I would have liked to see in this clause a statement that for the avoidance of doubt, as we are putting in unitary

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authorities, none of those decisions will be taken regionally. I have made the points that I needed to make, which were important to get on the record.

Mr. Caborn: I will clear up the misunderstanding about the authorities. The clause will define the authorities that have a responsibility for licensing gambling premises and carrying out other associated regulatory functions under the Bill. In England and Wales, they will be the same authorities as those carrying out functions under a parallel provision in the Licensing Act 2003. In Scotland, the authorities will be those licensing bodies that already have responsibility for regulating gambling and the supply of alcohol.

Under the Bill, the authorities will take over all functions undertaken in England and Wales by licensing justices, magistrates, and in Scotland by the licensing board and the local authority. Bearing it in mind that casinos and many bingo clubs also serve alcohol, and that many pubs, clubs and other premises licensed to sell alcohol also have gaming machines, it makes sense to ask the same local authorities to run both systems.

The systems will be different, because apart from anything else the licensing objectives are not identical, but there is clearly a lot of common ground and scope for coherence of approach and efficiency of administration. The approach proposed in the clause will also inject an element of democratic local accountability, which is lacking.

We are confident that the local authorities identified in the clause are the right bodies to license gambling premises, issue permits and carry out the other essentially local regulatory responsibilities for which the Bill provides. We are working closely with the authorities to ensure that they are ready and prepared to take on those responsibilities when the Bill is brought fully into force.

Mr. Moss: The Minister talks of discussions with the local authorities to ensure that they are ready. I remember that when we were debating the Licensing Bill, assurances were given by the then Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting that the local authorities were being brought on board and knew exactly what was going on. We have just heard about the fees structure and, as was pointed out earlier, many authorities are up in arms about the fees under the Licensing Act 2003. Will the Minister assure us that this time his Department and the local authorities will get their act together, so that the appropriate grant money will be made available to allow the authorities to do their job properly?

Mr. Caborn: I do not want to wander too much into the Licensing Act or, indeed, the level of licensing. We have said absolutely consistently that the fees will be cost-effective, and we believe that they are. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State put a safety valve in the system. We said that the National Audit Office will review the fees and that we would rectify them upwards or downwards if they were wrong. This debate is taking place against a background in which we have consulted widely on the fees, and the Local Government Association and the Local Authorities

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Coordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards have made submissions.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I wished to intervene on the Minister. He has sat down, but perhaps I could just make one small observation. The Minister said very clearly that the slight inconsistency that we have identified in respect of responsibility in metropolitan district council areas matches the provisions in the Licensing Act. We have obtained a copy of that Act, and he is entirely wrong. The list of authorities in the Licensing Act is exactly the same as the list of authorities in the Bill. However, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which lists the authorities that may give advice to a regional planning body, has a list that includes a county council, a district council for an area for which there is no county council—the two categories that are included in the Bill—and a third category of metropolitan district council. In other words, a metropolitan district council is not the same as a county council or a district council for an area for which there is no county council. It appears that it is not only the Gambling Bill that is deficient. Perhaps the Licensing Act is also deficient and half the country is not covered by it.

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