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Standing Committee B
Tuesday 16 November 2004
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
The Chairman: Order. Before we commence this morning's proceedings, I have to report that the Programming Sub-Committee has met and that there will be a half-hour debate on an amendment to the programme order.
The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn): I beg to move,
(1) the order of the Committee made on 8th November, as varied by the order made on 11th November, shall be varied so as to provide for consideration of clause 7 immediately after schedule 4; and
(2) the resolution shall also be varied so as to provide that the words ''5.30 pm on Tuesday 16th November'' shall be deleted.
By way of explanation[Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order. I am sorry to interrupt proceedings, but it is clear that we are having difficulty getting some strangers into the Gallery. May I ask hon. Members who wish to hear the proceedings but are not members of the Committee to take the seats available to the rear of the Opposition Benches? That should allow sufficient space for those who wish to listen. I am also prepared to allow House of Commons pass holders to use those seats.
Mr. Caborn: By way of explanation on the programme resolution, I shall make a short statement. We have taken careful note, as promised, of the concerns raised on Second Reading about the casino proposals in the Bill, particularly the provisions for regional casinos. In the debate, there was a large measure of support for the view that the proposed licensing controls, working alongside the planning system, would not be strong enough to guard against the proliferation of gambling facilities hitherto untested in this country, or against the location of regional casinos in unsuitable areas.
The Government regard the regional casino framework, which was much strengthened by pre-legislative scrutiny, as robust and comprehensive. However, we are happy to provide additional reassurance to those who prefer a more cautious approach. We have therefore decided to amend the Bill, if possible in Committee, but at the latest on Report, to address concerns without losing the opportunity to broaden consumer choice and add to the regeneration of areas that might benefit from regional casinos.
Our analysis has always suggested that the number of regional casinos would increase gradually in the early stages of the new licensing environment because
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of the safeguards that we are putting in place. As an additional reassurance, we will limit the number of regional casinos in the first phase to eight. They will be able to open after the Bill is brought fully into force, which we expect to be in 2007.
Whether more regional casinos will be allowed in due course will depend on the results of careful evaluation of their impact after the initial period. We will expect the independent gambling commission, supported by expert research, to advise on whether the introduction of such casinos has increased the risk of problem gambling. What happens then will depend on the assessment and on judgment about protection of the public from social harm. We will also want to know, with the help of the regional development agencies and regional planning bodies, what regeneration and other economic affects there have been in the areas concerned.
Within the tough regulation framework established by the Bill, it will be for the market to decide whether there is a true demand for regional casinos. However, if Parliament agrees that the first phase has provided the expected level of reassurance, more regional casinos will follow. If the Government decide on the basis of the assessment to allow more regional casinos to be established, an order will need to be approved by resolution of both Houses.
When tabling amendments, we shall set out in detail our proposed arrangements for determining where regional casinos will be located and how licences to run them will be awarded, any consequential changes relating to other categories of casino to avoid the proliferation of small or large casinos, and other such matters on which a number of views have already been expressed.
At this stage we do not propose to rule out any part of Great Britain as a suitable area for one or more of the eight regional casinos that will initially be authorised. We are clear that there should be an overarching national policy statement that brings together the requirements of gambling regulation and the roles of planning and economic regeneration. That will set out the principles that should guide decision making about casinos. We intend to publish a draft of that statement when we table the amendments so that Parliament and the public can fully understand the overall policy context.
The Chairman: Order. Before we proceed to a short debate on the programme resolution I want to clarify one or two points. Under the Standing Orders of the House the debate will terminate not later than three minutes past 10. I also want the Committee to be clear on two things. First, the resolution effectively means that today's sitting is open-ended and will terminate only with the motion to adjourn moved by the Government Whip. Secondly, while that is literally the case, private indications from the Programming Sub-Committee suggest that it is intended that the Committee will rise at 6 pm. The programme resolution does not say that, and further considerations between the usual channels later in the day could affect that. Should the Committee determine
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that it wishes to sit later than that time I shall suspend the sitting automatically, either for a Division of the House, or for a comfort break for the staff, or both.
Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): May I first make it clear that we support the resolution of the Programming Sub-Committee? In response to the Minister's statement, I say to the Committee that making such a fundamental change to the most controversial element of the Bill at this stage in our proceedings is an extraordinary development. It is a humiliating climbdown for the Government. It might not have been necessary had they listened to the concerns that had been expressed for some considerable time by Members from all parties and by outside organisations ranging from all the Churches through to the UK casino industry itself, not to mention a wide spectrum of the media.
Having said that, we welcome the fact that the Government have now agreed to set a limit on the number of regional casinos and that there will be a pilot scheme subject to assessment after a period. Indeed, what the Minister has announced bears a remarkable similarity to our amendment No. 70 to clause 7, which proposed exactly such a pilot scheme. The only difference is that the Minister has announced that the limit should be eight rather than four. We will wish to explore that when we come to debate clause 7 itself. A number of areas remain of concern to us. We will want to hear more about the location of the casinos and the Government's proposals for assessing their impact. We undoubtedly welcome the nature of the scheme that has been announced this morning but will we wish to examine it in detail.
This is a step forward, however, and to facilitate it, the intention of Front-Bench Membersobviously I cannot speak for all my colleaguesis to withdraw our original amendments to clause 7 so that we can have a full debate on clause stand part about the whole regional casinos industry. We will then want to see the exact detail of the amendments that the Government are to table, either during the remainder of the Committee proceedings or on Report. I hope that the fact that we will withdraw our amendments at this stage will allow us to table amendments on Report, should we feel that the Government's changes do not go far enough.
Later in our consideration of the Bill, we will press on the Government one or two other measures that will provide additional safeguards that we believe to be necessary. At this stage, I can say that we welcome the Government's last-minute change of mind.
I have one further point to make. When we debated the emergency amendment to our programme order last Thursday, to provide for a delay so that the Minister could consult his colleagues before agreeing to these changes, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) specifically asked the Minister
''for a clear undertaking that any announcement that he makes about major changes to clause 7 . . . will be made first to the Committee and to no other organisation.''
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The Minister said in his response that
''there will be no public statements or announcements before I come to Committee.''[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 11 November 2004; c. 89-90.]
It was, therefore, with some surprise this morning that I heard on the radio that the Secretary of State had briefed the parliamentary Labour party last night on the changes that have been announced. The report was not based on a speculative briefing or on sources close to the Secretary of State, but on a statement by the right hon. Lady, on the record, to the parliamentary Labour party rather than to the Committee. That seems to be a breach of the undertaking given to the Committee by the Minister a few days ago. I will be interested to hear his observations on that matter.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I join the hon. Gentleman in saying that we are happy to support the programme resolution and to follow the Conservatives' approach in agreeing to withdraw any of our amendments to clause 7, so that we can have a full debate on the Minister's proposal and also consider those other matters at a later stage.
I make it clear, however, that two important issues arise from our amendments which I hope the Government will take on board when they table their amendments. First, there is a need for a clearer definition of casinos, not least to enable a definition of the area in which only certain categories of people are to be allowed, and for entry to which identification will be required. Secondly, we would like the opportunity at a later stage to discuss a point mentioned by the Minister in his statementthe location of any new super, or as he calls them, regional casinos. There will no doubt be lengthy debate about the joint scrutiny Committee's proposal that any new super-casino be a destination casino, to avoid the problems of ambient gambling that would occur were those casinos to be sited, for example, on the main streets in major towns and cities.
That said, we welcome the brief draft proposals that the Minister has given us in respect of the significant U-turn that the Government are now making on this most controversial clause. We said that we were concerned about the potential for huge proliferation of those untried super-casinos, and about the impact that that might have on public health if there were an increase in problem gambling. We also expressed concern that those casinos might not produce the large regeneration benefits that the Government has claimed for them. I hope, therefore, that there will be an opportunity during the stand part debate on clause 7 to discuss those matters with the Minister in more detail.
Many of us find it surprising that there was no reference in the Minister's statement to the number of category A machines. I suspect that Members on both sides of the Committee hope that the Minister will shortly make proposals at least to limit to a small percentagepreferably to zerothe number of category A machines in the eight new trial, or pilot, super-casinos proposed by the Government.
I share the anxiety expressed by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) about the fact that the statement was made elsewhere before it was given to the Committee a few minutes ago. The hon. Gentleman said in a previous sitting that he would like the Minister to give us
''a clear undertaking that any announcement that he makes about major changes to clause 7, or any other part of the Bill, will be made first to the Committee and to no other organisation.''
As the hon. Gentleman said, the Minister gave the Committee the following assurance:
''In reply to the hon. Member for Bath, there will be no public statements or announcements before I come to Committee.'' [Official Report, Standing Committee B, 11 November 2004; c. 89-90.]
It is clear from what many hon. Members will have heard on the radio and read in our newspapers this morning that an announcement was made last night to a body of people other than members of the Committee. Although I do not question the Minister's integrity, I am deeply concerned that someone from his Departmentnamely the Secretary of State, who I am sure was well aware of the assurance that the Minister gave the Committeenevertheless was prepared to break that clear undertaking.