Gambling Bill

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Bob Russell: Will the hon. Gentleman enlighten us on what that limited number would be?

Mr. Whittingdale: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as that was exactly the point I was about to come to.

Mr. Foster: We could have predicted that.

Mr. Whittingdale: The hon. Gentleman is just as telepathic as the ''Today'' programme was this morning.

Mr. Caborn: The figure is in the relevant amendment.

Mr. Whittingdale: Indeed.

Before I move on, however, I should say that earlier the Minister made much of the Government being a listening Government. Obviously we welcome it when the Government listen, but what has happened is somewhat like a deaf man who suddenly, at the 11th hour, discovers that he can hear. It is a matter for huge celebration that the man can suddenly hear, but it is a pity that he could not hear earlier.

We welcome the Government's concession of a pilot scheme. In answer to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), we tabled an amendment that suggested four. The Government have returned to the matter and suggested eight. We shall want to look at the detail of that proposal before deciding whether we can support the figure of eight.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman explain how he arrived at the figure of four? Will he also enlighten us on whether his party intends to table an amendment to determine where those four should be located?

Mr. Whittingdale: We tabled an amendment proposing four because we wanted a pilot scheme. At that stage there was no proposal for a pilot scheme; the

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Government were resting on their belief that there would be about 20 to 40 super-casinos, although there was no provision in the Bill to limit them to that number. We felt that there should be a pilot scheme and we proposed four. We were not absolutely wedded to that number; we were eager to debate whether there should be four, six, two or eight, as we shall in due course. We will be interested to hear why the Government decided on eight and where they propose to locate them. We have our own ideas, but the Government will have to introduce such proposals.

Clive Efford: The answer to the first part of my question is that the hon. Gentleman plucked the figure out of the air and that he has no idea how to determine where the four, or eight, should be.

Mr. Whittingdale: We will see how the Government determine their figure of eight and whether it is the result of careful and rigorous analysis or has been plucked out of the air. We can have a debate about the number; four is preferable to eight, because if we start with four and there are no problems, the number can be increased to eight or more. However, if there are eight, and the assessment reveals significant problems, one cannot then go back to four. If a pilot scheme allows some casinos to be established, we could not say after five years that their licences might be withdrawn. That is why caution is the most important principle and why it is sensible to start with a small number and increase it, rather than going for a higher figure initially. We will debate the matter when we have the Government's detailed proposals.

The hon. Member for Bath is absolutely right that location is equally important. The original proposals led to discussion of a huge number of schemes, many in the heart of cities. We know from expert evidence on the matter that many feel that the greatest driver of an increase in problem gambling is the location of casinos in high streets, close to where people live. It is the possibility of ambient gambling that is most likely to lead to addiction. That is why casinos should be outside towns and cities.

Many accept the concept that appropriate locations are resorts and tourist areas that people make a conscious effort to visit because they want to spend an evening taking part in all the activities that the casino has to offer, including gambling. I am sure that the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) welcomes the fact that we agree that Blackpool would be an attractive option for one of the first casinos. It is ironic that although people have focused on Blackpool, if the original Bill had been introduced, and a large number of casinos had been developed, there would have been a much greater possibility that any casino development in the north-west would have been located close to the heart of the population centres of Manchester and Liverpool. It is likely that Blackpool would not have got a casino if that option had been available. By limiting the number we may have increased the possibility that Blackpool will benefit. We are not completely opposed to any

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casino development, as there are great advantages to be had. However, we want to know the details of the Government's proposals.

We would like an answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) about the legality of the Government's proposals. We originally proposed a pilot scheme, but there was speculation that a cap on the number might be in breach of European law. Indeed, I have received a communication from one legal adviser who responded to our suggestion by saying that it would be likely to be struck down under articles 43 and 49 of the European Community treaty. I am sure that the Minister had considered the legality of what is proposed before making his announcement this morning, and has an answer to that point; it would be of benefit to the Committee to hear it.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I start by welcoming my right hon. Friend's announcement about the limit on the number of casinos to eight, but I want to talk about location rather than just numbers.

I am saddened that the debate has concentrated on numbers, because the number of casinos in itself is not the issue. We could have three, four or five in a particular location, serving the function of regenerating a town or city, but the same number spread out nationally, so that everyone in the community was within half an hour's drive of a casino, would limit regeneration potential. I will explore the issue of location rather than numbers, but I must begin by welcoming the Government's announcement that they are being cautious.

In limiting the numbers, the Government have recognised the need for caution, which was recommended by Sir Alan Budd in his report. He talked about resort casinos—they were called resort casinos then, but they seem to have changed their name in each year of the past three that we have debated the issue. In paragraph 24.30 of the report, Sir Alan stated:

    ''Our proposed changes would permit them''

—resort casinos.

    ''The development of a resort casino or resort casinos in a particular location would depend on local authority planning decisions and on the commercial judgment of businesses that wished to provide them.''

That is a perfectly acceptable starting point, and indeed it was the Government's starting point, but Sir Alan Budd and his colleagues emphasised that we need to proceed cautiously. Paragraph 3.29 states:

    ''Since we are uncertain about the effects on individuals and on society as a whole of changes in regulation we suggest fairly cautious moves in the first place, with scope for further deregulation in due course if the results are acceptable.''

I am pleased to say that that is the situation we are now in.

It is wise to consider the impact of a new system of operating casinos. We have had casinos for many years, but not on the scale we are now talking about, and they do not offer what large regional casinos will

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offer. Blackpool has three casinos, and I have been into one of them. I did not gamble, because I am not a member—they are members' clubs. We are talking about something on a much bigger scale, offering entertainment and a whole range of other facilities, so we need to move cautiously.

I make no apologies for referring to Blackpool because everyone else keeps doing so. I welcome many of the comments that Members of all parties have made about my constituency and my town. Blackpool has led on the debate for many years, and has been actively involved in promoting the idea of regeneration through casino development and in reinvigorating the tourism product through casinos and changes in gambling legislation. The Minister's announcement has allayed many of our fears about the possibility of gaming sheds appearing outside our towns and the proliferation of gambling. He has quite rightly focused on a limited number so that the Government can address the issue of regeneration.

When representatives of Blackpool borough council met members of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee in December 2002, they emphasised that

    ''these new casinos are harnessed for regional and urban economic development through investment in projects which generate local community benefits in areas of greatest need.''

Again, we need to emphasise that location is important. How are we going to determine those areas of greatest need?

I am pleased that the Minister has announced that there is to be a national framework. I argued for that on Second Reading, because there must be clarity in the decision-making process. A detailed and precise national framework is vital. Within that new regulatory system, we need to ensure that we secure genuine regeneration as opposed to simply development benefits. That will guard against proliferation and help to guard against an increase in problem gambling.

I see this debate as an opportunity to lobby the Minister while he is considering developing the details of the proposals that we will come to later. I personally favour tourism-based regeneration in relation to casino developments, so that there is the potential to grow the net revenue, rather than simply to displace and recirculate local spending. That is why a destination casino is so important. The fear is that, if casinos are placed in our major cities, the money in that locality will merely be recirculated; the population base and the money is already there. If people choose to go to a particular destination, however, they put new money into that economy, which will enhance regeneration opportunities.

10.30 am

 
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Prepared 16 November 2004