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Standing Committee Debates
Gambling Bill

Gambling Bill

Column Number: 171

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 16 November 2004

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Gambling Bill

Clause 7

Casino

Question proposed [This day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.

2.30 pm

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham) (Lab): I have known the Minister for many years—''since 'e were a lad''. When I was head of research at the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, he was a young shop steward who had just joined the national committee of the union. Let me show how old I am: I knew the Minister's father for many years before I had the pleasure of knowing his son.

I will not use the Minister's precise Sheffield words at the end of this morning's sitting, but he more or less suggested that I did not know what the Bill was all about, which was rather unfair, as I was on the scrutiny Committee. He said that amendments on numbers and locations could be considered later in the Bill. I would therefore appreciate his telling us into which clauses they could be incorporated.

The obvious thing for the Minister to do would be to withdraw clause 7 and produce a new clause that is more specific. Given that there was no specification as to numbers when the Bill came into Committee, I do not see where numbers could be specified in the clause, but I am sure that the Minister's officials can come up with something. We would appreciate an indication of his thinking, especially on a new clause.

In the original Bill, there was no cap on the number of casinos; we were told that there would be between 20 and 40 super-casinos, regional resorts, destinations or whatever they are called; the names seem to be interchangeable. The number eight came up and lots of questions were asked about why that number had been chosen.

Resuming my position as the former head of research of the AUEW, I did some research at lunchtime; indeed, I may have discovered where eight came from: officials and Ministers have taken the scientific approach, because, as we all know, eight is the atomic number of oxygen; it is the second magic number in physics; it is considered a lucky number in Chinese because it sounds like the word ''prosper''—pnew, I believe is the right pronunciation. Eight babies delivered in one birth are called octuplets; the first surviving set of eight babies, the Louis-Chukwu octuplets, were born in 1998, so when the new clause is drafted, perhaps it will be called the Louis-Chukwu clause.

Column Number: 172

If the Minister's officials took a religious approach, in Buddhism, the eightfold path is the way to spiritual progress—

The Chairman: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's research has not been too extensive. I would like him to come to clause 7 and what was announced this morning.

Mr. Banks: As the Minister has not given us an explanation, those of us who have been thinking about the matter are trying to find out and perhaps to help him, because there must be a reason why eight was chosen. Perhaps it was because it is not safe to be said by wizards on Discworld, which would be a scary reason. Finally, eight is the symbol of infinity, which looks like a fallen eight figure, which must be what it is all about, because infinity is the time that the Minister can take to repent of the Bill and regret the proposals.

The Government have responded to pressures and to opposition to their original proposals, but much of that opposition has bordered on the hysterical. Of course, we have a right, and a duty, as Members of Parliament, to protect the vulnerable, but much of the sentiment expressed on the Floor of the House, in the newspapers and now in the Committee has been sanctimonious and patronising. It is as if those whom we represent are too feeble minded and easily led into temptation, while we politicians are men and women of steely resolve who are disciplined and impervious to temptation.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): How many problem gamblers is the hon. Gentleman aware of? Is it more than eight?

Mr. Banks: Yes, of course it is. But we heard that if the original proposals went through the range was thought to be additional 200,000 to 300,000. Those figures have been plucked out of the air, rather like the figure eight that the Minister came up with for regional casinos. Of course we must acknowledge that there could be a problem. I come back to the point that we seem to be working on the assumption that those whom we represent are too feeble to resist the temptation of going to a casino, while we of course can resist it all the time.

Bob Russell: Would the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the reasons why the then Labour Government introduced the Gaming Act 1968 was to deal with those in society who had been tempted beyond their bank balance?

Mr. Banks: That probably has more to do with the criminality that was attached to gambling at the time. That is usually why licensing regimes are put into effect. I remember having this discussion about betting before 1961. People bet in the pub. I was too young to go into pubs but the hon. Gentleman probably had a bet over his pint. There was clearly a lot of criminal activity and illegality attached to it. So we regularised it, as was right and proper.

Column Number: 173

Perhaps I am in a minority of one in this Committee, but I have heard general agreement that a capped figure should be used. It has ranged from four from the Opposition to one from someone else. As soon as we have done that everyone starts saying that they want a casino and asking whether their area qualifies for a regional casino. People start putting in their bids. That is what the Minister will have to contend with when we decide how that eight, or whatever magic figure it is, will be allocated.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): It is probably a mistake to interrupt my hon. Friend in full flow but those of us who are worried about having a large number of casinos cannot understand how we can have casinos all over the place and still use them to get real, persistent, long-term regeneration in particular localities. How would adopting my hon. Friend's free-market philosophy accord with those regeneration targets?

Mr. Banks: My hon. Friend does me less than justice. This is not a free market approach. We do not know yet, but we assume that central Government or one of their agencies will determine how decisions will be taken. I thought that local authorities should have the power and the right to resolve and to decide how many casinos they want or whether they want any at all.

The idea that we will have giant casinos on every street corner as if there were space for that to happen is nonsense. It will not work like that. I argue not for a free-market approach but for a systematic approach, based on how the casino industry sees the market, but subject to the local authority's decision on how it is to be done. I have a long background in local authorities and I believe that that is the route we should have chosen.

My hon. Friend repeats an argument that I keep hearing: they should be resort casinos, because it is not possible to have regional casinos. We cannot have casinos on every high street if we are to avoid ambient gambling. I accept that we would not have them on every high street. But my hon. Friend sits in a privileged position. Whatever else we say, we will have one in Blackpool. There seems to be a consensual movement about there being one there. Good luck to my hon. Friend. She is a very good Member and represents her constituents well, but are there no high streets in Blackpool? I assume that the resort casino there will be on a high street. What about ambient gambling among the Blackpool citizenry? Will they, like we steely politicians, be able to resist? If so, why do they all go around wearing ''Kiss me quick'' hats?

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): It is not the residents.

Mr. Banks: It may not be, but my hon. Friend need not worry, his secret is safe with me. It is surprising what goes on at Labour party conferences.

The Chairman: Order. We do not really want to know.

Column Number: 174

Mr. Banks: Perhaps you do not, Mr. Pike. Sorry, I was tempted yet again.

As a result of the Government saying that there would be no central capping, which is what we were told before, local authorities and operators are way down the road with their plans. A lot of plans have been made and a lot of time, effort and money have been invested in bringing them forward.

My right hon. Friend the Minister has a well developed proposal in Sheffield, and I shall be looking very carefully to see whether—after Blackpool—Sheffield gets a casino. I know from personal experience that he is very well equipped to look after the interests of his constituency, so we, particularly in West Ham, shall be watching very closely to see whether Sheffield gets a casino.

I have the privilege to represent—in part—West Ham United football club. We have all received the letter from Coventry football club. Casinos are planned for Arsenal's new Emirates stadium, for Glasgow Rangers and, with backing from the Football Association, for Wembley. Perhaps Burnley football club, which needs as much help as it can possibly get, if I am not treading too much on your sensitivities, Mr. Pike, should have one.

There has been a broad welcome—[Interruption.] I can assure the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) that although I have mentioned only some, many of the 92 professional clubs have been considering the proposals and discussing with potential operators and their local authorities the possibility of having a casino. It is very important to football clubs, many of which—unlike my own Chelsea, which has the advantage of Russian roubles—are struggling to make ends meet.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned the application by Coventry. I carry no responsibility for Coventry, but it seems that its £4 billion redevelopment project, which will include a new football ground and leisure facilities, is based on the idea that it will have a casino. It could well be that a number of developments have predicated their projects and funding on the basis that they will be able to have a regional casino. It appears that that now will not be the case, but many of the developments are a long way down the track. Incidentally, one of the project leaders for the Coventry application is a former Burnley footballer, Paul Fletcher. Would my hon. Friend care to comment on that?

 
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Prepared 16 November 2004