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Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op): I do not know whether there are any plans to build a super-casino in Bridgend. The nearest super-casino, if one is built, will probably be in Cardiff. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Liberal leader of Cardiff council has accepted a £6,000, all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas to inquire about casinos? Was it proper of him to accept that trip?
Mr. Griffiths: I can only thank my hon. Friend for providing me with that information. Given the context of the Bill, that decision is highly dubious, and I certainly hope that there will not be a super-casino in Cardiff.
There is much evidence about the impact of super-casinos. The famous Atlantic City survey showed that unemployment there fell by very little and that the nature of its businesses changed. By 1996, some 1,000 businesses had gone, and there are now only 60 independent hotels there.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): I know that the hon. Gentleman holds his views on the matter extremely sincerely. Will he accept that the Atlantic City survey to which he refers is extremely contentious? Those of us who compare the terrible state that Atlantic City was in during the 1970sit was a run-down place of the pastwith how it is after the huge amounts of regeneration that have resulted from the creation of resort casinos would certainly say that it is a more attractive, vibrant and successful place now. Many of us who believe that a good outcome of the Bill would be regeneration want to ensure that the one-sided picture of Atlantic City, as presented in the survey to which the hon. Gentleman refers, is not the only information before the House.
Mr. Griffiths: I thank my honourable colleague for that description of Atlantic City.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): He is not your colleague.
Mr. Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman is a colleague in the Housea Member.
Although I accept that the physical changes to which the hon. Gentleman refers have occurred, despite the creation of the super-casinos, the unemployment rate in Atlantic City has hardly changedit has gone down by only 2 per cent. However, there are now 71 per cent. more bankruptcies recorded in Atlantic City than in the rest of New Jersey. Of course, we do not know the huge problems that super-casinos leave in their wake for gamblers whose lives have been destroyed, and so on.
Mrs. Dunwoody: If the Government see fit not to accept the minimal protection that my hon. Friend wishes to build into the legislation, and given that it is not at all clear where this tacky Bill has come from, would it not be a good idea to vote against it?
I voted against the Bill on Second Reading. One important consideration is whether the
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Bill will be amended in the other place to address my concerns. If that were to happen and the House agreed to such Lords amendments, I could support the Bill. However, I could not support it in its present form and without my amendments.
Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I am interested in the points that the hon. Gentleman is making about Atlantic City. Will he make an additional point? Should we not bear it in mind that in the first few years after the super-casino went to Atlantic City, crime rose by 107 per cent.that is a fact, not just an opinion? At the same time, crime in America overall increased only moderately.
Mr. Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I would have made that point myself, but he has saved me the trouble.
Although the Government have moved their position somewhat, if they do not remove super-casinos from the Bill this evening, I hope that they will allow the other place to do so. I also support amendment No. 119, which would ensure that the pilot scheme to examine the effect of super-casinosif they are createdwould last for at least five years from the time at which the eighth such super-casino started to operate so that there could be a proper in-depth study of the situation.
I hope that the Government will react positively to this group of amendments, say that they have had second thoughts and will now abandon the idea of regional casinos altogether. That would lift my spirits. As I said on Second Reading, I blame myself in part for what has happened. I did not take a close interest in the proposals. I simply thought on reading them that no Labour Government would ever want to accept the opening up of the gambling business in the United Kingdom.
I certainly know that there is no public demand for such casinos. As far as I am aware, no one has commissioned a single opinion poll to suggest that any more of these casinos are wanted. In fact, the only poll that has been commissioned indicated that more than 80 per cent. of people thought that there were sufficient opportunities to gamble in the United Kingdom. I agree overwhelmingly with that response, and look forward to a positive reaction from the Government.
Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford): Although we have to cover 12 groups of amendments before 9 o'clock, the group relating to casinos deals with perhaps the most contentious part of the Bill. In some ways, it is a shame that the Bill has come to be seen in the public mind as the casino Bill. It contains many other important measures about which there is little dispute in the House as to their necessity, but casinos have caused most of the argument.
Unlike the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), we are not completely opposed to the idea of regional casinos. We have always recognised that regional casinos could bring huge regeneration benefits to areas that are in desperate need of that investment. We supported the original concept when they were to be
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termed "destination casinos" simply on the basis that we could see that potential for regeneration. However, we have always been very much aware that they are a type of gambling institution that is entirely new and untested in this country. They represent gambling on a scale that we have never seen before. Therefore, we have always felt that it was sensible to proceed cautiously.
On Second Reading, the Secretary of State argued that the controls in the Bill at that time would be sufficient and that, as a result, the market would limit the number of regional casinos to perhaps 20 to 40, each of which would represent an investment of £150 million or more. The business model on which they are based requires 20,000 people or more each week to gamble in those casinos. That represents an increase in gambling on a scale not seen in this country before.
We felt strongly that the Bill contained no provision that would have necessarily limited the number to 20 to 40 and that in any case that was too high a number, particularly as each of the new regional casinos could have up to 1,250 category A gaming machines that have never been seen before in this country. There is a widely felt concern that that could lead to an explosion of problem gambling. That is why we have always argued for a cautious approach. Rather than rely on the Secretary of State's expression of hope that the proposal might lead to no more than 20 to 40 regional casinos, we believed that there was a strong case for the Government to introduce a pilot scheme to test the impact of a small number of regional casinos to see whether problem gambling increased as a result. That is why we proposed in Committee that there should be a pilot scheme with just four regional casinos.
Having argued on Second Reading that a pilot scheme would be a bad idea and was not necessary, the Government then did their first major U-turn of the Committee stage and announced a cap of eight on the number of regional casinos. At the time of that announcement, we made it clear that we welcomed the Government's surrender, but found it difficult to see where the number of eight had come from. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) referred to some of the speculation that took place in Committee about why eight had been chosen. It certainly does not represent one per region, which would have been one way to proceed; instead, it appeared to be an entirely arbitrary figure. Certainly, the Government have never offered a real justification for choosing that number. The purpose of our amendment No. 143 is therefore, first, to press the Government to explain why eight is the right number.
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I welcome the fact that the Government are considering having just eight regional casinos instead of what they were proposing on Second Reading. Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House why he thinks that the number should be four and explain the logic behind the Opposition's thinking?
I can, and was just about to. First, as I said, we want the Government to tell us why eight is the right number. They are, after all, the Government, and they must justify their proposals. We proposed four because we feel that it is much more sensible to start off with a small number, test the impact and, if it appears that there are no problems, increase. Although we
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recognise the possibility of the regeneration benefits which the Government hope for, and which we would certainly like to see, it is not right to risk a dramatic rise in problem gambling. We have to be satisfied that there has not been a massive rise in problem gambling before we go on to seek those potential regeneration benefits.
The Secretary of State said right at the beginning that if the consequence of the Bill were a rise in problem gambling, the Bill would have failed. Our concern is that eight regional casinos could lead to a significant increase in problem gambling, particularly because there could be up to 10,000 category A machines. At present, there are no category A machines in this country, yet as a result of one pilot scheme we could have up to 10,000 of them.
Also central to the purpose of our amendment is the fact that it is possible to start with four and increase, whereas it is not realistic to start with eight and go downwards. It is unthinkable that investors would commit the sums that we are talking about£150 million per casinoif there were any risk that after a few years their licence would be taken away.
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