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Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): With the reform of gambling, and the broad agreement in most quarters, the House can welcome many aspects of the Billthe establishment of a gambling commission, further help for problem gamblers and new forms of control of new gambling, such as the internet and betting exchanges. However, the Minister seems to have adopted the lineI have seen it manifest itself twice, first in response to me and then in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale)that attack is the best form of defence. After his Committee performance, this is the only home he has to go to. He said that the Government had listened and that the statement that he made was a result of the Government listening. I have already expressed my sympathy to the Minister for being lumbered with the Bill. He is a nice chap and it was not his fault. I do not know who gave it to him and ordered him to take it through the House, but they are the smart ones. They got out of doing it and lumbered the Minister with it. Now he must live with it.
The Minister said that he had listened to concerns and produced what I call the 888 statement, but the existing casino operators said they had not been consulted. The statement came as a bolt from the blue. The point has been made by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). I keep calling him my hon. Friend, because we had a relationship in Committee that grew warm and friendly as the days went by. No doubt an election will soon cause it to come asunder. He said, and I repeat, that the
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existing casino operators were not consulted prior to the 888 statement. Nothing that I have heard so far contradicts that. Perhaps the Minister will say that he consulted deeply with the casino operators before making the statement.
I support the hon. Member for Bath on the damage that will be caused to the existing industry. It is an industry that has a good reputation. To the best of my knowledge, it has caused no more than small problems in one or two areas. Compared with the industry in the rest of the world, we can feel pride in and respect for ours, so why are the Government trying to damage it? Normally, with any Government, I would think that there was a deliberate plan to knock the existing casino industry. But with the chaos and confusion that has surrounded the Bill's passage, I can only assume that this is a mistakeone of the many blunders that have been made along the road. I sincerely hope that, in the fullness of time, possibly when the Bill is in the other place, the Minister will table some amendments that will restore the balance for the existing casino system and its operators that they justifiably deserve. I hope that he will take that point on board and look after the industry that has served us well without letting us down and which has a good reputation.
I support amendment No. 143 and the move from eight to four casinos. I shall not reiterate all the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, but simply say that destination resort casinos are a new phenomenon. We have licensing authorities with no experience and regeneration benefits that are as yet unknown.
"Whilst we acknowledge the Government's reluctance to publish national guidance relating specifically to regional/leisure destination casinos, we believe that it could help to ensure a consistent approach between regional authorities and avoid the need for applications to be called in for determination by the First Secretary of State."
The Committee was remarkably tactful in making that point, because it was saying that the Government have got it wrong and have no idea of the chaos and confusion that will be visited upon them if they do not have proper national planning guidance.
As we know, chaos and confusion did descend upon the Government, which is why I welcome the Minister's statement and the news that we will have an advisory panel to look at these matters. That is a substitute for planning guidance and proceduresthe new way out of the bind that they have got themselves into. I support all that, but not the 888 proposal, because I think that that is too large a figure for the quicker process of evaluation and assessment that I want to see. In Committee, there was doubt about the timetable to be followed: whether it would be a drip, drip, drip affair, where assessments would take place as each casino ran up a number of years, or whether they would wait to the end. That is one reason why I support having four regional and leisure
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casinos. The assessment process would be quicker, we would get the results quicker and we could decide how to proceed on the basis of those results.
Mr. Page: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has any statistical background, but the larger the sample, the better the result that one will get. However, at the same time, the larger the sample, the longer it will take, so we come to a trade-off. I could take his argument and say, "Why not have just one?" He might say that we need one in a town and one in a resort, such as Blackpool, which the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) would be only too glad to see. But what would happen if one of those samples was incomplete and inaccurate, not a fair one? By having two in each area, we can make a proper comparison. If they are vastly different, we might have to extend the cycle. I want to see the results as soon as possible, so that we can go forward as soon as possible. At the moment, we are in limbo and the quicker that it is resolved, and the quicker that we know where we are, the better.
My right hon. Friends have already responded constructively to anxieties expressed by the public about their proposals to open the way for regional or mega-casinos. Instead of market forces determining how many such casinos there should be, there will now be eight in a first wave to be tested during a trial period, albeit a short one. Can we hope that my right hon. Friends might go further and withdraw their proposals for regional casinos all together? I am not very optimistic about that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was reported on 17 November as saying:
I have had the opportunity to have some conversation with my right hon. Friend, for which I thank her, and she told me that the Government's view on the matter was neutral and that it remained to be seen how, under the dispensation that they are creating, regional casinos would eventually develop.
The question that I would like to put to Ministers is, who wants any regional or mega-casinos? The public do not. I understand that a national opinion poll survey found that 93 per cent. of respondents opposed the extension of casinos. Doubtless, the industry wants them, although it is interesting to note that it is not the United Kingdom industry. Some local authorities have expressed an intrigued interest and no doubt the Exchequer is attracted to the proposal. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor received £1.35 billion in gambling duties in 200304, and I fear that the Treasury's addiction to gambling revenues may grow. The Treasury should be encouraging saving, not gambling.
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Why should the character and quality of life of our communities be at the mercy of the executives of Caesars Internationalit is a very long time since we were last invaded by Caesar, and we have taken some national pride in the fact that it is many hundreds of years since we have been successfully invadedLas Vegas Sands or MGM Mirage? I hope that the latter name is apt. It certainly is as far as gamblers' dreams go: this is an industry that profits only as its customers lose. I hope that, similarly, the £1.1 billion and more that MGM Mirage promised, or threatened, to invest in Britain will prove to be a mirage.
I am not so puritanical or impractical as to seek to ban all gambling, but I believe that a responsible Government should tightly restrict it. Of course, that is what most of the Bill does, which is why I was content to vote for it on Second Reading. My right hon. Friends are right to take account of technical change, including the development of remote gambling and the arrival of video roulette games. I support their proposals on licensing, the establishment of the gambling commission, codes of practice and consultation of local authorities, the police and the public, but their proposals for mega-casinosthat we should have these casinos with up to 1,250 slot machines and £1 million jackpotsrun entirely counter to the thrust of the rest of the Bill. I have noticed that the British Amusement Catering Trades Association, at some risk of self-contradiction, has described the machines as
My right hon. Friends say that their intention is to promote socially responsible gambling, but I find myself at a loss to understand the conception of socially responsible gambling. I have heard Ministers declare, perhaps somewhat romantically, that the poor should be enabled to enjoy the same pleasures as the rich, but I think we should ask the poor what they want. I noticed that women who were surveyed were particularly strongly opposed to the extension of gambling. So many women have seen the male so-called breadwinner taking a disproportionate share of the household income to the betting shop or dog track, and they know the consequences. According to the National Audit Office, gambling has a £53 billion turnover in Britain through betting shops, casinos and, of course, the national lottery. In passing, I wonder whether the proposals will not prove deeply damaging to the national lottery. That would mean a serious blow to culture, which it is my right hon. Friends' responsibility to defend.
The Methodist Church and the Salvation Army have urged the Government to exercise greater restraint and more care. They have been at pains to be reasonable and I go further than them. I joined the Labour party because I thought that it took the view that it is the Government's responsibility to protect vulnerable people. That is what this Government want to do and that is what they do so very well in so many fields of policy, but I cannot see how the creation of mega-casinos will protect vulnerable people. I understand that we have in this country some 300,000 problem gamblers, and members of their families, their employers and their fellow employees are, of course, affected.
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"Economist Earl Grinols has studied the rates of crime, lost productivity, domestic abuse and other social ills in counties with and without casinos. He found that the 3 to 5 per cent. of players who become problem gamblers each end up costing society about $11,000. States would need to seize half a casino's profits, calculates Grinols, to cover the 'social wreckage' it generates. In Missouri, for instance, gambling tax revenue brought in a 'seeming windfall' of $242 million in 2002, yet the state lost an estimated $572 million in related business failures, crime, unemployment and other social costs."
Citizens advice bureaux have a great deal of experience of helping individuals who have got into severe multiple debt as a result of their gambling addiction. A citizens advice bureau in south Wales has reported a case that may be characteristic:
"A 62 year old pensioner approached a CAB in South Wales for advice about her debts. She had a problem with gambling and had built up £80,000 debt on various credit cards. When she got into difficulties she approached her bank who lent her a further £25,000, although her only income was £600 per month."
Mega-casinos have historically been associated with people's propensity to self-destruction, vice and crime. We are introducing 24-hour drinking at the same time as we are discussing the abolition of the 24-hour rule that requires people to have been members of a club for not less than 24 hours if they want to go into casinos and gamble. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) spoke eloquently about that point in his advocacy of new clause 7, and he is right. One can imagine someone who has had too much to drink and who is armed with cash and a credit card going into a casino and ruining him or herself and their family. We should keep that sobering-up period. I am pleased to see that the British Casino Association itself wants the 24-hour membership requirement kept at all casinos.
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