Gambling Bill

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Mr. Caborn: The linking of machines does not affect maximum stakes or prizes. Category B prizes are always the same. The hon. Gentleman is right: we will discuss the matter again when we debate clause 228, and that is probably where clarification will be forthcoming.

Mr. Moss: I am grateful to the Minister, and no doubt we will have a fuller discussion about this matter when we discuss clause 228. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Moss: As I said a moment ago, this is one of the most important clauses in the Bill. In the interpretation of many in the industry, the Government's definition of the various machines leads to an unlevel playing field, unfairness and inconsistency. It is the source of a lot of dissension, unrest and problems in the industry.

Mr. Prisk: I suspect that my hon. Friend will be leading up to this point, because he is very thorough in his preparation, but I and some of my constituents are concerned about the way in which this legislation falls particularly on smaller enterprises. I wonder whether he will allude to that in his remarks.

Mr. Moss: I shall certainly allude to that concern. I intend to go through categories A, B, C and D in that order. My hon. Friend has raised an issue about category D machines, and they will have to wait their turn on the list.

Mr. Hawkins: I imagine that my hon. Friend will agree with me that one of the biggest concerns about these provisions is the way in which they will affect members of the British Amusement Catering Trades Association. He is aware that I have been working with that association on a voluntary basis more or less throughout my time in Parliament. Does he agree with me that, instead of leaving everything to regulations, it would have been much more helpful to members of BACTA, who operate some of our most popular and successful amusement arcades, if there had been a great deal more guidance in the Bill about how its provisions will operate?

Mr. Moss: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That uncertainty is at the heart of the disquiet I mentioned a moment ago, about not only one category of machine but all categories. BACTA is not the only one with concerns; the British Casino Association, the Casino Operators Association and the Bingo Association and no doubt, investors from abroad, particularly the Americans, will be concerned to ensure that the number of category A machines in the Bill is not diluted or changed.

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The real problem is that either there has not been enough discussion or the Government have not listened carefully to the points put to them across the board.

10.15 am

I know that the Government's position is one of protection. They are selling the Bill on the basis of protecting the vulnerable and children, reducing the opportunities for ambient gambling and trying to have some control over the whole system. We do not demur from that approach, but it must be even-handed. I have made the point on a number of occasions that any legislation should attempt to deal even-handedly with existing operators and those who expect to get grandfather rights at any level, as well as to encourage new investment of the sort that we have been talking about concerning regional casinos.

The Secretary of State in her evidence to the scrutiny Committee, when asked about her intentions for fixed odd betting terminals—the issue was raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) a moment ago—said that they

    ''will be treated as gaming machines under the Bill and our intention has been that they should be classified as Category B machines and therefore available in adult gaming centres, bingo clubs and betting traps as well as in betting shops.''

She gave a clear indication that that was the Government's intention at the time. Since then, there has been a massive turnaround and FOBTs will not be allowed into the areas indicated by the Secretary of State to the scrutiny Committee. I shall come to that later, but the indication was given earlier to the industry that an even-handed approach would evolve.

When questioned about comparability, Lord McIntosh said in a speech recently:

    ''So far as arcades were concerned, their competitive position might have continued to erode.''

He accepted then that the Government's more recent position, particularly in relation to adult gaming centres, is that that sector of the industry is at a disadvantage, particularly with FOBTs, and that its competitive position might have continued to erode. He acknowledged that there is a problem. BACTA certainly told him that there was a problem and that it feels that it is being penalised and discriminated against by the Government's decisions. The noble Lord then said:

    ''Second, we will be considering the case for using the Gambling Bill to restore the comparability between machines in Adult Gaming Centres and betting shops. There are arguments on both sides, and we want to hear them.''

We can hear them today. We need not wait until the Bill goes to the other place; we can make the argument today for some form of comparability.

Any agreement that has been arrived at between the Government and the Association of British Bookmakers, as the Minister indicated recently in response to the discussion on clause 219, is welcome. A code of conduct has been devised and proper research is being done. I do not subscribe to the view that that research is biased in favour of the betting industry, because it is being financed across a broader

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front and independent assessors are being used. A preliminary report has already landed on the Minister's desk and I hope that he will share the findings with us when he responds.

Mr. Prisk: I am listening with fascination to my hon. Friend because he is highlighting one of our central concerns. Will he enlighten us on his view? From what he described, it seems that the Government's position is constantly changing. Does he think that that is deliberate, or does he believe that they are muddling through, which seems to be the case from what he has said?

Mr. Moss: My hon. Friend has got that one right. Do we want the definition of ''muddling through'' to be in the Bill or in regulations? My hon. Friend makes a good point: there is inconsistency between what has been said, what is now happening, and what may happen. That uncertainty is causing concern in the industry.

I return to the position on FOBTs. Research is being conducted, and it is being conducted properly. Its terms of reference were defined by the Government, not by the betting industry. It is being funded by the ABB and the Minister's Department, and it is being conducted by MORI and Europe Economics. We have no problem with any of that.

A code of conduct has been agreed, and in the end common sense prevailed and the Government and the industry decided that a long process of litigation through the courts was in no one's interests, so an agreement was come to. We now have four FOBTs in each bookmakers' premises. The Minister gave us a total of 20,000—I think—across the country.

For the bookmakers, who negotiated that position, that is a profitable enterprise. They are operating under a code of conduct, and research is being done into the effects of having that new form of gaming on their premises. However, there is a broader question. Why should only a particular section of the industry be given FOBTs? Why are they not available across the board, which is what the Secretary of State had suggested, so that bingo halls and adult gaming centres can have them? That issue needs to be addressed.

Lord McIntosh says that the Government have an open mind. The current agreement with the ABB has restricted numbers, which is a good thing in some ways. However, he is also saying that that took place in advance of the Bill and the discussion on it, and he is suggesting that what evolves in the future is up for grabs. The Minister may simply say, ''Well, we will leave that to the gambling commission.'' That would be a total cop-out. The Government have clear views on all sorts of things, including the definition of categories of machines. Why can they not also have a clear vision of where they want the machines to go, rather than simply saying, ''We have had a problem with FOBTs, but we have come to a deal with the ABB: the machines are in betting offices, but we have restricted the number and there is a code of conduct so that is fine''? It is not fine so far as the other players in

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this scenario are concerned; they feel that because of that decision they now have a serious uncompetitive edge.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman has given a detailed and fair analysis of the problem and the current unlevel playing field. However, he said on a number of occasions that it is important for the Government to have a clear position on this issue, but I have failed to hear what his clear position is. Does he believe that FOBTs should be allowed in some of the other establishments to which he has referred?

Mr. Moss: I am happy to address that. There may well be restrictions on the regional casinos, in which case we would have a big pyramid. Who knows, there may well be restrictions for casinos at a lower level, too, if the Government's approach is to have more influence on the development of events, which makes sense. The Government have already demonstrated that approach in their intended restrictions on category D machines, and in the agreement with the ABB—which may be superseded—to have limited numbers of FOBTs in certain locations. I have no problem with that, but why do the Government not simply come to an agreement that certain numbers of those machines can go in other places?

The machines could be restricted to two, four or whatever number, but the Government should have good reason for limiting them. There is nothing to suggest that issues such as problem gambling are arising from the use of FOBTs. The Government have to justify their decision to allow them only in certain locations.

Category A machines—we have already had part of this argument—will only go into regional casinos. The original plan was—well, it was not a plan; it was a free-for-all, the idea being to let the market decide. On more than one occasion, the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Prime Minister said that there might be between 20 and 40 regional casinos. There has been a significant move on the part of the Government, or a climbdown, if one likes to call it that. The Minister saw the light and grabbed it by the scruff of the neck, and delivered on eight, although we wanted four. We cannot really grumble too much about that; it is a significant concession.

Instead of a possible 1,250 category A machines in each of 40 regional casinos—that is 50,000 in total, if my maths has not failed me—there is now the prospect of a total of 10,000 such machines in the limited number of eight regional casinos. The Americans tell us that they want more than that. They say that they will only just scrape by on 1,250 per casino. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) laughs, but the Americans say that in Las Vegas they have 2,000 or more such machines in a casino. They say that if we want an investment of £20 million, or whatever the figure is, in a regional casino complex, along with leisure activities, hotels, theatres, restaurants and so on, that investment will obviously need paying for.

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