Gambling Bill

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Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I join my hon. Friends in encouraging the Minister to take the amendment seriously.

In their defence of the Bill when introducing it, the Government made a great deal of the right of local communities to exercise influence, or even control, over the gambling that takes place in their area. Much has been said in earlier debates about the so-called triple lock mechanism. When the Bill in its original, wholly free market state was to allow gambling to take place anywhere there was demand for it, the only thing that the Government could say in defence of their plans was that, while there would a market-driven mechanism, local communities could say that they did not want gambling to take place in their area and the triple lock mechanism would ensure that those who did not want it had the right to say no.

That is important because I am sure that there will be many areas—I hope that mine will be one of them—that are not enthusiastic about the proposals. Even if there were areas that wanted some form of gambling, I think that local people would want to take control of what kind of gambling that would be. Therefore, the idea that there should be a statement of principles set out by the local authority which is binding rather than consultative—and does not adopt a ''take it if you like and don't if you don't'' approach—is entirely right. I am shocked that the Government have been so mealy-mouthed in schedule 8 about what local authorities must do when an
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application for permission for a gambling premises is made in their area.

9.45 am

For example, the idea that a

    ''licensing authority may prepare a statement of principles that they propose to apply'',

is clearly far too subjective and indecisive. That provision could be ignored, given that the law will not insist that it ''shall'', as set out in the amendment. Given that many local people will want to have a say, I hope that a statement of principles shall be exercised, so that when the go-ahead is given for gambling in a particular area, local people know what framework it will have, that it is sacrosanct and that it is not a question that the statement ''may'' fit in with local principles but that it will.

Equally, I hope that the Minister will take on board amendment No. 311, whereby instead of stating that those authorities that need to be consulted ''may'' be consulted, it is stated that they ''shall'' be consulted. If there is a statement of principles and the amendment is agreed to, the relevant authorities must be consulted to establish whether the statement has been adhered to.

Debating an amendment last week about whether local authorities should be allowed to take money from casinos to provide local services, the Minister was vigorous in his defence of the right of local councillors to make difficult decisions. I argued that such provision should be set out in law rather than left to local discretion. The Minister said, however, that councillors should decide such things, because they have the wherewithal to do so, and that he would therefore resist the amendment. If we are to give local councillors such power, they should be consulted about the licensing authority's statement of principles and about any potential modification of that statement, where an application seems to fly in the face of the original statement set out when permission to locate gambling premises in that area was first applied for.

Local councillors should, or, as in our amendment, shall be consulted. That is important, but equally important is the attitude of local police, because one concern that we have with this legislation is its potential to create more criminal activity in our communities. There is a big question mark over gaming activities elsewhere in the world. They pull in a criminal element, because such activities are a potential means of laundering money. The views of local police are important when it comes to the organisation of a statement of principles about the way in which the licensing of any one authority should be applied. Local chief constables should be consulted. If there is a worry that gambling is attracting criminal activity in a certain area, they will want to be consulted on any extension, because giving the go-ahead for more gambling premises will only inflame the situation. It is important to allow chief constables or a representative of the police force to take a view.

To be fair to those who already have a gambling business locally, the legislation should state that they
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''should'' be consulted rather than that they ''may'' be consulted, because competition in the area will affect their business. They should not have a binding say, but they should be entitled to a say and it is only right that their views ''should'' be solicited rather than ''may'' be solicited. Gambling is controlled by legislation. It is not like a shop in the High street. It is a more restricted activity and the state seeks to interfere in the market. Gambling premises exist because statute rather than the market allows them to do so, so the operators should be consulted, although I would not give their interests the same weight as those of local councillors or chief constables.

Many people in the area will be affected by the consequences of the Government's proposal to extend gambling. My concern is that even the Government's more modest proposal for 12 regional casinos will unleash a gambling problem in those areas because they will be situated in large population centres. Those people who deal with the ensuing social problems should have a say on any application for additional gambling premises and how that affects the statement of principles that was set out by the licensing authority when the premises were first allowed in that locality. That is important if the Government are serious about keeping the lid on problem gambling. I hope that the Government will firm up schedule 8. That would not be a major concession, but it would be a reasonable one.

I particularly hope that the Minister will consider our amendment to paragraph 7(3), which states:

    ''In exercising their functions under this Schedule a licensing authority—

    (a) need not (but may) have regard to the licensing objectives''.

That is an extraordinary statement to put in a schedule. It obviates the point of a schedule if people can do something if they want to, but do not have to if they do not want to. If people are to have confidence in the licensing authority's powers and relevance, due process needs to have taken place before applications are considered and given the go-ahead. To provide such an overwhelming catch-all that if people do not want to do something they need not bother to do it would weaken considerably the control of the community and those whose interests are affected over the roll-out of gambling in an area.

I hope that the Minister will listen to what I have said and that he will not take offence when I leave the Committee shortly to see my little man's nativity play. I may not hear the Minister's response and I hope that the Committee will forgive me for that unintended offence.

Mr. Page: On a point of order, Mr. Pike. During my brief contribution earlier, I referred to a licensing authority and that it ''shall'' prepare a statement of principle. I might have referred to the licensing of casinos when I meant the licensing of gaming machine permits. I did not mean casinos and I might have misled the Committee.

The Chairman: That is a point of correction and not a point of order, but the Committee has noted it.

The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn): We have had an interesting debate this
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morning. Does schedule 8 comply with the Human Rights Act? The answer is yes. None of the amendments is needed to achieve human rights compatibility. The authority is always under an obligation to comply with human rights legislation.

I ask the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) in particular to reflect on discussions earlier this week about family entertainment centres and the great defence that was put up for them—and rightly so, as they are a very important part of our seaside resorts particularly. Schedule 8 expands on clause 231 on family entertainment centre gaming machine permits. This is about category D machines. Money laundering has been mentioned, but I cannot imagine the Kray twins putting 10p pieces into category D machines for such purposes. In response to all the speeches about licensing we have said that we want a light touch for family entertainment centres. The very clear message from the Opposition was that they wanted to allow these family entertainment centres to continue in the way that they have done.

All we are doing is enshrining the provisions of the Gaming Act 1968 in the Bill. I have not seen money laundering through category D machines or in family entertainment centres in the recent past. I have not seen the disruption of family entertainment centres that has been described in support of the amendment. Schedule 8 is about family entertainment centre machine permits. It is specifically about category D machines—10p stakes, £5 payout. We want to bring them under the licensing regime by providing for permits. Why permits? That is because we want a light touch for family entertainment centres. We do not believe that they have been centres of unrest or of money laundering, although from the contributions this morning anyone would think so.

Mr. Moss: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of what we are dealing with. There was nothing in what I said to suggest that I did not understand what I was proposing—for the record. Any criticism that fired across the Committee should not have been aimed in my direction.

Yes we are dealing with unlicensed premises. The Bill states categorically that if one has a premises licence one does not need to go through the requirements of schedule 8. I understand that, but what is the difference between such an unlicensed place getting a permit for some machines and fish and chip shops—apart from the fact that they sell fish and chips as the primary source of income?

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