Gambling Bill

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Mr. Caborn: I will explain. The hon. Gentleman put forward logical and not emotive arguments, and it is true that the amendments are about the procedure for obtaining permits for family entertainment centre permits, but I am afraid that we cannot agree with them. They would place an additional and unnecessary strain on the licensing authority without adding any benefit to the way in which it carries out its function in respect of family entertainment centres.

Family entertainment centres with such permits are, of course, those that offer only category D machines—the type that children can play. Many of our seaside resorts offer such facilities. Schedule 8 is intended to
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give the licensing authority the discretion to take into account local circumstances when considering whether to issue a permit. In doing that, the authority needs to take account of the relevant guidance from the commission and it can consider the licensing objectives in its judgment. Licensing authorities should be given discretion over the granting of permits, and that is what happens under the current law. The 1968 Act enshrines that.

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The authority understands the local environment in which the premises and machines will be operating. Therefore, it is in the best position to judge whether the application merits a permit. If the local authority acts irrationally, public law remedies will be available to stop it making a perverse decision. However, we must retain discretion for the local licensing authority.

The hon. Gentleman will note that there is an obligation on the authority to consult the local police before granting a permit under paragraph 9(b). We believe that that is the appropriate level of consultation for the permits. If we make the provision for a permit excessive, we might just as well require that FECs hold an operating licence from the commission and we do not want to do that. I am sure that we would all agree that that would be disproportionate to what we are trying to achieve in respect of category D machine family entertainment centres.

I turn to the amendments that have been tabled in respect of prize gaming permits under schedule 11. I understand the motives behind them, but I do not think that they would assist licensing authorities or applicants. As with FEC permits, the licensing authority should have discretion to grant permits, as it does now under the Lotteries and Amusements Act 1976. An attempt to curtail that discretion would not add anything to the Bill. Amendment No. 322 covers an additional suggestion, which is that the statement of principles produced by the authority must not conflict with the licensing objectives or the commission's guidance. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be open to the authority to produce a statement that conflicts with the commission's guidance.

Mr. Moss: I wish to make sure for the record that the Minister should have said that the local authority will not be able to—

Mr. Caborn: I am sorry. For the record, then, it would not be open to the authority to produce a statement that conflicts with the commission's guidance.

It is open to authorities to take account of the objectives. However, as I have just explained, authorities should not be constrained about the matters that they take into account when making decisions about permits. By having the permit, FECs and fish and chip shops have arrangements for supervision of the machines. Given my explanation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
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Mr. Moss: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation and clarification of one or two key issues. We have no real problem with there being a light touch. The least regulation that we can get away with, the better for all concerned. However, I wonder why paragraph 7(1) gives the licensing authority the discretion to prepare a statement of principles. The Minister said that such a provision was lifted from the 1968 Act, or was it the 1976 Act?

Mr. Caborn: It is the 1976 Act.

Mr. Moss: Fine.

If there is to be a light touch, why do we need the provision? Does the Minister have any idea how many licensing authorities have a statement of principles? Would the provision apply in areas with a large number of family entertainment centres, such as seaside towns and resorts where the local authority might like to make it clear that, to maintain its overall standards, it had laid down principles and expected those who applied for permits to meet the requirements in their operations? If we want deregulation, why do we need to bother even stating that a local authority may, if it so chooses, prepare a statement of principles? I should be grateful to the Minister if he could answer that point.

Mr. Caborn: I shall try to do so. Under clause 327, a licensing authority has to make a general statement. Paragraph 7(1) is an additional tool to that end under schedule 8.

Mr. Moss: I follow the logic. Perhaps we should have tabled an amendment to clause 327. If the principle is right—that there needs to be such a provision—that is fine, but what if the principle, given the light touch, is that we do not need to be too fussed about the statement of principles? Behind my question was the issue of whether such statements are important. How many will be made? How many authorities will bother to make them? What is the purpose behind the provision? The Minister cannot just say, ''Well, it is in clause 327, therefore it follows that it must be in schedule 8.'' It may be wrong in principle wherever it occurs in the Bill. What is the experience? Why do the Government think that the provision ought to be included in this part of the Bill?

Mr. Caborn: Clause 327 deals with three-year licensing policy. We are not saying that an authority has to make a statement of principles under schedule 8, but that it may. It is about getting the right balance. The provision gives the opportunity to extend the licensing requirements in clause 327, and such a statement may add strength. It is an opportunity for the authority.

Mr. Moss: I am listening carefully to the Minister and I am with him as far as he goes. Let us take the example of a local authority such as Blackpool. An operator may have several family entertainment centres in Blackpool and a number of them in Southport, just down the road. The respective licensing authorities in Blackpool and Southport may take completely different approaches in this context. One might say, ''We have these principles, to which we must adhere'', and the other might not bother.
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In the interests of consistency, so that small businesses know where they stand, why do we need to include the provision? If it is important, it should be included, but if it is not that important, I do not see the point of including it. I do not want to thrash this to death, but I do not think that the Minister has answered that. If he wants to reflect on it and return to it later, I would be more than happy for him to do so. Operators of more than one premises ought to know where they stand across the board, rather than their having to deal with different situations in different jurisdictions. That is my point.

Mr. Caborn: Different conditions may prevail in different areas and an authority might want to take such actions. However, both authorities would need to issue a statement on licensing under clause 327 anyway. Different conditions may prevail and we want to give authorities flexibility to make a statement if they find it helpful. I do not believe that that is wrong. We are bringing licensing much more into local authorities' remit.

To digress for a moment, I met representatives of the Local Government Authority yesterday to discuss a number of issues, one of which was the question of licensing and how the regulations would be policed. We will have to revisit that; we need flexibility on one hand and consistency on the other—I accept that. We also need far better operation of the regulations at local authority level, and we will be discussing that with the LGA. We are consistent: we have provided for flexibility but the broad principles will be outlined under clause 327. If different conditions prevail in different areas, the authority has the flexibility to act accordingly.

Mr. Moss: I am still not absolutely sold on the idea, but I am not going to divide the Committee on it. Nevertheless, we ought to reflect on it.

Given the financial pressures on local authorities, I envisage that most will not make such a statement if they do not have to do so. Therefore, the question remains hanging in the air as to why anyone would want to set down a set of principles about family entertainment centres—we are talking about the unlicensed ones, not the licensed ones with the premises licences. I do not think that local authorities will bother very much about doing that; very few will do it. I wonder why it would be done in the first instance. What would a local authority wish to establish in monitoring the operation of such establishments?

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Moss: I beg to move amendment No. 316, in schedule 8, page 164, line 26, after 'make', insert 'at the applicant's option'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 323, in schedule 11, page 189, line 41, after 'applicant', insert ',at the applicant's option,'.

Mr. Moss: This minor amendment relates to schedule 8, paragraph 10(2), which states that

    ''A licensing authority may satisfy sub-paragraph (1)(b)''—

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that sub-paragraph is about the application for a permit for the machines—

    ''by giving the applicant an opportunity to make—

    (a) oral representations

    (b) written representations, or

    (c) both.''

The words ''at the applicant's option'' should be inserted to make it absolutely clear that the applicant has a choice. He or she could then say, ''I choose to do A'' or, ''I choose to do B.'' Oral representations would be easier to make, could be made on the telephone or in a face-to-face interview, and would not require applicants to sit at their computers to type something out. The amendment is minor, and designed to reinforce what I think is behind the wording of the Government's sub-paragraph anyway: the notion of giving a certain amount of choice. The amendment would just firm that up.

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