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Session 2004 - 05
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Standing Committee Debates
Gambling Bill

Gambling Bill

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 14 December 2004


[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Gambling Bill

Clause 267

Gaming machines

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 369, in clause 267, page 118, line 30, leave out 'one or two' and insert 'four'.—[Mr. Moss.]

2.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

No. 370, in clause 267, page 119, line 15, leave out subsection (7).

Clause 267 stand part.

No. 364, in clause 268, page 119, line 20, leave out

    'an on-premises alcohol licence in respect of premises'

and insert

    'a premises licence under the Licensing Act 2003'.

No. 365, in clause 268, page 119, line 23, leave out 'they think that'.

No. 366, in clause 268, page 119, line 25, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

    '(a) relevant representations relating to the licensing objectives have been received and upheld,'.

No. 367, in clause 268, page 119, line 33, leave out from '(3)' to end of line 36.

Clause 268 stand part.

Government amendment No. 363.

Government new clause 16—Gaming machines: automatic entitlement.

Government new clause 17—Pub gaming machine permits.

Government new clause 18—Removal of exemption.

Government new schedule 2—Pub Gaming Machine Permits.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Welcome back to the Chair, Mr. Pike. Before I was interrupted by the lunch break, I was discussing permits and asking a few questions about whether they will be required by pubs exercising their grandfather rights in order to retain the same number of machines. I was discussing also the prescribed fee if that were the case. Earlier, the Minister was unable to provide any idea about the scale of the fee, but perhaps he has some further information that will be of use to the Committee.

Currently, in order to get a machine into a pub, a case must be put to a magistrates, and—I presume—the applicant gets a piece of paper akin to a permit. I presume also that one must pay a fee per machine or
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per permit. If a fee is charged, it would be useful to know what it is, what the Government's thoughts are about the fee alluded to in new clause 16(2)(b), which is to be prescribed by the Secretary of State by regulation, and whether that fee will be akin to the current charge.

We have before us an amendment that strikes out two clauses, some new clauses in lieu of them and a new schedule. The British Beer and Pub Association is particularly exercised by the way in which the local authority—the licensing authority—can literally step in and question, and presumably remove, the permit for machines in a particular pub. Under the Licensing Act 2003, the local authority has a similar power to move in and revoke the licence that it has offered or given to a pub or establishment. Before the local authority can do that, however, it must go through several different stages, which involves taking information from the general public, such as interested parties, local residents and people who have drawn the authority's attention to the matter, or from responsible authorities such as the local police. Before the local authority can even write to the pub, saying, ''It has come to our notice that—'', it needs firm evidence from either interested parties or responsible authorities.

In the Bill and in new clause 18, which the Government propose as a replacement for one of the existing clauses, the licensing authority can just make an order disapplying section 264. The legislation does not mention interested parties or responsible authorities; the local authority can just go in. An amendment considered earlier would have removed the words, ''think that'', which make it far too easy for a local authority to move in and do something about the machines at a particular pub or location.

At the heart of our amendments is the desire to clarify the situation so that the discretion in the hands of the local authority is not so open-ended and wide-ranging that it can muscle in as and when it chooses. It must have concrete evidence that something is amiss. We are attempting, as I am sure are the Government, to protect children from harm—to ensure that no under-18s play the category C and perhaps category D gaming machines.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): My hon. Friend will recall that I said in a debate this morning that organisations such as the British Beer and Pub Association had referred to making local authorities both judge and jury, which the Licensing Act 2003, with which my hon. Friend dealt in Committee, manages carefully to avoid. Does he agree that one reason why the BBPA is right to be worried about any legislation that says simply that authorities can act if they think that something is the case, is that it is terribly dangerous and moves away from the traditional way in which courts have previously considered issues such as this, and alien to the way in which our law has developed over the centuries?

Mr. Moss: My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. I believe that the Government have realised that the words ''think that'' are probably
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inappropriate, as they have struck out the clause in which they occur. They have not replicated the words in the new clauses. They have concluded that the wording is inappropriate and are seeking to address the matter in a different way, but even in new clause 18 we do not have the comfort zone—the back-stop—of a requirement for proper evidence, a proper hearing and an appeals procedure.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend says that the Government have not replicated the words, but paragraph 15(1) of new schedule 2 states:

    ''The licensing authority which issued a permit may cancel it if they think that''.

In fact, the Government have gone back to ''think that'' in the new schedule.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): They have had second thoughts.

Mr. Hawkins: As always, I am grateful for the wit of the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell).

Mr. Moss: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that wording in the new schedule, as I had not seen it. He is absolutely right, and the Government have not addressed an issue that is of concern to the industry. I hope that they will address it at a later stage. We shall have to wait for what the Minister has to say.

A new definition in new schedule 2, which deals with the pub gaming machine permit, caught my eye. Paragraph 1(1) states that the licence holder ''may apply''. I would have thought that such permits would be mandatory. In other parts of the Bill, one is breaking the law if one does not have a permit, so I do not know why the word ''may'' occurs in this instance. If someone needs a permit, they have to apply to get one. It would be interesting to hear the Minister's comments on why the word ''may'' is used in that sub-paragraph rather than the word ''shall''.

Paragraph 5(1) states:

    ''A licensing authority may not attach conditions to a permit.''

Again, some clarification is needed. It seems that the process simply involves stamping a piece of paper; in other words, if one applies for a permit, they will get one. If conditions cannot be attached in any way, shape or form, why bother applying for a permit in the first case? If applicants will not be examined, if their background will not be researched, why bother with a permit?

Then we come to paragraph 9, which deals with fees. It refers to the payment of

    ''a first annual fee to the issuing licensing authority within such period after the issue of the permit as may be prescribed''.

In other words, one pays an up-front charge to the local authority for getting the permit, and then it

    ''shall pay an annual fee to the issuing licensing authority before each anniversary of the issue of the permit.''

Every year it will cough up another fee—for the privilege of what? The local authority will certainly have recouped the cost of the initial processing of the permit. I am at a loss to understand why one has to pay an annual fee. Of course, the fee may well simply be a way of giving local authorities yet another income
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stream, which I have to admit they drastically need, but it seems unfair on the permit holders that they have to pay an annual fee for the privilege of the permit.

It would be fine if the local authority were to say, ''We need to send our man or woman out there to conduct spot-checks to see whether under-18s are playing the machines.'' I understand that that is a possibility. It would be helpful to have the point clarified by the Minister. If, on the other hand, local authorities acted only on evidence from members of the public or responsible authorities about misuse and illegal playing of machines, I see no reason why there should be a group of spies nipping around to have half a pint and checking whether children are playing a category C machine at that moment. We need more clarification on that.

I turn to paragraph 21 of new schedule 2.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is giving a detailed analysis of the new schedule. Before he jumps to the end, I ask him whether he shares a concern that I raised earlier with the Minister. Paragraph 10 says that

    ''An occupier of premises in respect of which a permit has effect commits an offence if without reasonable excuse he fails to produce the permit on request for inspection by —

    (a) a constable,

    (b) an enforcement officer, or

    (c) an authorised local authority officer.''

In those circumstances, does the hon. Gentleman not question, as I do, why the occupier is referred to when, in paragraphs 9(1) and 9(2) reference is made to the holder of the permit? The occupier of the premises could be a tenant, so it would be strange if the tenant was the person guilty of the offence that was a result of something that should be the responsibility of the holder of the permit. Does the hon. Gentleman share my confusion?

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