Gambling Bill

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Mr. Moss: I could not have put the point better. I am sure that the Minister heard that exquisite argument. The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. There are possibilities as to why a different word is used, but we ought to know the reason for the distinction between the holder of the permit in one paragraph and the occupier in another.

I was leaping forward to paragraph 21. It says:

    ''A licensing authority shall—

    (a) maintain a register of permits''.

For what purpose does it have to have a register of permits? Further on, the paragraph says that:

    ''The Secretary of State may make regulations—

    (a) requiring licensing authorities to give to the Commission specified information about permits . . .

    (b) requiring the Commission to maintain a register provided to it''.

So it goes on.

This is bureaucracy gone mad. We are using paper at a rate of knots to achieve nothing. Most pubs have got one or two machines. Permits are given for a lifetime, unless the holder breaks the law, in which case the local authority will move in and remove them. Why do we need to keep a register of permits and pay somebody to keep that register up to date? Some parts of the new schedule defy logic.
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I have covered most of my main points. At the heart of the matter is the need for pubs and licensed premises to have the comfort that a local authority or a particularly officious official in a local authority cannot muscle in and cause difficulties for them on a whim or because, based on his own thought processes, he believes something is amiss. Many pubs and licensed premises rely financially on the income from those machines. We need something tighter in the Bill so that licence holders have recourse to a procedure that is fair and equitable on all sides. We had that in the Licensing Act. I really do not know why the Government have not replicated that in the Bill. The new clauses and new schedule represent a complete change in the way in which this area of the Bill is written. Two clauses have been taken out. We have tabled amendments to achieve the ends that I have talked about.

2.45 pm

I will be prepared to withdraw my amendment if the Government are prepared not to press their changes. Earlier we heard that they may well amend the amendments and new clauses that they have tabled. If that is the case, why not leave the Bill as it is? We will not press our amendments, the Government will not press theirs and we can revisit the matter on Report when they have had a little more time to think about the issues. I understand that the consultations with the British Beer and Pub Association are proving extremely profitable on both sides. Perhaps the Government can come to some arrangement that satisfies all groups.

Mr. Foster: Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on what he has just proposed? We would have difficulty supporting one of his amendments—that relating to an automatic entitlement to four machines. I hope that he may be prepared to exclude that from the deal that he seeks to broker with the Minister on behalf of the Committee.

Mr. Moss: I thought that I explicitly said that I would not press any of my amendments, including the one that seems to offend the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Foster: I was seeking to point out that, were the hon. Gentleman unsuccessful in his negotiations with the Minister, I hope that he would not be minded to press that particular amendment to a vote at this stage.

Mr. Moss: I am sorry. I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. I am not setting a condition. It is an open-ended deal. The Minister can accept it if he likes, but I suspect that he probably will not. In the interests of getting proper and efficient legislation on to the statute book, the Government ought to reflect on the arguments that have been advanced. They have indicated some sympathy with—

Mr. Foster: The tenor.
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Mr. Moss: Yes, they have indicated some sympathy with the tenor and approach of the British Beer and Pub Association. It is in the Government's interest not to press the changes at the moment, but to reflect on them and to come back with something that does the job better for all parties.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) on a well argued case. He displayed a huge command of the detail of what the Government are proposing. I agree that those proposals are extremely flawed. I suspect that some of his experience was gained during the passage of the Licensing Act, which he took through the House on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition and which had similar flaws to those in the Bill.

The thing that comes over most strongly is the bizarre bureaucracy that the Government wish to establish in relation to relatively innocuous gaming machines in pubs. The Government have a reputation for bureaucratising every aspect of our lives. Since 1997, regulation has come at something of a pace. The level of bureaucracy established in the new clauses seems, as my hon. Friend has suggested, completely unjustifiable and incomprehensible.

That reflects the Government's obsession with the paper chase and creating jobsworths in local government without producing anything that is of any benefit to the public. Of course, someone has to pay for it, and we are worried—as with the Licensing Act—who that might be. To a certain extent, it will be the pubs, and I have great sympathy with their predicament. They are right to say that there are many threats to their profitability at the moment, coming largely from the Government's agenda. It is a vibrant sector, which must be successful if the Government's employment record is to be successful—they often like to tell us that it is. We need pub jobs. They are a good way of soaking up flexible employment opportunities throughout the UK.

Bob Russell: Soaking up?

Miss Kirkbride: Forgive me. I fear that, yet again, the Bill will be akin to the Licensing Act in damaging the pub industry throughout the UK. If it does not damage the pub industry by creating new licences that have to be paid for, it may end up attacking local ratepayers—a worse outcome for politicians—who are already exercised about council tax. Despite the Government's largesse in the recent Budget announcement, I fear that that will be a big issue in the run-up to the general election. Someone has to pay for what the Minister proposes in the clauses, and neither the pub industry nor council tax payers are fair targets. Both communities will be deeply unhappy when they realise what is in the offing.

The lack of a consistent case in the Government's arguments throughout the passage of the legislation is bizarre. When we first set out to allow a different style of casino in the UK—the Las Vegas-style casinos with category A machines—the Government were more than happy to allow the market to decide where those creatures would be placed. The Government spent an
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awful lot of time on Second Reading saying that there was no problem and that the market would ensure there was no rise in the number of problem gamblers because of the proliferation of hard gaming casinos. They told us that we could rely on the balance between demand and supply to create a fairly benign environment. That was their argument concerning category A machines in regional casinos, as they have come to be called.

The Government did not get away with that argument and they subsequently presented the option of just having 12—still too many in my opinion, but nevertheless it is a cap. If it was okay to limit the number of regional casinos, which are much more damaging beasts as far as problem gambling is concerned than category C machines in a pub, why cannot the argument apply to pubs?

This morning, I questioned the Minister when he prayed in aid the experience of Australia. We are pleased that the Government are cautious about changing our gaming laws, having been to Australia to see what a complete disaster was brought about when it changed its laws on gambling. We are encouraged by their caution, but the worry in my mind is that the caution is misplaced. It did not exist with the important issue of category A machines, but it exists in spades with the fairly benign regime that has existed for many years in the UK.

No one has ever suggested that there is a problem in pubs on the street corner that want to have or to keep gaming machines that are much less addictive in encouraging punters to play on them. Category C and D machines are completely different from category A machines. I would not mind how many casinos the Government allowed throughout the country if they were not proposing to put category A machines in them.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): The hon. Lady suggests that category C machines are less addictive than category A machines. On what does she base that statement?

Miss Kirkbride: I base it on the experience of America and Australia where there have been serious problems when category A machines have been introduced. In areas where casinos offer that sort of entertainment, problem gambling is much more prevalent in the local population than in areas with access to category C and D machines, which do not have gambling problems in their communities. Category A machines seem to have an impact.

The idea of regeneration and money to spend in those communities would not exist if money did not follow the introduction of category A machines. That happens only if more people are enticed to play them. Some people are enticed to play them without a problem arising, but for others it destroys their lives and the lives of their families. If the Minister had been to Earls Court not so many months ago, he might have seen a display of gaming machines. I had never been launched into such a different world as the one that surrounded me when I walked into Earls Court that day. Very clever people spend their lives producing
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machines that are designed to entice players to spend more than they can afford, not just what they can afford. That is the point of them.

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