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Session 2004 - 05
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Standing Committee Debates
Gambling Bill

Gambling Bill

Standing Committee B

Thursday 16 December 2004


[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Gambling Bill

Motion made, and Question proposed, That further consideration of the Bill be now adjourned—[Mr. Watson.]

2.40 pm

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Committee was very boisterous this morning in your absence, Mr. Gale, and I hope that you will keep it in good order this afternoon.

I would like to conclude my earlier comments, because the Government have come forward with the most extraordinary changes to a piece of legislation that, although long in gestation, has changed on an almost daily basis in Committee. Many Members made very good points that will need answering. Given that there have been such changes, I ask the Minister to think again, because there is a clearer way forward. Now that the Government have admitted that the dreadful problem of problem gambling may be unleashed as a result of the new regional casinos and the impact that they might have on other casinos—a problem that they had not previously accepted—it is time to think again and put together a Bill that is much more modest in its changes to our gaming laws, creating one or two Las Vegas-style casinos.

We could see what impact such casinos would have. If we find that they are popular and make a great contribution to the local community, but we would not want them to proliferate and find that there was a real reason why the Americans have destination rather than regional casinos, we may want to stick to just one or perhaps two areas in the UK where that kind of gaming is available. That would be a much more reassuring way forward, because some of the eight, 16 or 24 casinos will be in city centres. That is not the right place for such activity.

If the Minister were to go forward along the lines that I have suggested, all the other problems raised by members of the Committee would be much more straightforward to answer. There would be no planning process problems nor any potential litigation. The intentions behind the measure could be much more clearly stated in the Bill, it would be much easier for the casinos to understand what they were bidding for and those local authorities that wished to have a destination resort could put their hands up and say, ''OK, come and have a look at me.'' When all the casinos had put in their bids, the Government or the new quango that they want to introduce could decide who offers the best deal for the local community and the wider interests of the UK.

That seems to be a much simpler way forward. It would reassure many hon. Members who are still nervous about what is being unleashed by this Bill, and it would dig the Minister out of the hole that he
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continues to find himself in. On that note, I leave it for others to make further points.

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. You are an experienced Chairman, and no doubt you have come across this unusual circumstance many times before. However, for me, this is the first time in 28 years in Committee that we have gone into the quasi limbo-land that is constituted by this debate on a Government statement. My point of order is directed at the Government Whip. He has moved that further consideration be adjourned, but do we know when we are going to come back? Are we going to come back this afternoon? What about the Committee members who are not present? Will they be notified about when we come back? It really is a most peculiar and unsatisfactory state of affairs.

The Chairman: The motion that further consideration be adjourned is under debate. The hypothesis that the hon. Gentleman puts forward does not yet arise. It remains to be seen whether, in due course, the usual channels will seek to press the motion to a division.

2.45 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I started out as an enthusiast for the Bill because I thought that liberalisation of the archaic gambling laws in this country was long overdue and because of the welcome provisions on tightening protection for children and on internet gambling. As a former chairman of development, I could also see the benefits that the new casinos could have in that regard. In my past life, the entertainment industry played a key role in regenerating areas of the city in which I was a councillor. That was important.

We heard an interesting speech this morning from the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), the tail end of which was this afternoon. She referred to the Bill as a dog's dinner. I agree that that is what we are now getting. I have a lot of time and respect for the Minister, whom I have known for many years, but he is being asked to put something through the Committee and the House that will not get through in its current form. I cannot understand why that should be so.

On many of the issues, apart from that of casinos, there is a degree of agreement on both sides of the House. The issue that rightly concerned hon. Members was that of regional casinos, and I would have left it to the existing planning rules to sort that issue out. A cap was brought in at eight, which went a long way towards alleviating fears among both Government and Opposition Members. I accepted that as a possible way forward.

I cannot understand why a cap has now been brought in for large and small casinos. Where has the pressure for that come from? During lunch, I tried to get to the bottom of the issue. I understand that the special adviser from the Department, who knows a lot more than mere politicians, argued that there was internal pressure from the parliamentary Labour party, which was concerned about the issue. I know that such individuals are far more in tune with what
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goes on in the PLP than I am as a member of it, but I did a straw poll at lunchtime. I sought out six parliamentary colleagues who were opposed to the Bill on Second Reading and asked them whether they were concerned about large and small casinos. Not one of them was concerned about them. They were quite happy with the limit of eight regional casinos. I asked whether they were aware that the new limit had been put forward this morning, and they were not.

I ask, again, where the sudden concern has arisen from, because the PLP is not concerned about large and small casinos. I also ask why the limit was set at eight. The same question could be asked about regional casinos.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Before my hon. Friend moves on to that question, I suggest to him that there are two reasons to be concerned about the proliferation of large and small casinos. First, I have had representation from amusement arcades, and people who run other gaming facilities in seaside towns. They see the proliferation of small and large casinos as having a real impact on their viability even though the family entertainment centres take children and casinos will not. Nevertheless, those establishments believe that the number of adults who come in will be affected.

Secondly, there is the issue of those amusement centres that are considering becoming casinos. Again, they will be lost. There is real concern that proliferation of small and large casinos would have an impact on amusement arcades in seaside towns, as well as impacting on the clientele of regional centres if there is an adjoining large casino in the nearby town.

Mr. Jones: I am grateful for that intervention, but I know that my hon. Friend supports the Bill and I am not sure that the Government Whips are concerned about her not voting for it. However, I cannot accept her point because towns such as Blackpool already have the necessary planning powers to stop development. Why have an artificial cap as we have here?

I keep asking, ''Why eight?''. I am told that it is convenient to have eight regional casinos. One could argue that we do not want 10 because that might put more pressure on getting regional casinos going. That is absolute nonsense and when the Bill returns to the Floor of the House, it will re-open a debate that I thought we had put to bed. If there is one thing I cannot stand, it is political ineptness, and this situation is a good example of it. It is unfortunate that we are getting a reputation for increasing ineptness.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's helpful contribution to the debate. He asked why there are eight. If one adds the three eights together, they make 24. The Prime Minister made a statement saying that there would be between 20 and 40 new casinos. Does he think that has anything to do with the number chosen?

Mr. Jones: I think that the hon. Gentleman is giving credit to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in assuming that the matter is on his radar screen. I do not think it has been during the past few hours and
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days. It is quite clear that the market will decide the issue. Local councils will take a decision on casinos by means of planning legislation.

As a former chair of development on Newcastle city council, I know that there is always a development fad that comes along. A few years ago it was supermarkets, then it was multiplex cinemas. At one time, no fewer than six multiplex cinemas had submitted applications to Newcastle city council. Everyone knew that there was not enough room for six multiplex cinemas. How many did we end up with? One—because the market could only sustain one.

I would argue the same thing in relation to the large and small casinos; I do not accept the idea that putting a cap on their number will somehow help the situation. I also do not accept the argument that we will end up with a large or small casino on every street corner. The market will find the right level. If we want to ensure tighter development of large and small casinos, it can be done through the councils' current planning processes and land ownership. Opening this can of worms again has been a big mistake.

I am very concerned about the advisory panel. My party is getting into a situation in which, if it wants to shy away from a tough political decision, it sets up an advisory panel, says that it is independent and that it will take the decision. I am sorry but I am an old-fashioned politician and I believe that politicians should take those decisions—either national politicians here or local politicians at a local level. I do not accept the idea of giving the decision to yet another quango. That ducks the real issues.

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Prepared 16 December 2004