Gambling Bill

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Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman elaborate on his point. Is he concerned about what the Minister read to us at the beginning of the debate? He said:

    ''Regional Planning Bodies as part of their revision of Regional Spatial Strategies will need to consider possible broad locations for Regional casinos within their region.''

The document goes on to say that they will have to follow national planning policy guidance. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's expertise in this field will help us, so will he tell us whether he shares my interpretation that that means those revised regional spatial studies will have to be consulted on a second time even though that was required of them in their original form? Does he concur?

Mr. Jones: Possibly I do, and I want to deal with that point now. What is the relationship between the advisory body and the local planning authority? That is certainly not clear in what has been put before us today. Point 16 states:

    ''Operators will be required to apply for planning permission''—

that is self-evident—

    ''in the usual way and all applications will be considered on their merits in line with national and local planning policies.''

No reference is made to gambling, or the horrors of gambling, which the new body will cover. It continues:

    ''Applications may come forward at any stage. Decisions on whether they should be called in for decision by the First Secretary of State will be made in light of the Government's call-in policy and the particular circumstances of the case.''

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The law currently exists to limit development, whether at a local or national level, so I do not know why on earth the body needs to be set up.

I am also perplexed by point 22, which also attempts to define the difference between planning and the so-called licensing system that the new body will cover. It states:

    ''The premises licensing process and the planning consent process will need to be conducted taking account of the need to clearly separate the licensing and planning functions.''

It continues by mentioning that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will issue guidance. The next part is quite amusing:

    ''The fact that an applicant's proposal may be the preferred option in the competition will not guarantee planning permission.''

I am sorry, but which developer in their own right is going to enter a competition if there is no sign of getting planning permission? It is nonsense.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Just to add to the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the situation, does he not find it slightly odd that the sequence of events is that the competition will be in respect of the premises licence? However, before a person gets a premises licence, they have to get planning permission and, in that context, the assumption is that they might get a premises licence afterwards.

Mr. Jones: Quite. That is why the relationship between planning and the so-called body is not clear.

I cannot work out what the defined areas will be. How big will they be and where will they be? Clearly, if we are going to try to encourage regeneration, they should be in areas such as run-down inner-city centres. That is a planning issue. It has nothing to do with gaming. From my experience of developers, they do not like sites like that. They want clean, greenfield sites because they are easier, cheaper and more profitable to develop. Whoever decides where those sites are going to be will be popular because people will track their decisions and deliberations carefully. Clearly, if someone owns land in those areas, they will find that it is potentially very profitable.

The other issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) addressed this morning, is the review period. If we get the first large or small casino in 2008, what time period will there be for the review of that casino and its impact? All developers would need to be given a starting-gun date by which everyone must have their planning applications in, their approved sites and their operators licence. Then we would have to fire the gun and they would all have to start building at the same time and open at the same time. That would mean that, at some time in the future, we could say, ''Right, we will now review what has happened,'' but that is not how development works. Some developments fall behind time, and the casinos could open over 10 years.

The idea that there will be a realistic assessment of the way in which those casinos have affected gambling in an area is nonsense. That is not going to be done, and so we have a cap that provides local monopolies to
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a lot of suppliers. I have always been against public or private monopolies, and I certainly think that this move will create them.

Mr. Moss: The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely helpful and erudite speech.

The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn): That is what you think.

Mr. Moss: It is what I think and I am more than happy to say it. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) is on to an extremely good point. The document does not say—perhaps this will not be specified when we get the amendments either—on what sample the gambling commission will arrive at its wonderful conclusion that there is no problem gambling going on and that therefore there can be further development. On the time scale that is being talked about, if the Government insist that there is a sample of eight or even 16 new casinos, that will add on years before any valid judgment can be made.

3 pm

Mr. Jones: I agree. The point is that the Bill was supposed to be a liberalising measure. It is actually going in completely the opposite direction. Even in the permitted areas where casinos have opened, what has happened to assess the effect of gambling? Nothing at all. I do not think that the effect that gambling will have in an area is as clear cut as whoever has drafted the Bill thinks it is.

Another point, which I think my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood mentioned this morning, is that, unless we adapt a national framework to the planning guidance, this will not work. Councils will get themselves in all sorts of legal problems. This morning, someone said—I cannot remember who—that councils have the right to refuse. They do, but what happens if they want a casino in their area and they grant planning permission? Different councils could grant an array of planning applications but, because of the artificial cap, they will not be able to have the casino.

I know of one city in the north-east, for example, where three or four applications are coming forward. Will they back off and say, ''We'll wait and see what happens''? I do not think that they will. They will put planning applications in. The council will be in the invidious position of having to judge them on the basis of what is coming forward. The measure is a minefield. The only people who will benefit will be the planning lawyers, who will have a field day.

I am a supporter of the Bill; it is a good thing. However, we are kicking it into the long grass. That would be fatal to some of the good things in the Bill and to the cities and towns that need development. I hope that the two caps have not been introduced because the new regional casino people, for example, the Americans who want to come in, have said that they will be affected by the competition. If that is the motive, the only people who will lose out will be those in the casino industry in this country, which, up until now, has run a good, clean and decent ship.

Mr. Moss: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman. It was interesting that he was able over
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lunch to talk with a sample of six Labour Members—I think that he said that they were Labour Members who voted against or had concerns about the Bill on Second Reading. I am sure that more than six are in the Tea Room at any given time over lunch. However, we have heard on the grapevine that one of the reasons that the Government have come forward with the proposals is the groundswell of opposition on the Labour Back Benches.

If the hon. Gentleman is speaking for his colleagues on the Back Benches, he ought to take us a little further. Before the amendments are even thought of or printed, he ought to whip round more than six and present the case to the Minister to say that there is not massive opposition to capping large and small casino levels. There was opposition at the top end and the regional level, which was shared with us, but I do not think that the Government need to go down the road of capping both the large and the small.

The hon. Gentleman talked about kicking the Bill into the long grass. I thought over lunch that this is a bit like a game of rugby. We all know what it is to kick into touch but the ball of the casinos has been punted over the south stand at Twickenham and we cannot now find it. We do not know where we will go from here. The casino industry is apoplectic after seeing what has been produced. It has spent four years in detailed consultation with officials in the Department, the Gaming Board, Ministers and the scrutiny Committee. It has spent a lot of money and time giving evidence and writing documents, and it thought that there was consensus on the way forward.

On the Conservative side, there was genuine support for the majority of the findings of the scrutiny Committee. Indeed, the Government, in response, agreed with 90-odd per cent. of those findings. The key area where there was a big question mark was regional casinos. That was the one area that caused considerable concern. The reason is simple. It has been mentioned on more than one occasion in this debate. We were introducing category A machines, which hitherto had not been seen in this country. They were the new ingredient, and we were allowing not just 20 but 1,250 in casinos.

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Prepared 16 December 2004