Gambling Bill


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Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Am I right in thinking that, even if only one or two casinos are operation three years after the commencement order, the Government may, in their wisdom, decide that that is enough to make an assessment and say ''These casinos are okay''? As a result, instead of the eight promised, we could then have the 30, 40 or 50 envisaged in the Government's original Bill. Is the provision not just a fudge to get where they wanted to be in the first place and avoid Parliament's views?

Mr. Prisk: Very shrewd!

Mr. Caborn: Not at all. It is not particularly shrewd either. I have said that we would want a good spread and fair numbers to make the decision.

Miss Kirkbride: How many?

Mr. Caborn: As many as the commission believed was right for it to make a sensible decision, but at the end of the day the safety valve is Parliament. As I said, Parliament will say whether there will be an extension. I have just said that and it is clearly laid out in clause 20, which the Committee debated. That gives the reassurance that the House sought on Second Reading.

Miss Kirkbride: As the Minister has been an MP longer than I have, I am sure that he will be able to help me with this question. When he says that Parliament will be consulted, will it be in a Standing Committee, whose members are chosen by the Whips, or in the full House, where we can all have a say?

Mr. Caborn: It will be the full House; it will be Parliament that decides. It will be both Houses of Parliament, if there are still two Houses of Parliament when the matter comes to be discussed. Parliament itself will make the decision.

Mr. Whittingdale: That sounds all very well and good, but may I pin the Minister down? Is he saying that the vote will take place on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Caborn: Yes, on an affirmative resolution of the House.

Mr. Whittingdale: That is not the same thing.

Mr. Caborn: Yes it is. It takes place on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Whittingdale: Will there be a motion debatable by the full Chamber of the House of Commons?
 
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Mr. Caborn: Yes, that is the intention. We want to give the House responsibility for an extension. We think that that is very important. If the hon. Gentleman has concerns, he can raise them. We believe that we have covered the matter under clause 20.

Mr. Foster rose—

Mr. Caborn: Just let me answer the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale). We are reflecting what was said on Second Reading. The Secretary of State made it absolutely clear that if there is to be any movement from what is set out in the Bill, we shall carry out a proper assessment. We are not in the business of trying to out-manoeuvre people. We are dealing with a very serious issue, which is why we are doing what we are doing. When the 24 casinos are up and running, the new gambling commission will make an assessment, which will go back to the House. The House will then decide whether it wants to move the process forward. It would be stupid for any Government not to take into consideration the position of Parliament.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and a happy new year to you, Mr. Pike.

To be helpful to the Minister, I note that subsection (8) of new clause 20 commences:

    ''The Secretary of State may by order''.

It is the normal convention of the House that an order would be considered by a Committee. There are different types of order, but it would normally go to a Committee rather than to the Floor of the House. If the Minister is saying that the provision is to be an exception to the rule and will be dealt with on the Floor of the House, will he assure us that ''order'' is the correct word? In my limited experience, which is nowhere near as extensive as the Minister's, I have never known an order to be considered on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Caborn: First, orders have been debated and voted on in the House—

Mr. Page: The Minister has made some quite remarkable statements. I have to ask him about the authority by which he makes them. Has he got permission from and the agreement of the Leader of the House so that if the Labour Government are fortunate enough to win a second term—[Hon. Members: ''Third term.''] Does the Minister have the authority to state that there will be a debate on the Floor of the House? Has he already cleared that point with the Leader of the House?

In addition, many orders have a time limit. Would there be a move to increase that limit so that there can be a full, proper debate, not one of these one-and-a-half hour truncated affairs?

Mr. Caborn: I cannot determine what will happen on the Floor of the House in three, four, five or six years' time.

Mr. Page: You just did.
 
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Mr. Caborn: All we are doing is laying down the formula. It may well be that a decision is taken not to move forward with the process, or the House may argue that it does want to move it forward. There may be all sorts of circumstances. I am saying very clearly what the Secretary of State said on Second Reading in response to several expressions of concern about how the project will move forward. We will move it forward on the basis of an informed debate, based on information gathered by the gambling commission three years after the opening of the casinos. we shall bring that to the House of Commons and Parliament to be determined by an affirmative resolution, and I believe it would be the intention of the day to have that debate on the Floor of the House. I can go no further than that because a Government of our persuasion might not be in power six, seven or eight years from now.

The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris): Shock, horror!

Mr. Caborn: Indeed. Those are the conditions that we have set out, and we have tried to cover them in clauses 332 and 20.

Mr. Whittingdale: Before we leave this point, it is important to state that what the Minister just said does not sound quite as firm a commitment as the one he seemed to give about two minutes ago. Obviously it is dependent on his party being in Government, but as the spokesman for a Labour Government he said clearly in his initial remarks that any debate on the order would take place on the Floor of the House. He now appears to introducing an element of doubt. Will he say that, as the spokesman for the Government on the matter, he will bend every sinew to make sure that the motion is debated on the Floor of the House of Commons and not rubber-stamped in a Committee?

Mr. Caborn: All I can say is that if the controversy about extending casinos is similar to that about introducing them, any Government would have to be stupid not to ensure that the matter was debated on the Floor of the House and would not take public opinion with them. We have got to do that.

I know that one can make political gestures that we had on the Floor of the House, but we have reflected on what was said on Second Reading and on the representations that were made. To be honest, we have also had discussions with Front-Bench Members of the Opposition parties to make sure that we bring in a piece of legislation that is workable and commands a broad consensus. That is why the Bill went to the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee. I reflect what the Secretary of State said. I cannot determine what the Leader of the House will do in six or seven years time, but I believe that the matter ought to be debated on the Floor of the House. That is why that we choose to require that the affirmative procedure be used.

New clause 20 brings into effect new schedule 3, which sets out the process for awarding premises licences for any of the new categories of casino where a limit has been imposed on the number of licences of that category that may be granted. The first step that
 
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the licensing authority must take is to invite applications in accordance with any regulations made by the Secretary of State under paragraph 2. Where the number of applicants exceeds the number of available premises licences, a two-stage process will be used to decide who is awarded a licence. Our expectation is that there is likely to be a two-stage process in all areas.

Paragraph 4 describes the first stage, which is a regulatory test to ensure that applications satisfy the regulatory premises licensing requirements in the Bill. Paragraph 5 describes the second stage, which applies when the number of applicants who have passed the regulatory test is greater than the number of licences that the local authority is permitted to grant. The second stage will be a competition held by the local authority to determine which of the competing applications would bring the greatest benefit to the local area. That competition could be judged on a range of issues, reflecting those that are important to the area. Those may include, for example, employment and regeneration, the design of the proposed development and financial commitments by the developer to local projects. Local authorities will set out their priorities and concerns and will then invite operators to submit entries to the competition.

The Government think it best to give local authorities a large degree of discretion about which benefits would be most suitable for their area. We do not think it helpful for the centre to be prescriptive about the requirements, because we are not best placed to judge local circumstances and because I am more than confident that local authorities will be able to develop comprehensive and ambitious strategies that will benefit their local communities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) pointed out, some local authorities have done that and their plans are at an advanced stage.

The winner of the competition will be granted a premises licence or a provisional statement. If a provisional statement is granted, the operator will be eligible for a full premises licence once the casino has been built. Paragraphs 8 and 9 make provision about the issuing of provisional statements, including allowing licensing authorities to set a time limit on the duration of a provisional statement. A time limit may be necessary to prevent a licence holder from holding on to its licence without using it in order to prevent competitors from being able to open a new casino.

Paragraph 6 obliges local authorities to follow a code of practice issued by the Secretary of State about how the second-stage competition should be run. That code will be important to help ensure that the local authority manages the process properly and objectively. We will consult the Local Government Association and others in due course before issuing the code.

In my explanation of the competition process, I hope that I have made it clear that it is the local licensing authority that will make the decisions about which operator to select. The key point for local authorities and local communities is that the casino
 
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operator will have to convince local authorities that its is the best proposal for the community in accordance with the stated objectives of the local authority.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) was concerned that casino companies could use the new system to play authorities off against one another. I hope that he is now reassured that the opposite is the case and that local authorities will have the gift of a licence while a casino operator will have to earn it.

10.45 am
 
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