Gambling Bill

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Mr. Foster: The Minister rightly refers to the existing very good record, so it is important that we consider existing businesses. I am, I confess, one of those who did not spend the entire Christmas period reading the information that the Minister sent us, so I must have missed something somewhere, but will he explain what will happen to existing casinos? Clause 7 makes it clear that there will be four categories: regional, large, small and below the minimum size for a licensed casino. I think that the whole Committee understood during debate on that clause that all existing casinos would be confirmed as being in one of
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those four categories. However, as new clause 20 does not refer to new casinos, we are now talking about having only eight regional, eight large and eight small casinos. Presumably that leaves all the rest as they are, with none of the benefits from the changes made. Will the Minister clarify that there will now be no changes in the designation, categorisation or naming of existing casinos, whether we are talking about 130 or, as he said today, 137?

Mr. Caborn: I say that there are between 135 and 137 casinos because no one is clear on exactly how many we have; it depends who is asked. There are two ways in which things will change for the 130 or so casinos in this country: the 24-hour rule will go, and they will be able to advertise. Beyond that, they will not get the commercial rights of small and large casinos that I have just explained, because they will be able to take betting and bingo in some cases, and betting in others—there will be an extension of that. There are four categories of casino: regional, large and small casinos and the 130-odd that are operating now, which will have new commercial rights in the sense that there will be no 24-hour rule and they will be able to advertise, if the Bill goes through.

Mr. Foster: Does that mean that the Minister will introduce amendments to clause 7? I take it from his body language that that will not be the case. I just want to be clear. I think that what he has said means that all existing casinos stay exactly as they are, albeit with the two changes to which he referred. If one of those casinos, in Chelmsford or wherever it might be—it already exists—lobbies the advisory committee on the basis that it wishes to convert itself into a small, large or even a regional casino, that will mean that it becomes one of the 24.

11.15 am

Mr. Caborn: Absolutely. That is why we can say with certainty that there will be no more than 150 casinos. There could be fewer. If all 24 go to operators that are already there, there will only be 136 casinos. We could have a maximum of 150, but if 24 casinos are already operating and want to take up the licences in their areas, they could do that.

Mr. Jones: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Caborn: This is the last time.

Mr. Jones: Does not the explanation given to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) mean that the selected 888 will have a considerable commercial advantage over existing casinos? What we will have is a reduction in the overall number of casinos because existing ones will be at a commercial disadvantage. Will there not be a reduction in the numbers, which might be what people want?

Mr. Caborn: That is one scenario. However, we can paint another scenario. Had we done what we said we
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were going to do at the beginning of the Second Reading, a lot of those casinos would definitely have gone. There is no doubt that the 130-odd casinos have had a monopoly under the 1968 Act. The Bill will liberalise that marketplace because the demand is there. We are acting cautiously, which is why we are introducing three different types of casino: the regional, the large and the small. The House will determine later whether it wants that to progress, but there will be a maximum of 150 casinos operating in this country. It depends which scenario one wants to paint. It could be said that the current operators of casinos are much more protected than they would have been had the original proposition of between 20 and 30 regional casinos gone through.

Mr. Page: Will the Minister explain why millions of pounds were wiped of the share value of casino operators if that is going to be so successful?

The Chairman: Order. The Minister is not giving way.

Mr. Caborn: If over time the new casinos are seen to be developing in a cautious and socially responsible fashion, Parliament can relax the very tight restrictions on supply inherent in the proposals. For the moment, we are taking one cautious step at a time, which I believe to be the right approach.

Mr. Whittingdale: We do not have a great deal of time left this morning so perhaps I shall just introduce some of our concerns. I congratulate the Minister on his bravado performance, but I hope that he will understand that if we are to have a meaningful debate on the clause, there are an awful lot of questions that it would be helpful to have answered before we explore the Government's thinking, rather than waiting until the Minister sums up. That is why a number of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee wanted to probe the Minister a little further. An awful lot of questions remain unanswered even after the statement the Minister made when the bombshell was dropped on 16 December, and the tabling of the amendments. We need greater clarification on those questions.

Part of the problem is that the genesis of the Bill was a matter of consultation, building consensus and giving the industry and other interested bodies the opportunity to have an input. However, the new clause, which fundamentally changes the thrust of the Bill, has come out of nowhere. It has certainly not been subject to anything like the consultation that the Bill had had before. As far as I can see, it was subject to no consultation at all. The gasps of amazement with which it was greeted from every corner suggests that the Government had not sought to obtain the views of any of the interested bodies before reaching their conclusions. I said that the Government had
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abandoned the consensus approach, perhaps the only consensus that I have managed to find is one that this is an absurd position to adopt and will make for extremely bad law.

Mr. Caborn: If I recall, the amendment from the official Opposition was for four regional casinos. What would the hon. Gentleman have done about large and small casinos had the amendment for four regional casinos been accepted?

Mr. Whittingdale: That is an important part of our argument. We draw a strong distinction between the approach needed for the introduction into this country of an entirely novel concept: the regional casino—an enormous investment attracting thousands of people every week. Regional casinos incorporate up to 1,250 machines of a kind that we have never had in this country. We have always said that that needs to be introduced very carefully, which is why we advocated the pilot scheme and all the other safeguards. However, the considerations that apply to large and small casinos are entirely different. Those casinos are not a novel concept: we have had large and small casinos in this country for some time. They will not contain any category A machines, so all the risks that people are concerned about that are associated with category A machines will not apply to large and small casinos.

If there is a danger that capping the number of regional casinos might lead to a proliferation of large or small casinos, there are safeguards already built into the Bill that would prevent that—or at least that was what the Government told us repeatedly throughout the earlier stages of our debate. They had decided not to go down the route of imposing an arbitrary limit on number, but had instead put in safeguards that would use market mechanisms to limit the number. We feel that if there is a danger that capping the number of regional casinos will lead to greater proliferation, that can and should be addressed by a different method from the one that the Government have suddenly decided to adopt, which is to impose an identical cap on the number of large and small casinos as well. I have yet to discover anybody who recommends such a strategy. It was greeted with some astonishment when it was unveiled.

This debate is extremely unsatisfactory because many of our concerns relate to the way in which the Government have chosen that particular number, why they have decided to adopt that route and not another, and how the process of selection will take place. In the normal course of a debate of this kind, the best way of probing the Government's thinking would be to table amendments that reflected how we felt that the system could operate better. However, because the Government have dropped the provision in right at the last minute as a new clause, we have no opportunity to table any amendments to it. We are presented this morning, on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, with a huge new clause that completely changes the Bill. We must either support the entire new clause or reject it.

The Chairman: Order. I did indicate the procedure for tabling amendments to the new clauses before
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Christmas. They could have been tabled up to Friday of last week. I made that clear in the last sitting before the recess. I was trying to be helpful to Committee members. I just want to make that clear.

Mr. Whittingdale: I am grateful to you, Mr. Pike. Perhaps we did miss an opportunity. However, given the time scale we were set, it would have been extremely difficult. There will be a better debate on Report, when we will be able to table our amendments to the new clause and when we might be able to test the
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Government's approach in a little more detail. However, that is not to say that we cannot flag up a number of our concerns in the stand part debate on the new clause. That is what I seek to do this morning.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

        Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

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