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Session 2004 - 05
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Standing Committee Debates
Gambling Bill

Gambling Bill

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 11 January 2005


[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Gambling Bill

2.30 pm

The Chairman: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. On a wholly non-partisan basis, may I express the hope that 2005 brings you all that you would wish for yourselves, although I have to recognise that, given the circumstances, that cannot possibly apply to every hon. Member present.

New clause 20

Premises licences: specific cases: casino premises licence: overall limits

    '(1) No more than eight casino premises licences may have effect at any time in respect of regional casinos.

    (2) No more than eight casino premises licences may have effect at any time in respect of large casinos.

    (3) No more than eight casino premises licences may have effect at any time in respect of small casinos.

    (4) The Secretary of State shall, having consulted the Scottish Ministers and the National Assembly for Wales, by order make provision for determining the geographical distribution of casino premises licences within the limits specified in subsections (1) to (3); for which purpose the order shall—

    (a) specify which licensing authorities may issue casino premises licences of a specified kind, and

    (b) in respect of each specified authority, specify the number of casino premises licences of each kind issued by the authority that may have effect at any time.

    (5) An application for a casino premises licence may not be made to a licensing authority if subsections (1) to (3) and the order under subsection (4) would prevent the authority from granting the application.

    (6) An application for a provisional statement may not be made to a licensing authority if it relates to a casino and is made at a time when subsections (1) to (3) and the order under subsection (4) would prevent the authority from granting a casino premises licence in response to an application made in reliance on the provisional statement.

    (7) Schedule [Applications for casino premises licences] (which makes provision about the treatment of applications for casino premises licences and provisional statements) shall have effect.—[Mr. Caborn.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question proposed [this day], That the clause be read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

The Chairman: With this we may take Government new schedule 3.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I shall begin by reciprocating your good wishes for the new year, Mr. Gale. Although you were not present to hear me, before lunch I sought to set out our concerns about how late in the proceedings the new clause is being considered and the real
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difficulties that that has caused us. To some extent, that means that we shall wish to explore the Government's precise thinking in greater detail on Report, when we shall table amendments, but I want to outline a number of general concerns today.

The new clause implements not one but two U-turns by the Government. As they are two wholly separate U-turns—one of which we welcome, the other we gasp at—we must consider them separately because our attitude to each is different.

The first implements the Government's decision to impose a cap on the number of regional casinos. Certainly, most of the publicity attached to the Bill has concentrated on regional casinos, and many of the concerns relate to the impact that they will have, particularly in relation to the possibility of problem gambling. We have always argued that a major change of this kind must be made cautiously and that, before we go further, we must ensure that the concerns of many people are not justified.

Originally, the joint scrutiny Committee recommended that the controls on the number of regional casinos, which it was widely felt were necessary, should be introduced by means of economic measures, particularly in relation to the minimum size threshold. We considered that a suitable method and very much regretted the Government's decision not to adopt that recommendation. If they had done so, many of the difficulties that they have subsequently experienced could have been avoided. Instead, they tried to reassure us that there would be no more than 24 regional casinos, but there is no obvious control in the Bill to bring that about. The casinos represent a wholly new concept in the United Kingdom, as well as investment on a scale never before seen and an increase in the numbers participating in casino gambling on a scale never before seen. They will also contain, for the first time, category A machines, and many of the anxieties about a possible increase in problem gambling relate to the use of those machines, based on experience elsewhere in the world, to which the Minister has referred following his visit to Australia. For those reasons we suggested the adoption of a pilot scheme.

When the Government proposed imposing a cap of eight casinos, we generally welcomed that. We discussed whether eight was the right figure; some people had suggested that it should be smaller. I think that we initially said four, the British Amusement Catering Trades Association said four and others advocate one per region, but there is a legitimate debate around the number. We may wish to explore that further in due course, too.

It was because of the completely untested nature of the casinos and the machines that they will contain that we considered a pilot scheme appropriate, followed by a full assessment of its impact and then further consideration of whether to allow more casinos. In principle, therefore, we support that part of the new clause: the Government have gone a long way to addressing concerns and conceding our points. However, the concerns that we expressed and the
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reasons why we felt it appropriate to adopt a pilot scheme and a precautionary approach apply to regional casinos, but not to large and small casinos.

Large and small casinos are not a novel concept in this country. We have large and small casinos; we have had them for a considerable time. Indeed, the Government have acknowledged on many occasions that this country has been remarkably successful in avoiding many of the problems experienced by other countries. There is not a significant level of problem gambling in the UK or of organised crime in our casinos. The existing UK industry has a good reputation for behaving responsibly and has adopted measures to prevent those problems. Therefore, the arguments for a precautionary approach for regional casinos do not apply to large and small casinos.

Furthermore, many of the concerns about the danger of an increase in problem gambling relate to the introduction of category A machines, which in other countries have been the driver to significant levels of gambling addiction. The Government decided—a decision not necessarily welcomed by the industry—that the large and small casinos would not be allowed to have category A machines, which would be allowed only in the regional casinos. Again, there was no need to apply the same safeguards to large and small casinos. It is still a mystery to every outside observer, and indeed to us, why the Government, suddenly and out of the blue, produced proposals to put a cap of eight on the number of new large casinos and eight on the number of new small casinos. All those campaigning against the Bill had focused on regional casinos. I do not believe that even the Daily Mail, which has been perhaps the most vocal campaigner, called for a cap on large and small casinos. Certainly we have not been lobbied to that effect.

The only explanation that the Government have given is the statement in the policy paper issued by the Minister relating to the overall effect. It says:

    ''The Government has taken the view that the risk of an increase in problem gambling will be reduced if a limit is imposed on the number of casinos.''

We would half agree with that: we agree with a limit on the number of regional casinos, which was where the danger of problem gambling was seen to lie. There is no justification for simply equating the two. Then the Government decided that, if they were to impose a limit, the number should be the same. There has been no explanation why eight is an appropriate figure for small or large casinos, or for regional casinos. That, too, is something that we will want to explore.

We were told that the other driver was the concern expressed in the House of Commons. The Minister has repeatedly told us that the Government have listened and that their amendments reflect the outcome of listening. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) told us just before Christmas that when he talked to his colleagues and expressed concerns about the Bill, none of them asked for a cap on large or small casinos. Therefore, when the Government say that they are listening, my first question is, to whom? I have not found anybody who feels that this is a necessary or
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sensible limitation. Its effect is to make the outcome of the Bill a regime that is more restrictive in respect of casino development than the existing regime.

The Bill was supposed to be liberalising—a cautiously drafted and gradual step forward, but one that would gradually liberalise the regime. We have now gone in the opposite direction and will end up with a Bill preventing the establishment of any more than 24 new casinos. That will halt the investment plans of many UK and overseas companies in their tracks. It will undermine the economic plans of many local authorities. It will have a significant economic impact and it will undoubtedly lead to loss of money, investment and jobs.

When we were debating the matter before Christmas, we speculated about why the Government chose the 888 formula. Slightly frivolously, I suggested that 666 might seem more appropriate to the critical observers of the Bill. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) suggested that 999 was appropriate. I begin to suspect that the correct figure is 555—5 May 2005. It seems to me that the Government are losing their appetite for the Bill in the approach to the general election.

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Prepared 11 January 2005