Gambling Bill

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Mr. Jones: Surely that is not possible. The Minister said this morning that some of the existing casinos might want to change into new, large casinos. Such a restriction would therefore prove to be disadvantageous to existing casinos.

Mr. Whittingdale: The Minister's remarks about the economic potential of existing casinos seem slightly confused, a matter to which I shall return.

The existing casinos are all sited in what until now were permitted development areas. Such places were chosen because presumably they were regarded as the places that were most appropriate to site casinos. If we allow further development, it is more likely that the casinos will be located in the old, permitted development of holiday resort, the places where tourists visit; areas where there is a proven demand for casinos. It seems that either way the effect of the Bill will damage—perhaps fatally—the viability of existing casinos. Such businesses will be punished for having operated successfully and responsibly in this country by not being able to enjoy the benefits in their existing estate, which will be given to the new casinos.

Yesterday, an operator told me that he had just opened a new casino in Leicester—an investment of £6.5 million—yet that casino will be restricted to 10 gaming tables. For all he knows, a new casino may be given permission to operate close by with far more tables, with the additional opportunities of bingo and
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betting that will be allowed under the new regime. Such a situation cannot be equitable. It will do real damage. The Minister suggested before lunch that, because the Government were allowing only a limited number, the existing casinos would be in a much stronger position. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) said, what happened when the Government made their announcement? Half a billion pounds was wiped off the share price of the UK operators.

Clearly, the market does not believe that such action will strengthen the position of the UK industry; nor does the UK industry. The Government are bringing in a Bill that has been developed and worked upon for four years in close consultation with the industry. It is a Bill that everyone said was necessary, but the UK industry is on the point of saying that it would rather not have a Bill than have this one, because it is so badly flawed and will represent such bad law. That is a phenomenal achievement, and the Government's failure to provide any justification for their latest policy undermines them further.

3 pm

I hope that the Government will continue to listen—they claim that they have been listening—to the industry and others who are saying that the arbitrary cap of eight on large and small casinos will totally undermine the UK casino industry, and will do nothing to achieve the Government's stated objectives.

Given the time scale left to us for the consideration of the Bill, it is beginning to be increasingly difficult to say whether the Bill will ever get on the statute book. We continue to be of the view that a vast amount in the Bill is important and necessary, especially in terms of providing additional powers for the gambling commission and regulating internet gambling. However, the Government are jeopardising the success of the whole Bill through this last-minute decision and through introducing this latest shift, which is uncalled for, unjustified and unfair. I hope that the Government will think again.

Mr. Jones: I said before Christmas that I came to the Bill supporting it; I thought that it was good in terms of its regulatory aspects and what was being put in place to protect children and others. Also, I genuinely thought that it was a good idea to use casinos and the gambling industry to regenerate areas such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood.

Before Christmas, the Bill was referred to by the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) as a dog's dinner. Frankly, I think that it is becoming worse than that, now that we are seeing the implications of what is being put in place.

I have still not heard a satisfactory reason why the arbitrary number of eight has been chosen for small and large casinos. I can understand why that has been decided in relation to regional casinos; that was a proper response to Second Reading. However, there is certainly no call to limit the numbers of small and large
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casinos. I am still waiting for a large number of parliamentary colleagues to argue that, but I think that most colleagues have not even worked out that the Government are introducing such a measure.

Some people take a moralistic view of gambling, and think that it is the worst thing ever invented, and others take a liberal view. I do not; I take the middle road. We have to give people responsibility for what they do with their lives, and we have to admit that in this country there is a well-regulated industry. It has not had the criminal and other elements that we have seen exist in other countries.

Putting in place such a limit is not a liberalising move. We are actually going the other way; we will restrict the casino and gambling industry. Existing casinos will certainly be at a disadvantage, compared with the 24 casinos that are to be allowed, which will have a hell of a lot of different powers and attractions. The provision will put some existing casinos at risk. I have never been in favour of creating monopolies, whether state or private, but we are creating lucrative business opportunities for those who get one of the 24 licences.

I accept, as I said earlier, that the regional casino issue is separate, but the other new casinos will put the existing 136 casinos at a disadvantage, and that is unfair to existing operators. Overall, we have run a tight and good ship in this country. The investment that will come forward should not just go into new casinos; however, the investment needed in existing casinos will not be made. No one will put their money into the existing casinos if one of the new casinos opens nearby or they cannot get the offer made to the new casinos.

I have heard the explanation of the advisory panel and how it will lead competition in terms of planning, but that will not work. I will deal with the reasons for that in a minute. There is a naive approach to how it will work in practice. I am opposed to quangos and advisory panels.

This will be a lucrative job for someone. However, we have not yet seen the criteria for granting the areas, which will be different for regional casinos and small casinos, and we do not know whether those will be the same. Likewise, as we have seen already, there will be a lot of competition for people wanting a regional casino in their region. If there are only eight large casinos and eight of the others, there will be a lot of disappointed councils and developers. Will there be an appeals process for councils that want such a casino but do not get one? Will there be a regional spread and balance throughout the country? That will also be important. The great gifts that the individuals appointed to the advisory panel will be given to judge those matters beggars belief. Those people will be popular for a time, as they are wined and dined and courted throughout the country and given reasons why a region should have a casino. It will be a popular job for some and lucrative for the consultants who try to persuade them that a region, town or city should get one of the sites.
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Mr. Moss: We are listening avidly to the hon. Gentleman's destruction of the Government's case. Has he given any thought to how much the advisory panel alone will cost the taxpayer?

Mr. Jones: If it is like anything else we have set up, it will not be cheap. What expertise will the people on the panel bring to the job? Political decisions will determine where regional casinos are sited. As I said in December, if we are going to make political decisions, let them be made by people who are elected, rather than handed to people who are not.

We still have great problems with planning. I accept what the Minister is doing to try to get competition going, but there are fundamental problems. One such problem is that a person does not need a casino operator's licence to apply for planning permission. Under the process we are talking about it seems as though people will need one, but they will not. A lot of developers will speculatively submit planning applications in different areas, even before the areas are designated. It is not clear yet whether the councils will be able to hear those applications, because we have been told all along that the planning process will be separate from the premises and operator's licence. If a developer submits an application in Birmingham, the council has to hear it.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Like everyone else, I am following the hon. Gentleman with great care, but it is not it even more confusing than he suggests? Presumably, to get a premises licence there has to be a large amount of information about the nature of the premises involved and we would only know that if there had been a great deal of advanced work done on the planning application.

Mr. Jones: I appreciate that, but I have a different point of view. Anyone can apply for planning permission and if they apply speculatively, a council will have to hear that application. However, on what grounds could it refuse such an application? It could not do so on the basis that there was no premises licence, because there would not be grounds or reasons in planning law for refusing it. Once the areas are decided, there will be a deluge of planning applications for different sites throughout a city. Will councils say, ''I'm sorry, we cannot hear any of those because we have to wait and see which operators have premises licenses''? That will not happen. The councils will have to hear them. If they then turn them down because a casino operator has not got a premises licence they would be in a difficult position; I do not think that that would be grounds for turning down that planning application.

Many developers will be speculatively putting in planning applications, and the one that achieves the first of them in a certain area will have a valuable prize; they will then be able to hold their own competition among the various operators that have licences. If there is such a feeding frenzy of planning applications, things will get bogged down; there will be months and possibly years of planning appeals.
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