Gambling Bill

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Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): In view of the hon. Gentleman's many years' experience of local government and planning issues, I would like to ask him a question. Let us say that a local authority happened to own land on which an application it favoured was made, and Joe Bloggs down the road came in as well; if the authority showed favouritism to that application, would that open it up to a legal challenge?

Mr. Jones: In my experience, I am not sure that it would. If a council has a stake in the ownership of any such land, I understand that the matter would have to be referred to the Secretary of State. However, the point of the matter is that anyone can put in a planning application on any land; they do not have to own that land. I could put in a planning application for a casino on your house, Mr. Gale; I would not have to own your house, or have any interest in it.

I do not understand how the apparently well ordered competition laid out in the legislation will work in practice. There will be confusion about the relationship between the planning process and this new process that is being set up. That takes us back to a fundamental point. The way to control numbers is not to invent this complex new system; the number of casinos can be limited by using the current planning law. In any case, I do not think that lots of large and small casinos would have been developed, because the market would have reached a point where people no longer invested because they knew they would not get a return.

I hope that the legislation is not enacted in its present form, because it will not work. It will hold up development in a lot of areas where it is desperately needed, and it will cause a huge amount of confusion from which only the lawyers will gain.

Mr. Foster: I, too, wish you a happy new year, Mr. Gale.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Durham. He has a lot of experience in the matters under discussion. His contribution illustrates the concern that many people have about these proposals; on this issue, there appears to have been a lack of any consultation, not only with the industry itself but with those with expertise in planning matters and in local councils.

It is worth reflecting on how often the Minister has told us in recent times that his entire raison d'etre for the changes is the Secretary of State's commitment to consult—a commitment given very clearly on Second Reading. Just before Christmas, the Minister told the Committee:

    ''The Secretary of State clearly said that she would consult with a host of people. That has happened. We got the feeling that they wanted to ensure that we brought in further constraints and that is what we have done. Let us be absolutely clear: we are managing change in difficult circumstances. We must reassure people.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 16 December 2004; c. 666]

In the light of the huge outcry that there was, I think that we would all respect the Government if they were prepared to consult and to make changes. Many Opposition Committee members have urged changes on the Government, some of which they have now
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accepted, particularly in relation to the number of regional casinos. However, one would assume that that consultation would involve all the interested parties. In this case, since concerns have been expressed by hon. Members from all parties in the Committee about the effect of the Bill on the existing industry, that body of people would clearly certainly have been included in the consultations before the new proposals were brought forward. As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) rightly pointed out, that consultation did not take place. Those people, like many others, were extremely shocked and surprised by what has happened.

3.15 pm

We know what happened to the share prices. We also note in the briefings that all members of the Committee have doubtless received that, for instance, the British Casino Association states that this new policy

    ''cuts from under us the ability to maintain our existing estate and make future investments . . . Regardless of the Minister's protestations, this policy has evolved with undue haste, in a vacuum, and in no way reflects the deliberations of four years of consultation and two Joint Scrutiny Committee reports''.

In those circumstances, and given that the consultation did not take place, I am sure you will understand, Mr. Gale, why it was necessary earlier this morning for a large number of questions to be asked of the Minister about this policy U-turn. You will also understand why those questions will continue and why for many of us it is difficult to accept readily the proposed changes.

The Minister has answered a number of questions that we have raised, such as whether he is confident in respect of legal challenge in relation to competition law. He has told us, although many of us are not convinced, that his answer provides a solution that will work—for example, in relation to how the competition process will operate.

However, there are many areas of continuing concern. For example, this morning I asked the Minister whether, in the light of the fact that the existing casinos were not now to be categorised as either large or small, there were going to be changes to clause 7, which specifies the definitions of categories of casino. He told me that there was to be no change. Yet, I have studied his words in one of our earlier deliberations, and he said:

    ''To achieve that, there will be a separate category of premises licence for casinos that already had a licence under the Gaming Act 1968.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 16 December 2004; c. 621.]

Well, if that is the case, and the Minister is now confirming that I am right, presumably a new category needs to be added to clause 7(5) in that regard; if not, perhaps the Minister can advise me later on how that will be achieved without such a change.

Much of our concern centres on how the advisory committee, which is potentially expensive, will operate, and more importantly under what operating rules it will carry out its deliberations. We have been advised by the Minister that the Secretary of State will
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give guidance to that body. I at least would find that our deliberations would have been eased had we had some indication of the nature of that guidance. For example, the Secretary of State has assured us on a number of occasions that regeneration will be a key issue in any consideration of the determination of location. Yet, I remind the Minister that he told us on 16 December that regeneration might be—not would be—one of the criteria that will be taken into account.

Many of us have raised several times in Committee our concern about the issue of location, and particularly whether or not regional casinos will have the sort of destination interpretation of location that was envisaged by the scrutiny Committee and supported by many others. We have not heard about that from the Minister; he merely says that there will be a good range of locations. That gives us no indication as to what the thinking will be in that regard.

We would have had a more fruitful debate—albeit at this late stage in our deliberations—had we had more information from the Minister about the nature of the guidance that the advisory committee will receive. In relation to the actual proposals, I think it has been made clear by both myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester that, as far as regional casinos are concerned, we are not averse to the cap of eight for a pilot period. We understand that that will potentially last for two studies being carried out by the Gambling Commission.

In relation to small and large casinos, like the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford we have a number of concerns as to whether this is the right way forward. Certainly, the industry is adamant that it is not, and will create significant difficulties for the existing industry. We have proposed, on a number of occasions, other ways in which proliferation of small and large casinos might be tackled, while giving greater powers to local councils to make decisions in the best interests of the local people that they serve. Therefore, we shall be looking at ways of altering the mechanism for reducing significant proliferation, not looking at the eight, eight, eight proposals, but at other measures along the lines that we have already proposed: the reintroduction of the demand test; looking at public nuisance issues; strengthening the powers of local authorities to say no to a specific casino proposal.

There are alternative routes that could and should have been explored. Although I entirely accept that the Minister was right to acknowledge that if there is now to be a cap on the regional casinos, we need to have regard to what effect that will have on large and small casinos, I am not convinced that the solution brought forward in new clause 20 and the new schedule 3 is necessarily the right one. We would wish to reserve our position between now and Report, when we will hopefully table amendments that will look at alternative ways of addressing the issue that the Minister rightly drew to our attention. I expect that we shall do so in continued consultation with a wide range of bodies, and very much regret that when the Minister brought forward his proposals he was not able to tell
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us that they had been as the result of any detailed consultation. As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford says, I do not know of a single person outside this Committee who can give me any justification whatsoever for the particular figures proposed in this amendment.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I rise to support this new clause and the statement by my right hon. Friend the Minister, because unlike my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham I never supported the idea of a free market response to this. In all the discussions that we have had over the past several years, the focus for the development of large casinos—initially called ''resort casinos''—was always on creating a small number, to aid regeneration. What we have here is a much better scheme, and a much better part of the Gambling Bill that had previously caused so many concerns. There were very genuine concerns about proliferation from, on the one hand, people who believed that it would lead to a large increase in problem gambling, to people who like me on the other hand, who wanted to see more of a focus in any casino development on regenerating our resorts and other run-down areas. With these proposals, we can move along those lines.

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