Gambling Bill

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Mr. Whittingdale: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I am interested to learn of her support for the clause.

Blackpool council, in its approach to us, has argued very strongly that it wants to create a ''critical mass'', and it would like to see a ''casino cluster'' in Blackpool to achieve this; in other words, of the new licences, more than one should go to Blackpool. If there are only going to be 24 across the country in total, does she really think that this is likely to lead to Blackpool getting more than one of those licences?

Mrs. Humble: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. In earlier discussions, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and I have raised the issue of critical mass. We know that Blackpool has been arguing for some time that to regenerate a resort—building a conference centre and so on—critical mass is needed. I have raised that issue with the Minister.

Bob Russell: How many does the hon. Lady want?

Mrs. Humble: I am being heckled, Mr. Gale. How many do I want? Blackpool's master plan is for two at least; I would be more than happy to see more.

Mr. Jones: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Humble: No; I have to move on and make some serious points. When my right hon. Friend the Minister made his announcement before Christmas, I raised some points as an initial response. Having had time to look at the amendments during the Christmas period, I want to reinforce those points. My view remains the same: there are issues that need to be addressed.

When he made his original statement, I raised the issue of time scale with the Minister. Many local authorities and organisations that want to invest in
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casinos have already waited a very long time. I was concerned before Christmas when he said that the time scale would be the end of 2006, and I remain concerned. When he considers the implementation of the proposals, I urge him to bring forward that time scale; I cannot accept that that would be impracticable. Surely the independent panel could be appointed within a couple of months of the enactment of this Bill and the appointment of the commission. It could set in train an investigation that would consider where the casinos should be located.

This morning there was some debate about the role of regional planning organisations and the time scale for the development of the regional spatial strategies. There is already a lot of information available at regional level in the regional development agencies and the regional planning organisations. I am sure that that information could be given quickly to the independent advisory panel when it is set up. I am not convinced, and I was not in December, that we need to wait for detailed regional spatial strategies to be produced.

Mr. Jones: Will my hon. Friend enlighten the Committee as to what expertise or tactics Blackpool will employ to get two of the 24 casinos? If the distribution is fair, there will be no chance whatsoever of Blackpool getting two casinos, although it wants them for its development. Furthermore, what would happen if the advisory panel decided that Blackpool should not have a casino?

Mrs. Humble: My hon. Friend is challenging me, and I hope to rise to the challenge. I do not want to labour the time scale issue; we explored it this morning and I mentioned it during earlier discussions.

My second point, which has been made before by other Committee members and me, is about destination gambling. This morning I asked the Minister whether the criteria within which the panel will operate would be published. We need to consider those criteria. The Minister mentioned that regeneration potential would be key. When the panel considers a variety of different locations, it should seriously consider destinations, as outlined by Blackpool and other resorts. Such resorts have argued coherently on how to avoid a proliferation of problem gambling. If people have a destination to go to, rather than just walking down the street, they are planning on how they will gamble as part of their visit to a particular resort destination.

My local authority of Blackpool—I am responding here to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham—has been arguing for some time that in order properly to bring about the sort of large-scale regeneration needed, the critical mass of one casino may not be enough. I urge the Minister, when he gives guidance to the independent panel, to examine the possibility of a particular destination having not one, but two such licences. I am ever the optimist.
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3.30 pm

Mr. Jones: May I suggest to my hon. Friend that an old-fashioned way of doing that would be for the Government to take a political decision and say that Blackpool should have one, which would be better than setting up this silly advisory board?

Mrs. Humble: We have had that debate during the proceedings of the Committee as well. I fear that many of our colleagues would want transparency in any decision-making process, and would want to know why decisions were being made and why certain areas were allocated licences.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I fully support the hon. Lady's efforts for her constituency, which have been considerable. However, I put it to her that she would serve her constituents much better by voting against the Government's proposals today because, as the hon. Member for North Durham has just said, Blackpool could be specifically mentioned in the Bill and not just a prospect within its context. Surely she would be much better off using her position on the Labour Back Benches to vote against the Government to put pressure on them to give way on these important matters, rather than going along with what is being proposed, which may not suit them her constituents.

Mrs. Humble: I think that Blackpool's case stands on its own. Blackpool can argue the case within the framework that the Minister has introduced, and it certainly will.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I am listening with fascination. Given that Blackpool council have made it clear that one regional casino would not be sufficient for redevelopment and regeneration of the town to be sustainable, and given that the Bill offers the prospect of only one regional casino in Blackpool, will she explain why she is supporting the Government?

Mrs. Humble: Blackpool developed a masterplan that included more than one casino before the detail of the Bill was published and before my right hon. Friend the Minister's proposals. Its ideas were developed then and clearly it would wish to progress with them, but if one regional casino licence is on offer, I am sure that the local authority will grasp at that and get all the regeneration potential out of it that it can. It has the backing of a large number of people in the town, local businesses, the regional development agency and the like.

Mr. Caborn: It is misleading to the Committee to say that Blackpool will have only one casino. It does not say that in the Bill; if the panel agreed to it, Blackpool could have all eight regional casinos. The Bill does not limit Blackpool to one—[Laughter.] That is as hypothetical as the question posed by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk).
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Mrs. Humble: I will sum up with the third point I wanted to make, which concerns the scenario testing time scales. I urge the Minister to consider when that time scale for testing will start, and how much would have already been developed on which he could make a reasonable decision. There is a concern that if the testing time scale starts as soon as the panel is set up and any decision is made, there may not be eight regional casinos developed within that time. There is always the danger that if after three years not all have been developed and the Government decide to allocate more regional casinos licences, some of the first wave could be disadvantaged and developers will go looking for what they might consider to be better localities to develop any second wave of regional casinos.

I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to look again to ensure that sufficiently robust information is available before any decisions are made. That links to my first point about the time scale for determining the areas and the location of the licences. The sooner that is done, the sooner local authorities and developers can start putting together their ideas and developing their proposals. It will allow the Government more time to carry out the essential testing that they will need to do when they examine the impact of the legislation.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and I have campaigned over a long period to enable the regeneration benefits to come to Blackpool and, indeed, other run-down resorts. I share the scepticism of her hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, who spoke so ably earlier on in this debate. I fear that if the regional panel decides, for example, that the Manchester City football ground proposal is better for the north-west, the words in the speech that she has just made may come back to haunt her. I hope that that does not happen.

Mrs. Humble: I put the alternative to the hon. Gentleman, which he and his hon. Friends, as well as I put on Second Reading. If the process were left to the free market, Blackpool would not stand a chance against the large conurbations in which much of the American money wishes to invest, in particular. The current proposals are a real chance for Blackpool, and without them there would not be that chance.

Mr. Hawkins: I hope for Blackpool's sake that it ends up with at least one of the new regional casinos and some of the regeneration benefits, but I have considerable doubts about that, and about the hon. Lady's wisdom in supporting so strongly her Minister, when others who were originally so supportive of the proposals, such as the hon. Member for North Durham, have turned against them.

The Government have more or less achieved the unique position of uniting almost everybody in the industry against them. They started off with the good will of at least a part of the industry. Throughout the long history leading up to the Bill and the work of the scrutiny Committee, there was a broad consensus among most of the industry and the observers following the process, and there was then a barrage of
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negative publicity just before Second Reading; the huge, overhyped and hysterical campaign led by the Daily Mail. That provoked many people to write to Members of Parliament, and many Labour Back Benchers and the Government panicked.

The first panic was the massive U-turn over the regional casinos, which put under threat the opportunity many of us felt the new big casinos would have to regenerate not just Blackpool, but run-down resorts all round the country. Not content with that first U-turn, which was perhaps only too predictable a response from this Government in the face of the media campaign and the pressure put on Ministers by Back Benchers on Second Reading, the Government then decided to make a further U-turn by inserting a completely arbitrary limit on the small and large casinos. The U-turn upset the remaining parts of the industry that still supported them, and it seemed to me that nobody called for it. Labour Back Benchers did not, nor did the media. The media hysteria was about regional casinos, so it seemed extraordinary that the Government should make a first U-turn, followed by a further U-turn, which alienated the remaining parts of the industry that had been kept on side up to that point.

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Prepared 11 January 2005