Gambling Bill

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Mr. Caborn: If we panicked and suggested eight regional casinos, why did the hon. Gentleman support four regional casinos? Was that not panic?

Mr. Hawkins: As the Minister knows, I have always been one of the most free-market people, although not as free market as the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), who is safely ensconced in the States for this debate. After what he said about the Government's original U-turn, one can only imagine what he would say today, but I suspect that the savage criticisms made by the hon. Member for North Durham about his own Government would pale into insignificance if we had the hon. Member for West Ham with us. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire pointed out earlier, the hon. Member for West Ham had already accelerated past my hon. Friend and myself and was speaking to the Committee from the far right of politics, anticipating his enjoyment of his new position in retirement as a trenchant free marketeer.

Bob Russell: In the House of Lords.

Mr. Hawkins: Who knows? The hon. Gentleman may be right. I hope that the hon. Member for West Ham will continue to be able to dignify Parliament in some capacity in the future. I think that we would all welcome the continued opportunity for him to exercise his wit.

Mr. Foster: I remind the hon. Gentleman that the hon. Member for West Ham was present during our deliberations on the Minister's announcement on 16 December and asked a number of pertinent questions, including one that has still not been answered about the appeals procedure.
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Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman is right. I remember that. On the basis that those pertinent questions were asked and not answered, it is rather a shame that the hon. Member for West Ham is not with us to follow them up. A full-blown speech from him on the proposals would have been a sight to behold.

In addition to following up and agreeing with everything that the hon. Member for North Durham said, from all his experience in local government, I want to refer to the concerns of the British Casino Association. Other hon. Members may have received the same letter as me from Viscountess Cobham, the chairman of the British Casino Association. I thought that it was important to put those concerns on the record because my own experience of being shadow Minister with responsibility for gaming—on two occasions; once when it was the responsibility of the Home Office and now under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—means that I have had quite a lot of opportunities to study the industry and I agree with what Viscountess Cobham says.

Viscountess Cobham states:

    ''the concerns we raised in anticipation of the Government's announcement''

on 16 December

    ''are entirely overshadowed by the impact which the actual Statement of National Policy . . . is having, and will have, on our business. This is perhaps best underlined by the fact that within hours of the Minister making his Statement, over half a billion pounds was wiped off the value of Britain's leading four casino operators: and this for an industry widely regarded as the most socially responsible in the world.''

I am sure that the Minister is proud of his ability to cost British industry more than £500 million within hours. It must be one of the most staggering achievements of the Government's seven and half years in office. However, the chairman of the British Casino Association points out that, in her view—and indeed in mine—

    ''the provisions of New Clause 20, and associated New Clauses, are . . . unnecessary and . . . ill-considered.''

Viscountess Cobham says:

    ''We are deeply alarmed that this policy, announced during the penultimate sitting of a Standing Committee and without any consultation with the British industry, cuts from under us the ability to maintain our existing estate and make future investments.''

She says that the regulatory regime that the Government propose to create

    ''is more restrictive for current casinos than the Act''

that the Government originally said that they were going to liberalise and modernise. She continues:

    ''In essence, the 134 casinos currently operating in the UK will be frozen in time, and denied both the ability to evolve and the opportunity to provide customers with the leisure facilities which new entrants will be encouraged to provide at other venues around the UK.

    Not only will the New Clauses have a devastating effect on British industry, but they contain within them contradictions and imperfections which . . . will result in bad law and do not achieve the Government's stated aim of creating a gradual and controlled expansion of the industry with consequential regenerative benefits.

    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. It introduces more uncertainty into a market

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    already reeling from numerous policy changes and, in our view, fails to take into account the very real concerns the industry has sought to convey to Government.''

3.45 pm

I could not agree more. The Government have cut the ground from under the feet of the existing industry. It is extraordinary that they have done that at the last minute without consulting the industry in any way. Under normal circumstances, I would be tempted to call a division on new clause 20 and vote against it. However, because my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) have said that both Opposition parties wish to introduce specific amendments on Report, because I do not wish to constrain the House's opportunity to consider the matter fully and vote on it and because, if I called a division, that opportunity might be constrained on Report, I will not call a division. For the reasons set out and articulated by Viscountess Cobham and by the hon. Member for North Durham I was tempted to do so.

The fact that the Minister has managed to create a situation in which one of his—until now—most loyal Back Benchers, who started his contribution today by saying that he came to the Committee as a supporter of the Bill and who is knowledgeable about local government, has been turned into a bitter opponent of what the Government are doing, is yet another reinforcement of what a bad job the Government have done and how badly they have mismanaged the issue.

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): You will recall, Mr. Gale, as will the Committee, that on 16 December we had the most extraordinary situation, the like of which I have not experienced in 28 years in the House. We adjourned so that the Minister could slide in a statement to try to put some flesh on the panic-ridden statements of the Secretary of State when she moved the Bill on Second Reading.

At the time, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford rightly commented:

    ''Today, the Minister has announced major changes to the Bill—changes that alter completely the whole thrust of the Bill.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 16 December 2004; c.622.]

I say amen to that. What my hon. Friend did not say, because he did not know at the time, was that that statement has plunged the industry into chaos, confusion and anger. What I knew at the time was that the statement completely wiped out great chunks of the work of the scrutiny Committee. We have wasted our time due to the carelessness of the Government, who did not come forward with policies and a Bill that could be properly examined.

We have eight, eight, eight. I want to deal briefly with the second and the third eights. If we had known that that was the Government's wish, we would have taken evidence on the matter. We would have examined it and come up with a recommendation. But, no. Out of the blue, the Government have panicked and come forward with what I consider to be an
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unworkable arrangement. I had hoped that during the Christmas period a bit of sanity would have emerged. I would have understood the reasoning behind the Minister's statement, but I regret that the only advantage of eight, eight, eight that I can see is that it includes a degree of alliteration that might make it easier to remember.

Prior to that 16 December statement, it already seemed to me that the regulations and changes in the Bill would control the numbers of those smaller casinos. The Government were not going to allow an unbridled expansion. It seemed to me that the Bill was already doing the job that the Minister wants to achieve. However, as I said, that was swept to one side on 16 December.

I am not going to repeat the comments made about the amount swept off the stock exchange. I made those comments before the House sat for the day. The Minister would not give way for me to make those comments, but I hope that they were recorded in Hansard. The Minister feels that wiping £500 million off share prices does not matter too much. His attitude is, ''It's only share value.'' However, anybody who runs a business knows that the value and assets of the shares are an important component in raising finance for expansion, growth and development.

If millions of pounds are wiped off the shares, that damages businesses, just as the Chancellor has damaged so many pension companies by taking money out of advance payments on dividends. However, no doubt the Government will eventually learn about the requirements of industry and commerce.

I can only repeat that this statement seems to have been made without consultation with the industry after four years and two scrutiny committees. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said, it comes in at clause 310 out of a total of 337, not quite one minute to midnight, but very nearly. If anybody is proud to think that this is how a Bill should be operated and run, they have another think coming. If anybody has any doubts about the value of the House of Lords as a revising Chamber, this statement at this late stage must have swept them away. A second Chamber is absolutely necessary to put right these diabolical mistakes.

However, I want to give praise where praise is due. I value the announcement of a figure of eight for the super-casinos for appraisal. I did not agree with the laissez-faire, open-market approach adopted by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport until she was frightened into submission by her Back Benchers, the media and the press. I am glad that the hon. Member for West Ham is not here, because he would be leaping to his feet and shooting me down, believing that the original position should have been maintained. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) is not here, but I can guarantee that he will be given many a trip over a long distance whenever a Committee comes up again in future.

Why do we need a number of super-casinos for appraisal? It is because we want to see that they are properly run. Because they are new to this country—a
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new phenomenon—we want to ensure that they will give fair play, protect the vulnerable, be crime-free and, obviously, protect children. Therefore, I value that and want to see it, but I cannot see why we go down this route.

As a member of the scrutiny Committee, I turn back to what it said to the Government. It said:

    '''While we acknowledge the Government's reluctance to publish national guidance relating specifically to regional/leisure destination casinos, we believe that it could help to ensure a consistent approach between regional authorities and avoid the need for applications to be called in for determination by the First Secretary of State.''

The First Secretary of State, or his representative, made it clear, in giving evidence to the Committee, that he did not want to be involved; he wanted his position and office to be apart from the process. He wanted the proceedings to take place without constant reference up to his Department. With things as they were, we could not see how that could be achieved. Therefore, as I see it, this advisory panel will lend cohesion to that planning process. However, at some stage those recommendations will require the ministerial nod, which is completely at odds with what the scrutiny Committee was told.

I shall not go through new clause 20 in detail, but one part states:

    ''The Secretary of State shall, having consulted the Scottish Ministers and the National Assembly for Wales, by order make provision''.

If the Secretary of State is to consult Scotland and Wales, why not consult, for example, the northern or north-west regions? Are not those regions, as well as Scotland and Wales, worthy of consultation? I delicately point out that there are considerably more people in some of the regions than in some other parts of the country. Once again, we are not treating everybody on an equal basis.

Of course, that is separate from the planning confusion that has been ably outlined and illustrated by the hon. Member for North Durham. All I can say to him, as a slight aside, is that he is adopting a high-risk strategy. When I worked on the shop floor, there were two routes for troublemakers; they were sacked or made foremen. I am not sure what will happen to him, but I hope that the Government Whip writes a suitable note to the powers that be to get him promoted rather than sacked. He is a person who can go far, particularly considering that we are in a room where one can still see the blood on the carpet from last night.

I wish to return to large and small casinos. I do not understand why they are being treated in this fashion. Have they failed in any way? Have they been dishonest? Have they corrupted children? Have they taken advantage of the vulnerable? Have they become a source of crime? If they have, I would like to know, and then I would see some justification for the second and third eight. However, we have no evidence that they have done any of those things. The figures seems to be arbitrary—plucked out of the air—and I do not believe that anyone has worked it through. I am
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absolutely certain that if the scrutiny Committee had considered it, it would have come up with a completely different recommendation.

If the new clause reaches the statute book unamended, the plain fact is that it will damage the 130-plus casinos that are already in this country. As I said, to the best of my knowledge, those casinos have operated fairly, in a crime-free way, and do not deserve to be discriminated against in this fashion. I shall not labour the point any more, as my hon. Friends have already made it. I endorse what has been said. I sincerely hope that we will not vote against the new clause at this stage but that the Government will see sense, actually carry out some consultation—that may be to their advantage—and table amendments on Report that will rectify at least some of the damage that has been done.

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