Gambling Bill

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Bob Russell: When the Government set out on their Gambling Bill, the talk was about 20 to 40 mega-casinos. We are told that the Government listened to opposition and concerns and reduced the number to eight. Would the Minister give an assurance in his summing up that no representations were made by American backers to introduce a Trojan horse amendment whereby we would suddenly have two more categories of eight casinos? Can he also give an assurance that those two other categories of eight casinos will not, at some stage, magically evolve into mega-casinos because of the fact that they have already been established? It is quite simple. He can either give a straight answer and say, ''No, that is not the case'', or he has to explain to this gathering and the wider public where these two other categories of eight came from. Why are they there?

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Finally, can we please have a list of all the existing casinos before we get to Report? I find it quite extraordinary that the Minister is unable to say how many casinos there are in this country. I would have thought it quite a simple thing to have a list but, throughout the 20 sittings we have had, we have had various numbers given.

Mr. Moss: I begin by apologising for being absent during the Minister's proposal of the new clauses. Under the Government's original timetable, of course, we were expecting to be on Report today. On that basis, I agreed to speak at a conference on gambling, so I had to go and explain to the great outdoors just what a mess was being made of the Bill in Committee. I said, ''I had better rush back to make sure it does not go further off the rails''. I apologise for not being here to listen to what the Minister had to say, but I suspect that what he said this morning was not a great deal different from what he gave us on 16 December, when he produced the casino ''Statement of National Policy''.

I do not want to rehearse the speech that I made then, tempting though that it is. A number of points have already been made today, and I want to focus on what I consider to be some critical issues. The first is the choice of the triple eight lock. That is the new buzzword.

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I would like to put myself in the place of one of these big American investors. They were planning to come over here and spend, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said, between £150 million and £200 million to build huge casino leisure complexes. If we understand the Secretary of State to be on the ball with this, on Second Reading she pronounced that there could be between 20 and 30 of these mega-casinos around the country. Of course, at that point there was opposition on Second Reading and, as has been pointed out on more than one occasion in this Committee, the Government flipped.

I do not have any bugging devices in their organisations and I am not a fly on the wall, but if I was one of those investors I would be saying ''Look, we have been in discussions with you''—i.e. the Government or the special advisors to the Government—''for one, two or three years''. Perhaps it was after the Budd report that people suddenly thought, ''Now there is an opportunity for major investment in the United Kingdom''. And they would be saying, perhaps, ''We have been entertaining your special advisors, flying them to and from Las Vegas, for years now. We have invested heavily in market research in this country. It shows us that the potential is x, y and z. The figures of 20 to 30 fit in with our overall projections of where we might be. And you, the Government''—perhaps not the Minister himself, but filtered through the usual channels—''have now said to us that we are competing with existing industry in the UK for just eight. You have got to be joking,'' is what they would be saying.

Mr. Caborn: If we had accepted the hon. Gentleman's amendment, they would have been bidding for four, not eight.

Mr. Moss: That is totally irrelevant. We tabled an amendment for four for different reasons. I am talking about the negotiations between the Government and their advisers, and those in the industry who are going to invest in these 20 or 30 casinos. [Interruption.] If the Minister would just listen to me, he would see that I am developing this in a particular way.

They have now said, ''You have got to be joking. You are restricting us to eight. We have put all this money in. We have been given all these promises and assurances. Do you realise that if you restrict regionals to eight, then we are going to face severe competition from money going to large and small, particularly large casinos? If there is no cap on those, you are going to undermine our investment. So we would like you to put a cap on them, so that our investment, in the initial phases, is protected on the flanks.'' What better figure to come up with—

Mr. Caborn: Than eight?

Mr. Moss: The Minister has got it in one. That is why it is eight. There are eight of both because if there are eight small ones, there might as well be eight large ones.

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The British industry has looked at the potential of casinos throughout the United Kingdom. There will be an adjustment between new development and investment and the existing estate; some of the existing estate will not be able to compete so there will be an internal adjustment. The maximum is likely to be between 190 and 200. That is the maximum because, at the end of the day, only a proportion of the population will be attracted into casinos. Threshold population sizes are needed for large or regional casinos and the industry knows exactly what they must be. Any investor must do those calculations. If the total that the country could take is 190 to 200, why are the Government panicking about the new investment in the second and third tier?

That question has not been answered as yet. The Minister has not jumped up to say that I was not here when he answered it. The Government must justify why they have plucked these figures from the air. Frankly, if I were an investor looking at the new scenario, I do not think that I would bother to invest in a small casino.

Mr. Caborn: Fine.

Mr. Moss: Fine, says the Minister. He does not want eight small casinos anyway, so why not say zero for small casinos if that is the Government's attitude? People will not invest in small casinos under the current regulations in the Bill.

The Minister's notes state that the gambling commission can carry out an assessment of the so-called test. Let us look at that test for a moment. The Government are saying that its purpose is to test the new casinos in different locations and environments and to assess the social implications and effects. However, there is nothing new in the new large and small casinos. They will have only category B machines, which are currently in existing casinos. There will be no category A machines to test in large and small casinos, so where is the test model? The test could be done in the 10 existing casinos. Why are they banned from the test? What is the point of a test to look at the impact when 136 potential test sites are being removed at a stroke? There is no logic in any of that.

After three years, the gambling commission will come along and say that three or four casinos have been built and ask whether it can make assessments on those. Will the Government say that until all 24 are built and assessed there can be no movement for the future? That is not clear. Under the Government's timetable, which my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford spoke about in depth, they are not setting up the panel until 2006—

Mr. Caborn: Not true.

Mr. Moss: That is what the Minister's report says. It says not before 2006. That is when the panel will start its work and that must feed through all the paraphernalia of procedures and steps which the hon. Member for North Durham rightly highlighted. It will be years before the first casino is built. We are looking at 2008 or 2009 for the first one. There will not be a
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huge rush to build them. From 2009-10 it will be 2013-15 before the gambling commission comes along to make an assessment. We want a cautious approach, but that is ridiculous. No one with money to invest will consider such a time scale. They will use their money for other things. If the Government want regeneration, and they say that they do—that is a key factor in making these decisions—they have to talk to and listen to the people who want to make the investment.

Mr. Jones: Another scenario is that, in the 12 months before the Bill becomes law, there might be an explosion of people trying to get into the casino game. In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, one organisation is turning an amusement arcade into a small casino. It got planning permission to do so late last week. Could there be an explosion in similar applications prior to the Bill becoming law? That would defeat the object of the Bill, which is to try to limit the numbers.

Mr. Moss: That is possible under current planning arrangements. The Government have promised that they will block that from happening—although not under this legislation—by means of the land-use category. At the moment, as I understand it, there could be sideways movement from leisure complexes into casinos. If the Government do not want such proliferation, they had better move quickly.

If the Government want the Bill as it is currently written, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said, they will not get support from us. I doubt that the Bill as drafted will get through the Lords. The Government have to start listening to people, particularly on casinos, and they have to come to a practical and pragmatic outcome to which the industry can sign up.

The industry signed up to the scrutiny Committee. It is four years since Budd, the industry has given evidence to the scrutiny Committee and there has been a second report, which balanced out the aspirations of the various entities involved. Let us not forget that, in order to ensure a reasonably level playing field, the last scrutiny Committee report recommended considering allowing category A machines in large and small casinos, and recommended ''a proportion'' be allowed to do so. That is in paragraph 47; I looked it up over lunch. That is what the industry thought would happen. Suddenly, there was the first U-turn. The Government said, ''No, we are not having that. All category As will go into the mega-casinos—up to 1,250 of them.'' At a stroke, existing industry was discriminated against, and that discrimination has continued.

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Prepared 11 January 2005