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House of Commons

Monday 9 October 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with the newspaper and magazine industry on the display of pornographic material at the point of sale. [92565]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): Officials from the Home Office, the Department of Trade and Industry and my Department met representatives of the publishers, wholesalers and retailers of magazines and newspapers earlier this year to discuss this issue. As a result, the trade associations issued guidelines reminding members of the need to exercise common sense in deciding how to display material intended for adults.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: My hon. Friend will be aware that earlier this year I introduced a ten-minute Bill that called for a ban on the sale of sexually explicit material to children. Despite huge public support for that request, the response from WH Smith was to issue a notice that such material may still be displayed at 1.2 m, which is the height of the average seven-year-old. Given that the industry appears incapable of regulating itself, will my hon. Friend consider meeting me and child-centred agencies to talk about what we can do to prohibit the sale of such material to children?

Mr. Woodward: First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important issue to the attention of the House? Both sides will agree that self-regulation is always preferable to Government regulation. We saw a good example of that with the video games industry two or three years ago. A problem was drawn to its attention and it responded by changing methods of classification and dealing with retailers. My Department is consulting on the issue that my hon. Friend rightly raises, and I hope that she and other hon. Members who wish to lobby on the issue will provide more evidence. It is appropriate to encourage the industry to self-regulate. I have now seen some of the content in question and it is clearly preposterous to suggest that placing the material at a height of 1.2 m is an adequate safeguard.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The definition of pornography is a grey area. One of the main publications that has given rise to concern is the Daily Star. Has the Minister had any discussions with the printing industry on whether the contents of that publication constitute pornography, because I am sure that most responsible newsagents would happily consign it to the top shelf?

Mr. Woodward: We have not had specific discussions with the Daily Star—[Hon. Members: “ Daily Sport.”] Indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) has now given me a copy of the Daily Sport and I understand that hon. Members are interested in looking at it.

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The material in some of the publications is the kind of stuff that one would expect to find, at best, on the top shelf and probably not in any newsagent. It is important that the House takes the matter seriously and that we consult on it. It is our ambition to achieve a resolution through self-regulation, but we would like the industry to take the issue as seriously as it merits.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I am interested in my hon. Friend’s comments and the slightly more open approach that he is now taking to the issue. In his consideration, will he take into account the fact that retailers and distributors of magazines have contractual arrangements under which more is paid to have magazines displayed at the most visible levels? It should therefore be straightforward to sort out which contracts are acceptable and which are not.

Mr. Woodward: My hon. Friend makes a fair point and I hope that when we consult on this later this year she will bring forward any evidence that she has as part of that consultation.


2. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): What assessment she has made of recent trends in the number of people who are problem gamblers. [92566]

4. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What steps she is taking to reduce the level of gambling addiction. [92568]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): The latest estimate, from 2000, suggested that 0.6 per cent. of the adult population in Great Britain are problem gamblers. That is a low proportion and we intend to keep it that way. The Gambling Commission’s next prevalence study is under way and will report in September 2007, to coincide with the introduction of the Gambling Commission. The figure for problem gambling in that report will provide the benchmark against which further judgments will be made. We intend that the Gambling Act 2005 will introduce the most protective regime in the world, with the key aim of protecting the vulnerable and children from the risks of gambling. It is worth underlining the extent to which the Gambling Commission and I, as Secretary of State, will have unprecedented powers to intervene in how gambling is run to minimise harm, protect children and keep the levels of problem gambling low.

Bill Wiggin: GamCare says that the number of people using the charity for gambling-related counselling has increased by 41.3 per cent. between 2004 and 2005. The Secretary of State gave a figure of 0.6 per cent. in her answer. Does that mean that 250,000 to 350,000 people have gambling problems? Therefore, has she not presided, perhaps irresponsibly, over an enormous explosion in problem gambling?

Tessa Jowell: Not at all. The figure that I quoted of 0.6 per cent. represents about 360,000 people in Great Britain, and derives from the 2000 prevalence study. It is time to update the figure, because new technologies mean that more people are gambling. It is precisely
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because of the inadequate protection offered by the existing regime that, two years ago, we introduced the Gambling Act 2005. It established the Gambling Commission, which will be a powerful regulator, with the central aim of promoting social responsibility among operators and keeping problem gambling low.

Mr. Swayne: What specific measures will be taken to reduce what is now a severe social problem, given the number of problem gamblers?

Tessa Jowell: Can I say, to reassure the hon. Gentleman, that we have one of the lowest rates of problem gambling in the world, and we intend to keep it that way? That is not in any way to diminish the suffering of those people and families for whom gambling becomes a problem. However, the list of measures includes, from September next year, the removal of 6,000 machines from unregulated premises such as minicab offices and fish-and-chip shops, to protect children from the risks of addiction to fruit machines. The Gambling Commission will have powers to oversee and to control the rate and frequency of play, stakes, and access to gaming machines which, as we know, can be a source of addiction. In particular, £3 million a year will be levied from the industry to support services for people who become addicted. Such work will be undertaken through the good offices of GamCare and the Responsibility in Gambling Trust, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). In addition, at the end of the month we will host an international summit that will look at the exponential increase in online gambling. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) will take comfort from the measures that the Government have put in place to protect people from gambling and the risks, particularly from new technologies.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware of concern about the rise in online gambling. It is difficult to see what social good will come from it, as it does not even create jobs. She will be aware, too, that the US Congress is examining steps to clamp down on online gambling by stopping credit card companies processing payments. Are the Government looking at such measures for the UK?

Tessa Jowell: As I said to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), at the end of the month we will host an international summit to address precisely that problem. As things stand, such offshore gambling is beyond the regulatory reach of the UK. The United States has recently introduced new legislation to enforce existing powers. We can certainly— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. It would be better if the Secretary of State addressed the Chair.

Tessa Jowell: I apologise, Mr. Speaker.

To sum up, of course, we will look at that issue, but our approach to gambling regulation is different: to avoid prohibition, to introduce regulation and to avoid the damage that the free market will do. That is the approach—not just to gambling in this country but to the increased gambling opportunities online.

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Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): The Gambling Commission is central to this, so I congratulate the Secretary of State on the decision, taken over the summer, to locate it in Birmingham. May I suggest that she take a similar approach to the regional casino and to what may technically be known as the London Olympics but which we in Birmingham hope will be known as the Birmingham and rest of Britain Olympics?

Tessa Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend and I am sure that the Gambling Commission will flourish in Birmingham. The decision about the location of the single regional casino is a decision for Parliament, on recommendation from Professor Crow when he and his panel report later this year.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Is not the Secretary of State right in acknowledging that, if online gambling is the largest cause of increases in problem gambling, it is crucial that we get online gambling organisations registered and regulated in the United Kingdom? She is right to say that in this country we have the toughest regulatory regime, but at the moment nobody is coming here because we do not have the taxation regime right. When will she sort that out with the Treasury?

Tessa Jowell: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, my Department is in discussion with the Treasury about precisely that point. We are concerned to ensure increasingly that online gambling companies understand the benefits of registering in this country. The consequence of that is their good name in complying with the very high regulatory standards and standards of public protection and social responsibility that will accompany the issue of their licence.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): But is not the real problem that the internet is now spreading gambling as a vice, as it does with pornography? I welcome the action of the American authorities in clamping down on that. A little bit of prohibition in both areas would be a good thing. Will the Secretary of State talk to the United States to see what we can do to stop pornography as well as online gambling polluting the screens that our children and too many of our fellow citizens look at?

Tessa Jowell: I understand why my right hon. Friend links the two issues, but it is important to take this on a case-by-case basis. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country gamble online and never have a problem with it. We have to ensure that the small majority who have a problem are properly protected and that there is no scope for exploitation, fraud or any of the other detriment that will harm people and undermine the objectives of our policy. We certainly ban internet material where it is pornographic and promotes violence. It is not our intention to ban internet gambling as such, but it is our intention to make sure that people are properly protected when they play.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Presumably, the Secretary of State agrees with her official briefing, recently quoted in the press:

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How can the Secretary of State justify giving tax advantages to online gambling operations that other forms of gambling and betting will not enjoy? Given the mounting evidence that problem gambling is growing fastest in the field of online gambling, what assurances can she give that Britain will not become a world leader in problem gambling as well?

Tessa Jowell: I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts my assurances, and indeed the careful scrutiny before the House of the Gambling Act 2005 as a measure to prevent problem gambling. In relation to his point about the regulatory status of online gambling, there are decisions to be taken by my Department; ultimately the taxation position is a judgment for the Treasury. It may be that in other countries—other jurisdictions—the tax advantages will be better, but in the long run it is in the interests of modern gambling companies, if they want to protect their reputation, to be prepared to comply with and to abide by the social responsibility standards that we will insist on in this country. That is what we offer online firms which come to this country.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Following the previous question, I, too, read the press report suggesting that the Government are seeking to make Britain a centre for online gambling and I am much more concerned about that than even Front-Bench Members. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to think about reversing that policy and not make Britain a centre for online gambling?

Tessa Jowell: As I think the Daily Mail pointed out today when it made that claim—[Hon. Members: “And The Times.”] And The Times. It is certainly not our intention that we become a world centre for online gambling. Do not confuse that, Mr. Speaker, with our aim to get online gambling companies to register and to come on-shore. If we do that, we will have better powers and those companies will be in a better position to act in a socially responsible way, so we will ensure that, in a rapidly increasing area of gambling, we can keep down the proportion of problem gambling. We are not marketing the UK as a centre. We are marketing the UK as having the toughest regulatory regime in the world and as being the safest place for people to gamble. It is a public interest test.

Licensing Act

3. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): If she will make a statement on the implementation of the Licensing Act 2003. [92567]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): It is still too early to draw firm conclusions, but indications are that the new licensing regime has been successfully implemented and is working well.

Mr. Turner: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his answer. Why do certain activities on the Isle of Wight, such as the Chale show, the county show, the garlic festival and other very attractive festivals, find themselves regulated both under the Licensing Act and under the Isle of Wight County Council Act 1971, despite my having been told by the Minister’s
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predecessor—the present Minister for the Middle East, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells)—before the Licensing Bill became law that it would impliedly repeal parts of the Isle of Wight Act? Which sections have been repealed?

Mr. Woodward: I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions. I am glad that the Chale show, notwithstanding the difficulties that were faced, was a success. None the less, I recognise the problems faced as a result of the Isle of Wight Act and the Licensing Act both having to be navigated by those putting on the show. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my predecessor wrote to him in 2002, setting out the Department’s view that there would be implied repeal of elements of the Isle of Wight Act as a result of the new legislation. I have asked my officials to look into the matter and I am happy to meet him to discuss it because, as he knows, the intention behind the 2003 Act was to simplify the procedures, not to make things more difficult.

I therefore remind the hon. Gentleman that, as part of the new Licensing Act, we were able to reduce from 174 to 20 the number of forms, licences, notices, certificates and declarations. We managed wholly to repeal 23 Acts of Parliament relating to licensing and all associated regulations, and 69 Acts in England and Wales were reduced. Nine licensing regimes were reduced to a single regime. However, there was clearly a problem in the Isle of Wight and I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to see what we can do so that the problems faced by the Chale horticultural show can, if possible, be avoided in future.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend will remember the dire warnings about the implementation of the new Licensing Act leading to an increase in drunken violence. Can he confirm the figures given to me by West Midlands police, who say that more arrests were made this summer in one day at Ascot than during the whole World cup period in the centre of Birmingham nightlife, Broad street?

Mr. Woodward: It is always difficult to account for particular behaviour at major events such as Ascot. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to inform me of any individuals from the House who may have taken part in those events. The overall evidence on the implementation of the Act is being collated at the moment—it is important to look not at a particular moment or day but at a long period—but early anecdotal evidence from the police and the local licensing authorities is that, by and large, it is successful and is having a positive effect on crime and disorder. Of course, there will always be exceptions.

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