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30 Jan 2007 : Column 84

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does the Minister not agree that there is a wider dimension to this issue, particularly at a time when the Government are suggesting raising the school leaving age to 18, which is to do with what adulthood really means? As she knows, some of those who suggest that the voting age should be 16 also suggest that buying tobacco and alcohol, and even starring in a porn film, should be possible at the age of 16. Does she not agree that all the evidence—and we should look at the evidence—from the Isle of Man shows that only half the young people there bothered to register to vote, and that the Electoral Commission seems to suggest in its report that overall turnout at elections would fall if we made this change?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes some valid points about the issues associated with reducing the voting age to 16, such as whether young people would participate, but I do not accept that reducing the voting age to 16 would automatically mean that a much smaller number of people would take part in elections; in fact, it might be a way to get young people further engaged. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 reduced the candidacy age from 21 to 18, and we can look to that example to see whether we can properly involve more young people in the democratic process by electing them at local—and, indeed, parliamentary —level.

David Kelly

24. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): If she will make a statement on the actions of the Oxfordshire coroner in August 2003 in respect of the death of David Kelly. [112044]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): The Oxfordshire coroner briefly resumed the inquest into the death of Dr. David Kelly on 14 August 2003 to admit post mortem evidence. He then adjourned the inquest, in accordance with the provisions of section 17(a) of the Coroners Act 1988, having been informed by the Lord Chancellor that Dr. Kelly’s death was likely to be adequately investigated by the Hutton inquiry.

Norman Baker: I thank the Minister for her reply. She will know my view that the coroner acted in a most peculiar way and contrary to the 1988 Act in resuming the inquiry after Lord Hutton had been appointed. In a letter that I received from Lord Hutton last week, he tells me that he had “no knowledge” of the inquest being reconvened, and no knowledge of the meeting with her officials, which she was aware of, that took place at the Oxfordshire coroner’s request, in August 2003. Is this not an extraordinary situation, and does the Minister not agree that it would be helpful if the Oxfordshire coroner agreed to a meeting with the Minister and me, at which we could discuss these matters in more detail? It is clear that there are a great many loose ends.

Ms Harman: I do not agree that the coroner acted in a most peculiar way. I have looked into this issue with great care and in great detail, and I do not think it
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necessarily odd that Lord Hutton had no knowledge of, or information about, the meeting that the coroner held with officials from the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I know that the hon. Gentleman remains suspicious and thinks that something underhand has gone on regarding the meeting between the Oxfordshire coroner and officials from the Lord Chancellor’s Department, but I do not
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think that that is the case. I have so far been unable to reassure the hon. Gentleman through very detailed letters and parliamentary answers, but perhaps he should meet the officials who were involved in that meeting, who I am sure can reassure him of its propriety. Obviously, I cannot offer a meeting with the Oxfordshire coroner, who is an independent judicial official.

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Casino Advisory Panel

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the recommendations of the independent casino advisory panel. The panel has today published its report, and I would like to thank Professor Crow and his colleagues for their work. Before I turn to the recommendations, I would like to remind the House of the context in which we are allowing these new types of casinos.

Gambling is on the increase. People want to gamble, and technology allows many new forms of gambling. Existing regulation is inadequate and leaves people exposed to risk, so, through the Gambling Act 2005, we have placed the protection of children and other vulnerable people at the heart of gambling regulation for the first time. Yet if I believed everything that I read in the newspapers about that Act, I would never have introduced it. So let me be very clear: Las Vegas is not coming to Great Britain. British casinos will be subject to new controls, which will be the strictest in the world. For example, Las Vegas-style tricks of the trade will not be allowed. There will be no free alcohol to induce more gambling, and no pumped oxygen to keep players awake —[Interruption.] I do not know whether you are considering providing it for Conservative Members, Mr. Speaker.

It will be a criminal offence to permit a child to enter a casino or the gambling area of a regional casino. All casinos will be required to have staff who are trained to spot the signs of problem gambling and intervene where necessary—if they do not, they risk losing their licence. It was safe in the knowledge of those protections that we took the decision, in response to demand from local authorities, to allow a limited number of new casinos. Some 68 local authorities, representing all the main political parties, subsequently made applications to the panel.

The Act allows 17 casinos in total: one regional, eight large and eight small. Because the new casinos will be different from those we have seen before, we have listened carefully to the concerns of Members of Parliament and their constituents. We thought that it was right to be cautious. I could probably say this in 50 different languages, but the message would be the same: we cannot and will not even consider allowing further casinos until a proper evaluation over time has been made of the social and economic effects of the 17 casinos —[ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) should be quiet during a statement. Back Benchers have said that they want a statement and they should have the courtesy to allow the statement to be made.

Tessa Jowell: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Such a decision would require a debate and vote in both Houses of Parliament in any case. We have commissioned a group of academics led by Lancaster university to advise on the methodology for that assessment. The baseline study will be undertaken later this year, once Parliament has approved the new areas,
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so that proper assessment of changes in the pattern of gambling can be made. The assessment process will be in place in good time for the opening of the first new casino.

The assessment will not be complete until at least three years after the award of the first licence, and it will be in addition to the prevalence studies of patterns of gambling, which we are undertaking every three years from 2007. The benchmark prevalence study is currently under way to establish how many people gamble and what proportion of them have problems with their gambling. The findings will be published this autumn, when the Gambling Act 2005 takes effect. The findings of the next prevalence study will not be published until autumn 2010. I therefore wish to make it crystal clear to the House that those safeguards preclude any consideration of further casinos for the lifetime of this Parliament.

I am required by the Act to make an order identifying the local authorities where the 17 new casinos should go. So, in October last year I established the casino advisory panel, under Professor Stephen Crow. The primary consideration for the panel throughout has been to ensure that the areas facilitate the best possible test of social impact. Subject to that consideration, I also asked the panel to include areas in need of regeneration, which would benefit—in terms of new jobs—from a new casino, and to ensure that those areas selected are willing to license a new casino.

The panel has been operating entirely independently of the Government, and I would like to place on the record my appreciation for the rigour and professionalism that Professor Crow and his colleagues have brought to the process. It has been an open and transparent process throughout, and the views of local people have been taken into account at every stage, as the panel has visited different local authorities around the country.

The panel asked local authorities to include their evidence of local consultation. Local people were invited to participate in the examinations in public that were held in the seven short-listed areas for the regional casino. During the process, a number of areas, including Brent, Canterbury, Dartford, Thurrock and Woking, withdrew their applications to the panel in response to local opinion, which is evidence of the Act working as it should. A number of local authorities, such as Hackney, St. Albans and Slough, have also taken advantage of new powers we put in the Act and resolved not to license any casinos in their area.

After 16 months of consultation, and having considered all the evidence available, the panel has recommended today that the following authorities should be entitled to issue a small casino premises licence: Bath and North East Somerset, Dumfries and Galloway, East Lindsey, Luton, Scarborough, Swansea, Torbay and Wolverhampton.

The panel also recommends that the following local authorities should be entitled to issue a large casino premises licence: Great Yarmouth, Kingston-upon-Hull, Leeds, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Newham, Solihull and Southampton. In addition, it recommends that Manchester should be entitled to issue the one regional casino premises licence permitted by the 2005
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Act. I congratulate Manchester and the other recommended towns and cities on their success, and I acknowledge the disappointment of those towns and cities that have not been recommended.

I received a copy of the panel’s report just this morning. Because I am conscious of the need to maintain the integrity of the independent process that we have established, it is only fair to all the applicants that I should take the time to consider the report’s contents carefully. Moreover, I am also required by the Gambling Act 2005 to consult both Scottish and Welsh Ministers. I am therefore announcing today that, following the consultation with the devolved Administrations, I am minded to return to this House at the earliest opportunity with an order that will enable Parliament to consider the panel’s recommendations and to vote on them. The order will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and the debate will be held on the Floor of the House, as agreed with my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip. That means that Parliament, rightly, will determine the outcome of the process.

In conclusion, I recognise that gambling will always be a sensitive issue, and I understand the reservations that some hon. Members and others have about it, and about casinos. However, I have always sought to ensure that the Government proceed cautiously on this matter, with the strongest possible safeguards in place and on the basis of the best evidence of public protection in the face of what is, undeniably, rising public demand. That is what is we have done.

Once again, I thank Professor Crow and his panel for the thoroughness of their work, and I commend this statement to the House.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I thank the right hon. Lady for giving me advance sight of her statement, and I add my congratulations to Manchester on its success in securing the proposed regional casino. I and my party hope that that will bring the promised regeneration to that great city in the north-west. We also congratulate all the other successful bidding authorities.

Today’s announcement is the latest chapter in the sorry story of this Government’s seeming addiction to gambling. No doubt the Chancellor is licking his lips at the prospect of tax revenues on the scale now evident in Australia. The Government’s handling of the liberalisation of gambling has been undermined by charges of privileged access and influence for overseas casino operators. As a result, despite today’s verdict from the casino advisory panel, many questions remain.

It has been noted already that Kerzner International, the prominent bidder that met Ministers and wishes to run the casino in the dome, is also the preferred bidder in the successful Manchester bid. Is it the Secretary of State’s understanding that Manchester will now be required to undertake a new open competition for the licence? If other operators are not allowed to tender in a fair and open way, questions will remain.

The Secretary of State’s recommendation must come before Parliament and will be subject to a vote in both Houses. When does she intend to come to the House with the final proposals? Can she also guarantee,
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categorically, that any increase in the number of super-casinos will be subject to a debate and vote in both Chambers?

Now that the recommendations of the casino advisory panel have been published, the top priority must be to ensure that the pilot scheme is rigorous and independently monitored. The will of Parliament was clear: because of the untested nature of super-casinos in this country, one regional casino should be piloted so that there can be a proper assessment of its social—[ Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. It also applies that the spokesman for the Opposition is entitled to be heard. He should not be interrupted—by Ministers or anyone else.

Mr. Swire: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your protection.

Only today, before the panel’s decision was even announced, we read reports that Ministers are already planning to increase the number of super-casinos. Once more, will the Secretary of State categorically deny any plans to increase the numbers?

Does the right hon. Lady agree with her Ministers that the legislation could lead to an increase in problem gambling? In her statement, she said that the decision to allow a limited number of new casinos was made by the Government in response to demand from local authorities. She is rewriting history, because she knows that it was the Conservative Opposition who argued strongly for a limited pilot after the Government initially envisaged about 40 super-casinos.

We need to be sure that the pilot is used to assess the impacts on crime, gambling addiction and the surrounding community, as well as to assess the economic benefits. That is what Parliament agreed to—a true pilot scheme, not a sly way of avoiding the issues that need to be investigated—and that is what we must have. Will the Secretary of State commit to a long and open consultation process for laying down those criteria, and will she confirm that the three years to which she alludes will start only once the doors in Manchester are open to the public?

The Minister with responsibility for gambling, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), said in the House that the numbers will not change unless the Opposition support an increase. I can say categorically that we support a pilot scheme of one regional casino and there should be no change until a proper assessment has been made. So, will the Secretary of State confirm that there will be no back-door increase?

Finally, the right hon. Lady makes much play of her determination to regulate gambling, yet the evidence proves that, thanks to her decision to leave the door ajar for applications under the Gaming Act 1968, in the past two years alone 90 casinos have been given initial approval, with a further 57 applications outstanding, which means a potential doubling of the number of casinos since the Government have been in power. Was that her intention? Did she anticipate such a rush for licences? Can she assure us that on no account will those casinos be allowed to trade up their licences and, as a result, bring £1 million jackpot machines to towns throughout the country?

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In the 10 years of the Labour Government there has been a rapid rise in the number of people gambling and in the public’s access to gambling online, in pubs and, increasingly, in casinos. That is an unprecedented change and the Government will rightly be judged on its consequences on society. The Secretary of State may make statements about Las Vegas not coming to Britain or about oxygen and free drinks, but there will be alcohol and we will see unprecedented gambling in the UK. She claims that no children will be allowed into casinos, yet as she knows, she rejected the call for ID checks on entry.

As I said, we join in celebrating with Manchester and all the other towns in their success today, but we shall hold the Government to account on the many promises they have given to protect the most vulnerable and those most at risk from their legislation.

Tessa Jowell: I am inclined to believe that the hon. Gentleman must have gone to sleep during my statement, as I could not have dealt more clearly with four of his questions; nor could I have been clearer about the Government’s determination to ensure that proper protection is put in place and that tackling problem gambling, which arises from the many increased opportunities for gambling, is one of the central objectives of the new legislation. That will make us the most toughly regulated gambling regime in the world, apart from countries that ban gambling altogether.

I take two thirds of what the hon. Gentleman said in the vein that he was desperately scrabbling around to find something to say. Of course Manchester will carry out a fair and open competition for the licence. The hon. Gentleman, with the protection of the House, should stop using this situation as an opportunity for smear and innuendo, which is not what we expect of him. Yes, there will be a vote in both Houses on the affirmative resolution, and yes, I have been absolutely clear throughout that any decision in a subsequent Parliament to increase the number of regional or any other casinos would be a vote of both Houses. This is a decision for Parliament and will remain so.

On the claim that there is no interest in casinos, I recall from memory that 131 local authorities expressed an interest and we had 68 applications, with 27 local authorities submitting applications for the single large regional casino. It is ridiculous to suggest that the Government are somehow foisting the proposal on unwilling local authorities, which are considerably more imaginative and in tune with their local populations than the hon. Gentleman.

Let me finish by saying that although the hon. Gentleman talks about the consents awarded before the 1968 Gaming Board licences were terminated in April last year, 13 of those applications have already been turned down by the licensing magistrates. At this stage of his Opposition career, the hon. Gentleman should know that licences—some have not even been considered yet—do not inevitably translate into casinos, as it is a long process. Consents depend on the support of the local authority and local people. This has been a period of great change and the people of this country would be at risk without the new Gambling Act 2005, not because of it.

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