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Betting, Gaming and Lotteries

3.41 pm

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): I beg to move,

On 30 January, the casino advisory panel, following extensive public engagement, published its recommendations relating to the 17 local authorities that should be permitted to issue the one regional, eight large and eight small casino licences. The panel’s recommendations on the large and small licences have, I believe, gained general acceptance within the House and outside. However, the panel’s conclusion on the location of the regional casino has proved controversial. The source of that controversy is the strength of feeling from two quarters.

First, there are those who hold a moral objection to gambling—a view that I entirely respect and is held by many on both sides of the House and beyond. It is in recognition of the many downsides of gambling that we constructed in the Gambling Act 2005 one of the most rigorous regulatory and protective regimes in the world. Secondly, there are those, led with great passion and effectiveness by my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), who believe that the regional casino should be located in Blackpool. I understand that view, too. Their constituents can be in no doubt about the power of their advocacy on behalf of the people they represent.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): My right hon. Friend well knows the strength of feeling in Blackpool, and it links the two issues that she mentioned. Minimising gambling was part of Blackpool’s bid as a resort casino and yet Professor Crow admitted to the Merits Committee in the House of Lords that he did not take that into account. He made it virtually impossible to award the regional casino to a resort such as Blackpool. Perhaps the Secretary of State will comment on that.

Tessa Jowell: Yes. I have had a discussion with my hon. Friend about precisely this point. Having carefully studied the Merits Committee’s conclusions, I have to say that I do not agree with them on this point. She will know that the overriding objective of the Gambling Act, which has within it the provision for the 17 new casino licences, is public protection, which involves keeping gambling crime free and ensuring that gambling is fair. In interrogating all the applicant local authorities, Professor Crow sought to ensure that each could conduct a test of social impact.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): I accept the distinction that my right hon. Friend makes. However, does she not think it rather perverse when one part of the process is set up to produce a particular emphasis, while another part is set up to produce a different one? Does she not think that that inevitably undercuts one of the key principles of the Gambling Act, which was preventing harm and the expansion of problem gambling?

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Tessa Jowell: My hon. Friend has made that point several times. Let me make it clear that Professor Crow was asked to consider the applicant local authorities in the context of three tests on social impact, the capacity for regeneration and the willingness of the local authority to license. Hon. Members will be aware that we made specific provision in the Gambling Act for local authorities that did not wish to have any casinos—this is rather at variance with the belief that casinos are being foisted on an unwilling public who do not want them—to apply a blanket ban. During the process, several local authorities opted to take that course.

My hon. Friend has given this matter an enormous amount of thought on behalf of his constituents. The matter before the House and Ministers is one of judgment, given Professor Crow’s report, the report of the Merits Committee and the objectives of the legislation. However, he should be in absolutely no doubt that the overriding concern of Ministers when reaching conclusions is the capacity of authorities to conduct a proper test of social impact and thus express the public protection objectives of the Act.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Tessa Jowell: This is a short debate and many hon. Members wish to speak. In fairness to the House, I will take a limited number of interventions, but I wish to set out the arguments as quickly as I can so that they can make their contributions.

As I have said, many local authorities wanted to explore the possible benefits of regeneration from casinos. When Professor Crow’s panel invited bids for new casinos, 27 local authorities put themselves forward for the single regional casino licence. A total of 68 authorities put themselves forward as candidates for the 17 new licences. Our policy allows for a limited number of new casinos because of our precautionary approach to gambling. Those 17 developments should essentially act as pilots—a series of test beds to judge the impact of these new casinos in the context of the public-protection measures in the Gambling Act and the three criteria I have set out.

We made it clear that we would ask an independent panel to make recommendations to Ministers, rather than have Ministers originating recommendations. Until, to everyone’s surprise, the panel recommended Manchester, not Blackpool, as the authority for the regional casino, there was broad consensus across the House on the approach. In the time since the policy was established and during the long process of developing the legislation, I do not think that any significant disagreement was expressed.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Tessa Jowell: I am going to make some progress.

We approached the matter in such a way because we wanted to be sure that as we were testing the new approach, the decision was based on fact and evidence. That is why I have not simply overturned the panel’s recommendation and inserted Blackpool instead of Manchester. It would fly in the face of the evidence to
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do so, and such an approach would have been grossly unfair to every other local authority that took part in a published and agreed process in good faith. That is the principal reason I am presenting the order in such a form today.

Let me go through some of the other reasons behind the recommendations. Our intention is to evaluate the impact of this pilot before taking any decisions about the future number and location of any new casinos. That precautionary approach has two immediate consequences. The first is the composition of the order: the locations of the 17 new casinos have been chosen to give a mix of locations to measure impact accurately. Secondly, it means that there can be no new casino licences for at least the lifetime of this Parliament, until the clear assessment, based on rigorous evidence, is carried out.

I shall now turn to the other issues that have exercised hon. Members. There have been calls for the order to be split, with a separate order for the regional casino. The Government have resisted those calls, because—as I have set out—the package of 17 new casinos forms a package. If I had split the order from the outset, I have no doubt that the accusation would be that the Government were manipulating Parliament into substituting another area in order to pursue political or other motives. I say that because until the panel’s report was published on 30 January and the recommendations took everyone by surprise, we had daily reports about how the Government were nobbling various casino operators to ensure that the regional casino was sited at the dome. The process demonstrated the integrity of the panel’s approach.

Mr. Evans: The Secretary of State of State has said that the package is being presented to us today because it is a package, but that is a self-fulfilling argument. Surely the best approach would be for the controversial decision to be put separately from those that are not controversial in the slightest. People would then at least have an opportunity to have their say on the controversial one, which—as she says—came as a shock to everyone. On the issue of regeneration alone, Blackpool should have got it.

Tessa Jowell: The hon. Gentleman and I had full exchanges on precisely that point at the Select Committee, where I made clear, beyond any doubt, the approach I would take. I have sought throughout the process of this controversial legislation to be clear and consistent at each stage. As I have explained to the House, I have sought to do the same on this decision.

Much has been made of the Merits Committee report in the other place, which expressed reservations on two grounds—on how the panel interpreted its remit and on the issue of destination casinos. Both points have been raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, South and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood. I have placed on the record and in response to the Committee my view that its concerns were misplaced.

The primary consideration that we set for the casino advisory panel in making its assessment was to identify locations that would provide the best possible test of social impact. We did not ask the panel to identify a location that would reduce problem gambling as such,
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because our wider policy is the legislation itself, and it is the responsibility of the Gambling Commission to implement the most rigorous regulation to ensure that problem gambling is anticipated, acted on and contained.

The Merits Committee also reflected a claim made by some that it is perverse to locate the regional casino in deprived, residential east Manchester. East Manchester is deprived. On the basis of official figures, it actually ranks as more deprived than Blackpool. One of the panel’s considerations was to identify areas in need of regeneration, so it is not surprising that some of the candidate areas are very deprived. The panel’s job, however, was to recommend a local authority area rather than a specific site, and it is possible to locate a regional casino in east Manchester without putting it in the very poorest residential area. After all, that will be what the local planning system is for. The same would apply to Blackpool or anywhere else. Blackpool’s own bid placed the casino in the town centre, next to what I understand is judged to be a deprived ward.

Let me move on to the questions that have been raised about destination casinos. The argument is that the panel has failed because it did not recommend a seaside resort to host the regional casino and has ignored the Joint Scrutiny Committee’s recommendations. That is to misunderstand the concept of a destination resort. Manchester is in its own right a significant tourist destination. Apart from 2002, when it came fourth, in each of the years between 2001 and 2005—the figures bear this out—Manchester was the third most important overseas tourist destination in the UK, behind London and Edinburgh.

Such a view also fails to reflect the Joint Committee’s intentions. The Committee expected regional casinos to be large-scale entertainment complexes offering gambling alongside a wide range of non-gambling facilities. Anyone who has been to Manchester in the past 10 years can see that the city is at least as compatible with the concept of a leisure destination casino as anywhere else. [ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. We will not have sedentary comments.

Tessa Jowell: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

On the evidence, the panel concluded that Manchester offered a

for a regional casino. That was the judgment of some of the most eminent planning experts in the country, and that is why I have put forward Manchester in the order that we are debating.

I know that whatever the outcome of today’s debate, and the debate taking place in another place, hon. Members will continue to fight Blackpool’s corner, and rightly so. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, South and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and other hon. Members will welcome what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has today announced—a fully fledged regeneration taskforce to review the totality of economic, social and environmental development plans in the Blackpool area and to make recommendations on the way forward. That is a very constructive and
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practical response; it is a response to the persistent advocacy of my hon. Friends, and a proper response for this Government to make.

Looking to the future, the Government intend to accept the amendment tabled in another place by my noble Friend Baroness Golding, calling for the creation of a fresh Joint Committee of both Houses to look at the casino advisory panel to see what lessons can be learned— [Interruption.] Hon. Members might like to wait so that they can understand the nature of the proposition. However, in addition to giving Members of both Houses an opportunity retrospectively to examine the panel process, while recognising that the creation of the Joint Committee and its terms of reference are a matter for the House authorities, let me state now that the Government would like the remit of any Joint Committee to be forward looking and not just retrospective.

I have been very clear with the House, and I repeat now that there will be no more new casinos in the current Parliament, because the results of the social impact studies of the current 17 pilot casinos and of the next prevalence study will not be available until 2010. Proposals for more new casinos will therefore not be initiated by this Government. As I have said before—I reiterate it today—the impetus for such proposals would have to come from Parliament.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Tessa Jowell: The hon. Gentleman will have plenty of opportunity to address the House.

At the moment, there is no consensus on allowing any more new casinos, and there may never be such a consensus, but it is only right that the Joint Committee to which I referred should be allowed to examine the criteria and the conditions that could govern any possible future decision.

If the Joint Committee decided that a future Parliament might allow another regional casino, and if it recommended a specific location, I doubt that many hon. Members would be surprised if the place recommended was Blackpool. I hope that the Joint Committee will produce its first report within six months. I can assure the House that, with the agreement of my right hon. Friends the Chief Whips in both Houses, the Government would then make time available in both Chambers for any report from the Joint Committee to be debated. I know that that does not give the supporters of Blackpool an immediate gain or the reassurance that they wish for, but they will continue to have every opportunity to make their case in Parliament, and to work with the regeneration taskforce, which will engage in its work shortly after today.

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