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T9.  Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab):
Will my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing agree to meet me and other concerned Members of Parliament of all parties who have major anxieties about land maintenance companies, such as Greenbelt Group Ltd, which owns the common land on new estates in perpetuity, charges home owners excessive costs,
provides little or no service and then sends threatening and bullying letters to my constituents and others?
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Are Ministers aware that MCL, the Governments consultants on funding the national bus concessions scheme, has estimated that Chelmsford needs £1.1 million extra to be fully funded? Are Ministers also aware that Chelmsford will get only £413,000a shortfall of £738,000? The current scheme, which starts at 9 am, will have to meet the statutory minimum time set by the Government at 9.30 am. Will Ministers reconsider, fund the scheme properly and stop insulting my constituents by writing to me and trying to blame the borough council rather than themselves for failing to fund the scheme fully?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a significant amount of extra investment has been made in concessionary bus schemes for pensioners and disabled people, in a way that has never previously been known in this country. That represents tremendous progress. He also knows that the Local Government Association requested that the extra funding for concessionary fares should be made in a specific grant and ring-fenced, contrary to the rest of our policies. I agreed to do that, and £212 milliona generous sumhas been allocated and will meet the needs of authorities to provide concessionary fares.
Today I am laying a draft order identifying 16 local authorities that will be authorised to license the eight large and eight small casinos permitted by the Gambling Act 2005. I do not intend to authorise a regional casino.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) established the casino advisory panel to advise on the location of the 17 new casinos permitted by the Act. The panel considered applications from 68 local authorities and made its recommendations after detailed consideration.
Before I make further progress, the House will want to know that, since we last discussed those matters, the chair of the independent panel, Professor Stephen Crow, has passed away. I hope that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to his family and paying tribute to the integrity and dedication that he brought to his role.
Last March, an order incorporating the panels recommendations was defeated in another place. Since then, the Government have reflected on the range of views expressed in both Houses and beyond. There was a consensus that the eight large and eight small casino licences should be awarded to the 16 licensing authorities identified by the casino advisory panel. That view was expressed by Opposition Front Benchers and their lordships in their message to this House, calling for the 16 to be incorporated in a fresh order.
Following last years local elections, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) invited all 16 councils to state whether it remained their wish to license a new casino. All 16 have requested inclusion in the new order.
However, there was and is no consensus on a regional casino. There are important differences between the regional casino on the one hand and the large and small casinos on the other. The regional casino would have been allowed up to 1,250 unlimited stake and prize gaming machinessomething not previously seen in the United Kingdom. The large and small casinos would be allowed to offer 150 and 80 category B1 gaming machines respectively, with a maximum £2 stake and £4,000 prize. B1 machines are already in use in Britain today.
There are two principal and independent reasons for my decision not to proceed with a regional casino. First, concerns were expressed in both Houses about the potential negative impact of a regional casino operating on the proposed scale. I have not seen anything to suggest that the will of Parliament has changed. Secondly, I have considered the evidence, both old and new, on the impact of regional casinos. This evidence, including the scoping study by Lancaster university, which I am laying in the House today, points towards the uncertainty of the risks involved and does not dispel those anxieties.
The Gambling Commission's prevalence study, published in September, highlights the fact that problem gambling,
although small, remains persistent. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has concluded that regional casinos are likely to have no, or only marginal net benefits compared with other means of economic and social regeneration. In the light of that and the evidence about the uncertain levels of risk, I do not intend to authorise a regional casino.
I know that my decision will disappoint many in Manchester, particularly east Manchester, one of the most deprived areas of the country. Taking forward the conclusions of the report published today, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will lead an ad hoc ministerial group to work with Manchester council and its partners to identify and bring forward a range of regeneration alternatives. The group will produce its first report by the end of March. Considerable support has been expressed in both Houses for the regeneration of Blackpool. My right hon. Friend has today announced a package of investment for the town worth close to £300 million.
Andy Burnham: I am satisfied that they do not pose the same level of risk to the public as a regional casino. That said, my instinct is to proceed with caution at all times considering measures to protect young and vulnerable people. Therefore, any new casinos authorised by the order will be required to abide by strict new rules, including in respect of: providing non-gambling areas where customers can take a break from gambling; prohibiting the provision of free drinks to customers while they are gambling; prohibiting the use of credit cards to purchase chips or play gaming machines; ensuring that any cash machines are located away from gaming areas; and requiring casinos to have policies to identify problem gamblers and provide information about support for addiction. Operators who break those rules risk losing their licence, fines and up to 51 weeks imprisonment.
Taken together, those measures make up the toughest regulatory regime for gambling in the world, but today I am signalling my intention to go further still. Regulators, legislators, operators and owners all have a duty to act in a socially responsible manner, accepting that for some gambling is an addiction, not a leisure pursuit. I was surprised to find that only 360 of the 3,800 licensed operators have so far made contributions to the Responsibility in Gambling Trust this year, which offers advice and treatment to people with gambling addictions and is chaired so ably by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). That is not acceptable. Promises were made, and I expect them to be kept.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has called for the introduction of a statutory levy. Unless the industry delivers a substantial increase in contributions by the end of this year and makes contributions in a timely fashion, I will seek the approval of the House for a statutory levy, at a rate to be determined. Secondly, I believe that it is a good principle that all casinos are
subject to a period of closure every day, when individuals are required to leave the premises. Currently, casinos are prevented from offering gambling over 24 hours, unless they apply to local authorities for an extension. However, I wish to rule out the possibility that some may remain open round the clock, by requiring them to close their doors for at least six hours.
In conclusion, the order we are laying today is an enabling order, giving 16 local authorities the ability to proceed with plans for small and large casinos. Whether to do so is entirely a matter for local decision, and I hope that local people will be consulted and involved at all stages.
Small and large casinos will bring local economic benefits and provide enabling development with the potential to create new community facilities. But, as the Lancaster study concludes, there are costs and benefits of casino development that need to be weighed in the balance. That is why I shall at all times proceed with caution, and continue to keep gambling policy under review according to my responsibilities under the Act, to take advice from the Gambling Commission, and to be guided by the evidence. I commend this statement to the House.
Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance notice of his statement. I appreciate that he is new to his brief, and that not all the issues surrounding the statement are of his own making. I welcome certain elements of the statement, particularly the commitment to increased resources going to the Responsibility in Gambling Trust, which is run with great tenacity by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). We also add our condolences to the family of Professor Stephen Crow.
The Secretary of State mentioned his concerns about problem gambling. The Governments own problem gambling prevalence study, published in September, identified internet gambling as one of the fastest growing areas of problem gambling, yet he did not mention it. Is he aware that nearly one in 10 adults who gamble online have an addiction? Do the Government have a policy to prevent online gambling addiction? If so, why did the Prime Minister, in his last Budget as Chancellor, introduce a new 15 per cent. tax for online gambling operators? This has resulted in not a single one re-registering in the UK, where children and other vulnerable groups are protected by much safer and stronger regulations. Does the Secretary of State now think that it was wrong to liberalise gambling advertising in September, in a way that has made it easier for overseas gambling operators, who are not subject to those regulations, to promote their online products in the UK? In the absence of a coherent approach to problem gambling, is there not a danger that the Governments efforts to appear tough on the issue will be perceived more as PR than reality?
The Governments policy on casinos appears even more confused. First, there was to be no limit on the number of super-casinos, then the limit was 96. Then it was 40, then eight, and then one. Today it is none. There is to be no super-casino, but 16 larger casinos instead. That is not so much a U-turn as an S-bend. The House will remember that this policy started way back in 2005, the year that saw the then Deputy Prime
Minister gallivanting in a cowboy outfit around the ranch of Philip Anschutz, who was then hoping for a super-casino licence.
Given the time and money that have been wasted since then, will the Secretary of State at the very least apologise to the people of Manchester and Blackpool? Will he contest the legal action that councils there and in other parts of the country might bring to retrieve the costs of their super-casino bids, which were made in good faith but have now turned out to be a total waste of money?
The Prime Minister said that he was going to end sofa government. Will the Secretary of State therefore explain why the super-casino decision was taken last July without consulting the Cabinet? He has spoken of new rules for the new casinos. Will he acknowledge, however, that none of the rules in his statement is new, and that they are all covered by existing Gambling Commission licensing conditions?
Finally, will the Secretary of State show me one paragraph in the Department for Communities and Local Government report on alternative regeneration strategies that is not already known to Manchester, Blackpool or any other council trying to regenerate? Is there not a risk that this report will be seen as yet another piece of hurried window-dressing for a decision that has already been made from on high?
Our position on the 16 larger casinos remains unchanged. It looks as though the Government might finally have fumbled and stumbled their way to more or less the right solution, but, until they have a coherent anti-problem-gambling strategy, are we not being faced with the worst possible option for the industry, for the public, and for gambling addictsnamely, a jumble of half-baked policies, zigzags and U-turns?
Andy Burnham: It took time, but we got there in the end, and I am grateful for the hon. Gentlemans indication of support for the order. I am also grateful for his words of support about the Responsibility in Gambling Trust and I would like to reiterate what I said in my statementthat our intention to introduce a statutory levy is very real, unless we see a significant improvement and unless payments are made in a more timely fashion. I understand that the trust needs to plan and make preparations for the year ahead. I emphasise again the importance of proceeding in a timely manner, and I hope that that will be heard beyond the House.
The hon. Gentleman is also right to raise issues around online gambling. There is, of course, a connection between todays statement and the growing popularity of online gambling, but my statement was specifically about casino policy, which is why I did not deal with online gambling directly in it. I acknowledge the hon. Gentlemans concern, however, which is why we have asked the Gambling Commission to conduct further research of the data in order to find out more about the risks and causes of problem gambling on the internet. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the prevalence study, which found that the less than 1 per cent. level of problem gambling has remained unchanged. There can be no possibility of complacency on that matter, but the overall rate remains unchanged, although there has been an increase in online and other forms of gambling. As I say, we are not complacent and we keep these matters under review.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned super-casinos and referred to the 16 large casinos, so let me explain again that todays order authorises eight large and eight small casinos, which are very different in character. They will include only machines that are currently available in casinos that are operational today. That is why I am satisfied that it is appropriate to authorise and move forward with these 16 identified casinos.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government would apologise to Manchester and Blackpool, but if I understood it correctly, it was his policy to stand up against the potential for a casino in those locations, so he should make that point clear. We have put together a package of support for Blackpool, which I believe will be widely welcomed across the House and in the other place. It is worth close to £300 million and will take Blackpool further forward. We will also look closely into issues surrounding the regeneration of east Manchester, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has made some announcements today that will begin that process. There is a serious intention to look into alternatives to casino-led regeneration.
On the hon. Gentlemans last point about why there was no further action since last July, I remind him that all this did not begin last July, but in the House of Lords in March. It would have been arrogant of the Government not to have reflected on the views expressed in the other place and in this House, as we wanted carefully to consider how to take forward a casino policy that has a degree of consensus in Parliament. Following the local elections, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions wrote to local authoritiesrightly, in my view, as the change of political complexion could have led to the emergence of different views on casino policy. Towards the end of last year, some local authorities asked for more time to make their judgments about whether to proceed with casinos, but by the end of the year they had all come back to us, indicating a wish to proceed. I then considered the evidence and consulted Cabinet colleagues in the devolved Administrations, which brings us to todays process. I believe that we were right to listen to concerns and in the end, as the hon. Gentleman himself concluded, the order before us is the right order.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): May I tell my right hon. Friend that people in Manchester will not think it arrogant of the Government but bonkers of them to accept the will of the non-elected House of Lords, particularly at the expense of 3,000 jobs for people in my constituency and surrounding areas? This must be very disappointing for my constituents, so may I ask the Secretary of State very specifically for an absolute guarantee that the Government will now commit themselves to finding the regeneration structures that will ensure that the still high levels of poverty in the city of Manchester are dealt with? I look to my right hon. Friend to give that commitment from the Dispatch Box today.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and I can assure him on his main point that the Government have the serious intent and commitment to work quickly to establish the alternatives for regeneration. Proposals are already on the table, some put forward by Manchester
city council, and if we all work quickly to evaluate them, we should be able to produce a first report by the end of March, as I said.
As for my hon. Friends description of the decision as bonkers, it should be stressed that the regional casino was a very different entity from the large and small casinos, not just in terms of the number of machines but, principally, because it would have introduced something entirely new to the country. The views expressed in the House of Lords were clear, but in this House, too, there was concern and uncertainty about whether that was the right way to proceed. Having reflected on all those factors, I decided that it was not the right way to proceed, but I was able to conclude that the eight large and eight small casinos are acceptable.
As the Secretary of State said, it was back in March last year that Liberal Democrats in both Houses proposed a mechanism by which to proceed with the eight large and eight small casinos. Despite the answer that he gave earlier, I fail to understand why there have been 11 months of needless delay.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important for local people to be consulted on more than just planning for specific casino proposals? Will he explain how that will happen? I welcome todays publication of the two reports, but the scoping study was due to be completed in November 2006. Why has there been a 16-month delay?
As we have heard, the Government initially wanted, and voted for, an unlimited number of super-casinos. Then they wanted eight, then one, and now they have dropped the idea altogether. Has not their flip-flopping led councils on an expensive wild goose chase? We understand that £1 million of taxpayers money has been wasted.
I too welcome the extra help for Blackpool and Manchester, but given that the Secretary of State did not answer the question asked by the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), how does he respond to Manchesters claim that much of the rumoured help is already in the pipeline? Does he accept that while we debate the introduction of 16 casinos, far more are creeping into the country through the back door? In 2005 the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), then Minister with responsibility for gambling, said,
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