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Mr. Foster: I am delighted to follow that amazing tour d’horizon. I say gently to you, Mr. Caton, that I thought we were opening up a can of worms when you said that it would be in order to discuss the 2005 Act itself. I think that I am the only Member present who served for many months on the Committee that considered the Gambling Bill, which became that Act. I find it fascinating that the issues that we are debating and the numerous consultations to which the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East referred cover only a small bit of our deliberations in Committee. Were anyone to do an historical analysis of those deliberations, they would see that about a third of our time was spent discussing how internet gambling based in this country would be regulated. That has been a complete waste of time to date because nearly everyone has gone off elsewhere as a result of different tax regimes.
As the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East rightly said, more and more of these websites are advertising in this country although they are regulated in overseas jurisdictions. There are real concerns that there is not enough security in place around them, yet we allow them to advertise. Bingo halls bear a huge amount of taxation, they contribute financially to this country and they make extra contributions to support research, education and training in respect of problem gambling. The overseas-based websites take large sums of money off people who live in this country yet make no contribution either in taxation or in supporting research, education and training. That is a ridiculous situation which needs to be addressed.
The second third of our deliberations in Committee was about casinos. There has hardly been any increase in casinos and even the one super-casino was dropped. Many of the 16 large and small new casinos are not being built in the current climate. We are discussing that small bit of the 2005 Act that covers machines, casinos, adult gaming centres, family entertainment centres and the like. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: there are real problems in those areas. They are the soft end of gambling and yet they have problems in terms of job losses, premises closures and so on. We appear to be taking a long time to take some simple, modest steps that would be of enormous benefit to them.
Bingo halls have faced difficulties for a variety of reasons, including the current economic climate and the impact of the smoking ban. To be fair, however, the Bingo Association supported the smoking ban and was aware of its possible impact, but thought that it was the right thing to do socially. I congratulate it on its stance, but the bingo industry has been affected by the ban. It is also affected by double taxation. It is the only part of the gambling industry that has to pay two lots of taxes: it has to pay its gross profit tax of 15 per cent. and VAT at 17.5 per cent. That is unfair and ludicrous. The Minister could have helped it far more by persuading the Treasury to deal with that issue rather than proposing the measure before us.
The smoking issue and the changing patterns of people who come to play bingo have created a particular problem. Many people wanted to play the machines during the interval, which simply was not possible because a large number of machines have been taken out of the bingo halls following the 2005 Act. Large numbers of people were queuing up to play on just four machines during that short break in the game. Increasing the number from four to eight will have a significant benefit. The clubs will, of course, want more, but it will significantly help those clubs to deal with that problem.
I welcome the fact that the measure has been introduced, however belatedly, but the Department must be quicker at dealing with such problems. The Minister and I have a regular joke outside Committee meetings, in which he says, “Soon”, “Very soon”, “Almost immediately”, or “Perhaps a little later.” We are constantly being told that something will happen. I remind him that on 22 February he told me in a similar Committee that he was fully aware of the urgency of the problem faced by the Bingo Association’s members. It has taken nearly a year to get to this stage of addressing only one small part of their concerns.
As the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East said, it is a pity to have missed the opportunity to address the issues relating to adult gaming centres and family entertainment centres while those were being dealt with, because that could have been done. That said, this is a modest proposal that will give some help to the bingo industry. Much more needs to be done, and I hope in particular that the Minister will look at the issue of double taxation and persuade the Treasury to do something about it. Modest and belated though it is, the order has our support.
5.11 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. I am generally very much in support of the proposal, and I know that various bingo halls in Coventry have been affected by the present situation. If I understood the hon. Member for Bath correctly, 67 bingo halls have closed in the past year. I do not think that that number includes the 37 that closed in 2007-08. Have those closed since then?
Mr. Foster indicated assent.
Mr. Robinson: Clearly, there is an accelerating deterioration in the condition of the industry and the viability of an increasing number of establishments. We have finally got round to bringing in this measure, and it was high time that we did. The proposal is modest. Sixteen machines were asked for, and the number went down to 10. It is now eight, which is a doubling. That is a minor number in the context of what was there, and perhaps a case for a much higher number could be made. However, we should not ignore the significance of this.
Mr. Foster: Let me help the hon. Gentleman. When the 2005 Act came into force, 2,700 machines were removed from bingo halls, so the numbers that are now being put back get us nowhere near where we were before.
Mr. Robinson: I had hoped that I had made that point, albeit without having the numbers in my possession to quantify it in such a way. The assistance should be significant.
We should not underestimate the significance of gaming machines. I had first-hand experience of that with the new stadium in Coventry, part of which was in the running for being one of the major regional casinos. I am sure that none of us regrets their premature demise, although it was greatly regretted at the time in Coventry.
The prospective owners of the casino were really interested in gaming machines because that was where they made their money and where the propensity for people to fork out £1 or 50p really began to grip. They would even go to the length of installing and manning roulette tables and other gaming tables to justify more slot machines, so what they lost in installing those tables, which involved significant capacity, and manning them with croupiers was more than made up for by the machines. Clearly, we should be careful about such prospective addiction or excessive use. However, with proper regulation, such concerns need not apply significantly to the bingo establishments, but the Government have been sensible in giving what would appear to be over-elaborate thought to that.
Mr. Foster: Although what the hon. Gentleman has said in no way undermines the Minister’s case, or his support for it, lest anyone happen to read our deliberations in the future, it is important to place on record the fact that the type of machines we are talking about have low stakes and prizes, whereas the proposed super-casino in Coventry would have been allowed up to 1,250 category A machines, which have unlimited stakes and prizes. That would be a very different kettle of fish from having eight B3 machines in a bingo hall.
Mr. Robinson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for anticipating my point about what was at stake with the Coventry regional casino or national super-casino. As he rightly said, the rewards for grade A machines are unlimited, and those for B1 and B2 machines can be up to £4,000. Significantly, there are not yet any concrete Government proposals on stakes and rewards.
Mr. Sutcliffe: Not as part of this order, but we will debate an order on that matter following the consultation on category C and D machines, which ends today. As I have said, we have referred concerns over FOBTs to the Gambling Commission and we are waiting for it to report back.
Mr. Robinson: So, that is something for consideration. That is fine; we will look at the matter when it comes up. It is urgent to proceed on a popular part of the local establishment: the landscape of family amusements. I am pleased that the proposal on children has not been accepted because they are very much a part of the environment. Such machines can be kept separate and be properly regulated.
We should give the order a good measure of approval, and I am pleased that it has been brought forward.
5.16 pm
Mr. Sutcliffe: There has been a broad welcome for the Government proposal of increasing the number of machines from four to eight. For the reasons I have outlined, our response was measured, and I am grateful for the Committee’s support.
I do not recognise the suggestion of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East that the Government are all at sea on their gambling policy. This Government introduced the Gambling Act 2005 on the back of the Budd report in 2000. The hon. Member for Bath was a member of the Committee that considered that measure and knows that there was detailed consideration of many of the issues that face this complex industry.
I think that the Gaming Act was passed in 1968 and the industry was then controlled by the Gaming Board. The industry has moved on dramatically from the early days of gambling to be a complex industry involving complex issues. This Government cannot be attacked for not wanting to debate or discuss gambling, which we have done so on many occasions.
Parliamentary procedure is such that orders come before the House that relate to each part of an Act. We will return to category C and D machines, however belatedly that might be. However, we have brought forward the consultation on those machines. It was supposed to be three years before they were looked at again, but we understood the complexity of the issues. The industry gave a view and we put the issue out for a consultation that ends today. We will look at the outcome of that consultation. However, even on category C and D machines, there are people who do not want us to move.
Mr. Ellwood: As I mentioned, there have been more than 20 statutory instruments under the 2005 Act, so we have had to tweak it often. The Minister says that he will come back on the consultation on category C and D machines. That is like a supermarket coming back on a consultation on its fruit department alone without considering the other things it sells. It is completely daft. Establishments have an array of machines. There should be full consultation on stakes and prizes for all slot machines, rather than an attempt to chop them up into groups.
Mr. Sutcliffe: The debate on different categories of machine and types of premises took place during the passage of the 2005 Act. There was a great deal of deliberation over what different sectors could offer. I am sure that, like me, the hon. Members for Bournemouth, East and for Bath have been approached by a number of organisations, such as the British Amusement Catering Trade Association, the Bingo Association and casino bodies. Those organisations have different aspirations, and each wants to develop its share of the marketplace for particular machines.
As has been said, the whole purpose of the 2005 Act was to protect vulnerable people, and that is why the Gambling Commission has its powers.
Mr. Foster: I think that the Minister agrees with this point, but I wish it to be placed firmly on record. It is important that we get the stakes and prizes and the numbers of machines right to ensure that people have opportunities to engage happily in soft forms of gambling. A piece of evidence that concerned me greatly was that following the closure of the bingo clubs, about which the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West spoke passionately, people who wanted to have a flutter moved to the much more addictive FOBTs in high street bookies. That is why the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East is right that action on such things must be taken much more swiftly.
Mr. Sutcliffe: Obviously, we must operate and work with the sectors involved. The hon. Gentleman asked what a Conservative Government would do about betting shops and FOBTs if, heaven forbid, they ever came back. Clearly, the original arrangement was—the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East can correct me if he wants—voluntary between the bookies and the then Minister regarding a fixed number of machines. The Minister said at the time that that would be kept under review. It was kept under review, and I have referred it to the Gambling Commission, which will look at stakes and prizes. Hopefully, we will know its view in June.
It is wrong to say that we are looking at things in isolation, but each of the sectors has a particular view on how it wants to move forward. Representatives of the Bingo Association were lucky enough to have a meeting with the Prime Minister, at which they raised not only the issue of double taxation, but the increased number of machines—[Interruption.] No. They were looking for as much assistance as possible because of the nature of the problems that the industry faces.
Mr. Ellwood: The Minister is avoiding two fundamental questions. First, would he like VAT to be removed from bingo? Secondly, why are we not debating adult gaming centres today?
Mr. Sutcliffe: We are not doing so for the reasons that I have outlined. The matter is out for consultation, which is right and proper because some in the sector do not want increases in stakes and prizes. The consultation was brought forward—there would normally have been a triennial review—and it ends today, so we are now in a position to look at what has been said and to make recommendations. That is how the process works and the industry is fully aware of that.
We are acting responsibly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West said, such issues must be looked at in great detail, for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North outlined. Reference was made to the problem gambling prevalence study. I am happy to report that when we talk about problem gambling, we are talking about a small percentage of people—0.6 per cent. of the gambling population. We instigated the voluntary levy to ensure that Gamcare and the variety of bodies that look after problem gamblers would have sufficient funds. The prevalence study takes place every three years, and if another problem area is identified, we will look at it. We believe that we are taking all the action necessary to ensure that the softer form of gambling is safe, with all adequate measures in place to look after under-18s. We are also taking the necessary action to ensure that people are not encouraged to have problems with gambling, and that there is funding to deal with problem gambling.
However, there are different contexts, and there are different views on seaside arcades, adult gaming centres, bingo halls and casinos—that is the nature of the debate. The order is an attempt to ensure that we look after bingo. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East could organise time for the Opposition to talk about gambling whenever he wanted, for example in an Adjournment debate. I would be happy to debate gambling issues. The Gambling Act was the first piece of legislation to put the consumer at the heart of gambling issues, and we believe that the Gambling Commission’s powers will help us to deal with the problems that we face. The industry will always want more, but the process in Parliament is that we deal with orders as they appear. Given what we are trying to achieve, we must consult different bodies.
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