Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, this has been an interesting and in some respects a difficult debate. So many diverse and often conflicting interests are watching with real concern to see whether this Bill will make the statute book and, if so, the form it will take.
22 Feb 2005 : Column 1195

I should like to begin by paying tribute to my colleague in another place, John Greenway MP, who chaired the joint scrutiny committee so ably. It is a pity that the Government did not follow more of the committee's recommendations or they might have avoided the "kill the casino" Bill campaign. The huge media furore following publication of the Bill masked some of the key reasons for this legislation; that is, to establish a Gambling Commission, to regulate online betting and gaming and to introduce some new safeguards to protect both children and the vulnerable.

I accept the concerns expressed this evening, particularly those of my noble friend Lord Jopling. I do, however, strongly believe that we must now seek to regulate remote—that is, Internet and interactive—gambling, to protect the consumer and particularly children. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Golding, that no change is not an option. Without this legislation we will have more problem gambling.

I also want to express my thanks to all those who have briefed me in recent weeks and say that while I do not agree with all the many views presented to me, they have been enormously helpful in developing what we believe to be a cogent and balanced approach to the Bill.

I will not take time this evening revisiting the history of this Bill—a task performed admirably by my colleagues in another place. I want to use this opportunity to focus on some of the more pressing outstanding issues that I believe we should consider in your Lordships' House. That said, I and, I trust, the Government are acutely aware of just how unhappy some— in fact, most—interested parties remain. The exercise so far has been a classic example of the Government trying to please everyone and in the event pleasing no one.

What is of crucial importance is to ensure that this Bill provides a strong and clear framework within which the Gambling Commission will operate—without that aim at the forefront of our minds, we might as well all pack up now. Indeed, we will seek to amend the Bill in order to underpin the duty of the Gambling Commission to follow the Better Regulation Task Force's five principles of better regulation. This duty is similar to one that I proposed, and the Government accepted, for the regulator Ofcom during the passage of the Communications Act. It acts as a practical check and balance to ensure a consistent, objective approach to be followed by the commission and nudges the commissioners to keep the three principal objectives set out in Clause 1 in the forefront of the decision-making process.

I shall deal with each of the key issues in turn beginning with casinos. In short, my focus is upon what is best for UK plc and for the culture of Britain. Much of the wider interest in this Bill has been with regard to the proposed regional casinos. While we welcome the prospect of substantial inward investment in principle, we believe that it is important to proceed with great care. We think it is right to consider the first regional destination casinos as pilots in order to measure outcomes. I am concerned with
22 Feb 2005 : Column 1196
ensuring that we monitor the effects of these enormous leisure resorts—the effects upon individuals and communities at large. In addition and of equal importance is the effect these proposals will have upon the existing industry in all its forms from the high stakes in exclusive casinos to the bingo halls and pubs and other licensed premises. I am not going to argue about the exact numbers regarding whether we should have four, eight or 12 regional casinos. It is all a shot in the dark.

I have some remote experience of the kind of regional resorts which we might envisage, having twice enjoyed the fantasy world of Las Vegas. I used the word "remote" since we should not replicate here either the density of Las Vegas in one area, or the details whereby the whole experience of gambling and entertainment is merged into one. We want to see clear, defined areas separating the gambling experience from family and other adult entertainment and leisure facilities. Without that, one can hardly begin to talk about a "safe bet" for success and protection for children and the vulnerable. In addition, I urge the Government to transcend all the arguments put to them and their officials about how the requirement to present identification in these areas would kill the business. That is nonsense and the operators know it.

Technology is improving all the time and if the Government are serious about the key objectives of the Bill, they must support identification wherever there is gambling, not just in response to EU directives, but in response to common sense. In relation to that, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. Indeed, I am concerned that those who continue to believe that identification would be impractical have not taken on board our insistence that the gambling experience must be physically separate from other leisure facilities.

I have referred to the culture of Britain. Little has been said about the other entertainment facilities that might be offered in addition to gambling. We should take this opportunity to encourage the Gambling Commission and local authorities to look closely at what is on offer and to think strategically about facilities that will support more live music, sport and the arts. It is true that many people in this country are against the idea of regional casinos in principle. Frankly, given the prospect of all-night and binge drinking in their towns and cities, coupled with the rise serious crime, it is easy to understand why people see this as yet another ingredient in the mix that will further undermine our collective quality of life.

I have said before in your Lordships' House, and I say again, that more live music means less trouble. Let us have new facilities for promoting a variety of live shows that could significantly enhance our quality of life and diffuse the "evils of gambling" debate.

The location of these new casinos is extremely important. I note that when the Bill was debated in another place, much was said about the need to locate them away from places where people work and live and, instead, have them, for example, in seaside towns. That is strange—and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves,
22 Feb 2005 : Column 1197
referred to this. The last time that I went to Brighton, it was full of people who lived and worked there. The same goes for many of our seaside towns. In short, much more consideration must be given to the criteria to be applied when determining where the new casinos should be located, be they regional, large or small.

The proposals for an advisory panel, appointed to determine where the new casinos could be based, will make sense only if the Minister can persuade your Lordships that the panel will comprise people with proven calibre and experience in planning and social issues and who have a strong sense of commercial reality, as opposed to filling politically correct boxes or parking places for the quangos set. These decisions are too important for mistakes to be made and I worry that this is another example of where the Government would rather wash their hands of any responsibility by creating another tier of bureaucracy to distance themselves in case it all goes wrong.

In any event, a key factor to be considered must be regeneration, both social and commercial, but, please, where it makes sense, not where it might be nice. I wish to declare my support for Blackpool. I agree with—and am happy to receive kisses blown by—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that in Blackpool there has been a strong connection between civic leadership and local entrepreneurs. Blackpool has done its homework and deserves our support, but there is more to be done before the Bill can be put on the statute book.

There remain some important questions regarding the extent to which local authorities will have real choice. If the regional spatial plans say "yes", to what extent can the local—I mean local—authority concerned influence the outcome? I agree with the Salvation Army's point that:

Moreover, the planning regime should enable social factors to be taken into account when decisions are made. I would appreciate the Minister giving us some reassurances on that today.

On the issue of large and small casinos and the existing estate, we shall press the Government to accept a more equitable arrangement. Although, as the Minister stated, current UK operators will be able to apply for one or more of the new licences, where existing casinos have sufficient floor space to allow an extension in the number of casinos they should not be prevented from so doing.

The Government's position on that is not cogent; it is anti-competitive and anti-UK plc. The Government say that that could lead to a proliferation of casinos. Well, they should have thought about that before embarking upon this exercise. If their way out of a public relations pre-election hole is to discriminate against the existing estate, we will fight it. My noble friend Lord Mancroft is right: the existing British casino industry is well organised and well run; it does not fear competition but is asking for a level playing field.
22 Feb 2005 : Column 1198

I join other noble Lords in confirming our support for grandfather rights for existing operators in seaside arcades, family entertainment venues, pubs and bingo halls. Those rights should include existing machines, products, stakes and prizes. To that end, I am really pleased that the Government have bowed to Conservative pressure and decided that we are right to insist on maintaining current stakes and prizes. With the prospect of more opportunities for gambling in new and larger venues as well as the growing attraction of fixed-odds betting machines available on the high street, surely it must be right to safeguard grandfather rights for pubs, for example, in the Bill.

In addition, the reduction of the stakes from 30p to 10p as a token gesture to those who believe that children playing those stakes are tempted for life just did not make sense. Either you believe that it is wrong in principle that children should play those games or you do not. Although we appreciate the concerns of those who genuinely believe that gambling and children do not mix at any level, we do not believe that gambling for children in all its forms should be banned.

Although we welcome the proposal to ban slot machines from all unlicensed areas, we shall press the Government to go further than the Minister has agreed tonight and drop altogether the Secretary of State's reserve power to ban children from using category D machines. While we welcome the Minister's proposal to exclude certain machines from this reserve power, that concession does not address the principle. We feel that the existing businesses are being unfairly penalised against the new entrants, which, in contrast, will be licensed to operate an extraordinarily high number of machines with unlimited payouts.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. I just feel that the Government still have more to do to present a balanced and fair approach to their proposals for the casino industry and one that, I hope, could be described as based on a modicum of good sense. At the moment, we have a maximum payout in pubs of £25 for category C machines in one corner of the ring, together with 136 existing casinos, which in all likelihood will collapse over time from their inability to compete in the marketplace. Meanwhile in the opposite corner will be 24 new casinos, eight of which will have unlimited stakes and huge payouts. There will be no requirement for ID, apart from some roving security guys, whom, I suspect could not tell whether many teenage children were underage—especially girls these days. No doubt such casinos could offer huge enticements, way beyond the £8 teddy league, to encourage dad to go off for the afternoon to gamble. I am, however, pleased with the Minister's concession to ban gambling on Christmas Day.

We need practical legislation to regulate the new and developing interactive and Internet gambling capabilities. They are here to stay and are very popular with the punter. It is our duty to the best of our ability to ensure that they operate in a way that is open,
22 Feb 2005 : Column 1199
transparent, protects the integrity of the games with which they are linked for betting purposes and, above all, protects the consumer.

In this context there are further issues regarding offshore gambling. The Bill fails to take account of how offshore gambling operators organise their businesses. That concern was raised by the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso. At present some have their service situated offshore while their offices, management teams, administration and banking facilities are based in the United Kingdom. The cumulative effect of Clauses 35 and 87 is that these businesses would be defined as all onshore or all offshore. Operators have warned, loud and clear, that if that is the case they will be driven entirely offshore, in which case there will be no opportunity to protect the consumer or support UK plc.

There are further concerns expressed by the bookmakers regarding the degree of regulation of betting exchanges; the betting exchanges are working hard to reassure us that it is not possible to run a betting business on a betting exchange and that there is a clear and defined audit trail showing who is participating and at what level; in other words, sufficient self-regulation. Of course this may not always be the case for all betting exchanges, depending upon the systems for gaming and betting they may adopt. There is no doubt that the Gambling Commission must be responsible for keeping a very close eye upon the new, and as yet unimagined, methods of internet gaming as technology develops, as it

Turning now to the proposal regarding lotteries and prize competitions, we will be proposing amendments on a number of important issues, in order to try and minimise the regulatory burden, particularly for the lotteries raising moneys for good causes, whilst recognising the priority of protection for the consumer. And here I defer to the experience of my noble friend Lord Mancroft but I agree, for example, that it simply does not make sense to single out lotteries for a reserve power to prevent repetitive play, at least where there is no established evidence that rapid draw lotteries represent a particular risk for problem gambling.

We also believe the test for distinguishing lotteries from prize competitions is at the moment unworkable. I agree with the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in relation to Clause 14 of the Bill in this context and the possible impact upon the broadcasting and advertising media. We will therefore be proposing another, better approach for defining games of skill to differentiate skill from chance. This is not easy I grant, given that, what your Lordships may consider an element of skill, could be described as rocket science by some aspiring GCSE entrants who we hear think Cromwell fought at the battle of Hastings.

The Government appear to hold the view that it will be possible to address all the issues of concern via the explanatory notes and guidance notes to be issued by the Gambling Commission at some unknown point in the future. As I said at the beginning of my speech, it
22 Feb 2005 : Column 1200
is for Parliament to introduce a clear, unequivocal framework within which the commission will then operate.

There is still time to get this Bill right, even though we do not know what the Prime Minister may be thinking about a general election or, more correctly, what Alastair Campbell will decide. I want, at this point, to thank the Minister who has already given me and others the opportunity to discuss matters relating to this Bill. More importantly I look forward to our debates in Committee when we will have further opportunities to encourage and hopefully persuade the Minister that our concerns should be met.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page