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MPs AGREE ON GAMBLING CHANGES - BUT CONCERNS OVER LOCAL AUTHORITY ROLE

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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

The was broad support from all parties when MPs debated wide-ranging government proposals for changes to laws regulating gambling, based largely on recommendations of a review body chaired by Alan Budd.

However, there was acknowledgement that many people were concerned by the relaxation of gambling laws. Also, there were disagreements on the licensing role proposed for local authorities and questions about the effectiveness of their planning powers to control development of gaming and betting establishments - with Blackpool South MP, Labour's Gordon Marsden, pointing out that because of its history there were already 30 buildings in the seaside resort that would not require planning permission to become casinos.

Minister for Sport Richard Caborn, who introduced the debate, promised to consider seriously a suggestion from Conservative spokesman John Greenway that a shadow version of the planned regulatory gambling commission be established so that it could advise on the detailed legislation, 'so that we avoid the big bang of a new regulator coming in on the day that the Bill receives royal assent'.

Mr Caborn said government had received more than 10,000 responses to its consulation on changes affecting an industry that employed more than 100,000 people and which affected more than three-quarters of the adult population who enjoyed gambling as a leisure pursuit - whether on the racecourse, bingo hall, betting shop or casino. The overriding aim was to create a well regulated gambling industry which could flourish and prosper under sensible modern laws that delivered adequate protection for its customers and society as a whole, and equipped to respond rapidly to the technological and customer-led developments both domestically and globally.

Technological advances were not provided for with current legislation - contained in four Acts. Some regulations appeared to defy common sense. Did we really need rules that prevented casinos offering any form of live entertainment or which stopped betting shops serving anything other than pre-packaged food? Why, for example, was it okay to visit a casino in Reading or Brighton, but not in Swindon or Worthing? asked Mr Caborn.

He said the relaxation of gambling laws worried many people, and government must respect and respond to those concerns. The key to the new system would be the gambling commission which would, for the first time, centralise all gambling operators. It would have a vital role in monitoring the conduct of gambling and in responding to developments, whether on its own initiative or through advice from government.

Casinos would be significant winners, with major deregulation bringing substantial business opportunities and customer benefits. Bingo clubs would also enjoy greater freedom. The world of online gambling would be properly opened to British businesses and properly regulated.

'All this should have a positive spin-off for our tourist industry, which we all want to return to its former glory', said Mr Caborn.

'We will allow UK casino operators to offer a broader and more attractive leisure experience in a well-planned and pleasant environment. I am sure that that is welcome. Places such as Blackpool are making great strides to ascertain whether they can be first out of the starting blocks. I wish them well'.

Gareth Thomas, Labour MP for Clwyd West, asked the minister to review the recommendation that floor space devoted to table games in casinos be 2,000 sq ft. It had been suggested that floor space should be 10,000 sq ft, and that space of 2,000 sq ft would lead to many more casinos on the high street, perhaps threatening existing bookmakers and exacerbating problem gambling.

Mr Caborn replied the government was consulting on that and other issues. The reforms would not be cost free. The gambling commission would be expected to recover its costs fully through licence fees paid by operators. The same would apply to local authorities who, under government proposals, would be responsible for licensing all gambling premises.

Mr Greenway said MPs should be clear what was meant by a casino or a resort casino. It should not mean wall-to-wall high-pay-out slot machines. It should mean the availability of gaming in a leisure setting, with entertainment, drink and a restaurant all within the same premises. That would make the casino experience out of the ordinary, and not something people would wish to have every day, or even every weekend.

He said that while the Conservatives were in general agreement with the decision to deregulate the casino industry, they had real concerns that deregulation should not lead to proliferation and a consequent rise in problem gambling. Even the creation of a casino resort experience, like that proposed by Blackpool, would be undermined in small casinos were established in every town in the north west. For that reason, he hoped ministers would consider the suggestion that Blackpool might be a pilot area.

Mr Greenway added that guidance the government issued to local authorities on the planning aspects of casino developments, and the robust licensing and regulatory framework the gambling commission would need to put into place, were crucial elements in the government's ability to deregulate and yet control expansion.

'Local authorities will need to have regard to many considerations. For example, in assessing the proposed location, they will need to have regard to the current practice that casinos remain open until 6 am. While the industry is keen to ensure that there is consistency of decision-making and an appeal process where outcomes can be reasonably predicted, many existing casino operators have expressed concern that if the planning process is too easy we could see the creation of a significant number of relatively down-market establishments, which characterised the industry in the early 1960s, before the current legislation was introduced', added Mr Greenway.

Another issue for planners could be to require operators of new casino developments to demonstrate how their proposals would help the regeneration of the area. Arguably, said Mr Greenway, planning guidance might be framed so as to be generally favourable towards granting consent in locations where the leisure industry is crucial to the economy. The endorsement of the regional development agency might be another factor to consider.

'The ability to demonstrate tangible benefits to a local community might also be relevant. That is certainly the view and intention of the Blackpool challenge partnership. It wants to support good causes from gambling profits, although its ability to do so will of course depend on the tax sytructure that the government introduce', added Mr Greenway.

John Thurso, Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, said: 'Clearly, there is tension between the central and local provisions for the licensing of premises. I welcome the move away from licensing justices to licensing authorities. It is an essential part of local democracy that elected people can be held to account for the decision they take. I was a licensee in England and I owned licensed premises in Scotland, so I have seen the workings of licensing justices in England and licensing local authorities in Scotland in relation to places that sell alcohol.

'There is no substantial difference between the two. One is as likely to get a good local authority in Scotland as a bad one, and one is as likely to find good licensing justices as bad ones in England. Therefore, the question is not whether we should have licensing justices or licensing authorities, but how the legislation is passed and the instructions that are given'.

On the role of magistrates and, as it is proposed, local authorities in relation to betting shops, former Labour home office minister George Howarth, said he favoured leaving things as they are. As a former long-serving councillors and with two excellent councils in his constitunecy of Knowsley North and Sefton East, he had no in-built prejudice against local authorities.

'At the same time, the magistrates already have a body of experience, and they are at once removed from the pressures that would inevitably come on local authorities if they had licensing responsibility. I am sure the authorities would carry it out well, but I think that magistrates courts are probably the most appropriate places for licensing', explained Mr Howarth.

Mr Marsden said there was a small, quite vociferous lobby of people significantly opposed, mainly on principle, to the expansion and introduction of casino resorts. Another group had assumed, almost in a Pavlovian way, the casinos would be the answer to all our prayers and the sooner they were in place, the better.

'However, the vast majority of people, groups and associations in Blackpool - significantly including the vast majority of hoteliers, guest house owners and so on - take the view that there could be great benefit from resort casinos but that we need to see the detail of proposals. That raises the problem of how the local community could benefit directly via a levy or hypothecation', said Mr Marsden.

There had been much loose talk about emulating what had been done by Atlantic City, but it was not possible for Blackpool to do the same. New Jersey and Atlantic City had a federal structure and in Britain there was no method by which towns could use hypothecation in the same way or had the control of funding enjoyed by individual states. Perhaps on the back of RDAs, with possible elected assemblies, there might be more scope for such a levy in five to 10 years time. However, it must be considered what could be done now.

'A local authority and the people making the proposals could reach a voluntary, though legally enforceable, agreement to the same effect. By earmarking a percentage of turnover, profit or a mixture based on bottom line account, an annual payment could be made for community use from the income generated by such activities', said Mr Marsden.

'That is a possibility, but the proposals in the government's draft local government Bill for business improvement districts might provide a mechanism for a more structured approach'.

He said that issue was crucial for the people from Blackpoo, across the community, including those with no direct interest in tourism. Like many seaside towns, behind the facade of the experiences of holidaymakers and people attending conferences, Blackpool had problems. There was a decline in visitor numbers; it was the 32nd most deprived area of the UK; it had all the difficulties associated with seasonal employment, low pay and low emplyment; and it had both a larger than average number of young people and a larger than avergae of older people. These put enormous pressure on services in the town, which needed to find a regenerative mechanism.

Hansard 5 July 2002: Column 513-535;548-580

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