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1.5 pm

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): I very much enjoyed the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), and I agree with his comments about amusement machines. I shall return to that subject in a moment. The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) also made an entertaining speech. I look forward to a racing page appearing in The Spectator at some point in the future.

Mr. Boris Johnson: There already is one.

Dr. Ladyman: Is there? That shows how often I read The Spectator. The only advice that I would give the hon. Gentleman is never to ask the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) to write it, although I share his view that the names of horses are significant in terms of whether they win. My most recent experience in that regard took place during the run-up to the 2001 general election. As a lifelong Liverpool supporter and a Labour candidate, when I saw that a horse called Red Marauder was running in the grand national, I thought that that was clearly a sign from a benevolent God, did a considerable amount of business, and won a packet on it.

I was interested to hear about my hon. Friends' experiences of betting prior to the degree of liberalisation that we have today. My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) talked about Mr. Dunn taking bets in his caravan. My own experience relates to my granddad, who in the late 1950s and early 1960s would take me for walks during which he would try to find a telephone. When he got through to whoever was on the other end, he would say, "Hello, this is Lucifer." I always thought that rather strange, because mum always called him Jack, but of course he was on the phone to his bookmaker. For a man with almost no hair, he spent a considerable amount of time at his barber's. It was only many years later that I realised that the barber collected his money for him. There is a moral to the story, which is that if people are not allowed to gamble legally, they will do it illegally. As far as I am aware, my granddad and his barber did nobody any harm by having their bets.

Growing up in Liverpool in a part of town that nowadays would be given a euphemism such as "facing serious challenges", I was aware of the dice games that

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were played on pavements outside pubs. Landlords could lose their licences if they allowed gambling in their pubs, so they invariably did not, and the men would take their dice games out on to the pavements. Even to my young eyes, the piles of money on those pavements were impressive. I suspect that many a family's housekeeping was lost in those dice games. My right hon. Friend the Minister proposes in his White Paper to make gambling debts legally enforceable and to repeal the Gaming Act 1845. Hiding behind that Act if one did not want to pay the gambling debts incurred in one of those dice games was probably not a wise step. If one did not pay those debts, one would be introduced to somebody with a name like Harry "Eat Your Giblets" Smith, who tended not to be an expert in Victorian jurisprudence. One would certainly not be allowed to argue that one's debt was not legally enforceable.

I tell those stories simply to reinforce the fact that we must have an environment in which gambling can take place in a proper and controlled way. That said, I find myself somewhat disoriented, because I seem to be more in favour of deregulating the sector than most other hon. Members—even the hon. Member for Henley. I never thought that I would find myself in that position.

We still have a tendency in this place to be patronising about gambling. We can make decisions about whether we gamble, but others might be led down the path of vice and error, so they need guidance and controls. I suspect that if we were to try telling our constituents that we know better than they about how they should spend their leisure money, we would probably get pretty short shrift from them. We must be careful before we advance such arguments.

The market is an important influence in deciding what works in a gambling sense. I entirely take the point about keeping crime out of the gambling sector. I am aware that the Gaming Acts, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) said, were designed to get the Krays out of the gambling industry. They have worked extremely well and we dare not make the error of allowing that sort of influence back into the system. However, we must be aware of what has happened in the past year or so in places such as Paris, where draconian measures have been taken to limit the availability of gaming machines.

In Paris, people now have to buy one-armed bandits from illegal suppliers. There was a report in a newspaper that I read towards the end of last year where a cafe owner made the mistake of buying his one-armed bandit from the wrong bunch of crooks. He was subsequently found dead. The pathologist was reported as saying that there were so many bullets in the cafe owner's body that he could not count them. We cannot allow that sort of system to recur.

I am delighted with the efforts that my right hon. Friend the Minister has made in pulling the White Paper together. The Budd report was a good start. I have been extremely critical of some parts of it and have described some of them as barmy, and I do not withdraw my comments one iota. However, my right hon. Friend has done a remarkable job of sorting out the good parts of the report, of which there were many, from the barmy parts. There are still some things in the report that we need to be careful about and to which we should give more thought. That will inevitably happen as we start to produce the legislation that will come forth soon.

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My right hon. Friend says that he is hoping to get the legislation into the 2003–04 Session. I am rather disappointed with that. I would like to see it come forward more quickly. However, if it is to be 2003–04, that at least gives us the opportunity, if I may hint this, of some pre-legislative scrutiny during the next Session. That would help us all to try to iron out any more wrinkles that there might be. The Bill might then have a quick passage through the House late next Session, if parliamentary time were to open up. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that we might seek ways of speeding up the process.

As for the casino sector, I am entirely in favour of the liberalisations that have been set out in the White Paper. There are daft notions of 24-hour rules and not allowing casinos to advertise. It is certainly time that we dealt with these. There is a casino in my constituency. It is an important part of the offering that we make to tourists who come to my constituency. However, we cannot tell any of them about it. Unless they come for longer than 24 hours, they cannot use it. If someone comes to Ramsgate for a long weekend and they do not realise that there is a casino there until Saturday, and they then put in their request to use the casino, they will not be allowed to use it until 24 hours have passed, by which time they are usually on their way home after their weekend. That is nonsense, and it is clearly right to deal with that situation.

One of the arguments that has struck me, not only in today's debate but more generally, is the suggestion that we should change planning law and make a new class order for casinos. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South mentioned that, and I think that it is the right idea. It would deal with many of the worries about casinos flourishing all over the country in all sorts of unsuitable places, because the local planning committee would have a say. I would find that process far more convincing than the 2,000 sq ft rule.

I can imagine perfectly reasonable opportunities to set up casinos that take up less than 2,000 sq ft; let me give my right hon. Friend some examples. If someone who owns a country house hotel wants to operate a small casino there, and the local authority thinks it a good idea, which would make the business more viable and encourage more people to come to the hotel, what could possibly be wrong with that? Why should we say that people cannot do that unless they provide 2,000 sq ft of gaming space?

Perhaps it would not be economic to run a small casino in that environment, because of the number of employees needed, and all the safeguards that we are insisting that people build in to casinos—but if some entrepreneur thinks that it would be worth his while to set one up, and the local authority thinks it appropriate, why should we put some daft figure down on a piece of paper and say, "I'm sorry, but you haven't got 2,000 sq ft of gaming space, so we can't let you do it"?

I fully appreciate that the new gaming commission will need the resources to monitor all the facilities, and will not want lots of small casinos springing up before it has the resources and can inspect the premises. However, there are practical measures to deal with that problem, such as giving the gaming commission the power to alter the square footage rule as it acquires more resources. Alternatively, the rule could say that the development had to have a beneficial effect on the local economy, and that if the gaming commission thought that that criterion was met, it could give a licence for a casino.

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There are practical ways of dealing with all those problems, and I do not think that we should try to interfere in the market as the White Paper suggests and say, "We know best. Casinos should all be the size that we say." One idea is that casinos should all occupy more than 10,000 sq ft. I can understand why someone who believed that the availability of gambling would inevitably lead to people with gambling problems might make such a suggestion. However, as I have already said, I think that that is patronising.

There are better ways of organising things, one of which is giving local authorities a clear planning power to limit where casinos are sited in their areas. In my seaside constituency, I would want my local authority to encourage the development of more casinos in the tourist areas of our towns, rather than in the high streets. We have a casino on the seafront in Ramsgate, and in the neighbouring constituency of North Thanet there is one in Margate. I certainly would not want to see lots of small casinos flourishing in my local high street—but I trust my local planning committee to make such decisions sensibly if we give it the appropriate powers.

I am afraid that I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South about resort casinos. I do not see how we can argue that Blackpool should be given a competitive advantage over everywhere else that might want a resort casino. I can understand why Blackpool is asking for that. If it is going to invest a lot of money, of course it will take every possible step to get a head start on the competition. I also see why we might not want there to be more than one resort casino in each region—but a resort casino in Margate would have no impact on the viability of one in Blackpool or Brighton, because they would be operating in different markets.

I do not know whether a resort casino will prove viable. In this country, a different financial model backs casinos from that in the United States. In America, casinos work on very high volumes and low margins, but in this country they tend to work on much lower volumes and higher margins. The high-density gambling of American resort casinos can be achieved only if we adopt their model. Perhaps some people think that they can make that model work in this country, and if they do, good luck to them. If they want to invest their money and have a try, there is no reason for me to stand in their way, but such entrepreneurs should be entitled to look around the country to find the best opportunities—regardless of whether they are in Blackpool or in my patch. There is no merit in the idea that we should restrict a trial to Blackpool.

In gambling debates such as this, my first love is the campaign to protect the seaside arcade industry, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) for acknowledging my role in that campaign. Indeed, most of the barmy arguments in the Budd report related to that industry. My one criticism of the White Paper is that it seems to repeat the Budd report's obsession with the idea that, because machine gambling is repetitive, it is more likely to cause problem gambling and compulsive behaviour than any other form of gambling. Although there is a lot of speculation to that effect, I have seen no objective evidence. According to Gamcare's own figures, it received just 375 genuine calls relating to the playing of pub machines, even though there are some 6.9 million

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people who play such machines. I am not suggesting that people do not occasionally develop gambling problems as a result of playing such machines, but there is no evidence that they are more likely to lead to problems than any other form of gambling. The notion that machines are somehow more dangerous than other forms of gambling perfuses the Government's response to the Budd report, but I do not buy it.

Nevertheless, congratulations are due to my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has sifted out the bulk of the barmy bits in the Budd report relating to the seaside industry. The industry breathed a huge sigh of relief when the White Paper was published, because it could see a future for itself once again. Its only remaining concerns—they may seem minor in the scheme of things, but it considers them immensely important—have already been touched on. According to the White Paper, category D machines are to be kept indefinitely at the 10p stake, £5 prize limit. Although my right hon. Friend has not said that he wants such machines to become uneconomic, wither away and die, that is what those involved in the Budd report have said in the press. Indeed, that was their intention in suggesting that the stake be frozen.

I do not accept that proposal in any way, and nor does the industry: it is not a valid objective. I do not want to be too harsh, but I find it slightly dishonest that that was not spelled out in the report. If the withering away of such machines is indeed the objective, the report should say as much. Those involved in the report should not present an idea, and explain the real motive behind it only afterwards in the press.

The machines are an important component of the seaside arcade. They are harmless fun, nothing more. We should allow the stake and prize—10p and £5—to be reviewed periodically. It may not have to be done that frequently. I should like it to be undertaken every three years, as currently happens. The gambling commission should do it when it reviews the other stakes. We should say explicitly that our motivation is not the disappearance of the machines, which are an important part of seaside businesses.

Let us consider cranes. A decent quality fluffy toy has to cost at least £5 or more. Simply getting a safety certificate for the toy costs money.


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