My Lords, the Government have established the Casino Advisory Panel to advise them on the areas where the one regional, eight large and eight small casinos permitted by the Gambling Act should be located. The panel, which is operating entirely independently of government, is on track to make its recommendations at the end of January 2007.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. Will he confirm that the Casino Advisory Panel’s report will be published, that it will make a specific recommendation on the super casino and that the Government will accept that recommendation? Do the Government appreciate that Blackpool was first in the field and is the obvious choice, and that if Blackpool fails to get the super or regional casino, its future is very limited and meltdown is likely?
My Lords, the noble Lord accepts as his premise that the Casino Advisory Panel will operate independently and, therefore, he cannot expect me to affirm from this Dispatch Box the virtues of Blackpool in this competition, in which there are a number of competitors. However, he is reflecting the fact that Blackpool made a strong case early on. He will have to wait and see.
My Lords, as ever, activity will take place adroitly and with dispatch. The noble Lord will recognise that those who have bid for the casinos have a great deal of work to do. When a decision is taken at the end of January, they will expect to be empowered to take appropriate action, but the House will recognise that any action in this area must first come before both Houses in the form of a statutory instrument, because it is for Parliament to decide whether the independent advisory panel and the Secretary of State have acted wisely.
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate will recognise that the Gambling Act contains enhanced restrictions and controls over the availability of gambling to vulnerable sections of the community, particularly children. The stimulus towards the development of casinos is that many areas that require regeneration may be able to make a case that a casino will bring in substantial and much needed resources. That is an important motivation for the bids.
My Lords, I note the Minister’s optimism over dispatch, let alone adroitness, but the Casino Advisory Panel has come under intense scrutiny and its decision will come under even greater scrutiny. Has the Minister considered that, when the decision is made, there will be a litigation nightmare, especially over the criteria—the social impact criterion in particular—by which the panel will have judged the winner? What impact on the timetable will that have? This matter will surely not be closed for a considerable time.
My Lords, I normally expect advice on litigation problems from those with experience in the law, so I accept what the noble Lord has said in that there may be some difficulties. However, we do not anticipate great difficulties in this respect. The panel is conducting its affairs entirely properly; it is acting independently of government and it will make a recommendation. Parliament will be in a position to endorse or reject that recommendation if the Secretary of State takes it up. Therefore, we are following proper process with regard to these very important decisions.
My Lords, while recognising the absolute need for independence of the panel in choosing the site of the first casino, would my noble friend nevertheless reacquaint himself with the regeneration needs of Blackpool? It is important for it to have a new lease of life and to have the casino placed there.
My Lords, all Ministers are well acquainted with the regeneration needs of various parts of the country, including Blackpool, but my noble friend will recognise that it would be premature of me to specify any one area for undue consideration at this time. In fact, that is not within my power and it would not be particularly fruitful, given that the independent panel will make its recommendation.
My Lords, as consideration is being given to protecting children from the effects of gambling, has any attempt been made to work out whether the costs of dealing with the numbers of problem gamblers that are anticipated as a result of what is planned will be more or less than the costs and benefits of setting up these casinos?
My Lords, that is an important question, which reflects our debates during the passage of the Gambling Bill. Both Houses would have passed that Bill only if we had been reassured that the issues of problem gambling had been properly addressed. I reassure the noble Baroness that these matters are very much to be balanced against the regeneration advantages of the casinos. The bidders are well aware of the provisions of the Gambling Act in that respect.