HC Deb 05 May 1960 vol 622 cc1292-301

It is hereby declared that nothing contained in section one hundred and thirty-two of the the Local Government Act, 1948, or in any local or private act shall be deemed to authorise any local authority to maintain or subsidise any premises solely or partly for the purpose of persons resorting thereto habitually for the playing of games for money therein. —[Mr. Fletcher.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.47 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

By way of introduction, I should like to remind hon. Members who did not have the benefit of serving on the Standing Committee, including the Home Secretary, that the object of this proposed new Clause is to amend Part II which deals not with betting but with gaming.

It will be appreciated that, as the law stands at the moment and as the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary explained so admirably on Second Reading, all gaming is illegal, although it is widely practised, and the law on the subject is not enforced. The object of this Part of the Bill is to make all gaming legal, subject to three conditions—first, that all chances should be equal; secondly, that the promoter should not take a cut in the profits; and, thirdly, with the reservation in the case of clubs, that there should be no charges. As the right hon. Gentleman the Joint Undersecretary of State explained in Committee, the object of these three things is to introduce financial conditions and to produce a position which would legalise gaming in private houses, hotels and clubs, but at the same time prohibit commercially organised gaming.

In Committee, some of us had considerable doubts as to whether the terms of the Bill would effectively prevent commercially organised gaming. Attention was directed to the fact that one or two enterprising people had already announced their intention of opening casinos in different parts of the country, notably a Mr. Snaffer, who announced that he had bought the Eel Pie Island in the River Thames between Richmond and Twickenham for that purpose. The Joint Under-Secretary appears to have satisfied the bulk of the Committee that it would be difficult to open a commercially organised casino.

On the other hand, the Joint Undersecretary was driven to concede that under his Bill there would be a definite risk of municipalities or other local authorities being able to open and conduct the kind of gaming house which colloquially is called a casino, where games of baccarat, boule and roulette, and various other games with which the Continent is more familiar than we are, are normally conducted.

The reason for the difference is that municipalities who were minded to open casinos would not suffer the same necessity of having to conduct the casino for profit as a private promoter would. They would be able to subsidise it on the plausible ground that a casino in a seaside resort such as Blackpool. Brighton or Margate—

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

Or Yarmouth.

Mr. Fletcher

—or Yarmouth or elsewhere, would be an attraction to the town and would tend to attract visitors and, presumably, divert custom to a town with a casino as against its rivals and competitors.

Since the Bill was introduced, it is well known that various localities have already been canvassing the possibilities, when the Bill is passed, of opening a municipal casino. If that is what the Bill permits, one could not criticise Blackpool, Southend or some other enterprising municipality whose prosperity depended upon its attractions during the season for doing what the law permits. With such a possibility, the temptation for other localities to follow suit would be even greater. The danger is that the competition between various seaside resorts to attract visitors is so strong that the mere suggestion that a casino was being considered in one place would be enough to prompt several others to commence operations.

Therefore, the object with which my right hon. Friend and I have put down the new Clause is to ensure that muni- cipalities are not able to open municipal casinos. I hope that the sense of the Amendment will be accepted by the Joint Under-Secretary. In case it is thought not to be perfect in drafting, I have reconsidered it since it was put down. If it would meet any technical objections, I should be quite happy to substitute, in the last line of the new Clause, for the words for the playing of games for money therein". the alternative words for the purpose of taking part in gaming. That would be an improvement. Criticism might also be directed to the words "solely or partly", which I would regard as apt. If, however, the right hon. Gentleman would prefer "wholly or mainly" or some similar words, I should be quite happy to accept any technical improvements of that nature which he suggests.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

Speaking in Committee on the afternoon of 22nd March, I said that the Government do not consider it desirable that casinos should be established under the Bill ".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 22nd March, 1960; c. 1004.] I repeat that statement now. I had previously explained to the Committee, as the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) has explained to the House, that a casino as we know it would not be possible under the Bill because of the financial conditions in that the promoter of a casino either desires to have a cut on the stakes or to manipulate the bank so that he has a financial interest. I also told the Committee that under the Bill a casino could only be run in the form of a club, because public access would not be possible. At a later stage, we inserted words to deal with "a club" which would, again, make it more difficult for anyone to organise a casino.

I believe that I had the support of the Committee, as the hon. Member for Islington, East has said, when I suggested that a private individual who organised a casino would find it a singularly unprofitable venture. As the hon. Member has pointed out, however, I said that it would be possible for a local authority which thought that it could attract people to a locality to subsidise a casino of a limited type from the rates. There was doubt about that, however, because of the interpretation placed upon the word "entertainment" in the Local Government Act, 1948, and I thought it unlikely that a local authority would in fact do it.

I went on to say that I would consult my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government to see whether any use could be made of the 1948 Act to tidy up what, I thought, was the only possible loophole by which a public municipality could establish a casino. The hon. Member for Islington, East has forestalled me in my consultations. The wording of the new Clause is not perfect. I should like to consider what the hon. Member has suggested as the alternative wording, but on condition that I may reconsider the wording with a view to readjustment in another place, I suggest that the House should accept the new Clause.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I regret that decision. This is one of the occasions when, unlike hon. Members opposite, we on this side each express our own opinion. I would vastly prefer a municipal casino to an outbreak of privately-owned betting shops. A municipal casino is vastly more consistent with order; it is more consistent with control and, what is of some importance, it provides a better chance for the people who wish to gamble.

Under the Bill, a municipal casino would have to give the right odds. It would have to give odds which did not provide any cagnotte or any turn of the chance, such as the "O" on the roulette wheel, in favour of the bank. Thus would be provided for the first time an opportunity for people to bet and get fair odds. If betting is to be allowed at all, I cannot see why there should be discrimination against the only form of betting which would not be conducted for private profit and which would give fair odds to the people who bet.

Having said that generally, however, and aware that probably our national hypocrisy is such that we would regard it as profoundly wicked to allow, say, Torquay to compete on even terms as a resort with Dieppe or Deauville, I am assuming that probably something will be done about this which I shall regret.

5.0 p.m.

I hope that pains will be taken to see that the Clause is not too wide. I have in mind the huts which are provided for old-age pensioners in Northampton parks. They are provided by the municipality and the old gentlemen go there and play cribbage. It is a very delightful pastime and I always enjoy visiting the huts and watching the cribbage which is conducted with great passion and incredibly ancient cards. I hope that nothing in the Bill will overlook that and make it illegal for these cribbage games to be played in municipal huts.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

I am a little worried about the new Clause. I do not think the Government have it quite right, if they propose to accept it. As it is of great importance and affects the tourist trade of the country to a marked degree, I hope that I may be forgiven if I try to elucidate my reasons with some care.

The all-party Tourist Resorts Committee of the House of Commons unanimously put forward the suggestion that we should not have casinos in this country. My own view is very strongly against them. I am sorry but I shall therefore be violently opposed to the views expressed in the earlier part of the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget). On the other hand, I am in agreement with the latter part.

We must first look at this rather carefully and then I will give an illustration. The Local Government Act, 1948, gives very wide powers to the municipalities. The reason I did not hear the whole of the opening speech in this debate was that I went out to obtain a copy of that Statute. Section 132 of the Act says: A local authority may … arrange for (a) the provision of an entertainment of any nature or of facilities for dancing; (b) the provision of a theatre, concert hall, dance hall or other premises suitable for the giving of entertainments or the holding of dances … (d) any purpose incidental to the matters aforesaid … The Winter Gardens in Margate is one of the best concert halls in the country, and it is a quite regular event to have large whist drives held there. At the moment we have the annual conference of the licensed victuallers, gentlemen who are giving great deliberation to matters which the House will deal with next year. At the end of the week we have a gigantic fete at which there will be tombola, housey-housey, cribbage and all types of games, and then there are to be some big dances and balls and conferences.

This is equally true of Blackpool, Brighton and elsewhere. Therefore—and this is the point—these premises are partly used habitually for the purpose of playing games of chance therein. That is to say, not only are the premises habitually used for that purpose, but it is only one of their purposes. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) is present. The Leas Cliff Hall in his constituency is one of the finest in the country. I know it well from my youth. I am sure that the people there will want to have whist drives and perhaps international tournament bridge.

Bournemouth is one of the centres for great international bridge, and I am sure that the municipal hall there is used for that purpose. Blackpool in the North gets almost everything and even things which we are not prepared to deal with in Margate. The West Cliff Hall in Ramsgate is also used for some of these purposes. They are keen there on providing for old-age pensioners, and every kind of card game is played.

I wanted to give that background before looking at the precise wording of the proposed new Clause. I am sympathetic, and I am sure that my views are not very different from those which the Government will express or those which the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) seeks to express. The new Clause states that matters contained in Section 132 of the Local Government Act, which is the Section that provides the widest powers for the provision of entertainment in municipalities or in any local or private act shall be deemed to authorise any local authority to maintain or subsidise"— Let us exclude "subsidise" for the moment— any premises solely or partly for the purpose of persons resorting thereto habitually for the playing of games for money therein That does not even limit it to the same people resorting therein habitually. Persons resorting therein habitually for the playing of games may be different people.

I believe that this wording would be construed by the courts to mean that if the Winter Gardens were being maintained by Margate Corporation partly for the purpose of people resorting habitually therein to play bridge or whist or any of these games for money, it would automatically make it unlawful.

This is a very serious matter. For example, it is a very serious matter to the Labour Party as well as to the Conservative Party. We take the Winter Gardens for our annual fetes and we both of us play housey-housey there and so do the churches and other people, and not only play housey-housey for money but also have mammoth whist drives. Frankly, I have great doubts, therefore, about the Clause in its present drafting. I would not say that it would not be possible to draft it otherwise in order to limit it, but I should like to say something on the argument whether the Clause is necessary.

I do not believe that the Clause is necessary, and I pin my faith on the fact that one cannot possibly conduct a casino under the Bill as drafted. There is no danger of any municipality doing so, and the feeling of the country broadly is undoubtedly that there should not be casinos. I know that there is a gentleman who thinks he may do something on Eel Pie Island and I know that some of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling) are a little bit minded to have casinos if they can. But they cannot.

Here we are dealing with local authorities, and I see no reason why they should seek to set up casinos and flaunt the law. But if they did, all that they could do would be to authorise a bridge club on the premises and perhaps authorise the playing of bridge or whist or games of that kind regularly. Will it really be an evil if people play their progressive whist at these halls? I think not. Therefore, on the whole, my view is that we do not need these safeguards to any extent and we do not need them for this Clause.

To come back to the actual wording. I hope that the Clause will be withdrawn on the undertaking given by my right hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, but I also hope that he will not accept the Clause as it stands. I hope that he will consult those concerned with the municipalities, because in practically every one of these constituencies the main centre is some large municipal hall which is used for activities by people who come there from all parts of the country. Great damage would be done if they were not given the widest powers to enable them to have entertainment of every kind.

All these halls that I have mentioned— and one knows of them all over the country—are extremely well conducted and there is no indication that they want to engage in, if I may use the phrase, "excessive gaming" as such. But, if they did want to engage in the playing of whist and bridge, practically all of these halls are used for such a diversity of purposes, such as conferences, that the amount of time that could be given to such games is negligible.

We do not want to see, if we can avoid it, any conflict or to prevent them from being able to hire these halls to all sorts of charitable purposes. I hope that we will do our best, as we and the Government have done so far, to keep this gaming part of the Bill as simple as possible and see how it works.

I hope that on reflection the hon. Member for Islington, East will withdraw his Motion. We are to have a very great opportunity. This Bill will be passed this year and next year there will be a licensing Bill. Matters which may happen not to come within the scope of this Bill may have the opportunity for remedy at a later date if any particular harm arises. I do not see any harm arising here, and I do not think that it is necessary to impose any further duties upon municipalities than those which exist and which they have carried out properly. As this stands at the moment, I do not share the views expressed by my right hon. Friend the Joint Undersecretary of State or by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Islington, East.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I thank the Joint Under-Secretary of State—I think ft is the first time I have done so in the course of discussion on this Bill—for the way in which he has responded to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher). We were fascinated throughout the Committee stage of this Bill by the detailed knowledge of the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) of all the ramifications of every one of the activities that comes under review in the course of our consideration of this matter.

In Committee he convinced me that it would not be possible to run a casino in this country, even by a municipality, unless the municipality, in addition to getting the mere power to have a hall of this kind, also took steps to exempt itself from the provisions which we understand that the Government, as well as certain of my hon. Friends on the Committee, want.

I am sure that on both sides it is the desire that this Bill, when presented for the Royal Assent, shall be in a form simple enough for ordinary people to understand wherever possible. I therefore welcome the promise made by the Joint Under-Secretary of State that consideration will be given to the, wording of this Clause. I gather that the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet still takes the same view that he took in Committee—and we understand from him that the Parliamentary Committee that deals with the affairs of tourist resorts in this House also came to that decision—that we do not want to see Continental-type casinos in this country. I do not think that anything which happened on Canvey Island could be dignified by any suggestion that it would be a casino of the Continental type.

I regret that we do not carry my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) with us in this matter. On this side of the House, in consideration of this Bill, we are allowed to express such views as we have and to vote as we like. I hope that he will not resist my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East withdrawing the Clause in order that the Joint Undersecretary of State can have the opportunity, on reconsideration, to submit to another place something that we may hope to embody in the Bill.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) has made the point which I wanted to make about the Leas Cliff Hall at Folkestone, and I shall not repeat it. However, I draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State that these halls are booked up sometimes a year or two ahead. Our thoughts are one on this, and I hope that a decision can be reached so that these halls can get forward bookings made, otherwise this delay will cause inconvenience.

5.15 p.m.

Mr. Fletcher

I am grateful for the reception given to this Clause. I understand that the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman the Joint Under-Secretary of State was that the Government should accept the Clause on the understanding that it should be modified. As he said, I had to some extent forestalled him by stating that I did not think the words "solely or partly" are appropriate.

It would be much better to change them, as I indicated. I think that would meet the point of view of the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies). Listening to his observations, I was more convinced than ever of the necessity of incorporating this Clause in the Bill, because I am sure that it is the desire not only of the Government but of the majority of my hon. Friends that it should be made quite clear that this Bill is not intended to legalise casinos either in the hands of a private promoter or of a municipality.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.