HL Deb 21 May 1982 vol 430 cc940-5

3 p.m.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time, and in so doing I should like to pay tribute to my honourable friend Mr. Michael Brown, the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe and to the ingenuity and skill that he used in getting the Bill through the other place, so making it possible for it to come before your Lordships for final comment. Anyone who understands the procedures of the other place will know that Private Bills usually arise as a result of a ballot. If one is lucky and one's name is drawn out of the ballot, one is able to choose a Bill that will add to and may improve the general legislation of the country. It is also well known that if one comes out of the ballot beyond sixth place, owing to the time factor the chance of getting a Bill through is very remote. My honourable friend Mr. Brown was eleventh in the ballot, and those who understand the procedures in the other place will know that in those particular circumstances it requires tenacity, skill and charm in order to overcome the shortages of time and get through the labyrinth of procedure. Mr. Brown did that, and he has proceeded with the Bill to a point at which I think your Lordships will find it acceptable.

Where I think his skill really came in was in using the Private Bill time rather sensibly. If one tries to use Private Bill time to promote something of high principle, which would make a great change in the legislation, the chances of gaining amity and the general support of Government and others are remote, since those are matters which quite properly ought to be subject to the general procedures of both Houses of Parliament. However, if one uses the Private Bill procedure in order to improve and rectify the details of existing legislation which has passed the test as to principle and has gone through all its stages, that can be a very valuable contribution towards tidying up and making effective the general legislation under which the country has to work. My honourable friend did just that in choosing the subject contained in the Bill before us today.

In passing I have to declare an interest. One of the companies in which I am interested may well have to use the procedures that were previously in vogue and which will again be in vogue if the Bill receives the approval of both Houses; and to that extent it is a declaration that I make. I think that it adds to what I might call the authority with which I take up the Bill in your Lordships' House, because in having an interest—which is a very casual one, I may say—I am aware of the problems and difficulties that apply in this instance. So one is speaking with at least a little knowledge, instead of merely picking up someone else's brief and having to rely entirely upon his evidence and past experience.

The main purpose of the Bill is to enable an application for a gaming licence or registration of a members' club or institute for gaming purposes to be made at any time of the year. Parliament, being ultra careful in 1968 when the Gaming Bill became an Act, laid down that anyone applying for such a licence must do so at a specific time. There was specified just one time of the year when applications for licences—no matter how many there were—had to be made. Restriction to one period caused much delay and congestion in the departments that had to vet the applications and examine all the accompanying details. The general purpose of the Bill now before the House is that applications, instead of being made at only one time in the year, can be made at any time, and that would avoid any rush in investigations by the Gaming Board and consideration by magistrates' courts. Instead applications could be considered over a peroid of time longer than would be the case if the 1968 Act were left as it now stands.

As a licensing magistrate, I am able to give an example of the usefulness of what the Bill proposes. Noble Lords who occasionally sit as licensing justices will know that in regard to ordinary licensed premises it is possible to transfer the licence or apply for the licence at any of the sittings of the licensing court, and the matter is then confirmed at the Brewster Sessions, which are at fixed times throughout the year. That means that in that field a licence can be obtained at any time, instead of being confined to one specific period. What this Bill will now do is to provide for gaming licences and the registration of members' clubs the same system as that which exists with the licensing justices and which has passed the test of many years as to its effectiveness and its control.

The background of the Bill ought to be on the record, I think, in your Lordships' House. The principal legislation governing gaming in this country is the Gaming Act 1968, which sets out in detail the provisions for the licensing of premises run commercially as casinos or bingo clubs; and Schedule 3 to the Act applies to the registration for gaming purposes of members' clubs and miners' welfare institutes in England and Wales. At present there is, as I have said, only the one opportunity in the year for such licences or registrations to be granted or renewed. In general such applications must be made in January or February, and the hearings take place some time at the beginning of May.

I can well understand why we all (or those of us who played a part in putting the Gaming Act on the statute book) thought at the time it was desirable that all gaming club licensing should be concentrated in a single session, so that it could be known how many were coming and the type that were coming and some order could be given as to its generality as well as to the specific applications. So the intention of confining it to one time of the year was rather sensible, since we were moving into a new field. The 1968 Gaming Act was quite new and was very important in terms of maintaining the standards we want in such places in this country; and I think it was right in that initial period to try to confine it so that we had that tight control as to the numbers and how it would be applied.

But the Gaming Board are now, after some considerable experience, in a position to monitor the gaming facilities on a continuing basis, such as this Bill will allow them to do. As I have said, the current procedure causes congestion in the work of the Gaming Board, who have to take an interest in every application which is made. At present, the pressure of work to which the board have been subject at a particular time each year has put a great strain on their staff, and it has sometimes meant that it has not been possible to carry out all of the inquiries it was decided to make before the hearing. All being dealt with together, it was impossible, with the amount of staff that they could hope to have, to be able to do that with efficiency and in detail. The additional licensing sessions, such as this Bill will provide, would ease the staffing position of the Gaming Board and will enable the board to do their very important work much more effectively and, I would say, efficiently.

Similarly, the present single licensing session also creates difficulties for the licensing justices, and both the Justices' Clerks' Society and the Magistrates' Association have pressed for the gaming legislation to he amended to bring the procedure more in line with that for liquor licensing, such as I have described. The Royal Commission on Gambling agreed that there was substance in the representations which were made to them on this issue, and they recommended that the change should be made. I would hope that opportunities in the future will be found for other recommendations that came from that Royal Commission to be taken into account as part of the tidying-up process which I think is necessary if this part of our general social life is to proceed satisfactorily.

Clause 1 of the Bill makes a number of amendments to the Gaming Act 1968 and provides for at least four licensing periods. Although initially it will not completely do away with the backlog that has been caused in the past, it means that over future years no further backlogs will be there to add to the problems. The second clause of the Bill runs a little at a tangent, but I think that it was sensible and useful to include it at this time. It is to do with the licence for the public playing of billiards, otherwise than in members' clubs or in premises with a full liquor licence. The Gaming Act 1845 restricted the hearing of applications for billiards licences to one session a year. This is very inconvenient for anybody who installs a billiards table, when he has to wait for many months to get to the nominated time before he can obtain a licence. I think that your Lordships will agree that there is no good reason why the law on billiards licensing which applies should be any different from what we are suggesting now for the gaming clubs and the bingo clubs. This Bill provides, therefore, for the application for the grant or transfer of billiards licences to be made at any session under the Licensing Act 1964.

This clause also enables the Secretary of State to make an order setting out the fees payable for such licences to be more than six shillings. As things stand at present, as set out in the 1845 Act, the fee was six shillings on the application for a licence. While in the Bill we leave with the authorities the power to decide how much it shall be increased, if at all, I hope that they do not feel that they have a duty to compound what six shillings in 1845 would be if applied to 1982 and beyond. That would make the figure intolerable. I think that in this connection there will have to be taken into account the fact that we are living in a different century, but having gone through many periods of inflation the fee ought not to remain at that figure.

From my personal experience in a company that has been a victim of the delay because of the one section of the year being earmarked for applications, and from my own knowledge of the problems that the Gaming Board have had and from a knowledge of the congestion it causes in the licensing justices courts, I believe this is admirably using Private Members' Bill time—in no way to interfere with the principle and the general arguments hammered out when the Gaming Act first came on to the statute book, but after a few years of experience it takes into account some of the idiosyncracies and hiccups which show themselves and enables the procedure to run more smoothly without adding to the cost and difficulties of bureaucracy. In the hope that your Lordships will feel the same way about the Bill, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time—(Lord Harmar-Nicholls.)

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he inform the House whether he has had consultations with the Gaming Board about this Bill, and whether in general they approve its contents?

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, I cannot say that I have had consultations personally, but I have had a letter which has given every indication that what is recommended in this Bill would have their approval and they would find it very desirable.

3.16 p.m.

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, upon introducing this Bill, and perhaps also join him in offering congratulations to his honourable friend Mr. Michael Brown, the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe, for the success that he achieved in piloting the Bill through another place.

I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, for explaining the purposes of the Bill so clearly. This is particularly valuable for those like me who have no detailed knowledge of the intricacies of gaming matters. I welcome the Bill, as we on these Benches do, because if it is passed it will achieve a valuable if modest reform, and one which I think is much needed. Something I know just a little more about than I know about gaming concerns the workings of our courts. In the past, some time ago, I had the task of appearing before the licensing justices at Brewster sessions. I seem to recall that those appearances tended to be rather sought after, so far as members of the Bar could properly seek after anything of that kind, and were relatively well paid—at least, in those days.

The serious point is that I can well understand the need to improve the system for dealing with the licences with which this Bill itself deals. The present system is convenient. It causes congestion, as has been said, and it can cause other problems in having only one session each year for hearing applications for these licences. So I welcome the Bill for that overriding reason. The reform proposed in this Bill was recommended by the Royal Commission on Gambling in its report published in July 1978.

In making that recommendation the Royal Commission drew attention in Volume II of its vast final report, at page 299, to the representations it had received for a reform along these lines, representations from, among others, the Justices Clerks' Society, whom the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, has mentioned, and from the Gaming Board. Although this does not entirely meet the point raised by my noble friend Lord Bruce, which was dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, it indicates to some extent at least the approach to these matters which the Gaming Board were adopting at that time in the evidence they adduced before the Royal Commission.

I would add this in regard to the Royal Commission. We have had occasion before in your Lordships' House to consider small reforms arising from the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Gambling. I am bound to say that the more one delves into that report—and I have only half of it to read to your Lordships' this afternoon!—the more one realises how thorough, comprehensive and detailed the work of that body was, presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild.

It would be excellent if Parliament could get on with more of the reforms recommended by that Royal Commission. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, may not be able to say anything about that today, which would be understandable because he might be in danger of straying too far from order if he did so, as perhaps I am in danger of doing now. Nevertheless, I hope that he will give whatever encouragement he can to further efforts to introduce some more of these reforms and some more of the excellent recommendations which were made by the Royal Commission in its report. In the meantime, I hope that this partiular Bill will make progress and I wish the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, every success with it.

3.20 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I, too, should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls, who has introduced this Bill and explained its provisions so clearly and so knowledgeably. I join with him in his commendation of my honourable friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe in bringing it successfully to your Lordships' Chamber. It is a short but useful Bill and it will be of real practical assistance, both to the gaming industry and to those who have to administer gaming legislation.

At present, as we know, all applications for gaming licences have to be concentrated at a particular time of the year. A new applicant for a licence for a bingo club or casino has to apply to the Gaming Board before the end of October for a certificate of consent to his proceeding with the application. Such a certificate implies that the holder is a suitable person to run such an establishment. Once it has been granted, application may be made to the licensing authority in January or February for a hearing in the late spring. The Gaming Board then have to consider whether there is any reason for opposing a licence for the particular premises in question. The existing timetable concentrates much of this aspect of their work into four months of the year. This puts the staff, as your Lordships will understand, under considerable pressure and does not always allow them time to pursue their inquiries perhaps as thoroughly as one might wish.

The Bill will introduce flexibility into the timetable by enabling applications to be made at any time, thus spreading the load of work on the Gaming Board. It will also be beneficial to the gaming industry because there will no longer be any question of an applicant for a licence finding that he has missed the boat, as it were, for a whole year.

Instead of a single licensing session the Bill provides for four sessions a year. A similar relaxation in the timetable is to be applied to the registration of members' clubs and miners' institutes for gaming. Here the single licensing session has been less of a problem, but there seems to be no reason why the timetable for such registrations should be more rigid than that for gaming licences, so a similar change, I understand, is being made. As I think my noble friend has told your Lordships already, the Justices Clerks' Society and the Magistrates' Association have advocated this change, and the Royal Commission on Gambling endorsed their recommendation. I think I can therefore say that all those concerned with gaming licensing welcome this Bill.

The second clause of the Bill deals with billiard licences which cover also similar games such as snooker or pool games that have recently been very much under the public eye, as the noble Lord, Lord Peart, would recognise. As my noble friend has explained, such licences are not required for billiard playing in members' clubs or in premises with a full liquor licence, but only for the public playing of billiards. The Gaming Act 1845 provides only one opportunity a year to obtain such a licence, and it is clearly sensible to allow more frequent hearings of such applications as well as to take power to make an order to increase the fee.

Here we get on to the delicate question of the amount of the fee which, as my noble friend said, stood at six shillings 137 years ago and stands at the equivalent today. I tried to discover what the answer would be if that were compounded with inflation. The machine gave up, but I understand it was the equivalent then to an average weekly wage—which in itself is food for reflection—and that would bring it up to £110 at the present time. I pause for a shiver of apprehension to pass down my noble friend's spine and then assure your Lordships that my right honourable friend has in mind only an increase to a figure in line with those for somewhat similar permits, such as those for commercial provision of amusement with prize machines; and the resulting fee is likely to be something like £8.50.

This is a useful and non-controversial Bill. I therefore take pleasure in welcoming it on behalf of the Government, and wish my noble friend every success in securing its speedy passage.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.