HL Deb 19 January 1987 vol 483 cc775-80

7.41 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill seeks to amend Section 18 of the Gaming Act 1968. That Act governs the operation of commercial casinos in England, Wales and Scotland. The effect of this Bill would be to allow the hours for casino gaming on premises licensed under the Gaming Act 1968 to be extended at the end of the Saturday night/Sunday morning gaming session. The extension proposed is for an extra hour in London and two hours in the rest of England, Wales and Scotland.

This amendment of the law was recommended by the Royal Commission on Gambling, presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, which reported in July 1978. Its purpose is threefold: first, to remedy the discrimination which at present exists between London and the rest of the country by applying a uniform closing time. Secondly, to bring the Saturday night/Sunday morning closing hour into line with the other six days of the week. Thirdly, to cater for the increased number of players on what is by far the busiest night of the week.

The general hours permitted for casino gaming on weekdays are the same throughout Britain—namely, from two o'clock in the afternoon until four o'clock the following morning. No change is proposed in those uniform hours, which are provided for by regulation under the Gaming Act 1968. Only the sessions which begin on Saturday afternoons are at present different.

The start of the session is the same as for the rest of the week—namely, two o'clock in the afternoon. It is at closing time, in the early hours of Sunday morning, that variation and a double standard applies. Closing time in the inner London area is 3 a.m., while in the rest of England, Wales and Scotland it is 2 a.m.

The report of the Royal Commission put its views as follows: We find it rather illogical that casinos should have to close one or two hours earlier on Satusday night/Sunday morning (which is, perhaps, the most popular night of the week for gaming) than on other nights, and we therefore recommend that the closing time for casinos should be 4 a.m. on each night of the week and in all parts of the country. The report goes on to observe that: It would still be open, of course, to the local licensing justices to impose (under Schedulee 2, paragraph 24 of the Gaming Act) more restrictive hours on particular premises when this seemed necessary to prevent disturbance or annoyance to the occupiers of other premises in the vicinity. This Bill does no more than apply the recommendations of the Royal Commission.

There is one point in relation to Scotland which I should mention. There, casinos cannot open on Sunday until the evening at 7.30 p.m. (as against the existing 2 p.m. in England and Wales). The Royal Commission proposed no change in this, nor does the Bill.

The Gaming Board for Great Britain, which is the statutory body responsible for overseeing all gaming, has been consulted about the proposals in this Bill. The Board asked, perfectly reasonably, for evidence of the need in terms of demand. That evidence was provided by way of a census of attendances by members and guests at closing times on the premises of some 60 licensed casinos across the country, over a period of four weeks. The census showed that, in London, at the closing time on the Saturday night/Sunday morning gaming session average attendances were 90 per cent. more than the highest at closing time on any weekday and 175 per cent. more than the least busy weekday. In the Provinces, attendances at closing showed an increase of 32.5 per cent. on Saturday/Sunday over the next busiest weekday and a nearly 120 per cent. increase over the least busy weekday.

The Gaming Board were satisfied that the demand shown supported the case that there is a need for casino gaming to be permitted until 4 a.m. on Sundays and raised no objection to such an extension of hours. They agree with the Royal Commission recommendation which, as I have indicated, this Bill seeks to implement.

There is a further point I should mention. Casinos are not open to the public at large. In law, they are clubs with restricted access confined to members who have, under the terms of the Gaming Act, made a considered decision that they wish, with their bona fide guests, to take part in casino gaming. What this amending Bill seeks to do is not to introduce gaming on Sundays. That already takes place in 120 licensed casinos in this country. The Bill proposes a modest extension of the already permitted hours for reasons of consistency and uniformity, and on the basis of an established demand.

Finally, I would close by saying that the casino industry is a significant source of foreign currency earnngs from overseas visitors to this country. Last year foreign source earnings by British casinos were something in the region of £150 million. In addition, there is the unquantifiable spin-off from the bulk of their members (who are foreigners in most cases) at hotels, restaurants and theatres.

It seems to me, therefore, that at a time when our manufacturing base has contracted so significantly the statutory framework which applies to an important service industry such as this deserves to be reconsidered, particularly when there is a clear and unequivocal recommendation from a Royal Commission. The Bill is a modest measure, and I hope noble Lords will give it their support. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Harris of Greenwich. )

7.47 p.m.

Lord Harding of Petherton

My Lords, I rise to support the Bill, but first I must declare an interest, in that since 1973 I have been chairman of the British Casino Association, which includes in its members over 90 per cent. of the gaming licence-holders in Great Britain. Therefore, I think that I can fairly speak on behalf of the casino industry as a whole when I say that we hope that this Bill will work its way successfully through Parliament.

There are two points which have already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, which I should like to emphasise. The first point is the question of unstimulated demand. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has explained, at the suggestion of the Gaming Board the association conducted a census which has conclusively shown that there was unstimulated demand for the extension of the hours of gaming on Sunday morning. That is the main point of the Bill and it fits in with the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Gambling.

The second point is that the provisions in this Bill are really permissive. It does not mean that all casinos up and down the country will automatically remain open for gaming until 4 a.m. on every Sunday morning. If there are objections by local residents or other bodies because of the risk of disturbance or annoyance, they can be dealt with by the licensing authorities, who have powers in the Act to impose further restrictions and fix the hours of closing on Sunday mornings in the case of particular casinos where there are local objections.

So I submit that this Bill is entirely in keeping with the general purpose and provisions of the Gaming Act. There are contained in the Act itself safeguards for dealing with any cases of risk of disturbance or annoyance to local residents. Therefore, I strongly support the Bill. Finally, it may interest the House to know that the arrangements for regular and informal discussions and consultation on matters of common concern between the Casino Association and the Gaming Board which were instituted when the noble Lord, Lord Allen, was chairman of the Gaming Board, are continuing under his successor as chairman of the Gaming Board. That has resulted in very much better, more constructive and more objective relationships between the industry and the Gaming Board. The fact that this Bill was discussed and hammered out between the two bodies is proof of that fact, and I think it is a big step forward as far as the relationships between the industry and the Gaming Board are concerned.

I believe this Bill will be of benefit to the industry. It will be in keeping with the whole purpose and spirit of the Gaming Act and it does not in any way alter the safeguards which are in the Act itself for dealing with cases where there are justifiable local objections on grounds of the risk of disturbance or annoyance. I support the Bill.

7.53 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for having presented his amendment to the Gaming Bill with enormous brevity and also with very great clarity. I was also happy to listen to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Harding, adding his own approval to this intended reform, with all the experience and knowledge of the industry that he commands. I was most grateful to hear him say that this had been thouroughly discussed and thought out by the industry and his association.

I think there is no doubt, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris made very clear, that this change brings a consistency into the law and a uniformity which was not there before. It also responds to a demand which appears from the statistics he gave to have been proved without any shadow of doubt. I should also like to think that it seems very reasonable to allow people who like to go to casinos to stay up late on the one night when they will be able to have a lie-in the next day. So it seems to respond both to the needs of the casino and also to the wishes and comfort of the people who go there.

There could have been only one possible reservation, which would have been that the residents in the vicinity were inconvenienced. But as I understand it from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, the local licensing justices would still be empowered to impose more restrictive hours on the premises in question. So I think one can only agree with the change that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has put forward.

But I wonder if I may just end by saying that I think there is a reasonable concern that one might have about the dangers of piecemeal reform of this kind to an area of life which is as important, as vulnerable and delicate as is the gaming law. After all, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, introduced a private Bill to make an amendment to the Gaming Act at about this time last year which also implemented recommendations from the Rothschild Report. But, who knows? Perhaps the noble Lord may put forward a further change next year. I think there is a justified case for concern and it is the same concern as I voiced in the recent debate on the Licensing (Restaurant Meals) Bill: it worries me that changes in these very important areas such as licensing and gaming should be treated in this piecemeal way rather than the Government developing a comprehensive policy to counter the adverse consequences of gaming or drinking, having worked out what those consequences are and what they should do to deal with them. Having done that, they could fashion their laws accordingly. But, failing that, I should like to support the amendment put forward this evening.

7.57 p.m.

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for giving such a clear explanation of the reasoning behind the Bill. I am glad to be able to confirm to your Lordships that the Government regard the Bill as acceptable in terms both of what it seeks to achieve and the way in which the Bill is drafted.

The proposal in the Bill for an extension of opening hours for casinos is a modest one. What is at issue is an additional hour in the early hours of Sunday mornings for casinos in the West End of London and an additional two hours for casinos elsewhere in the country. In looking at this issue we attach importance to the facility for the licensing authority to restrict opening hours for casinos within the statutory times if this is held to be appropriate for particular casinos, to prevent disturbance or annoyance to others in the vicinity. The Bill leaves this power unaffected. That is to say it will be open to licensing justices, if the Bill becomes law, to impose a restriction obliging a particular casino to close earlier than 4 a.m. on Sunday mornings if the evidence points that way.

As the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, said, the proposal to standardise the latest possible closing time at 4 a.m. on Sunday mornings has good credentials: this change was recommended by the Royal Commission on Gambling in 1978. We have consulted the Gaming Board for Great Britain, the body expert in the difficulties to which casinos can give rise, which was not in sympathy with this precise proposal when the Royal Commission reported. The board is now content with what is proposed. We understand that there is some evidence from the attendances in casinos in the early hours of Sunday morning that there will be a demand for gaming facilities up until 4 a.m. This suggests that the Bill is consistent with the approach taken by the Gaming Act 1968 and by successive Governments that facilities for commercial gaming in this country should be allowed, to the extent necessary, to meet the level of existing demand. The Bill does not, of course, pave the way for casinos to be open right around the clock, which would not be acceptable. We have consulted the police and those involved in the licensing of casinos, who have no objection to the Bill, subject to stressing the ability, already in the legislation, for earlier closing times to be attached, as a term of the licence, if justified by local conditions.

In conclusion, the Bill provides for a modest change in the statutory hours for casinos which in the Government's view will not weaken the controls provided in the Gaming Act 1968. The measure will be welcomed by the casino industry and its clientele as removing a restriction which is for them irritating and illogical, since the late Saturday night period is one of the busiest in the week. I wish the Bill a safe passage in your Lordships' House and in another place.

7.59 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I am grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, has just said and also for what the noble Baroness said a few moments earlier. I think this is a useful, modest Bill and I very much hope it will have the same uninterrupted passage as did the last Bill.

The noble Baroness, who welcomed the Bill in generous terms, of course, made a perfectly reasonable point when she raised the question of piecemeal legislation. Unhappily, our experience in whatever part of the House we may sit is that there is such a degree of pressure on all governments in matters of this sort that if one does not approach them by these means, the only thing one can be absolutely certain about is that the unsatisfactory situation will go on year after year after year. The only way in which that problem can be resolved is if private Members either in another place or in this House bring forward legislation. The fact is that the Royal Commission studied the matter and made this recommendation, as it did the last, and I think it is right for us to proceed. I am grateful for everything that the noble Baroness said, and indeed for what the noble Lord said a few moments ago.

This brings me to the speech of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Harding. On the last occasion that we debated these matters I was able to express on behalf of the whole House our pleasure at seeing the noble and gallant Lord, and to wish him a very happy 90th birthday. We rejoice at seeing him in his place once again today. I am particularly glad to see him because he has not been well recently, and only his considerable interest in this matter has brought him to the House today.

I think I can give a guarantee to the noble Baroness that we shall not be troubling the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Harding of Petherton, in the next Session of Parliament on this particular matter. Nevertheless, we are grateful to him, with his considerable knowledge of the industry, for having come to the House today and for having given us his views on this proposal.

With that, I would once again thank everybody who has spoken in this brief debate, and very much echo what the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, said in hoping that this Bill will, in fact, get on to the statute book. I beg to move.

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

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.30.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The sitting was suspended from 8.2 until 8.30 p.m. ]