HL Deb 28 February 2002 vol 631 cc1600-2

7.41 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Blackstone) rose to move, That the draft deregulation order laid before the House on 28th January be approved [13th Report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords. the order before you is one of the last to come before Parliament under the terms of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. It makes three modest changes to the law governing commercial bingo clubs.

The legal controls on commercial bingo are strict. Clubs operate on a membership basis under the licences that are issued by the courts in England and Wales and by the local authority licensing board in Scotland. They are strictly regulated by the Gaming Board, which approves the companies that own them and their senior staff. Commercial bingo is popular. There are more than 700 licensed clubs around the country. Between them they attract 250,000 customers every day.

The proposals in the order would not significantly change the way in which clubs operate. However, they would help clubs to respond to customer demand and a changing gambling market.

The three changes that the order makes would remove the need for clubs to notify their licensing authority of changes in their charges to players, allow them to offer their customers a greater variety of gaming machines and allow for more prizes in games of multiple bingo, otherwise known as the national bingo game. There will also be a minor benefit for casinos.

Paragraph 2 removes the part of the Gaining Act 1968 that requires clubs to inform their licensing authority of changes in their charges to players. That will not disadvantage anybody. It will save time and money for the bingo club and the licensing authority. The paragraph will also affect casinos, which can charge players for using their card rooms. Under the current rules they must notify changes in that charge to their licensing authority 14 days in advance. Again, there is no reason for that and nothing to be lost by removing the requirement.

Bingo clubs can have gaming machines for their customers to play, and most do so. Most clubs have AWP machines with a £25 top prize. They must agree the number of such machines that they can have with their licensing authority. The law also allows them to have jackpot machines with a £500 top prize instead, as long as they do not have more than four. However, clubs cannot have both types of machine. They can have £25 AWP machines or up to four £500 jackpot machines, but not both.

Paragraph 3 would change that. If bingo clubs wish, and if their licensing authority agrees, they will be able to have up to four £500 jackpot machines alongside £25 AWP machines. They will be able to mix the two types of machine. That does not mean that bingo clubs will turn into Las Vegas-style gambling dens. Clubs will still be playing bingo. It will not be a case of wall-to-wall machines. The Government see no case for the present ban on mixing the two types of machine in bingo clubs. It should be a matter between each club and its licensing authority. That will increase choice for players and the ability of the clubs to respond to customer demand.

Paragraph 4 makes a minor change to the law controlling multiple bingo—the so-called national bingo game. The Gaming (Bingo) Act 1985 allows for customers at bingo clubs throughout the country to play a single game at the same time to the same set of numbers. There is a single national top prize. The Act says that there must also be one regional prize in each region or one house prize in each club, or both. Paragraph 4 makes a simple change to that Act to allow the organisers to decide whether to give more than one prize in each category. It will be a matter for them. The change gives clubs more scope to meet consumer demand.

Last summer, the Government published the report of an independent review of the entire body of controls on gambling in Great Britain, including on bingo, which was chaired by Sir Alan Budd. The Government plan to announce shortly the steps that we will take in view of that report to carry out an overall reform of gambling law. Nothing in the order will prejudice or cut across whatever steps the Government or your Lordships' House might think necessary to bring about the reform of our gambling controls. The gambling review has specifically endorsed the mixing of £25 and £500 gaming machines in bingo clubs, which the order will bring about.

There has been extensive public consultation on the proposals and most careful scrutiny by the parliamentary deregulation and regulatory reform committees. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in your Lordships' House expressed no concerns about the order. The Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee in another place expressed some concern about the provisions to allow bingo clubs to mix the two types of gaming machine. It commented on what it saw as the limited scope of consultation about the order by the Home Office with groups that might speak for the interests of elderly or vulnerable people. The committee suggested that the mix of machines proposal be dropped from the order.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport therefore undertook further consultation among those groups, which revealed no objection to the proposals. The order has now been approved in the other place in the form in which it is before your Lordships this evening. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has recommended approval by this House. I confirm to the House that I am satisfied that the terms of the order are fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft deregulation order laid before the House on 28th January be approved [13th Report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee].—(Baroness Blackstone.)

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the bingo order, which one would think is one of the more interesting aspects of this ministerial brief. As the Select Committee of this House pointed out, the law on gaming is a mess, with layer upon layer of complexity having been added over the years. The Minister referred to the Budd report. We, too, look forward to the Government's response as soon as possible. We have the opportunity to debate some of those issues in the Chamber next week. I am satisfied that the order contains measures that would not pre-empt any matters that your Lordships might wish to debate when legislation based on the Budd report comes before the House.

The Minister referred to the mixture of amusement with prizes machines and jackpot machines. We are grateful to the Government for carrying out proper further consultation on the issue with those interested in the possible impact on those who are elderly and vulnerable. We agree that that consultation exercise satisfactorily showed that the provisions should remain part of the order.

I also notice that the Select Committee made it clear in paragraph 14 of its report that it doubts whether the risk to children is much increased by the proposed changes. That reassures me and we support the making of the order.

Lord Addington

My Lords, the Minister gave a very full description of the thinking behind the order, which is to be welcomed. Noble Lords on these Benches find nothing objectionable in this order; and, indeed, we agree with most of its content. There was the initial sort of "sniff" of trouble as regards the idea of gaming machines and the issues that arise from and outwith this order. But, having flown that little flag of worry, shall we say, for a future date, I believe that the business in front of the House is certainly satisfactory.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, as the only member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee who is present in the Chamber this evening, perhaps I may add that the committee is very happy to see this proposal pass through the House.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I greatly appreciate the welcome for this order expressed from both Benches. I commend it to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.