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Policing and Crime Bill - Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 7th December 2016.

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Photo of The Bishop of Bristol The Bishop of Bristol Bishop 6:45 pm, 7th December 2016

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 173C, 196A and 200A in my name and I support Amendment 173B, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. I am grateful for the way in which he introduced this group of amendments.

Members of your Lordships’ House will be only too aware that the House has rehearsed the arguments around betting shops, and in particular fixed-odds betting terminals, numerous times in the past year, and there seems to be little need to repeat them here in detail. We know that violent crime is on the increase in betting premises—up 68% in London over the past five years—and it seems very likely that the increasing reliance of betting shops on FOBTs is a key reason for this trend. I read just last night that of the 523 serious robberies committed in commercial premises in 2015, 200 took place in betting shops. Given the increasing threat of violence—which the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, has spoken well about—that betting shop staff face from organised thieves as well as angry, frustrated or opportunistic customers, the amendments in this group are an entirely reasonable attempt to help bring the situation back under some kind of control.

My amendment, which was first proposed in Committee by my right reverend friend the Bishop of St Albans, would give licensing authorities greater scope to impose conditions on the use of gaming machines in betting premises, with the aim of enabling those authorities to better enforce the licensing objectives of preventing crime and protecting the vulnerable. It would also clarify the ability of licensing authorities to undertake a cumulative impact assessment, as well as taking other risk factors into account. Given that fixed-odds betting terminals now make up 56% of the profits of a high street betting shop, it seems obvious to me, at least, that licensing authorities should be able to impose conditions on the use of these machines in areas where this is a high risk of gambling-related harm.

This amendment is, of course, limited in scope. Even if licensing authorities could impose conditions on the use of gaming machines, there would be limited opportunities to do so in practice. The “aim to permit” licensing framework of the Gambling Act 2005 is so heavily skewed in favour of the betting industry that licensing authorities have great difficulty imposing any conditions whatever on betting premises, the threat of judicial review deterring all but the boldest local authorities from taking significant measures to combat gambling harm through conditions. That is why I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, which would make minimum two-person staffing a mandatory condition of a betting premises licence. Although, as the Minister pointed out in Committee, licensing authorities can in theory impose conditions requiring two-person staffing levels, in reality the practice is much more difficult. Under the current licensing framework, only a mandatory condition can ensure adequate protection for staff.

In Committee the Minister suggested that amendments such as these should be properly considered in the round as part of the Government’s review of stakes, prizes and licensing arrangements. I entirely agree, so I hope the Minister can reassure the House that the suggestions in these amendments will be thoroughly considered as part of the Government’s review.

First and foremost, can the Minister reassure me that the Government will look at how the Gambling Commission might widen the scope of the conditions a licensing authority might impose in relation to gaming machines? Will they look in particular at the potential for licensing authorities to impose conditions that restrict the ability of customers to engage in anonymous fixed-odds betting terminal gaming—which would be possible without changes to primary legislation? I know that the betting industry is planning to trial new methods of identification, including biometric identification. If those trials prove successful, licensing authorities should be able to require the use of such methods in areas that are particularly vulnerable to gambling-related harm.

Secondly, will the Government encourage the Gambling Commission to issue guidance on the potential for licensing authorities to undertake cumulative impact assessments, as is currently possible with alcohol licensing? The latest research shows that people living near a betting shop cluster are at greater risk of gambling-related harm, and licensing authorities should be able to reflect that in policy-making.

Finally, will the Government look at the way in which the current “aim to permit” licensing framework inhibits the ability of licensing authorities to tackle gambling-related harm through the use of conditions? Colleagues have spoken to licensing authorities, which feel that they simply have no chance of imposing meaningful conditions when confronted by a betting industry armed to the teeth with eminent QCs. If the Government are serious about giving meaningful power to local decision-makers, they need to review this framework as a matter of course; otherwise, amendments to mandatory conditions, such as that proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, will be the only way to make effective progress on reducing crime or protecting staff.