I beg to move amendment No. 74, in
clause 2, page 1, line 17, after 'councils', insert—
'(iia) a unitary council.'.
May I welcome you, Mr. Pike, to the Chair? This is my first time under your chairmanship on a major Bill. I have served under your chairmanship before, on delegated legislation, and it is a pleasure to do so again.
It is always interesting at the start of a new Bill Committee to see how the nuances of the debate play out, how the Minister plays his hand and how Members interpret what he says. There were moments in the Minister's last response when I thought that I had scored three bull's-eyes with my amendments. He said that they were agreeable, that they were worded perfectly, that they fitted the Bill and that they went to the heart of the Government's objectives, but they are rubbish and in the bin. I now know where he is coming from.
That may or may not be so.
It is my pleasure to speak to amendment No. 74, which is a simple amendment. The Minister probably has an equally pleasurable way of saying that it is not necessary. In looking down the list of councils in the clause, I noted that unitary councils were not included. Of course, that may be another oversight by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, or unitary councils may well be covered by some other clause at the back of the Bill. I wait to see what the Minister has to say about it.
I shall get in my usual courtesies to the hon. Gentleman and try to be as helpful as always, but I shall resist the amendment. It would introduce a reference to a unitary authority where one is not necessary. At a basic level, ''unitary authority'' describes an authority that exercises all the principal
local government functions for its area. A county council to which the functions of a district council have been transferred is therefore a unitary authority. Unitary authorities are already covered by clause 2, so I cannot advise the Committee to accept the amendment, and I ask that it be withdrawn.
I suspect that I am not alone in being slightly puzzled by the words that the Minister just read out. They sounded like the kind of thing that Sir Humphrey might have said in ''Yes Minister''. There may well need to be some further explanation. The amendment brings forward wider issues. I mention that now in case the debate is extended, although I may have the opportunity to talk on stand part.
One reason for inserting ''unitary council'', in addition to the avoidance of doubt in the light of what the Minister has just said, is to make it absolutely clear that the principal decisions will always be made by the authority closest to the people. I am very concerned indeed—this came up briefly during the exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire this morning—about the way in which the Government are continuing to pursue their agenda of pushing as much decision making as possible from local people to regional level.
I have already referred to the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister's plans were severely derailed by the massive and sensible vote by the people of the north-east last week, but it is crucial to ensure that everyone knows that vital decisions on these issues will be taken by the level of government closest to the people who elect that government. I tabled an amendment, which was not selected but may be able to be covered in a stand part debate, seeking to state in this part of the Bill, for the avoidance of doubt, that no such decisions should be taken at regional level. That is not germane to the amendment before us and I would stray out of order if I talked too much about that, but it would be helpful not only if the amendment were accepted, for the avoidance of doubt, but if we made it absolutely clear to those who send us here—
Does my hon. Friend agree that one reason that the Minister is resisting the amendment is that the vote in the north-east was not only against the north-east regional assembly, but against unitary authorities? Perhaps the Government are cooling on the idea of unitary authorities. While my hon. Friend is responding to that point, perhaps he would also comment on the fact that there are no such things as metropolitan boroughs in the list of councils.
I do not know the answer to my hon. Friend's second question and no doubt the Minister can deal with that when he responds, but I heard my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire raising the same query sotto voce.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold may be right about his first point—I do not know—but it is important that those who follow our proceedings with great care know that we as an all-party Committee have tried to ensure that the local authority closest to those people will make the crucial decisions. In
another debate—perhaps on stand part—we shall return to the role, or otherwise, of regional decision making, but I wanted to place my concern on the record at this stage.
Purely for the avoidance of doubt, I would like to ask the Minister to assure me that my local authority, Bath and North East Somerset council, will be a licensing authority. It is in neither Wales nor Scotland, so it is not covered by paragraphs (b) or (c). It is not a council of the Isles of Scilly. It is not a common council of the City of London. It is not a London borough council and it is not a district council. As I understand the Minister's definition, Bath and North East Somerset council has suddenly become a county council for a county—not that I knew we had one—in which there are no district councils. It is certainly not a county and, to my knowledge, to this day it has never been known as a county council.
Several hon. Members rose—
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Newcastle city council is not a district council, but a metropolitan borough council. North Tyneside and Gateshead councils were in existence before the Conservatives did away with Tyne and Wear county council. Does he agree that Newcastle city council is not covered?
The honest answer is that I have not the foggiest notion, because of the gobbledegook that came from the Minister. I hope that he will get up and, instead of just reading his brief, explain the position in common language that we can all understand. I want to know how Bath and North East Somerset council has become a county council for a county.
The answer is remarkably simple. Unitary authorities will not be able to have licensed casinos, and nor will metropolitan ones. That is the Government's way of limiting the number of casinos around the country. It is relatively simple, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not spotted it.
Sheffield is okay; I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that.
Several questions have been asked about the role of the various councils. I have asked my officials to check with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. [Interruption.] It is not the ODPM's fault. I wish the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) would wait. He argues that there has been no dialogue, and now I am supposed to have accused another Department.
There are some concerns. We shall get the absolute definitions, and I shall bring them back to the Committee. I shall ask the ODPM to make clear exactly what they are. As I understand it, the definitions have been taken broadly from the Licensing Act 2003. I shall check it and respond to
the hon. Gentleman's concerns and questions at the earliest opportunity.
The answer to that is yes. In trying to evolve local authorities' ability to be the driving force for regeneration of their economies, we are increasingly putting powers into their hands, whether that is to do with gambling or licensing, so that they are not reactive, but can become proactive. That is the Government's clear position. We are trying to work with authorities in respect of licensing on liquor and gambling and in other areas where levers can be pulled to move forward the economies of the local authorities. The rationale for that is to put them together and to bring them as near to the point of action as possible.
We have learned a second lesson in record time this afternoon. When the Minister gives a gabbled response that no one can understand, it means we are on to something, and I think that we are on to something here. It would be helpful if the Minister checked with the ODPM, which has landed him in the proverbial, that we had the appropriate list of licensing authorities.
There is a difference between the licensing functions of various councils and the planning functions, which also come into an assessment of where casinos and gambling institutions are to go. I cannot see how unitary councils are covered, but if there is an assurance from the ODPM that they are, and the definition of a county council for a county in which there are no district councils covers it, fair enough. A valid point was made.
In the interests of clarity, why do we not use the term ''unitary council'', which everyone understands? It is understood in the minds of the general public, who would not understand what a county council for a county in which there are no district councils actually means. I am making a plea for simplicity. If we mean ''unitary'', let us include that in the Bill. If there is a gap in relation to the metropolitan boroughs, they should also be included. They are certainly not district councils in my view. Following the Minister's assurance that he will return with the appropriate definitions, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
I take the opportunity to thank the Minister for what he said, because I spoke before his response. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire that we have learned the
valuable lesson that, whenever the Minister reads out an official brief very fast, we can assume that we are on to something and keep pressing the matter. The Minister's comment that he will return to us with a definition was helpful.
Under clause stand part, I can refer in more detail to my concerns about the regional aspect of the issue. I know that it will, to some extent, be dealt with by a later part of the Bill but it is relevant here, because there is a danger of confusion in the scheme that the Government have put forward, which is unnecessarily complex. The best body to decide whether there should be a casino and its related developments in a particular area is the local authority. That issue is covered by the licensing authorities clause—clause 2.
There is also the spectre of regional bodies deciding where in the region the casino might be appropriate. Only after that will the more local local authority, if I may put it like that, consider the proposal in relation to licensing. The scrutiny Committee and, in particular on Second Reading, its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), whose work on the Bill has been widely recognised on all sides, made the point that it would be more sensible if Parliament took a national decision about what is appropriate. Many people on the Opposition Benches, and on the Government Back Benches, who are less in favour of liberalisation than I am, also believe that it is the responsibility of Parliament to decide on issues such as the one that we are talking about.
I remember vividly that, on Second Reading last Monday evening, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), a widely respected Member, whose view of the legislation is different from mine, said that Parliament ought to decide that there should be just one new casino—a pilot one. He said that he would be perfectly happy for it to be in Blackpool. Whichever view one takes on whether there should be one, four, six or any number of new casinos, surely that decision could be taken nationally, with the subsequent licensing decisions taken by the most local councils as set out in clause 2.
What worries me is that the Government and, in particular, the Deputy Prime Minister and his closest allies, including the Minister, want to use the Bill as a mechanism for giving more power to regional bodies. We know why they want to do that. They have always wanted to turn the UK into a place divided into regions, fitting in with the European Union's regional agenda. That is in the face of huge public hostility such as we saw in the north-east, where they tried out the regional referendum because they thought that it was their best chance of getting it through. We know from last week's vote that, if that was their best chance, they have no chance in the rest of the country. That is what they are up to. Anyone who does not realise that has not read the Deputy Prime Minister's speeches of the 10 ten years.
Mr. Banks rose—
licensing authorities. However, he has given way to Mr. Banks, so I call him. Let us make sure that we stick to what we are debating.
Who am I to say that there should not be one pilot and that it should not be in Blackpool? However, other people might disagree with that.
I remind the hon. Gentleman of the point that I made on Second Reading, which was about the need for transparency. If the Government are going to give directions and say ''There, there and perhaps there'', the Bill could be open to all sorts of challenges and people could reasonably ask, ''Why?'' Will he therefore consider a national framework and the setting of some rules within which the Government can properly operate, so that the local authorities that are interested in the proposals would have some idea of how to bid or to compete?
That is a helpful intervention. I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of transparency, but for that argument to be valid it does not matter who is making the decision. As I am sure she realises, with the huge amounts of money behind some of the overseas companies, even if the Government were to get their wish—I do not think that they will—and the decisions were to be made regionally, there would still be challenges through the courts. Many of those huge, international conglomerates have literally got money to burn if they wish, and they can keep challenging the transparency of those decisions if they are made regionally. There would be a greater guarantee of transparency if Parliament and the Government made the decisions.
As the hon. Lady knows, I was not adopting the argument of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, saying that there should be only one pilot, in Blackpool; I would prefer to liberalise more. I want to ensure that after the Bill is implemented we see regenerative effects in the rundown resorts, including Blackpool. There is very little between her views and mine, but I hope that she understands that her transparency argument, which is a good one, could apply at any level. I want the main decisions to be made in the Bill and the local decision making made by the councils most local to the people. It would be a defensible system.
Not wishing to infringe on your ruling, Mr. Pike, and knowing that we will return to that issue, I just wanted to make the point on stand part that I would have liked to see in this clause a statement that for the avoidance of doubt, as we are putting in unitary
authorities, none of those decisions will be taken regionally. I have made the points that I needed to make, which were important to get on the record.
I will clear up the misunderstanding about the authorities. The clause will define the authorities that have a responsibility for licensing gambling premises and carrying out other associated regulatory functions under the Bill. In England and Wales, they will be the same authorities as those carrying out functions under a parallel provision in the Licensing Act 2003. In Scotland, the authorities will be those licensing bodies that already have responsibility for regulating gambling and the supply of alcohol.
Under the Bill, the authorities will take over all functions undertaken in England and Wales by licensing justices, magistrates, and in Scotland by the licensing board and the local authority. Bearing it in mind that casinos and many bingo clubs also serve alcohol, and that many pubs, clubs and other premises licensed to sell alcohol also have gaming machines, it makes sense to ask the same local authorities to run both systems.
The systems will be different, because apart from anything else the licensing objectives are not identical, but there is clearly a lot of common ground and scope for coherence of approach and efficiency of administration. The approach proposed in the clause will also inject an element of democratic local accountability, which is lacking.
We are confident that the local authorities identified in the clause are the right bodies to license gambling premises, issue permits and carry out the other essentially local regulatory responsibilities for which the Bill provides. We are working closely with the authorities to ensure that they are ready and prepared to take on those responsibilities when the Bill is brought fully into force.
The Minister talks of discussions with the local authorities to ensure that they are ready. I remember that when we were debating the Licensing Bill, assurances were given by the then Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting that the local authorities were being brought on board and knew exactly what was going on. We have just heard about the fees structure and, as was pointed out earlier, many authorities are up in arms about the fees under the Licensing Act 2003. Will the Minister assure us that this time his Department and the local authorities will get their act together, so that the appropriate grant money will be made available to allow the authorities to do their job properly?
I do not want to wander too much into the Licensing Act or, indeed, the level of licensing. We have said absolutely consistently that the fees will be cost-effective, and we believe that they are. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State put a safety valve in the system. We said that the National Audit Office will review the fees and that we would rectify them upwards or downwards if they were wrong. This debate is taking place against a background in which we have consulted widely on the fees, and the Local Government Association and the Local Authorities
Coordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards have made submissions.
I wished to intervene on the Minister. He has sat down, but perhaps I could just make one small observation. The Minister said very clearly that the slight inconsistency that we have identified in respect of responsibility in metropolitan district council areas matches the provisions in the Licensing Act. We have obtained a copy of that Act, and he is entirely wrong. The list of authorities in the Licensing Act is exactly the same as the list of authorities in the Bill. However, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which lists the authorities that may give advice to a regional planning body, has a list that includes a county council, a district council for an area for which there is no county council—the two categories that are included in the Bill—and a third category of metropolitan district council. In other words, a metropolitan district council is not the same as a county council or a district council for an area for which there is no county council. It appears that it is not only the Gambling Bill that is deficient. Perhaps the Licensing Act is also deficient and half the country is not covered by it.
I point out to my hon. Friend that in fact the Act is entirely different. The Bill refers to
''a county council for a county in which there are no district councils'',
I thought that he read ''a district council for which there are no county councils'' from the 2004 Act, which is the opposite.
The wording in the Licensing Act is slightly different. It refers to
''the council of a county in England in which there are no district councils'',
which we can probably take to be the same as a county council in which there are no district councils.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire is on to a very good point. The wording in the Licensing Act is much clearer than the wording in the Bill. If the Bill said, ''a council for a county in which there are no districts'', it would be much clearer. The Minister and his officials have lifted and edited the words incorrectly, but no doubt we will get a clearer definition when the Minister has done his checking with his colleague at the ODPM.
Mr. Banks rose—
Before the hon. Gentleman, who has gone through all this like Sherlock Holmes, gets too
excited, let me just say, fine, I hear what he says. Mistakes may have been made, or we may be right—I do not know, as I did not take the legislation through the House—but obviously both your side and this side missed it. I do not think that it is anything to get excited about. It is not a major political score.
We will rectify any mistake. I will come back to the Committee and explain who has responsibility for liquor licensing and gambling. The hon. Gentleman should not get over-excited, as I shall come back with a rational answer for him.
I promise that I shall remain entirely calm about the matter. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire has said in my ear, the so-called triple lock is undermined if we discover that large parts of the country are not covered by the Bill at all. We shall look forward with considerable interest to the Minister's explanation of the apparent contradiction.
I do not want to intrude in this terrible mess. However, because it pays to do so in politics, I just want to point out that the mess of local authorities is entirely the responsibility of successive Conservative Governments.
Had we introduced yet another layer in the form of regional assemblies, it would have been an even greater mess. Happily, that has not happened.
May I shed a little more light on the problem? I served on the Standing Committee considering the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill and you were in the Chair, Mr. Pike, so you will remember clearly that we spent almost a whole sitting debating an amendment, very similar to that tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, on unitary authorities. Eventually, the Committee was convinced that unitary authorities were covered by the definition in the Bill. However, we carefully probed the idea that metropolitan authorities were very different from district councils. The Minister's Department needs to look carefully to see whether his definitions are consistent with those of the ODPM. I think that he may find that they are not.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.