Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, is seeking to stave off an embarrassing defeat on her plans to build a supercasino in Manchester by suggesting a joint committee of both houses consider the case for building more casinos, including large ones, sooner than originally envisaged.
The government faces possible defeat in both the Lords and Commons today over the supercasino site recommended by an independent advisory panel. The vote also covers less controversial plans for 16 smaller casinos around the country.
Ms Jowell is stressing that it is up to parliament if it so wishes to set up a new committee to examine whether the regeneration secured through gambling requires the building of more casinos, including one in Blackpool. She is facing an alliance of parliamentarians either opposed to gambling on moral grounds or to the choice of Manchester. There is a strong lobby in parliament for the supercasino to go to Blackpool, which critics say is in greater need of regeneration.
Amid deepening government concern at a possible defeat, Tony Blair carved out space in his diary yesterday to meet two Blackpool MPs, Gordon Marsden and Joan Humble, at Downing Street. They called on him to reopen the process and send the decision to a joint committee. Most MPs are happy to see the 16 other casinos voted through, but only if the siting of the supercasino is revisited.
Last night it was not thought the two MPs or Blackpool city council had received sufficient assurances to call off the rebellion. One MP involved in the talks said: „There has been a lot of suggestions of concessions, but nothing very concrete.“
Mr Marsden is expecting dozens to rebel, but with MPs close to breaking up for Easter recess many may be absent, making the likelihood of a defeat difficult to calculate.
Ms Jowell says 7,500 jobs are at stake if the orders are thrown out, with the supercasino alone expected to generate 2,000 jobs. She is also stressing that the legislation has undergone some of the most thorough and lengthy scrutiny of any brought to parliament under the Blair government. Ms Jowell has told MPs that the proposed Gambling Commission will have wide powers to control the casinos if signs of problem gambling emerge.
Peers are due to start debating the order first today, with three hours set aside for a parallel debate in the Commons. In the Lords, peers could either vote to strike down the order, requiring a government rethink, or pass what is described as a non-fatal motion urging the government to put the issue to a joint committee.
The Conservative front bench has only twice voted outright against an order in the last 40 years, on the issues of Rhodesia and Ken Livingstone’s allowances, and the Conservative leader of the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, is reluctant to strike down the casino order today as it might be seen as a misuse of power by an unelected house. The Conservatives will however support a motion from a Labour backbench peer, Lady Golding, for the choice of Manchester to go to a joint committee.
The rebellion has been stoked by a damning report prepared for peers by an obscure statutory instruments committee flaying the way in which the casino advisory committee chose Manchester.