he Government suffered an embarrassing defeat last night over its plans to allow a new generation of casinos. It needed majorities in both houses, rendering its 24-vote victory in a simultaneous Commons division worthless. The defeat came after almost half the Labour peers abstained, with 105 turning out to support the government - a personal blow for the authority of Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary.
The vast majority of Tory peers also abstained, with only 30 of 200 siding with the Liberal Democrat attempts to bring down the plans. All 49 Liberal Democrat peers backed the party's wrecking attempt.
One of the most powerful speeches in the Lords came from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He accused the Government of allowing the gambling industry to wrap up the case for more casinos with the separate question of how to regenerate poor areas. Too little attention had been given to the addictive effects of gambling and simply studying the “social impact” of new casinos, as the Government proposed, did not take this seriously enough.
The Lords vote does not necessarily mean the end of Manchester's chances of hosting a supercasino. Jowell has repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining all of the 17 locations selected by the Casino Advisory Panel. "Ministers will want to reflect and come back to this elected house in due course with proposals as to how to take this policy forward," she said.
A senior source cited in the Evening Standard said that Jowell would not be rushing back with fresh proposals noting: "Proper policy making means we will be spending the next month or so considering the project."
MPs suggested she would have to separate the casinos, allowing the less contentious local venues to proceed, because she cannot bring back the same order for six months. Richard Caborn, the sports minister, told Channel 4 News: "Sixteen of these casinos could well go ahead tomorrow."
But isolating the decision on the supercasino could intensify arguments over its location and regulation. Finding parliamentary time for one or both issues could also be difficult: the house rises for recess today and on its return enters "purdah" - where it cannot discuss political decisions which are sensitive locally - before the May council elections.
Labour's leadership transition is likely to begin shortly afterwards and MPs believe Gordon Brown is not keen to see an expansion of the gambling industry, citing the 50% tax rate he introduced for the largest casinos in last week's budget.
The decision to site the supercasino in Manchester was made by an independent panel, but angered MPs in Blackpool, which had bid for the venue. A Lords committee questioned whether its social impact and effect on economic regeneration could be monitored, and opponents argued that a joint committee of both houses should reconsider the panel's choice of location.
Instead the Joint Committee will consider how best to make decisions on future casino locations, and would be able to nominate Blackpool. However this is dependent on a future government agreeing to increase the number of supercasinos, and Gordon Brown has firmly indicated he has no intention of allowing this.
To coincide with the debate, the Department for Communities and Local Government also announced a regeneration task force for Blackpool to look at ways of improving the area.
Caborn accused Conservatives of opportunism for voting against the order despite supporting the proposal for a supercasino in last year's gambling bill. But the shadow culture secretary, Hugo Swire, insisted: "Our priority has always been ensuring that we minimise the effects of gambling addiction, yet the government was more concerned with forcing through this legislation. It would be unthinkable for the government to attempt to bring back these same proposals."