Gambling

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I am glad to report that recent obituaries on the death of casino reform are exaggerated. The process of "better regulation", as the relaxation of outdated restrictions on casino gambling is known, is going ahead, but slowly. Three measures are likely to go forward in the spring: group membership of casinos (that is, signing on at one casino granting membership of others in the same company), postal membership, and limited advertising.

But hopes of increasing the number of slot machines, from the present six per casino to up to three per table game, will probably be dashed.

Provincial casinos, operating on a knife-edge of profitability, regard an increase in the style and number of slot machines as a lifeline. But there is too much flak, not least, it seems, opposition in the House of Lords, to enable easy or rapid passage of this measure. The other new idea on the stocks, of extending "permitted areas" to enable new casinos to open, is in limbo.

Why, one may ask, should deregulation be stalled? The last government set the process in hand with a will and the new government promised to continue the good work.

The answer, in part, is that there ain't no votes in casino reform. There is little or no political credit to be gained in pushing gambling reform and making parliamentary time for legislation. Jack Straw at the Home Office has plenty of other things on his plate.

George Howarth, the Home Office minister directly responsible for the gambling sector, is broadly sympathetic to change. "Ideally," as he told the British Casino Association last November, "I would like to have a general review of the gambling legislation, not just in relation to casinos but going wider, with new legislation to take us into the next century." He admitted, in the same breath, that there is little prospect of this happening any time soon.

Such an approach is traditionally a way of postponing decisions. I wonder whether things might be different if the Treasury realised that slot machines in casinos could well bring in an extra pounds 100m a year in revenue?

On the other side of the account, the casino industry's own efforts to promote itself lack punch. There is no clear voice, no effective campaign, no colour, in short no political lobby (as there would be in Washington) to set the agenda and lead public opinion. Lady Littler, chairman of the Gaming Board, who is retiring shortly, has been supportive of change. The casino industry lives in hope that her successor, whoever comes in, will press on.

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