Brent Walker lays blame on Lottery

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Brent Walker, the heavily indebted leisure group, yesterday attacked government restrictions on competitors to the National Lottery after blaming it for a sharp fall in profits at its William Hill betting shops operation.

Chief executive John Leach said the time was now right for the removal of the protection from competition which had helped launch the game.

"We are not doing what a lot of other people are doing. We are not whingeing about the National Lottery," he said.

"[But] the Lottery is a big enough boy that we ought to be able to compete with it on an even playing field...Let's not give it an unfair advantage."

He called for speedier action by the Government in deregulating the betting industry and in particular the proposed introduction of one-armed bandits to betting shops, which has been put back from this November to next May or June.

His complaints came as Brent Walker reported that operating profits at William Hill had tumbled by pounds 8.6m to pounds 22.2m in the six months to June after the number of betting slips had slumped 7.5 per cent.

However, with turnover in the betting offices only down 2 per cent, Mr Leach said the main impact of the Lottery had been on smaller bets of around pounds 1 and pounds 2.

The increased use of evening race meetings this summer had exacerbated the problem. With races on five nights a week, 44 per cent of all meetings were now concentrated in four months of the year, which was leading to betting "fatigue" amongst the punters, Mr Leach claimed.

The drop in William Hill's results more than offset a pounds 1.9m rise in profits to pounds 8m from the Pubmaster chain of pubs, leaving total group operating profits before exceptionals at pounds 27.3m, compared with pounds 35.2m before.

But lower interest charges cut the pre-tax loss from pounds 73.5m to pounds 51.4m. The massive debt overhang has crept up from pounds 1.44bn to pounds 1.5bn over the six months to June.

Mr Leach said they were keeping their options open on whether to float off the two main businesses.He pointed out that Pubmaster will not have completed the three year record required for a main market listing until next year.