Fears are growing for the fate of the Government's gambling Bill, with Sun International, one of the overseas companies that had hoped to spend up to £600m on casinos in the UK, believing it is in peril in the House of Lords.
Peter Bacon, the chief executive of Sun International, owner of the Sun City casino in South Africa, said yesterday it was still impossible to predict what changes would be made to the limits on casinos and slot machines to get the Bill passed before a general election.
"There are clearly still a number of areas that are very much in contention," Mr Bacon said. He added that the Bill was the subject of a game of "political poker". "There is lots of disagreement between the parties and there is some way to go before it is resolved."
The company has had to scale back its plans in the UK after the Government's U-turn in December on the number of casinos it would allow. In the face of public opposition, the Government has limited the number of new casinos to eight Las Vegas-style "regional" casinos, eight large and eight small.
Mr Bacon, who was in London on business, had hoped to develop between three and five regional casinos, each holding up to 1,250 slot machines that can pay unlimited prizes. Now it can realistically hope to win only one.
"We are still committed to competing for a licence in the UK," Mr Bacon said, despite the uncertainty on the Bill's future. "We are quite advanced in the planning stage for a site at Sheffield's Don Valley stadium and we will carry on with that development."
He is expecting the Bill to have a rocky road through the House of Lords as the British casino industry lobbies to have the cap on small and large casinos lifted or scrapped. Existing UK operators will also be fighting for support to allow more and higher prize slot machines into their venues.
With a general election expected in May, the House of Lords has only a few weeks to discuss the Bill before Parliament is dissolved.
Peter Byrne, Sun International's executive director in the UK, said: "Who knows what discussions might go on in the days before Parliament is dissolved. Elements of the Bill could well be dropped."
Sun International supports the Government over its plans to cap the number of new casino developments. Mr Bacon said: "South Africa adopted a cautious approach on new casino expansion, which has worked well. It put a limit on the number, then allocated them evenly throughout the provinces, and also banned one operator from owning too many. Instances of problem gambling in South Africa are still very low."