Critics sceptical of Jowell pledge on internet gaming clampdown

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The Independent Online

Tessa Jowell has urged 32 countries to back an online gambling blueprint intended to protect children and stop criminal gangs from abusing web betting.

At a conference in Ascot yesterday, the Culture Secretary launched a fresh attack on the US at a meeting to discuss banning internet gambling. The US shunned the meeting. Ms Jowell said the US risked "forcing the industry underground" in echoes of 1920s' prohibition.

Britain has taken the opposite view to the US and is keen for internet gaming companies to base themselves in the UK, once new regulation comes into force next September. At the moment UK residents are free to bet online, but the companies they use must be registered offshore.

Richard Caborn, the Sports minister, said the UK's decision to call for tough regulation was no "knee-jerk reaction" to the American clampdown. "This is not about the Brits grabbing a chunk of tax revenue," he said.

Delegates from countries including Spain, Antigua, New Zealand and Gibraltar will discuss the draft regulations with their respective governments ahead of a final agreement over the next few weeks.

"I think we now have in place a road map that will lead to better regulated remote gambling across the world. Those present today agreed to co-operate further in a number of key areas to ensure that gambling remains fair, crime free and vulnerable people are protected," Mr Caborn said.

He wants to establish a working group involving wider international institutions, including Unesco and the global financial sector, to advise on developing worldwide standards for regulation. The group would report back by the middle of next year.

But sceptics queried how the Government would manage to enforce the new rules. Hugo Swire, Ms Jowell's Conservative counterpart, said: "Up until now, the Government has failed to prosecute a single online gaming company for breaking the existing legislation on advertising internet gambling, despite clear breaches."

John Carr, the new technology adviser for the children's charity NCH, warned that the new regime risked being undermined "if overseas websites simply ignore the high standards we have set". Last night's agreement also included a pledge to ensure national regulators had enough financial muscle to crack down on offenders.

The final details of the new framework will not be decided until late November, but it will rely on operators taking the lead in ensuring, for example, that they can police the age of their punters. In the UK, the Gambling Commission, which took over from the old Gaming Board, will police the new regime. It has the power to impose unlimited fines, although it has yet to use the full capacity of its power.

The Government's crackdown comes as research shows that Britons account for nearly one in three regular online gamblers in Europe. Nearly one million people in the UK regularly bet online, which is twice as many as five years ago, figures showed. The research was commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport before the US moved to outlaw internet gambling early last month, depriving the industry of its most lucrative market.

Europe's 3.3 million regular online gamblers stake about £3.5bn each year on the world's 2,300 gaming websites, which averages out at £1,000 per punter.

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