Gala wants Gambling Bill to be shelved

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The Independent Online

The government should shelve its controversial Gambling Bill rather than push it through Parliament in its flawed form before a general election, the bingo and casino operator, Gala, said yesterday.

Neil Goulden, the chief executive of Gala, said the Government should consult the industry on the recent changes to the Bill, which he believes have hampered opportunities for existing casino operators to expand.

"The Government seems hell bent on getting this through Parliament before an election," Mr Goulden said. "But gambling laws are only changed once every 50 years, so the Government should make sure it gets it right. There have been so many changes recently, it should now just be put on the back burner until after the election."

In the face of growing concern that its proposals would lead to widespread problem gambling, the Government has said that only eight new Las Vegas-style casinos containing up 1,250 unlimited prize slot machines will be allowed. It has also a limited the number of new small and large casinos.

Existing casino groups had hoped to install unlimited prize slot machines in their venues, as well as increase the number of slot machines they could install, but this has also been blocked by the Government.

Mr Goulden said: "We are not afraid of competition and we embrace social responsibility, but we believe unlimited prize slot machines, which will be new to the UK, should be trialled with existing operators, who have proved their ability to run casinos responsibly for more than 40 years."

With a general election expected in May, the Gambling Bill has only a few weeks to pass through Parliament. A number of opposition MPs are already expecting last-minute concessions from the Government to get it passed in time.

Gala had planned to spend millions on developing a number of Las Vegas-style casinos in the UK in conjunction with a US partner, Harrah's. Following the Government's climbdown on the number of new super-casinos it would allow, Gala abandoned its joint venture with Harrah's.

Mr Goulden's comments came as Gala reported a 6 per cent increase in like-for-like sales over the Christmas period, thanks to the growing popularity of bingo. Sales through Gala's 166 bingo clubs increased more than 7 per cent during the seven weeks to 7 January.

The average age of new members joining its bingo clubs is 26, demonstrating that Gala is succeeding in drawing in a younger audience. "Bingo has become quite a trendy thing to do. Most of our members are women. We provide a safe and fun night out," Mr Goulden said.

Gala's 29 casinos had sales growth of 5.7 per cent over the Christmas period.