Gambling law reforms herald Vegas-style casinos

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The Independent Online

Britain's gaming industry is gearing up to welcome the Government's sweeping plans to liberalise gambling laws this week.

Britain's gaming industry is gearing up to welcome the Government's sweeping plans to liberalise gambling laws this week.

Casino operators, such as Rank, Gala and Stanley Leisure, will be among the beneficiaries of tomorrow's White Paper that will broadly back proposals by Sir Alan Budd, the former chief adviser to the Treasury, to liberalise antiquated restrictions on gambling that date back to the 1960s.

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, will overturn the advertising ban on casinos, recommend that gamblers can drink at roulette and card tables and scrap the 24-hour membership rule, imposed to deter new punters from walking off the street and into a casino.

The shake-up of Britain's £40bn a year industry will blur the lines between soft gaming, such as bingo, and hard betting, such as casino games, allowing casino operators and betting shops to install more slot machines with cash prizes of up to £1m.

It will also pave the way for Las Vegas-style resort casinos across Britain that could rescue the declining tourist industry in many seaside towns. The new complexes, such as that being developed for Blackpool's Golden Mile by Trevor Hemmings, the leisure tycoon, will offer betting, roulette, bingo and live entertainment under one roof.

Gaming groups are ready to move quickly on the Government's proposals, many of which will require only secondary legislation and could be in force by the autumn. They see the relaxation of slot machine legislation as a particular money-spinner following, for example, the recent liberalisation of French gaming laws that has allowed many casinos to generate 90 per cent of turnover through machines.

Rank's chief executive, Mike Smith, has already expanded the group's regional casino estate to provide floor space for about 2,400 extra slot machines, which analysts estimate will boost the division's profits by about £15m a year.

While the proposed doubling of top bingo prizes to £1m is expected to help the industry lure players back who defected to the more lucrative National Lottery, the head of the Bingo Association, Sir Peter Fry, has criticised the decision to allow casinos to offer bingo, saying the move will pose a threat to smaller clubs.

But the fear was rebuffed by John Kelly, the chief executive of Gala, which runs 166 clubs and 28 casinos, who said the group would turn only a few of its bingo clubs into casinos.

In an attempt to protect lottery ticket sales, which raise money for good causes, the Government will not let bookmakers take side-bets on National Lottery numbers. It will also restrict the prize limit of rival charity lotteries.

In return for the first liberalisation of the Gambling Act since it was set up in 1968, the industry has formed a charitable trust to help treat a likely increase in problem gambling.

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