Gaming deregulation Bill set to transform UK's resorts

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The Independent Online

A fast-track process to reform Britain's arcane gaming laws by the end of next year will be announced today by the Government, paving the way for an explosion in casinos around the country.

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, will announce the long-awaited draft Bill for gaming deregulation which will allow resorts such as Blackpool and Brighton to develop huge Las Vegas-style casinos with live entertainment and banks of slot machines.

Membership rules for casinos will be scrapped, allowing people to walk in off the street and enjoy a huge variety of new games and betting opportunities.

The new legislation is predicted to lead to a big influx of investment from large US gaming groups such as Harrah's and MGM Mirage, many of which have already signed joint venture agreements with British casino operators. Marc Etches, the managing director of Leisure Parks which owns Blackpool Tower, said: "The Government really are determined to use gaming as a tool for economic regeneration and the support of tourism in the areas where it is most needed."

To stop a proliferation of small casinos the Government is expected to impose a minimum size of 5,000 sq ft. The big gainers in the UK will be groups such as Rank, London Clubs International, and Stanley Leisure. A string of private equity-backed businesses are also set to benefit, including Gala Leisure, the bingo and regional casino giant. Hotel groups such as Hilton are also likely beneficiaries.

Measures expected to be allowed include the linking of casino slot machines' prizes, which will produce unlimited payouts, and a sharp increase in the number of gaming tables. Casinos are also expected to be allowed to offer bingo and fixed-odds betting on sporting events. The integration of all these betting activities, until now kept separate, will result in the rise of regional gaming "sheds".

Details of the Bill will be announced by Mrs Jowell at a leisure industry conference this morning. She is expected to say the Bill will first of all go before a pre-legislative scrutiny committee made up of members from both Houses of Parliament.

The Government hopes most of the controversial issues surrounding gaming deregulation, such as the risk of problem gambling and the taxation framework, will be ironed out by the committee. The Bill is expected to clear this stage in April, and reach the statute books by the end of the year.

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