Gaming Group, Rank, yesterday launched a stinging attack on what its chief executive Ian Burke said was Government "prejudice" against its core voters' love of bingo.
Rank's Mecca chain has been badly hit by both the smoking ban and a recent tax hike on bingo, where players now face a levy of 22 per cent on what they pay – more than most other forms of gambling. By contrast, bookies pay a gross profits tax of just 15 per cent on betting, while punters' stakes and winnings are tax free.
Asked if the Government was prejudiced against bingo Mr Burke said: "It does look like that when you look at some of their policies and I think our customers would see it that way.
"Many of them live in Labour areas and are core Labour voters. I hope it isn't the case but it certainly could be seen that way."
Rank has held protests against the tax and argues that it is forcing bingo clubs to the wall in towns up and down the country where they act as a social amenity.
The company highlighted tax as the main issue facing it in yesterday's first half results statement, saying: "The volatile nature of HM Treasury's fiscal policy remains the principal challenge for the Group. We are disappointed by the Government's decision to introduce a significant increase in the taxation of bingo during this year's Budget and will continue to give active support to the Bingo Association in its campaign to achieve a fair deal for Britain's licensed bingo clubs."
Despite this, the company's finances have improved somewhat, with pre-tax profits of £24.7m before one offs against £17.6m on revenues that were broadly flat, coming in at £266m against £264m last time. After one offs, the profits stood at £27m compared to a £76.6m loss in the first half of 2008.
Debt fell to £208m from £226m but the group continues to hold off on paying a dividend as it concentrates on reducing borrowing. Mr Burke insisted Rank was turning the corner and said it was continuing the programme of opening mid market G Casinos. A new Mecca bingo format in Manchester, with table service, has also proved a success and will be expanded.