Smoking ban forces Rank to close bingo halls

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The Independent Online

The gaming group Rank is calling time on nine of its Mecca bingo halls as it prepares for the fallout from the extension of the smoking ban.

The news hit an industry already feeling under siege from "an unfair tax regime" and changes brought in under the Government's shake-up of the gambling laws.

At the end of last year, Rank reported that the smoking ban in Scotland had cut sales at its bingo clubs by 15 per cent. The UK's second largest operator will close clubs across the country, including in Liverpool, Sheffield and Fulham and Islington in London, with the loss of 230 jobs.

However, although large groups such as the market leader Gala and Rank may take a hit this year after the introduction of the ban in England on 1 July, they are not likely to suffer much long-term damage. It is the smaller independents who look like they will be calling "house" for the last time.

As news of the closures was announced yesterday, bingo players handed in a petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for cuts to the "unfair taxes crippling the game".

This followed the closure of a club in Denny, Falkirk, operated by Premier Bingo, a small independent. Mike Lowe, its operations manager, said: "Without support, operators will be forced to wind up their businesses and many communities will lose an important social amenity."

Steven Baldwin, from the trade body the Bingo Association, said the game had taken too many blows all at once. "This is not the death knell of the bingo industry but we will see more of the same unless the Government takes some steps to address the difficulties affecting it," he said.

Predominantly female bingo players pay more in tax than their male counterparts in the bookmakers due to a double tax burden of VAT and gross profits tax. Furthermore, under recent changes to gambling legislation, licence fees have increased while the number of jackpot machines that bingo halls are allowed has decreased.

Operators make most of their money in the intervals between games and about half of all bingo players smoke, double the rate of the overall population. The industry is predicting that between one-fifth and half of the 650 bingo venues will close in the next two years. Rank runs 103 bingo clubs and more than 30 casinos in the UK.

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