STAKES RISE AS GAMBLING RULES RELAX

DEREGULATION: Ministers deny link with lottery profit
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The Independent Online
HEATHER MILLS

Home Affairs Correspondent

Punters will be able to drink and gamble the night away at more venues under government proposals announced yesterday to ease restrictions governing the gaming industry.

Ministers denied the moves were in response to gaming-lobby protests that they were losing custom to the National Lottery. But Home Office minister Timothy Kirkhope admitted the Government was considering allowing people to bet on winning lottery numbers, thus allowing the industry to cash in on lottery success.

However, yesterday's proposals, which include provision of 13 new sites for casinos, permit advertising for the first time and allow higher stakes and pay-outs on machines, fall short of the deregulation demands of the industry.

Ministers have refused to permit the use of credit cards and although the Government has reduced the waiting period for new gambling-club members from 48 to 24 hours, it has declined to allow immediate membership. Ministers, proud of the restrictions of the Gaming Board - the industry's regulator - which 30 years ago kept the Mafia and its equivalents out of the industry, are determined to keep it "clean" and are discouraging any kind of Las Vegas-style approach.

The consultation paper outlining the proposals recognises that casinos are at the "hard" end of the gambling spectrum and, with their large turnovers, carry with them opportunities for money-laundering, fraud and exploitation.

Restrictions therefore remain to prevent crime, public disorder and nuisance, to protect the gambler by ensuring deals are fair and banning excessive profits and to save the vulnerable, in particular compulsive gamblers, from their own excesses. "There is potential in casino gaming for gamblers to lose large amounts quickly," the report says.

The paper also eases restrictions facing the country's millions of bingo players, by lifting prize restrictions, providing for more licences, ending the need for club status and allowing greater advertising.

Outlining the plans, which do not need special legislation and could be introduced swiftly, Mr Kirkhope said: "They strike a balance between relaxation while keeping regulations where necessary.

"The changes will give more opportunities to people on how to spend their leisure time, ensuring the industry is properly regulated and remains crime- free." He said the measures would benefit half a million people who play bingo each day, 30,000 who visit casinos a night - and the economy. The 119 existing casinos around the country - mostly in London - generate pounds 420m a year, with pounds 72.3m paid in taxes. The proposals would ensure others could be set up in Croydon, Dartford, Folkestone, Gloucester, Hastings, Ipswich, Morecambe, Oxford, Peterborough, Redbridge, Slough, Swindon, and Weymouth.

Mr Kirkhope denied the measures would encourage the creation of a nation of gamblers. "If one accepts the concept of gaming, I think you have to also accept that people should be free to make the choice as to how they spend their leisure time," he said.

But members of the National Council on Gambling were concerned. Emanuel Moran, a psychiatrist specialising in gambling problems, and the council's chairman, said: "There's been much dancing in the streets by the gambling interest at the prospect of deregulation. I'm not aware of any dancing in the streets by the punters. "What is being done, in a very subtle way, is to encourage punters to spend more money than they have been doing, and there is a price to be paid for that."

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