Betting overhaul fuels addiction fears

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Indy Politics

The biggest shake-up of betting laws for 40 years, paving the way to a proliferation of super-casinos offering unlimited jackpots from slot machines, was announced by the Government yesterday.

The biggest shake-up of betting laws for 40 years, paving the way to a proliferation of super-casinos offering unlimited jackpots from slot machines, was announced by the Government yesterday.

Ministers, who hope the new laws will take effect in the spring although it will be a struggle to get them through Parliament, faced immediate accusations that gambling addiction would rocket. Lord McIntosh of Haringey, the minister for Media and Heritage, insisted the legislation was designed to protect children and vulnerable adults from unregulated gaming. He said: "The UK will not become Las Vegas."

Yesterday's publication of the Gambling Bill contains updates of the complex and often arcane legislation from the 1960s for the internet age.

Most controversial is a move to allow the largest regional casinos to stay open round the clock, with unlimited jackpots on 1,250 slot machines, producing instant millionaires. The casinos would not restrict entry to members only and they would be allowed to advertise.

The betting industry, which believes its income could soar by £3bn a year, has already ear-marked dozens of possible sites.

Under the Gambling Bill, racecourse betting would be allowed on Good Friday and Christmas Day. But there would be new controls on online betting sites and slot machines would be banned from premises such as fast-food shops and minicab offices frequented by teenagers. At least 6,000 machines could vanish, the Government said.

Stronger policing of gambling is planned with a new regulator. The existing Gaming Board monitors only bingo and casinos, and has no powers to investigate wrongdoing or bring prosecutions. The new Gambling Commission would scrutinise betting, and operators, including internet sites, will have to apply for a licence.

Online sites would have to check the age of customers and the Commission would be able to close casinos not acting responsibly. Lord McIntosh said: "About 95 per cent of the Bill brings measures to better protect children and people who would be harmed by gambling, and it will better protect the public against crime and cheating.

"The present laws are not appropriate in the 21st century when people accept that gambling is a reasonable, legal and safe thing to do. There is no protection against online gambling, and nothing to stop children gambling on the internet. Gaming machines have got more sophisticated and more seductive. Without this Bill, roulette machines would be in every club, every hotel, every pub and there wouldn't be anything we could do to stop it."

He said fears of hundreds of large-scale Las Vegas-style casinos all over Britain were also "over-the-top", adding: "We have made it impossible for there to be large numbers of regional casinos."

But Malcolm Moss, the Conservative culture spokesman, said: "The Government has said it has no view on how many of these things will be built. There are no mechanisms for controlling whether there will be too many."

A Salvation Army spokes-man said: "There are only two real winners who will benefit: the gaming industry through massively increased profits, and the Government through increased taxation. The big losers will be the vulnerable people whose lives are ruined by gambling addiction."

Rachel Lampard, a spokes-woman for the Methodist Church, said: "Unless the numbers are tightly controlled, this measure threatens to increase the number of people damaged by gambling."

Some £63.8bn was staked on gambling in 2002-03, at casinos, gaming machines, horse and dog racing, football pools, scratchcards and the National Lottery. There are 131 casinos operating - more than in any other European country except France - and 250,000 gaming machines with £10bn fed into them annually. Estimates show there are 300,000 problem gamblers.

The Bill had its first reading yesterday.