Gambling shake-up to create super casinos

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Indy Politics

The Government published its controversial Gambling Bill today, allowing casinos to be set up across Britain.

The Government published its controversial Gambling Bill today, allowing casinos to be set up across Britain.

The new legislation, if approved by Parliament, will allow unlimited jackpots to be played for in the new largest casinos - known as regional casinos.

But it will also sweep away slot machines from other premises such as fast food shops and minicab offices, where young people and others are thought to be at risk.

Government sources said there would be 6,000 fewer premises where slot machines would be licensed under the Bill.

It creates a new Gambling Commission to supervise the business and a licensing regime which takes the responsibility for approving premises away from local licensing justices.

Critics have claimed the explosion of new casinos could lead to a rise in addiction to gambling.

But ministers insist there are safeguards to protect those most at risk.

There are specific offences of allowing youngsters to gamble contrary to the revised rules.

The new commission will also be required to promote "socially reponsible gambling" through licence conditions and a new code of practice.

The new moves mean casinos will no longer have to be sited in certain "permitted" areas, and will be open to the public rather than operating as 24-hour membership clubs as now.

Besides the supersized "regional" casinos, there will be others designated "large" and "small", where lower prize money can be played for on slot machines.

A casino is broadly defined as somewhere with unequal betting, or so-called "bankers' games" where punters are betting against the house.

In other moves, racecourse betting will be allowed on Good Friday and Christmas Day for the first time.

And the new legislation is also aimed at regulating remote betting, for example by TV or on the internet where the operator is based in Great Britain.

Most provisions of the Bill apply to England, Wales and Scotland - with a few technical exceptions.

Some provisions apply in Northern Ireland, including the outlawing of so-called "chain gift schemes", where punters pay a joining fee then hope to profit by encouraging others to do so, and a technical measure relating to foreign betting.

Concerns have been raised that big US operators will cash in on the relaxation of the law.

Former welfare minister Frank Field has warned there would be "no turning back" once the door had been opened to the US giants.

Former shadow culture minister Julie Kirkbride has also voiced concern.

"The sheer access to it will create a lot of unhappiness and a lot of family distress," she warned.

"And whilst we might want to make it available in one or two places in the country, do we want it on our doorstep in every town and city across the country?"

Religious groups have criticised the plans. The Salvation Army said the public did not want gambling laws relaxed.

An NOP poll commissioned by the Salvation Army showed that 93% of the British public thought there were already enough opportunities to gamble.

"There are only two real winners that will benefit from the liberalisation of gambling laws: the gaming industry through massively increased profits, and the Government through increased taxation," a spokesman said.

"The big losers will be the vulnerable people whose lives are ruined by gambling addiction."

It had been expected that the Bill would be introduced in the Queen's Speech at the start of the next parliamentary session.

Introducing the Bill in this session, under new rules meaning it can be carried over to the next, beginning in November, means it is more likely to become law as the next session is set to be squeezed by a general election.

Yesterday the Stanley Leisure group unveiled plans to open a casino complex next to Leeds United's Elland Road ground, a move that it said would create more than 1,000 jobs.

The proposed regional casino complex close to the West Yorkshire team's ground would cost up to £125 million and rival any other development in the UK, the casino operator said.

The Liverpool-based group paid £5 million for Leeds United's subsidiary Leeds United Properties, whose only asset is the seven-acre site adjacent to the stadium.

Subject to reform of Britain's gambling laws and the project receiving planning permission, the complex could be completed by the end of 2007.

Stanley Leisure's Star City casino in Birmingham is one of the few UK casinos big enough to qualify for regional casino status.

The group, which has 660 betting shops and 41 casinos, said the Leeds site would become its second biggest casino after Star City.

Yesterday's announcement comes just a week after Caesars Entertainment, the owner of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, unveiled plans to open an "entertainment resort" at a re-developed Wembley leisure complex.

The proposed deregulation of gambling laws has already attracted interest in the UK from other major US leisure operators, including MGM Mirage.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport confirmed that the Bill would open the way to race meetings on Christmas Day.

"It is now down to the racecourse operators and the industry to decide if they want them," a spokesman said.

It is understood that no Christmas Day meetings are planned for this year or next.