Limits on jackpot prizes removed in gambling reforms

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The biggest shake-up of Britain's gambling laws since the 1960s was announced by the Government yesterday, clearing the way to the opening of dozens of casinos in seaside resorts.

The biggest shake-up of Britain's gambling laws since the 1960s was announced by the Government yesterday, clearing the way to the opening of dozens of casinos in seaside resorts.

An array of restrictions, brought in to combat gangster involvement in the gaming industry, was swept away by Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture.

Although the plans will dramatically loosen restrictions on the £7bn-a-year industry, the Government also moved to curb under-age gambling on fruit machines and set up a tough regulatory body.

Amid predictions that the moves could increase the industry's turnover by at least £3bn, the country's largest gaming companies broadly welcomed the changes.

But there were warnings that the expansion could increase the level of gambling addiction. Britons staked £42bn last year – more than £70 each – on all forms of betting, including the National Lottery.

Plans are well advanced for Blackpool to cash in on the liberalisation by developing a Las Vegas-style gambling complex with the working title of Pharoah's Palace. A council spokesman said: "A resort casino would add a new dimension to the town."

Other holiday centres, including Brighton, Southend, and Bournemouth are believed to be considering following the lead, eventually boosting the number of British casinos from 118 to more than 200.

The changes will make it easier to open casinos, allow them to be advertised and permit punters to use credit cards to bet. They will be allowed to offer games such as bingo and slot machines with unlimited jackpots alongside the traditional roulette and cards. They may also offer live entertainment and serve alcohol on the gambling floor.

The rule requiring punters to be members for 24 hours before placing a bet will be dropped.

Penny Cobham, chairman of the British Casino Association, said the changes would bring Britain in line with other European countries.

She said: "For too long the casino industry has been restricted in the way it can respond to its customers' wishes and we have always argued that the customer should be allowed to choose how he or she spends their leisure time."

In other changes, bingo halls will be allowed to offer rollover prizes and limits on the size of their stakes and jackpot prizes will be removed.

But people under 18 will be barred from using any slot machine with a stake of more than 10p or a maximum prize of more than £5. The ban will affect machines in amusement arcades, motorway service stations and fish and chip shops.

Bookmakers will be allowed to offer a wider choice of food and drink, but the ban on serving alcohol remains in place.

The pools operators, facing fierce competition from the National Lottery, will be allowed to offer rollover prizes.

Ms Jowell said: "Modernisation of our gambling laws is long overdue. We want gambling to be safe, not only for those who take part in it, but also in the way that it impacts on wider society.

"We also, however, want to see a successful British gambling industry." Her proposals, in a Government white paper which will be presented to MPs as soon as possible, were based on recommendations in a report by Sir Alan Budd, the former chief economic adviser to the Treasury.

But she rejected his proposal to allow side bets on the National Lottery and ignored Sir Alan's call for tough curbs on fruit machines in workingmen's clubs. They will be allowed to have three machines offering £250 top prizes, so long as children are kept away.

John Kelly, chief executive of bingo and casino operators Gala Leisure, said: "We do welcome the recommendations almost on a wholesale basis. They are absolutely what we have been looking for and waiting for."

Christopher Bell, CEO of Ladbrokes worldwide, said: "We welcome the general approach that the Government has adopted towards the gambling industry. We are pleased that the Government has put social responsibility at the heart of its proposals. We will now work with the Government in looking at ways to bring forward some of their proposed changes ahead of legislation."

But Gamblers Anonymous said the changes would create more addicts. "It's a mental disorder, and the more you expose people to gambling the more likely they are to suffer from that disorder," a spokesman said. "If people are able to go and play bingo and there is a roulette table next to it, they are going to try it out. That is bad news when you consider that between 2 and 3 per cent of people have the potential to become compulsive gamblers."

Rachel Lampard, a spokeswoman for the Methodist Church, said any changes should be brought in gradually. "If there is going to be deregulation, then the gambling industry has to take greater social responsibility, both towards the individual and society," she said.

The new betting rules

Casinos: Restrictions on where they can open to be eased; will be allowed to advertise, have gaming machines with unlimited prizes, offer live entertainment, serve alcohol on gaming floor; rule requiring players to be members for 24 hours before placing a bet scrapped.

Bingo halls: 24-hour rule scrapped; will be allowed to offer rollover prizes; limits on the size of their stakes and jackpot prizes removed; restrictions on fruit machines on premises relaxed.

Bookmakers: Allowed to serve wider range of food and drink, but no alcohol.

Online gambling: Permitted from British bases for the first time.

Pools: Opened to online players and able to operate through shops; allowed to offer unlimited rollovers.

Slot machines: Allowed in locations where children have access only if stake does not exceed 10p and top pay-out £5.

Workingmen's clubs: Will be allowed to install fruit machines with prizes of up to £250, so long as children have no access.

Regulation: Single regulator (the Gambling Commission) to oversee all gaming outlets.