Bingo halls struggle to get a full house: Industry leaders blame unfair tax for game's decline

The number of clubs has dropped from nearly 600 in 2005 to fewer than 400 today

Jonathan Owen,Charlie Cooper
Sunday 12 January 2014 01:00 GMT

As any seasoned player will tell you, winning streaks can last only so long. Until recently, the bingo halls of Britain were buzzing with the optimism of an industry that had all but cemented its place as a national institution. But the popular numbers game, which even inspired a vocabulary all of its own, has fallen on hard times.

Bingo industry leaders are warning that the game is in a major decline, and tomorrow will call on Chancellor George Osborne to cut the "unfair bingo tax" they claim is holding the industry back from recovery. They complain that despite it being one of the softest forms of gambling, it has one of the punitive tax regimes and cannot recover VAT on capital investment.

The number of bingo clubs has dropped from nearly 600 in 2005 to fewer than 400 today. Though the industry still employs 12,500 people, 6,500 jobs have been lost in the past decade. Even more worryingly, the people's love affair with the bingo ticket and the dabber pen appears to be on the wane, with visits down from 80 million in 2005, to 43 million today. In 2007, the game was hit particularly hard by the smoking ban. Since then it rallied with a fresh focus on younger players, and many halls were transformed to create an atmosphere that owed more to pub culture than the traditional "eyes down, look in" approach beloved of bingo's diehard players.

But these modest gains are falling away, with the post-recession squeeze on people with low incomes leading to fewer treating themselves to a visit – a decline that was compounded last year by unusually good summer weather. Last year, 17 bingo clubs shut their doors for good. Only one opened.

The Bingo Association's chief executive, Miles Baron, has said that clubs' best hope of securing their future will be for the Government to cut the tax on bingo from 20 per cent of profits to 15 per cent. "Reducing the tax on bingo will enable clubs to invest in their future and continue to serve their local areas," he said.

"More investment means more jobs and thriving communities. New club development has dried up." But companies have pledged to reinvest tens of millions in modernising venues and opening new ones if the tax burden is reduced, he added.

Brian Binley, Conservative MP for Northampton South and chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on bingo, who occasionally takes up the dabber pen himself, called the levies on the game "crazy".

"Of all forms of gambling, bingo is the most socially welcomed," he said. "I say that because I go once a year to my own local bingo centre and I see many people, many of them elderly, who find comfort and friendship – a hot meal at a low price in a warm and happy environment. And if that isn't social services, I don't know what is."

The campaign has been boosted by new research which shows most people in Britain (61 per cent) agree with Mr Binley, that bingo provides an important community service by bringing people together. The ComRes poll of more than 2,000 adults also found that, although bingo players are predominately women in their late forties and fifties, support for the game's future is strongest in the 18-24 age group.

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