16 April 2004
It's a safe bet that before the government's draft Gambling Bill hits the jackpot, there will have to be a few more spins of the wheel.
The Bill, the first major change to Britain's gambling laws since the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act, came properly under starter's orders last week when a joint committee of MPs and members of the Lords produced a 300-page critique of its provisions so far.
According to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the measure is still due to become law before the next election.
The Bill is aimed at establishing a single regulatory framework for all forms of gambling and, by the by, securing the government's tax revenue.
Its headline proposal is to give the go-ahead to large-scale casinos in Britain. This is of significant interest to some local authorities, notably Blackpool, Yarmouth and Newcastle, which see becoming Britain's Las Vegas as a get-rich-quick path to regeneration.
Some have plans well advanced. Blackpool plots a chain of five huge 'resort' casinos – likely to comprise hotels, restaurant and entertainment complexes – bringing in £437m of new annual income and 30,000 new jobs. 'Resort casinos are a vital part of our plans to create a prosperous long-term future for the town,' says council leader Roy Fisher.
The committee had good news and bad news for those authorities.
The good news is that its members broadly endorsed the Bill, which they believe is 'long overdue'. The bad news is that they want the government to rein in its original proposals. 'We would expect the draft Bill to lead to an increase in the prevalence of problem gambling,' the report says. That is the one consequence the DCMS is already pledged to avoid.
The committee's solution is to impose a limit of 1,250 slot machines for the larger casinos, and ban them in smaller premises. The committee chair, Tory MP John Greenway, stressed: 'We do not believe that it is acceptable that casinos… should be entitled to have as many high-value slot machines as they want. We do not believe that fruit machines should be in fish and chip shops and taxi offices.'
The committee also believes that such mega-resorts should be restricted to areas that can show 'regeneration benefits' – such as improved transport, reclamation of derelict sites and much-needed new jobs.
Alan Cavill, head of economic development and acting head of tourism for Blackpool Borough Council, is undaunted. 'The report says resort casinos can only be built where they will make a regenerative impact, and Blackpool has made that case.'
Yarmouth, another seaside resort with the golden goose in view, was more sanguine. 'There are plusses and minuses – but Yarmouth's problems won't be solved solely by casinos,' said borough council leader Barry Coleman.
According to the DCMS's latest figures – for 2001/02 – there were 122 casinos operating in Britain and players exchanged £3.5bn for gaming chips. The gaming machine industry paid £152.6m in duty. It is easy to see the attraction to the exchequer of tripling or quadrupling those figures.
But that will depend on whether the proposed limitations deter potential investors.
The Bill would establish a new regulator, the Gambling Commission, in the words of the DCMS 'transforming the existing Gaming Board into a new body with wider functions, greater flexibility to act and stronger enforcement powers'. The committee approves, with the caveat that its 'success can only be guaranteed if adequate resources are made available to it'.
It concurs that local authorities should retain their licensing powers – albeit subject to review by the courts. That may not go down well with the casino giants waiting to step in.
The government is not committed to implementing the committee's recommendations, but it has pledged to take them seriously. 'Reform is vital if we are to continue to keep out crime and in order to protect the vulnerable and particularly children,' says Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell.
The committee itself is seeking reappointment to continue its scrutiny as the final shape of the Bill emerges. New clauses were being published by the DCMS even as the report appeared.
The parliamentarians may put up a few more hurdles before the Bill reaches the winning post.