Gambling Bill 'to open floodgates'

Last updated at 12:39 19 October 2004

The Government has published its controversial Gambling Bill today, which would open the floodgates to a betting explosion across Britain.

The new legislation, if approved by Parliament, will allow unlimited jackpots to be played for in new controversial Las Vegas-style super casinos.

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.

The explosion of new casinos could lead to a rise in addiction to gambling, and the number of teenage addicts is likely to soar if the deregulation plans go ahead.

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.

It emerged last night that town halls are being handed millions of pounds in return for rubber-stamping applications for the Las Vegas-style super casinos.

Critics last night said it seemed wholly inappropriate for local councils to be acting as judge and jury over the planning applications while at the same time effectively demanding a bribe to say yes.

Christmas Day betting allowed

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

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

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.

No turning back

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.

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.