Government must act on gaming law

The 1968 Gaming Act is in urgent need of reform to create a level playing field for all forms of gambling. A thorough review reached with public debate, rather than piecemeal change, is the way forward.

Everybody knows it, but no one seems prepared to do anything about it. The nation’s maze of gaming laws are in an administrative mess, and need to be consolidated in a single new Gaming Act.

But the Government seems to have neither the time nor the inclination to consolidate this labyrinth of archaic laws.

Compare this with the newly-elected Government’s high-speed review of the National Lottery. Barely was Secretary of Fun (now known as Culture, Media & Sports) Chris Smith installed at the Department of National Heritage than he announced, spurred on by Marketing Week’s revelations about fat-cat pay packets for the directors of operator Camelot (MW May 29), a complete review of the workings of the Lottery. His initial thoughts were outlined in the White Paper published last Monday.

Casino, bingo and betting shop operators want gaming law reform, but they do not want to wait for a top-to-bottom review, complete with consultation papers and Parliamentary timetables.

It could take five years to bring a new Gaming Bill to the statute books, but the operators want immediate relief for their woes – the competitive threat from the National Lottery combined with declining attendances. This is why they back the piecemeal approach to reform started by the previous Government.

It has granted some important concessions. It allowed betting shops to uncover their windows, offer catering and provide fruit machines. It permitted casinos to accept debit cards, to open clubs in a further 20 areas and install fruit machines. It allowed bingo clubs to advertise.

New Home Office minister George Howarth, the MP for Knowsley North, last week looked likely to continue this process of piecemeal reform, and has started talks with the industry to see what else can be done.

The industry’s wish-list of freedoms gets ever longer. Betting shops want to be able to accept bets on National Lottery numbers, though it seems unlikely the Government will permit this, as it could detract from National Lottery takings so important to Labour’s new 1bn deal to channel Lottery cash into health and education schemes.

Money gambled in casinos, on bingo and lotteries has risen from 2.8bn in 1992 to 1993, to 3.7bn in 1996 to 1997. The number of gaming machines fell from 271,000 to 260,000 in the same period. Casinos want to increase the number of fruit machines to three per table. They also want to be able to link up their fruit machines to enable them to offer prizes running into thousands of pounds. Bingo meanwhile, wants linked jackpots higher than the current 100,000 limit.

If they gain these concessions, they will no doubt go back for more. Eventually they could try to turn the UK into Las Vegas, with opportunities for gambling on every street corner. The total amount of money spent on gambling in the UK has risen considerably since the Lottery was launched. Already the prospect of Keno, an online bingo game that is to be played in pubs, has raised concerns that it is addictive.

Any major dilution of the tough Gaming Act introduced in 1968 could mean an escalation in UK gambling, a process that began with the launch of the National Lottery in 1994. One industry source says: “Britain is a nation of gamblers, it’s just that we have forgotten how to do it.” Maybe there is nothing wrong with this. But without a thorough review of the legislation, there will be no chance of a proper public debate on the issue.

Until the 1968 Act, many nightclubs operated casinos. This allowed all sorts of colourful characters to set up makeshift casinos in London’s Soho district, and raised fears of Mafia infiltration. But in its attempt to prevent a Mafia stranglehold the Act also introduced many petty restrictions on “respectable” operators of bingo halls, betting shops, lotteries and casinos.

No one in the industry suggests dropping the stringent licensing of gaming operators and casinos, and all support the work of the Gaming Board in carrying out its regulatory role.

But piecemeal reform of the industry means missing out on a chance to discuss the social and economic impact of making gambling easier. How will it affect the leisure industry, and what will it do to sales of National Lottery tickets? How far should the industry be allowed to advertise? Are brand-building campaigns expounding the joys of spending a night at the casino really desirable? Why not, if it can be done for bingo and the National Lottery? These are undoubtedly important questions that need discussing. But the chance for such a discussion could be drifting further away. The Home Office will only say: “We will consider whether such a review is necessary.”

Paul Olive, finance director of Stanley Leisure, says: “Deregulation matters are capable of being taken in isolation. When this is completed, we can look at them in total and set up a Gaming Commission to review gaming matters. I hope deregulation can be completed within the next 18 months to two years.

“You have got to be careful not to deregulate gaming too much.”

The last Government’s decision to back one form of gambling as a fun, harmless and socially useful activity through the 1993 National Lottery Act has left the 1968 Act looking increasingly out of date.

The Lottery altered the playing field for the whole gaming industry. Last week’s Gaming Board annual report thunders: “The National Lottery has challenged the conceptual basis on which gambling and lotteries are regulated … and disturbed the competitive balance between the industries.”

The Gaming Board calls for a comprehensive approach to legislation and for consistent standards across the industry, including the minimum age for participation. At present, you can be old enough to play the National Lottery, but too young to bet on a race at Goodwood. The prospect of devolution raises the question of where responsibility for regulation should lie in Scotland and Wales.

Any review would also have implications for the Gaming Board,which was created by the 1968 legislation. Privately it admits that it is no longer sufficiently resourced to meet all the demands made upon it to regulate an increasingly complex gaming environment. It does not regulate the National Lottery.

The need for a review of gaming law was highlighted by the House of Commons Deregulation Select Committee last year. It found the laws complex and cumbersome and asked the Law Commission to investigate a review. The Commission, a group of judges who look at ways of reforming various laws, declined the Committee’s invitation, claiming they were already booked up until the end of 1998.

It looks likely that the industry will get some of the reforms it wants in the short term, and may be able to extend these at a later date. Adding deregulation notices onto existing legislation makes the rules more complex for administrators. If the country is to have the opportunity to discuss whether it wants the UK to become Europe’s gambling capital, the only way it can be done is through a complete review of gaming law and the public debate this should encourage.

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