Gambling watchdogs mission to reform - Tuesday 25th of October 2005

One month into the existence of the gambling industrys powerful new watchdog, Peter Dean is reflecting on the public outcry that greeted the biggest overhaul in gambling laws for almost 40 years.

In an interview with the Financial Times, the chairman of the Gambling Commission says that media hostility to plans for Las Vegas-style super-casinos in the run-up to the general election missed the point of the wide-ranging legislative shake-up. Rather than pave the way for an invasion of Las Vegas casino companies, he says the legislation aims to reform out-of-date laws that "creaked" and were "hopelessly inadequate in the era of the microchip and the internet".

The new laws give the commission powers to prosecute illegal gambling. It will police UK-based online gaming companies, bingo and casino operators and bookmakers and will be responsible for ensuring the industry remains crime free. Protecting children and vulnerable people are other aims. The laws will be tougher "as far as protective measures are concerned", Mr Dean says.

"We have been lobbying for these changes for the last 10 years. As a piece of reforming legislation, the new laws are wholly welcome. One hesitates to say that anything is future-proof but [the legislation] has been drafted in such a way to make it as future-proof as possible. It will be flexible enough to cope with emerging technologies."

The former chairman of the Gaming Board, which the Gambling Commission replaces, Mr Dean is an advocate of a more liberalised gambling industry.

"Im inclined towards a libertarian approach in the sense that I believe responsible adults should be allowed to get on with their lives as long as they are not interfering with the rights of others to do likewise.

"The comparison I always make is with liquor. Everyone knows that a proportion of people cant drink alcohol safely and the same is true for gambling. But it is not a serious contention that alcohol should not be freely available because a small minority of people dont drink safely. For the vast majority of people gambling is a leisure pursuit and it is harmless."

The legislative reforms include the abolition of the 24-hour rule, which prevents people from walking into casinos if they are not members. Casino operators will also be given the right to advertise while the "demand test", which prevented casinos opening in certain locations, will be scrapped.

"Theres an element of liberalisation that has been masked by the fuss over the number of casinos," says Mr Dean. "Under the 1968 Gambling Act the so-called demand test meant that every time somebody set up a casino it was up to a local magistrate to ask whether there was unsatisfied demand which needed to be met. That has been swept away."

But accompanying the reforms are new powers and responsibilities for the industrys watchdog. "The Gaming Board had no formal responsibility to protect children or the vulnerable. We do and it is a very important objective. Those licensed by the Gambling Commission will have to accept licensing conditions and observe codes of practice that cater for protective measures."

The regulator will shortly unveil its Birmingham headquarters in line with Sir Michael Lyonss recommendations on locating public sector organisations outside London. The number of employees will also rise significantly. "Theres going to be a massive recruitment exercise and a massive transfer of skills."

Although the commission will be able to issue fines to operators that fail to comply with the new laws, Mr Dean says he would "not like to predict how we might end up using these fines. I would be very surprised if we dont issue any but I would also be surprised to find ourselves in a position similar to the Financial Services Authority, [which issues lots of fines] because I would expect the licensed industry to be compliant".

The watchdog has launched a consultation exercise, sending a "statement of principles" to operators, charities, government bodies and consumer groups. "We welcome and strongly encourage feedback and comments on the issues raised in the document," says Mr Dean. "We will be consulting . . to ensure our approach is proportionate, fair and effective".

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