Gambling reform hangs in balance - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

Culture department officials were yesterday locked in talks with representatives from the casino industry in an attempt to salvage the government's controversial gambling bill.

The fate of the legislation will be decided next week, with the government needing unanimous cross-party support to get the bill to pass into law.

Ministers hope that agreement with the casino industry about the content of legislation will make it easier to reach parliamentary consensus.

But with government and industry poles apart on the legislation it was unclear last night whether a deal could be reached.

John Whittingdale, the shadow culture minister, said agreement between the government and the British Casino Association would "remove an obstacle".

However, he added that a compromise between the BCA and the government would not guarantee that the Conservatives would support the bill in parliament next week.

"It removes an obstacle but it's not the only obstacle," he said.

"At the moment we still have considerable concerns about the bill and for it to stand a chance of going through we would like to see [other] changes. But in principle we have always made clear that we support the need for reform of gambling legislation."

Relations between the government and the casino industry hit a low at the end of 2004 when the government scaled back the legislation and said it would not allow operators to install more slot machines.

The BCA wants the government to revert to the bill's original form, which allowed existing casinos to increase the number of slot machines they had.

Under existing laws casinos can install up to 10 so-called "category B" machines, which offer prizes of up to ??2,000. The BCA said recently that preventing operators from installing more slot machines would stop them competing with new operators preparing to enter the country.

If the bill becomes law, 24 new casinos will be developed and, unlike existing British casinos, these properties will be able to install large numbers of slot machines. Indeed, eight of the 24 new casinos will get "regional" status and be allowed to install so-called category A machines, which offer ??1m jackpots.

The BCA is calling for 80 additional category B slot machines to be allowed in each property in order to redress the balance with the new casinos.

It is unclear whether the government will budge although ultimately the success of the bill will depend on Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, who is aware that the proposed legislation will fall apart if his party opposes it.

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