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Kevin Smith

Last-Minute Deal Probably Saved UK Gambling Bil

7 April 2005

An eleventh hour compromise between Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell and members of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords appears to have saved the U.K. Gambling Bill.

Jowell reached an agreement on Tuesday with shadow culture secretary John Whittingdale to cut the number of regional "mega-casinos" allowed in the bill from eight down to one.

The bill originally called for more than 40 mega-casinos, or as many as the market would bear, but that number was dropped last year to 20 during negotiations between Jowell and the Labour Party and then lowered to eight in February.

The bill made it through the House of Commons last year and was referred to the House of Lords in the first quarter of 2005. With Prime Minister Tony Blair calling for a nationwide election to be held May 5, Parliament was under the gun to get bills passed before its dissolution on Monday.

The primary purpose of the Gambling Bill is to strengthen the regulatory framework for gambling in the United Kingdom through the creation of a powerful new Gambling Commission that would be charged with overseeing the betting and gaming industries.

The bill, which will overhaul all segments of England's gambling industries (from traditional casinos and betting shops to remote gambling and lotteries), awaits Royal Assent before becoming law.

Whittingdale said the only chance the bill had of getting through the House of Lords was keeping the number of "super casinos" to one.

"Regional casinos are an entirely new concept for the U.K., and there are real fears about the impact they may have on crime and gambling addiction," Whittingdale said. "We therefore accepted the establishment of just one regional casino as a prototype in order to assess its impact."

The compromise doesn't necessarily preclude the possibility of adding more mega-casinos. Liberal Democrat culture spokesman Don Foster said cutting the number down to one will give policymakers time to evaluate how (if at all) the expansion of gambling affects the rate of problem gambling, and Jowell hinted that the contentious issue could be re-opened if Labour is returned to power after the May 5 election.

"We reserve the right to ask Parliament again what is the right number of regional casinos necessary in order to test their impact," Jowell explained said.

She also stressed the social importance of revamping England's gambling laws.

"Protecting the public--and children in particular--has always been my top priority during the five years of debate about this bill," Jowell said, "so I am delighted we can now set up the Gambling Commission and ensure that Britain has the most robust framework of gambling regulation in the world."

Foster also welcomed the agreement, saying it "crucially allows for the rapid introduction of a tougher regulator whose remit will include Internet gambling."

Whittingdale added that remote gambling issues and procedures regarding the new Gambling Commission were "necessary and un-contentious," parts of the bill.

While most British business interests are happy with this week's events, major U.S. operators have been left on the outside looking in. Companies like Harrah's and MGM Mirage, for example, have been planning for the opportunity to open casinos in England since the mega-casino concept was introduced two years ago, but now those plans have to be scrapped (or at least put on hold for a while).

Jowell said starting with only one mega casino will mean a loss of £600 million of investment and more than 40,000 jobs in communities that could have been home to the super casinos.

Conversely, many companies specializing in online gambling are thrilled to see the bill brought back to life.

"This is an historic development for the online gaming sector," Chartwell Games Corp CEO Lee Richardson said. "The United Kingdom is the first G-7 nation to establish a framework of regulation that provides industry standards aimed at providing a safe, secure and regulated environment for players. . . . We also think that this may provide the necessary impetus for similar regulatory advancements in other jurisdictions, including elsewhere in Europe."

Last-Minute Deal Probably Saved UK Gambling Bil is republished from
Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith