Welcome to the News desk.
|Jowell offers rebels casino compromise
| The odds are
against the Culture Secretary, with more parliamentary rejection and a
challenge to her casino plans on the cards, writes Nick Mathiason
Like an addicted gambler
insisting that the next bet will hit the jackpot, Tessa Jowell is this weekend
battling to save her controversial casino legislation - and her
Though most saw it coming, the Culture Secretary lost her shirt
when the House of Lords last week rejected her proposals for 17 new casinos.
The development is a huge blow to Manchester's hopes of hosting the country's
first Las Vegas-style casino but gives hopes to Blackpool that it may yet
But if Jowell thinks it cannot get any worse, she may well be
wrong. Somehow, over the next two months, she has to rebuild her casino
proposals. But there is a more pressing issue.
Within days, the
beleagured Culture Secretary may face fresh humiliation. This week a High Court
judge will decide whether a legal challenge by the British casino industry will
be allowed to proceed. Most believe it will, despite government opposition.
Manchester casino site?
Though the UK casino industry has moved swiftly to exploit a loophole
allowing it to build dozens of new gambling dens and boosting revenue in the
process, it is nevertheless furious that under Jowell's legislation, existing
casinos are not allowed to match the number of slot machines and games tables
available to those under new-style licences. This situation, they argue, is
tantamount to unfair competition
A judicial review on behalf of
industry giants, such as Gala Coral, London Clubs and Rank, would be heard in
July - around the time that Gordon Brown is likely to made Prime Minister. This
is just the sort of embarassing distraction that the current Chancellor would
be keen to avoid as he maps out a new agenda for the country.
get worse for Labour if the legal challenge is successful. The nightmare
scenario could leave the UK industry free to increase the number of slot
machines on a par with the new-style casinos. This would create a political
storm with mounting concern over the growing number of addictive slot machines,
just as casinos are free to advertise.
It is this scenario that many
believe will persuade Brown to abandon the entire casino package. Brown laid
his cards on the table in his Budget when he dramatically raised the amount of
tax that casinos now have to pay. The move, said to have been sprung on Jowell
at the last minute, sent shares in the UK's only casino firm, Rank Group,
'We're in completely uncharted territory,' said one senior
gambling insider. 'Predicting the outcome is difficult.'
believe Jowell will now bow to parliamentary pressure and have separate votes
on the supercasino and 16 new licences. 'It is hard to say what they will do,
but Brown won't want this as background mood music,' said the well-connected
The City is not impressed. For the past 10 years,
gaming shares have risen on the promise of future growth from increased casino
numbers and surging internet gambling revenues. Though many executives have
trousered windfall bonuses, as private equity or foreign operators have
consolidated the sector, shares have fallen sharply in recent months.
'Huge growth in the sector has not materialised,' admitted a City
analyst. 'Britain was seen as an attractive territory. But things haven't gone
to plan and the US internet gambling clampdown has hurt investors.'
Jowell's defeat last week is the latest twist in the tortuous process
of her attempt to modernise 40-year-old gambling laws. In the eight years since
the government embarked on this liberalisation, it has spent millions of pounds
on consultations, parliamentary time and on establishing a new industry
Almost every decision taken by Jowell since taking charge of
gambling policy from Chris Smith has backfired. But many within the industry
insist the new reform has not been a waste of time. They say casinos are being
modernised as they attempt to become mainstream leisure attractions.
The government signalled first that 40, and then that 24, was an
appropriate number as a furious backbench revolt was egged on by newspapers. As
its legislation limps on, there are only two real winners: the Conservative
party and the bookmaking industry.
As parliamentary time was running
out before the last election, it was the Conservatives who insisted they would
kill the gambling bill unless the number of supercasinos was reduced from eight
Labour was in the embarrassing position of relying on Tory
support to keep its bill alive because dozens of Labour backbenchers were up in
the arms about increasing the number of gambling venues. Since 2005, the Tories
have resolutely refused to budge from their cautious stance, which they believe
gives them the moral high ground.
Another winner is the bookmaking
industry. Rising casino numbers have obsessed MPs, campaigners and the media.
But a key tenet of new legislation - the lifting of demand restrictions on
betting shops - has passed by almost unnoticed.
Under the previous act,
bookies had to prove there was a demand for new shops. Although in reality new
shops are rarely challenged, there is now little to stop bookies opening up as
many shops as they believe the market can take.
After last week's vote,
many industry figures argued that the government could have saved some face by
having separate votes on the single supercasino and the 16 smaller licences.
Many assumed the measure was drafted in this way so that MPs, about to get
smaller casinos, would not vote aganst the government.
representing a major European casino operator believe that, under EU freedom of
enterprise law, allowing just one supercasino would lay the government open to
a series of legal challenges so it had to lump all the casinos together.
It seems that, no matter which way Jowell turns, there is no winning
formula for changing the gaming laws.