Gambling Laws: Sensible Reform, Not a Free-for-All

27/07/2012 14:51 BST | Updated 27/07/2012 14:51 BST

Ed Miliband this week declared he did not want to see "lots more casinos" built in Britain.

The Labour leader's comments are not surprising. No-one is proposing there should be lots more casinos - including the House of Commons committee to which he was responding, and certainly not the casino industry.

What the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report did say was that Britain's gambling laws were illogical and chaotic and needed to be simplified and modernised for the Internet age. However, none of the changes it proposed would add to the number of casinos presently allowed in Britain.

Gambling is a legitimate mainstream leisure activity in this country - over 70 per cent of the British public like to gamble and last year there were 19 million visits to casinos.

There are rightly concerns about problem gambling, although the number of problem gamblers is small - about 1 per cent of the total gambling population, according to the committee - they do need to be protected.

So, as the committee recognised, if people are to enjoy gambling surely they should be encouraged to do so in the safest environment?

A report commissioned by the last Labour Government acknowledged casinos as the safest, most heavily regulated place to enjoy gambling - a finding endorsed by MPs this week.

All casino staff are trained annually in responsible gambling and how to identify problem-gamblers. Workers are certified by the Gambling Commission. And casinos have effective door controls and voluntary self-exclusion schemes. The industry also spends millions on research, education and treatment for those whose gambling has become a problem.

It is far safer for people to gamble in these controlled environments than on their mobile phones or on the Internet at home, where none of these safeguards are in place, yet home alone on-line punters have access to a range of games, stake and prizes dwarfing those on offer in casinos.

Against this backdrop the committee has recommended a modest liberalisation of the casino laws - changes that might well encourage more gambling into a controlled environment.

The committee identified that different casinos offer different numbers of machines depending upon whether they were authorised under the 1968 or 2005 Gambling Acts. This arbitrary distinction of casino type makes some casinos much less attractive than others. The committee says the same rules should apply across the board. This would prevent customer confusion and make it clear what to expect from a UK casino.

In this era of localism, they also suggest that the decision as to whether a casino would be of benefit to a local area should be made by local people and local authorities rather than central diktat. At the moment casinos are only allowed in certain areas of the country that Home Office Ministers approved some forty years ago. MPs recommended if a licence is not being used in one of these so-called 'permitted areas', the operator should be able to move it to an area that wants a casino.

These are not the sort of sweeping reforms that caused the media frenzy we saw in 2005 that resulted in Labour ditching its plans for regional super casinos. They are modest changes that would allow organic growth and development of an industry which the Government has recognised as an important contributor to Britain's tourism and leisure industries.

An Economic Impact Assessment for the National Casino Industry Forum (NCiF) recently forecast that they could generate over 4,000-5,000 new jobs and £70-80 million in additional taxes. For individual local communities a casino could be the anchor tenant for a redevelopment of a town centre to create a safe and attractive night-time economy. And as part of a coherent tourism policy, casinos could bring major benefits to some depressed areas.

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee spent almost a year on its inquiry into gambling. It has come up with suggestions that would enable the UK economy to create thousands of jobs, provide a welcome boost to local economies, promote tax revenues and improve customer choice by giving more people the chance to gamble in the safest, most regulated environment.

With this in mind as the recession deepens, Government Ministers and Mr Miliband should welcome this sensible and proportionate report.