Commons Moves UK Gambling Bil

25 January 2005

Those in favor of revamping British gambling laws won another small battle Monday with the House of Commons' passing of the Gambling Bill, but the war is far from over.

The bill passed its third reading in the Commons and now moves on to its second reading in the House of Lords. It faces stronger opposition in the Lords and could be defeated if certain concessions aren't made.

The all-encompassing legislation would revolutionize the U.K. gambling industry, both online and offline. Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, the driving force behind the bill during its Parliamentary phase, compromised with MPs on various points to get it through Commons; the biggest hang-up has been the number of "super casinos" allowed to operate in England.

The bill initially allowed the building of 40 "regional" centers throughout the United Kingdom, leading to numerous partnerships between British and North American gambling companies in anticipation of the market opening. The bill was amended, however, to allow local governments to decide for themselves whether to permit mega casinos. Further, the number of mega casino allowed was lowered from 40 to 25, and some MPs argue that it needs to be dropped even lower.

Jowell has agreed to cap the number of facilities at eight during the early stages of implementation.

Conservative culture spokesman John Whittingdale urged Jowell during debate in the Commons prior to the third reading to cut the number to four, but Jowell firmly rejected the motion.

Whittingdale argued that opening new casinos in this manor is an "entirely untried and untested concept," and that extreme caution should be practiced in moving forward with any expansion of gambling.

"The government has gone a long way to meet many of our concerns in committee," Whittingdale said, "but we still believe the bill as it stands is flawed.

Further jeopardizing the bill's passage is the likelihood of an election being called in early May, creating a short window for passage. With time on their side, MPs opposing the bill in the House of Lords could demand more concessions, such as cutting the number of super casinos to four, one or even zero.

The second reading in the House of Lords is scheduled for February 22 and is expected to take at least three weeks, so time will continue to be a major factor.

"Ultimately that means the government needs to do whatever it needs to do to get the bill [through] because otherwise there will be no [regulatory] gambling commission and the field will be left open to Internet crooks," a Labour MP told The Guardian. "If that means dropping casinos, so be it."

Additional points of contention have further complicated the process.

Conservative MPs fear that England could be opening itself up to organized crime and other problems by expanding its gambling industry. Tories, meanwhile, argue that the influx of foreign competition could hurt British gambling operators. And churches are opposing the bill on the grounds that proposed changes in betting shop hours would lead to more problem gambling.