Gambling. Don't put money on it

A consultation document was published on 12 November which suggests that the Government is showing considerable interest in gambling ahead of the General Election.

It follows an earlier document in February with regard to deregulation of the casino industry, and appears to be a welcome initiative after almost 30 years of regulatory stagnation in the field.

There was disappointment a few weeks ago, when, following the first round of consultation, draft regulations were announced in relation to only two initiatives. The announcement of a second round, however, suggests that the sceptics should be cashing in their chips.

The February proposals related to six issues: advertising, liquor licences, the 48-hour rule, slot machines, debit cards and permitted areas.

With regard to advertising, currently, the only form of promotion open to casinos is the displaying of a sign on their premises and for staff recruitment. They cannot list in telephone directories or tourist guides. This contrasts with the advertising allowed for other forms of gambling.

Consequently, it was proposed that restrictions on directory and magazine listings should be lifted, and there will now be further consultation on precisely how this change will be implemented.

Casinos cannot sell intoxicating liquor beyond the normal licensing hours, even though gaming can take place until 4.00am. Therefore, it was proposed to allow applications for special hours certificates, which would bring casinos in line with nightclubs – in London this could permit drinking until 3.30am, including drinking-up time. This proposal could become law during the life of this Parliament.

Casinos are clubs and to gamble it is necessary to be a member or a guest. However, a member cannot gamble until

48 hours have elapsed from signing-on in person at the premises. This cooling-off period is designed to guard against impulsive gambling, but, oddly, does not apply to a guest.

Here, too, the regulation of the industry is out of step with other types of gambling, and there has been pressure for this rule to be abolished. The proposals go some way towards this, first, by reducing the cooling-off period to 24 hours, second, by allowing people to apply for membership by post, and, third, by allowing members of a casino which is part of a group to be group members.

The first 48-hour rule proposal should be law by Easter. The others are subject to the second round of consultation.

Currently, a maximum of six slot machines are allowed to be installed in a casino. The proposal in February was to allow between 10 and an upper limit of a multiple of two machines per table, together with a larger maximum pay-out. The proposal was revised in the second document to offer unlimited stakes and pay-out, and a maximum number of three machines per table. This would permit the largest UK casino to install 96 machines.

It is an offence for a licence-holder to provide any form of credit for gaming. Casinos do not, therefore, accept credit cards as payment for chips, for fear that it be considered an extension of credit. However, casino operators do not, on the whole, accept this argument on the basis that credit is not advanced by the casino, but by the card issuer.

Although there is also, arguably, a period of credit inherent in payment by cheque, special legislative provision is made for cheques pending clearance. Debit cards are regarded as similar to cheques and so a proposal was put forward that they should be allowed, provided every transaction is authorised and there are no transaction charges. No draft order on this issue has been presented.

The most far-reaching proposal was to change the permitted areas. Following the 1968 Gaming Act, regulations defined 53 geographical locations in which casinos could legally operate, by reference to the county borough system and population size. Since then, county boroughs have been abolished and there has been a shift in population.

As a result, the Home Office proposed adding a number of new areas, even trying, in the second round of consultation, to persuade two local authorities to reconsider their reluctance to be included on the list.

The six proposals outlined tackle many of the restrictions imposed on UK casinos, but it is by no means certain that all will become law.

In 1978, the Royal Commission on Gambling conducted the most thorough examination of the gambling industry since the early 1960s. It proposed the creation of a National Lottery with tickets to be sold in shops for the benefit of sport, the arts and other deserving causes – but 17 years elapsed before it was implemented.

With regard to casinos, the commission recommended revoking the permitted areas regulations, the removal of the prohibition of listing casinos in directories, and it recommended special hours certificates.

Some 18 years later, casinos are on the verge of seeing just one of these recommendations implemented.

Given the Government's current zeal for deregulation, it ought not to be another 18 years before we witness the implementation of the second.