Church fears over new gambling laws
RELIGIOUS groups last night raised "ethical and moral questions" about new legislation which could see a string of casinos opening across East Anglia.Church of England officials spoke of their fears after the Government unveiled its controversial Gambling Bill yesterday, allowing casinos to be set up across Britain.
By Jonathan Barnes
RELIGIOUS groups last night raised "ethical and moral questions" about new legislation which could see a string of casinos opening across East Anglia.
Church of England officials spoke of their fears after the Government unveiled its controversial Gambling Bill yesterday, allowing casinos to be set up across Britain.
The new legislation, if approved by Parliament, will allow unlimited jackpots to be played for in the new largest casinos - known as regional casinos.
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It would inevitably lead to Suffolk's first casino being opened, with a number of bids currently being lined up.
There have been talks about two separate casinos for the regenerated Ipswich waterfront, while the town's football club has been approached by gaming companies about installing a casino at its Portman Road stadium.
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The planning application for the £320million SnOasis winter sports complex in Great Blakenham includes a casino while plans have been put forward for casino facilities in both Newmarket and Mildenhall, pending a change in the law.
In Essex, permission for two casinos in Clacton was given in 2002 by Tendring District Council.
The applications for the Criterion Restaurant in Marine Parade West and the Royal Hotel in Marine Parade East were given the go-ahead for change of use to a casino.
However, both now need a licence under gambling laws which could come into force under the new bill.
Nick Clarke, communications director for the St Edmundsbury and Ipswich Diocese, said: "While the Church is aware of the potential economic and social benefits for Suffolk that the projected liberalisation might offer the county, it is equally concerned about the significant ethical and moral questions raised by the potential change in legislation.
"We will continue to carefully monitor the progress of this Bill."
And Rev Philip Banks, of St Peters parish church in Coggeshall, added: "I find it extraordinary that Government should consider relaxing gambling regulations in this way.
"With personal and credit card debt on the rise such a move will inevitably encourage those least able to afford it to be attracted to gambling and could lead to further social problems of addiction and debt."
A spokesman for the Salvation Army said: "There are only two real winners that will benefit from the liberalisation of gambling laws: the gaming industry through massively increased profits, and the Government through increased taxation.
"The big losers will be the vulnerable people whose lives are ruined by gambling addiction."
Chris Mole, the Labour MP for Ipswich, said reforms of the gambling law were "overdue" and added: "Some people have objections in principle to any gambling but we already have the sort of establishments where people bet on horses or on gaming machines.
"In moderation, I don't have a problem with casinos being developed on a similar basis. But I wouldn't want Ipswich to become a casino nightspot."
But John Whittingdale, the Conservative MP for Maldon and Chelmsford East and Shadow Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, said the legislation failed to safeguard against a possible "proliferation" of regional casinos.
"The Government's proposals open the door to a large number of super-casinos being built in our town and city centres while existing smaller UK operators are prevented from competing on an equal basis.
"There is a real danger that, as it stands, this legislation will increase problem gambling as well as doing damage to the UK gaming industry. We therefore urge the Government to think again."
Under the new legislation, slot machines will be removed from other premises such as fast food shops and minicab offices, where young people and others are thought to be at risk.
The Bill also creates a new Gambling Commission to supervise the business and a licensing regime which takes the responsibility for approving premises away from local licensing justices.
The new commission will also be required to promote "socially responsible gambling" through licence conditions and a new code of practice.
There are specific offences of allowing youngsters to gamble contrary to the revised rules.
The new moves mean casinos will no longer have to be sited in certain "permitted" areas, and will be open to the public rather than operating as 24-hour membership clubs as now.
Besides the supersized "regional" casinos, there will be others designated "large" and "small", where lower prize money can be played for on slot machines.
In other moves, racecourse betting will be allowed on Good Friday and Christmas Day for the first time.
But it is understood that no Christmas Day meetings are planned for this year or next.
Alistair Haggis, PR Manager at Newmarket Racecourses, said: "I would be amazed if we ever had racing on Christmas Day and certainly not in the forseeable future - it is not something Newmarket is considering."
The new legislation is also aimed at regulating remote betting, for example by TV or on the internet, where the operator is based in Great Britain.