The full scale of Britain’s gambling revolution can be revealed today after The Observer obtained secret minutes revealing that the equivalent of 10 super-casinos will be built in England and Wales in the next few years.
A week before the announcement of where Britain’s first Las Vegas-style super-casino will be located, a detailed list obtained from the Gambling Commission reveals vast expansion plans which are a contrast with government assurances that the number would be very limited. Opposition parties accused ministers of a ‚con trick‘.
The document was obtained during a joint investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme and this newspaper that will raise fresh questions over the government’s conduct during plans to bring a casino on to the Millennium Dome site in London. It reveals that the special adviser to the parliamentary committee that helped frame the Gambling Act runs a university department partly funded by the casino industry.
Richard Caborn, the minister responsible for gambling, has admitted for the first time that the new gaming laws could lead to a rise in addiction, a confession in stark contrast to statements by his boss, the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell. She told Parliament that, if the new Act ‚gave rise to an increase in problem gambling, it would be bad legislation‘. Caborn was asked in an interview with Dispatches to be broadcast tomorrow whether the new Act could lead to a rise in problem gambling. He replied: ‚Absolutely,‘ adding: ‚If there were increases… we would be able to arrest that.‘
The shadow Culture Secretary, Hugo Swire, said: ‚This is a staggering admission that not only contradicts Tessa Jowell’s promises to Parliament, it also completely undermines the supposed aims of their gambling legislation.‘
Next week a decision will be announced on where Britain’s first super-casino will be sited. There are seven short-listed locations. London’s Millennium Dome and Blackpool are the frontrunners.
The document from the Gambling Commission reveals that in the last two years alone it has approved 90 new casinos. The total amount of new gaming floor space approved since April 2005 totals nearly 600,000 square feet – equal to an extra 10 Las Vegas super-casinos.
The commission is considering applications for a further 57. Industry insiders predict there will soon be more than 200 casinos in Britain, double the number when Tony Blair came to power.
Swire said: ‚It seems astonishing that the government should have allowed such a rise in casino numbers through the back door. It’s appears Parliament has been taken in by a casino con trick.‘
The joint investigation has also raised fresh questions about the role played by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s office and Jowell’s department in attempts to bring a casino into the Dome.
Minutes of a top-level meeting between senior civil servants in September 2003 to discuss the future of the Olympic bid show that getting a ‚high-profit casino‘ there was key to the project’s success, as it ‚underlined all the other facilities‘.
Not only was the casino vital for regeneration in the Greenwich area, but it was important for the Olympics bid. The Dome is to host gymnastic events. At the time of the meeting the government had just sold the Dome to the American entertainment mogul, Phil Anschutz. He struck a deal with Sol Kerzner, the South African entrepreneur, to run a giant casino in the Dome.
But before Kerzner could do so, his company needed a Gaming Board licence.
The documents reveal that a top official from the board – now called the Gambling Commission – was at that September meeting. At the time this was the body deciding whether Kerzner was a ‚fit and proper‘ person to run a small casino in Northampton.
Without a licence for that, Kerzner would not be able to operate a casino at the Dome, and Britain’s Olympics bid would be jeopardised. Kerzner has been dogged by allegations that he paid USD 1m to corrupt African politicians in the Eighties to win gambling concessions. He has admitted paying the money but claimed he was a victim of extortion.
Opposition MPs will be asking in the Commons whether Prescott or Jowell’s officials put the authorities under any undue pressure to speed through the Northampton application to secure the Dome deal and the Olympics.
Lord Oakeshott, Treasury spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: ‚Why was the Gaming Board’s head of certification invited to a meeting at which John Prescott’s officials stressed the importance of a casino at the Dome. It certainly won’t have done Kerzner’s casino application any harm.
‚The government must give reassurance that no attempt was made to exert undue influence on officials at the gaming authorities.‘
Ministers and the commission have released statements emphatically denying this was the case. ‚Any suggestion that the Gaming Board, an independent statutory regulatory body, or an official at the Gaming Board, were „under any undue pressure“ in this case is entirely false,‘ the commission said.
‚In his administrative role as part of the Gaming Board secretariat, it was entirely proper for the official present at the meeting to answer questions on time scales and process. [Kerzner’s Northampton application] was handled in the same way as any other.‘
The adviser, Peter Collins, runs the Centre for the Study of Gambling at the University of Salford, which receives GBP 100,000 a year from casino corporations such as MGM Mirage, Isle of Capri and Kerzner International.
Collins insists his pro-casino views are not dependent on the money. ‚The reason [the firms] fund this [centre] is because they are sympathetic to the views that I hold anyway, independently.‘