LONDON (Reuters) - The government announced plans to relax limits on the number of slot machines allowed in bingo clubs on Wednesday in a move it hopes will reverse the increasing trend of closures within the industry.
Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe, whose responsibilities include gaming, has proposed the maximum number of 500 pound jackpot slot machines allowed in bingo clubs be raised to eight from four previously.
New gambling laws introduced last year hit the industry hard by forcing the removal of the highly profitable machines, just as a smoking ban and economic downturn were sparking a sharp decline in attendances.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Sutcliffe said the move is a one-off measure designed to help the industry following the closure of 15 percent of the country’s bingo halls over the past four years.
“Bingo clubs play a crucial role in many communities and we want to see that continue. For some people, especially older and retired women, bingo is their main leisure pursuit. It is therefore of great concern that nearly 100 bingo clubs have closed in the last four years,” Sutcliffe said.
The Minister said he is confident that allowing a small increase in bingo clubs would “provide much needed help to struggling clubs without putting public protection at risk”. He hopes to implement the plans by the end of 2008.
The decision was welcomed by Bingo Association Chief Executive Paul Tallboys, who said the industry, which employs more than 17,000 people, will “breathe a huge sigh of relief”, adding that the move “keeps bingo viable in all parts of the country”.
“We believe today’s announcement will go some way to addressing the adverse position bingo operates under and will help ensure that bingo remains part of the social and leisure landscape in the UK,” he said.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is launching a consultation on the plans. If put forward, they will have to be approved by parliament before becoming law.
Bingo operators have also been unsuccessful in lobbying the government to scrap so-called “double taxation”, whereby the industry pays both value added tax of 17.5 percent and a gaming duty of 15 percent.
Shares in Mecca bingo operator Rank, which more than halved since the new legislation was introduced, were unchanged at 83 pence at 2:10 p.m.
Rank and privately-owned Gala Coral between them operate 270 of the country’s 600 bingo clubs which cater for around 8.5 million players each year.
Asian gambling giants Guoco and Genting have recently built up respective stakes of 14 and 11 percent in Rank, leading to market speculation that they may be considering an offer for the group, which also owns Grosvenor Casinos and the Blue Square online sports betting business.
Sutcliffe also announced that a planned review of stakes and prizes for low stake gaming machines, typically found in pubs, has been brought forward by a year. However, a proposal from that the number of high-stakes machines allowed in adult gaming centres, typically found in high streets, from four was rejected, he said.
Editing by Paul Bolding/Ian Jones