|Tony Blair faces fresh criticism of Labour's links to wealthy businessmen after it emerged that two of the government’s most generous donors stand to gain from the liberalisation of gambling laws in Britain.|
One Labour donor, Peter Coates, is the owner of the sixth largest privately owned betting company in Britain – Provincial Racing – and a director of bet365, the internet and telephone betting arm of a chain of bookmakers.
In 1999, he gave the party £100,000 (US$144,130) and he has also made donations via companies that he controls – Lindley Catering Investments in 1998, 2000 and 2001, and Sprintinca in June 1999. Those are thought to have totalled £50,000 ($72,000).
Another Labour donor is Citigrove Leisure plc. The London-based property company donated £2,500 ($3,603) to the party each year since 1995, and £5,000 ($7,207) in both 1999 and 2000.
Citigrove has recently turned its attention to seaside developments and is ideally placed for building the type of casino complexes being made legal. The company was involved in an abandoned attempt to redevelop the King Alfred Leisure Centre in Hove, East Sussex, into a £30m multiplex cinema, with restaurants, a casino and a nightclub.
“These matters were disclosed at the time in the spirit of greater openness,” [an unnamed Labour spokesman] said. “There is absolutely no link between the donations and government decisions.”
He added that the deregulation of Britain’s casinos is being done at the recommendation of an independent report - and to warm applause from the Conservatives.
Though there is no suggestion that either Provincial Racing or Citigrove have been part of the lobbying process leading to last week's announcement, they represent yet more Labour donors profiting through government policy changes. This has led to renewed calls for the system of funding for political parties to be revised.
Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, who has campaigned tirelessly against Labour government 'sleaze', said: 'If the Labour Party is going to attract donations from across the board, then inevitably we are going to see policies emerging that could benefit one person or another. It does make the case for state funding of political parties yet again.
'These questions will continue to arise so long as there is this system of funding. There is a perception that Labour is for sale.
'It goes from Bernie Ecclestone, to the Hindujas and to Mr Mittal. It can look as though, if you give enough money to the Labour Party, you will get something in return, whether it's justified or not.”
'There is nothing Mr Blair can say that will convince anyone otherwise. He's gone too far down the sleaze track to get back up.'
The government plans have been dubbed a gambling 'free-for-all,' opening the door to Las Vegas-style casino entertainment and licensed online gambling on the internet or interactive TV.
'We're going to see the U.K. stealing a march on the rest of the world in this industry, particularly in the area of online gaming and sports betting,' said Tony Wollenberg, senior partner at law firm Steptoe & Johnson Rakison in London, which represents online casino sites.
Gambling bosses could rake in huge profits as a result of liberalisation, and the Government stands to make billions a year in tax.