South African set to run Supercasino to be quizzed by Labour

Sol Kerzner, the South African billionaire due to run Britain’s first supercasino, is set to be quizzed by MPs as concern grows about Labour’s links with controversial tycoon.

MPs on the influential House of Commons Culture Select Committee want to interrogate Mr Kerzner about the intensive lobbying operation his company launched to persuade Labour to liberalise the gaming laws.

The man behind the Sun City resort in South Africa is in pole position to run the supercasino, with unlimited jackpots, in Manchester.

His company Kerzner International are also keen to run new casinos in Leeds and Luton, which were also awarded licences on Tuesday.

MPs on the Committee are expected to probe the way that the local authorities given the right to open 17 new casinos then select the operators to run them.

Mr Kerzner’s company are part of a consortium that, as long ago as 2004, was awarded the right to run Manchester’s supercasino should the city win the licence.

Technically, the council now have to hold an open competition to award the licence, but Kerzner International are the overwhelming favourites.

Questions remain about Mr Kerzner’s suitability and his close links with Labour. He has been accused of offering bribes to secure casino licences in South Africa – claims he has always denied.

Company officials met three ministers and their officials on 12 different occasions when lobbying for a liberalisation of the gaming laws.

He is a close ally of Philip Anschutz, the Dome owner, who entertained John Prescott at his Arizona ranch. Had the Dome won, Mr Kerzner would also have stood to benefit.

There are also questions over construction company ASK, part of Mr Kerzner’s Manchester casino consortium, who paid GBP 5,000 to the Manchester Central Labour party just weeks before they won the initial . The party and company were cleared of wrongdoing.

But Culture Committee chairman John Whittingdale said that MPs would want to launch a new investigation. „Gambling remains an issue of huge concern and the committee will want to examine the implementation of the new Gambling Act. We are very likely to revist gambling.“

Tory Committee member Nigel Evans said: „It is important that we look at all aspects of the issuing of the supercasino licence – not least because this Government might want to launch another competition in the future. I think it’s important that we pull in all the key players including Mr Kerzner.“

Liberal Democrat Adrian Sanders, whose Torbay constituency has just been awarded a new small casino in Torquay, added: „There is a case for scrutinising the decision. I don’t think we could hold an inquiry into these things without inviting Mr Kerzner and others to give evidence.“

LibDem Culture spokesman Don Foster called for the Select Committee to scrutinise the way the licence is awarded to a casino operator particularly if it is Mr Kerzner.

„He has got a track record which would cause some people to have concerns and that’s the job of the Select Committee.“

It also emerged yesterday that the Casino Advisory Panel, which picked Manchester, will not be disbanded because ministers fear there could be a successful legal challenge from one of the losing bidders.

Both Blackpool Council and Anschutz Entertainment Group which owns the Millennium Dome, have both threatened to launch a High Court appeal for judicial review of the decision.

That would plunge Labour into further turmoil and if the court decided to overturn the decision, the Panel – chaired by Prof Stephen Crow – would have to reconvene to chose an alternative location.

A spokeswoman for the panel said: „The panel will be kept on by the Departure for Culture, Media and Sport in a notional capacity in case they need to call on them.“

There were also warnings yesterday of growing opposition to the selection of Manchester. A growing body of MPs is lobbying for Blackpool.

The recommendation of the Advisory Panel has been accepted by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, but must still be rubber stamped by both Houses of Parliament.

The Government will expect a rebellion from Labour backbenchers but should be able to pass the resolution in the Commons.

But Mr Foster predicted that the vote in the House of Lords is „not a foregone conclusion“.

An alliance of those opposed to any new casinos, those who want the licence to go to Blackpool and those who do not want a supercasino in Blackpool could unite to scupper the proposal.

In a bid to reassure the public that ministers take seriously the threat of problem gambling, Tessa Jowell has called for legislation to be drawn up which would force the gaming industry to pay more for the treatment for addicts.

Casino operators have contributed GBP 300,000 less than pledged to help sufferers.

Those who run casinos and internet betting had agreed to pay GBP 10 for every problem gambler to a group called the Responsibility in Gambling Trust.

On Tuesday Miss Jowell told the Commons that she would legislate unless gaming companies voluntarily meet their pledges.

Whitehall sources say she has now asked for legislation to be drawn up. It will be introduced after March 31 unless gaming bosses find the extra money.