BIG money casinos could be in Hastings by 2006.

The former Queens Hotel and the Deluxe Leisure Centre both have plans to create casinos if the draft Gambling Bill is passed.

They want to tempt punters in with prizes of up to 1m on slot machines and high stakes on the roulette wheel and blackjack table.

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Peter Stavri, co-owner of the former Queens Hotel, said: "This is good news for Hastings and will bring money and jobs into the town. I don't think this will lead to more addicts because the Bill will get fruit machines out of fish and chip shops where youngsters get their first taste of gambling. Our casino will be strictly for over-18s."

But while the gambling industry backed the Bill, religious leaders and groups claimed casinos lead to more addicts.

The Rev Michael Mills, of St Leonard's and St Ethelburga's churches, said: "These casinos have some of the most addictive machines and gamblers can run up large debts and get into crime.

"I do not think the Bill provides enough protection for the young and vulnerable."

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Major Anthony Cotterill, local leader of the Salvation Army, had similar concerns. He said: "The Salvation Army thinks mega-casinos are a grave mistake and will lead to more people in Hastings becoming addicts."

The Gambling Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on Tuesday by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. Its main features are that casinos are allowed to stay open 24 hours; the relaxation of laws so small towns like Hastings can have casinos; immediate access for the public - no 24-hour joining periods or membership cards; 1m jackpots in big casinos; removal of slot machines from 6,000 unlicensed premises throughout Britain; and betting allowed on Good Friday and Christmas Day.

If passed by Parliament it could become law by spring 2005 and be fully operational in 2006.

Hastings MP Michael Foster said he was worried casinos could lead to more addicts but hoped the council would provide protection for vulnerable people if it gave casino licences.

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A council spokesman said licensing officers are currently working through the draft Bill and preparing briefing guidelines for senior officers.

She said: "If the Bill goes through there will be implications for Hastings, including cutting down on casual gambling, which we would encourage. Any organisations applying to us to become gaming venues have to be licensed by the Gambling Commission and require a premises licence from us."

n What do you think? Write to the Hastings Observer, Woods House, Telford Road, St Leonards, TN38 9LZ, or email [email protected].

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