By Alex Stevenson
Bingo-lovers defied police in Westminster today to protest against the decline of bingo halls.
As a heatwave descended on the capital around 200 protestors gathered opposite parliament to show their frustration at the governments' tax changes which they blame for the decline.
In this year's Budget the government removed value-added tax from bingo but increased the gross profits tax from 15 to 22 per cent.
Campaigners argue this has hurt bingo firms as the softest form of gambling declines. Up to 100 bingo clubs could shut as a result, it has been warned.
At Old Palace Yard, at the height of the noon-day sun, the protestors gathered to play a new politicised version of bingo they fear will be all too popular in the future: 'empty house'.
Putting it mildly:
An early day motion on the issue has attracted over 100 signatures, including over 70 from Labour MPs, as the issue gathers pace in the run-up to the next general election.
Several MPs made their way from parliament to lend their support to the demonstration. Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood addressed the crowd, telling them police had demanded they stop using microphones. "They can arrest me if they like," he said, to cheers.
Mr Ellwood told politics.co.uk shortly afterwards: "Let's see more of this. These guys are coming here to be passionate, to say 'please help us'. But also to underline that general situation in bingo is very serious. They're shutting one or two a week."
He paid tribute to bingo halls as being "part of our lives, part of our fabric" and said they should not be allowed to disappear because of financial problems.
"It's just like using a post office, a village hall," he added.
Tobias Ellwood explains why he is so impressed with the bingo demo:
Independent Bob Spink, another MP attending the protest, looked on with pride as the bingo game in Westminster continued.
"Why shouldn't they play a game of bingo? It's a fantastic activity, you can see how much they're enjoying it," he said.
"Bingo is very important, it's part of our community. It helps elderly people to get out, people who are on their own. It's a great activity, there's no problem gambling with it which I'm aware of.
"They want to see their bingo halls saved. They want them secure, they want them strong. This is going to put some bingo halls at risk."
Bob Spink backs bingo:
The government claims it has helped the bingo industry by removing VAT. A Treasury spokesperson said: "Bingo's effective tax rate is now 22 per cent, down from an estimated 24-25 per cent prior to this year's budget, and down from 35 per cent as recently as 2003.
"The government continues to engage with the bingo industry and its overall tax rate is in line with that on casinos, gaming machines and the National Lottery, all of which are taxed within a 20-25 per cent range."
Campaigners are outraged by the comparison with casinos and harder forms of gambling, however.
Bingo in a licensed club is taxed at 22 per cent, but betting shops, exchanges, online casino and poker and football pools are all taxed at 15 per cent.