Abigail Townsend: You can't hit the jackpot if you hedge your bets

Britain is opening casinos with one hand, stopping them with the other

Ever had a flutter on the Grand National? Holidayed in Vegas? Used a pub fruit machine? More to the point, have you done any of them without losing your life savings, ripping your family apart or ending up in the gutter?

I'm guessing most of you would answer yes, but the hysteria surrounding gambling at the moment suggests you should be saying the opposite.

Since Labour promised to overhaul the UK's gambling laws, there has been uproar about how it will affect our moral fibre. Conveniently forgetting we already have one of the most liberal gambling markets in the world, the predictions were ominous and caution was urged.

And so the proposed number of "super", Las Vegas-style casinos was cut from eight to just one. Meaning that once-eager overseas operators, with millions to invest in the UK, got cold feet. And last week, regions up and down the country were bitterly disappointed when only eight made it on to the Casino Advisory Panel's shortlist.

When it was first announced last year that there would be just one super casino, this was billed as a test run - should it go well, more could follow. But it was a stupid argument: one will not give a true picture of the impact on you, me or the wider economy. Whereas more - say four, spread across the UK - would. You would be able to track people's habits, see how areas with the casinos responded, and work out the true value, along with any costs, to the economy.

The other argument was that the super casino, and the other smaller ones also permitted under the Gambling Act, would boost local economies and provide much-needed regeneration. But on that basis, last week's shortlist makes little sense. Two potential sites in London have made it - the same London that has already bagged the Olympics, the biggest regeneration project of them all. But neither Midlands project did.

Problem gambling must be addressed. But with so many people already familiar with betting - in the bookies, online or on holiday - it was surely not too big a leap of faith to assume we would not go crazy just because there were more casinos.

And so the UK is taking the biggest gamble of all - opening the door to casinos with one hand but slamming it shut with the other. And ultimately it's not the punters that run the risk of losing out, but the economy.

Enron won't be the end

Not that dedicated gamblers need casinos - they'll bet on anything. As the Enron trial drew to its close, internet bookies reported a surge in business as punters bet that Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling would be found guilty.

In the end, the jury convicted them on 25 charges; they are now expected to spend the rest of their lives in jail.

And that should be that: no more scandals, no investors left out of pocket or workers out of jobs. What more deterrent do you need? Not only are the lives of Skilling and Lay as they know them over, legislation has been enacted, mainly in the form of the stringent Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

But preventing another Enron can never be so satisfyingly simple. Jail sentences can be handed out and laws tightened, but little can be done about human greed. Because that, ultimately, is what the Enron case boils down to - how already extremely well-paid men couldn't resist squeezing yet more financial benefits out of a company that had nothing left to give.

It's understandable that Sarbanes-Oxley was brought in, and only right that boardrooms are subject to closer scrutiny. But more and more, we hear of companies rejecting the New York markets in favour of ones where the regulation is less exhausting and less costly - such as in the City, for instance, one of the most respected markets in the world. It's a shame, because despite the good intentions, trying to legislate against human nature is ultimately a hiding to nothing.

a.townsend@independent.co.uk

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