Peter Corrigan: Viva Las Vegas? No, home is the better bet

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The Independent Online

Far from being chastened by the heavy losses of face and deportment she sustained when presenting her Gambling Bill to the House of Commons last week, Tessa Jowell is even now ensconced with men in eyeshades, shaving the edges of playing cards in readiness for her next attempt to part the nation from its hard-earned money.

It would not be the first time this Government have turned to card-sharping in order to get their way, but it would be most ironic if the Minister of Culture, under whose roof sport somehow resides, should display in this unpopular cause the qualities we have been desperate for her to apply on sport's behalf.

The verve and vision with which she has embraced the prospect of mega-casinos mushrooming all over the country is in sharp contrast with her casual, half-hearted treatment of our sporting interests; apart, that is, from the London Olympic bid, which is a different matter altogether. For all we know, blackjack is to be included in the 2012 Games if our bid wins. Meanwhile, she appears to be far more interested in providing roulette wheels for us than she ever was in providing swimming pools and sports facilities; far more interested in emptying the nation's pockets than decreasing its waistline.

Her crusade would be easier to accept if it was of recent origin, but she first paraded her gambling ambition almost three years ago. The fact that it was roundly condemned at that time obviously had no influence on her. Since then we have had a wealth of reminders that the sporting fabric of the country is becoming more threadbare by the month.

Obesity, particularly among children, is acknowledged as a major problem but, apart from the usual empty promises of action, no action is visible. Flaccid minds in flabby bodies is, obviously, her recipe for a happy nation, and we are left to try to equate her apparent disinterest in our health and fitness with her evangelical zeal to provide more attractive opportunities for us to stay up all night gambling.

As daft and dizzy as she looked when Parliament forced her to backtrack on the number of mega-casinos she had planned, there has been little sign of lasting remorse for her failure to be aware of the national disquiet about her priorities.

Indeed, within a couple of days the committee set up to scrutinise the Gambling Bill was packed with its supporters. None of the many Labour back- benchers who oppose the Bill has been asked to serve, and it is no more than a careful selection from the minority of MPs who, for one reason or another, are keen to see the Bill succeed.

Among them is Richard Caborn, the Minister for Sport. You would be forgiven for assuming that Caborn's main missions in life should be to urge us into physical, health-promoting exertion, to fill our lungs with fresh air and to be too busy trying to solve our myriad sporting problems than to fart around with activities that could only put pallor into our cheeks.

But, like most of his predecessors, our Minister of Sport has little power to exercise any control over his brief. Likewise, you wonder if Jowell is following her own obsession or that of someone more powerful, such as the occupants of either 10 or 11 Downing Street - or both.

This weekend marks the 10th anniv-ersary of the National Lottery, and a great success it has been, particularly for the Treasury, who have been milking it for all its worth and even now are still sitting on billions of the proceeds.

Further billions await them if the full force of Jowell's gambling bonanza is allowed to proceed. For this to be possible, apparently, we need to import know-how and investment from Las Vegas operations whose profit-potential can be gauged from the £100m they have spent lobbying the Government for permission to start constructing their dream palaces. We can accept that our gambling laws need a little updating, but in Jowell's bill that is merely the two-toned shoe in the door which, once opened, will bring an unwanted flood of fleecers.

Not all the opponents of Jowell's plans belong to the Band of Hope or those people she accused of having a whiff of snobbery about them. I freely admit to being a regular and moderate gambler, and to being a member of a casino. This is nothing to be proud of, but at least it gives me anidea of the existing situation, and there is absolutely no shortage of oppor-tunities for any class of person to gamble in very comfortable surroundings.

If there is need for reform it is in allowing councils and sports clubs to develop social and gambling facilities that would produce profits to benefit the community. It has been happening in Australia for years and it amazing we haven't taken advantage before. The Lottery proceeds have proved how much help to our cultural and sporting fabric can be gained by harnessing our love of a flutter.

But, even to losers, it is satisfying to know that the money is going to a good cause. No offence to Mr Joe Bananas of Las Vegas, but what possible reason could there be for giving him the benefit from any new gambling laws we introduce?

There is only one way to ensure that any spread of gambling is properly controlled, and that is through responsible agencies who operate on behalf of their community. It is a great shame that the past three years have not been spent fashioning such a sensible approach. Until this bill is taken back to the drawing board, an unpleasant aroma will linger.