Don't bet your life on gambling

'It's a nasty contradiction; expanding gambling to feed an economy with an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor'
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The Independent Online

Tessa Jowell, as the coiffed and coat-dressed minister for women, came across as chief nanny of the Blairite state. It's quite a sight, then, to see her now, as minister for culture, slashing away at the gaming laws that have served for decades in protecting us from ourselves (and from organised crime's 1960s stranglehold on casinos).

It's quite something, too, to note that this touchpaper, set to detonate an explosion of gaming activity in Britain, is supported by such figures as the Bishop of Blackburn. His line, spun after a fact-finding trip to the US, is that while gaming is evil, social deprivation is worse.

The Bishop's support has been sought because Blackpool is part of his diocese, and Blackpool is the town most eager to embrace the business opportunities that deregulation will stimulate. Blackpool, by opening huge seafront casinos, has high hopes of becoming England's Las Vegas.

This will be in marked contrast to its present woeful state, as England's sorry answer to yesteryear's question: what will happen to traditional British holiday destinations when everyone is going abroad? (Answer: They will become depressing, anachronistic wastes of perfectly decent beach.)

Now, all being well, Blackpool will be able to start attracting the holidaymakers it has been losing for many years, and the money they've been frittering away elsewhere. Seldom does one see social and economic liberalism working together in quite such perfect harmony.

Now, or at least very soon, the British gambling public will be able to have a good time, untrammelled by the absurd rules that have governed gaming since the Sixties.

It's about time, too. Gambling has an unnecessarily seedy reputation in this country, precisely due to the strict rules it operates under. Slot machines are little seen outside vile arcades where there is nothing else to do but stand pumping money into them, precisely in order to make them seen as unattractive as possible.

Casinos are experienced only by a minority because they are pretty much defined as places accessible only to the deliberate gambler. An impulse night out giving them a try is forbidden. You have to be a member, and have to undergo a 24-hour cooling-off period before you hit the tables.

Even bingo is kept under such strict controls that only those with a very limited social life can truly view it as a big night out. Now there will be the opportunity for grown-up Brits to sample a bit of gambling as part of a wider social existence. At the moment it's too severely ring-fenced to be of interest to anyone but the committed.

With a nod to the less happy consequences of a generous expansion of the nation's vehicles for having a flutter, the companies will have to stump up some cash for spending on research into gambling addiction. They will also have to answer to a gambling commission set up to make sure that everyone behaves themselves. But these latter moves, while perfectly sensible, also speak volumes about the present Labour Party's discomfort with itself.

Just as it is difficult to imagine that mega-casinos are the places Ms Jowell has in mind when she thinks of "culture", so it is hard to imagine Tony Blair announcing to his family: "Let's skip Tuscany this year. In Blackpool now, you can drink and watch the cabaret while you blow all your money on slot machines."

The occasional trip to an urban casino is one thing. But the coming revolution at the seaside will be of personal relevance to few people in Parliament. For them, like me, and like middle-England, rows and rows of slot machines, all promising massive jackpots, all being fed and fed and fed with hard-earned cash transmogrified into easily-purchased tokens, is surely the setting for a holiday nightmare.

Maybe, it is good that this administration is not letting its own snobberies get in the way of offering free choice to people as to how they wish to spend their money. Maybe, on the other hand, it is bad that this administration will exploit activities they do not approve of in order to stimulate an ever-expanding economy (much like the Bishop of Blackburn). Or maybe there's a third way in all of this – in other words, a fudge.

Britain got into a big enough moral fankle trying to sort out how it felt about the introduction of the National Lottery. The winning defence of that waning national obsession was that money filleted from the less well-off went to "good causes", such as the kind of culture the Government feels more comfortable with.

But what does this new money filleted from the less well-off go towards? Creating safer bets for the gambling rich we know as shareholders. And tax revenue of course, some of it. The economy itself has become a "good cause", one that needs constant stimulation if its uneven largesse is to continue to be enjoyed.

And that largesse will indeed be uneven. Even with the strictures placed on it now, there are estimated to be around 400,000 gambling addicts. It is expected that this figure will rise with the liberalisation to come. There is a nasty contradiction inherent in expanding gambling to feed an economy that is already delivering an ever greater gap between rich and poor.

For very many people, gambling is a bit of fun to indulge in for thrills and socialising. But for the most vulnerable, it is a sure route to a ruined life. How much responsibility the gaming companies will be expected to shoulder for the rise in gambling-related debt and deprivation is not yet clear.

They may be obliged to fund research. But, actually, we know quite a lot about gambling addiction already. All the research suggests that it is the brief, low-stake, quickly repeated gambles – such as scratchcards or slot machines – that turn most quickly into a habit. Will the revenue gained from gambling be used to throw such unfortunates a lifeline? Or will they simply be the losers in an activity that – ostensibly at least – caters to those who know when to stop?

If the latter is the case, then the deregulation of gambling – and the attitudes to addictive illness that are implied by it – surely has a bearing on the way we look at similar illnesses, such as alcoholism and drug addiction. The resources offered for help and rehabilitation of these blights are far from adequate. It can therefore be taken as read that a rise in addictive behaviour around gambling will not be met with adequate safeguards for those who fall foul of the new order.

Is this something that should concern us? Certainly it concerns the Government to some extent, which is why there is this idea of a levy on the gaming companies in place. Is this lip-service, though, to combat the cries of critics? Or a genuine undertaking to look out for liberalisation's losers?

If it is, then why is it in the gift of the gaming companies? They, surely, are banking on some people failing to maintain control. Can they really be the ones best placed to help their favourite customers overcome their desire to hand over their money? Or are we still not facing the fact that with freedom comes responsibility, and that in a social democracy, the state has to take responsibility for those who have proven themselves unable to be responsible for themselves.