John Reid: If adults want to gamble, we should let them

The Tories think we should be treated as children without a moral compass

New Labour believes that the job of government is to provide the framework within which people should shape their own future. We do not believe that people should be left to sink or swim, but recognise that wherever possible the role that government should play is to support not dictate to hard-working families.

But we need to explain better how the various parts of our programme hang together and, specifically, how the role of state intervention, prohibition and regulation fits in with New Labour's general approach of freeing and empowering through an enabling state.

Government intervention is for positive reasons. First, the state is the instrument that delivers resources that underpin opportunity. In health it is only through the extra resources provided to the NHS that a greater degree of information, power and choice - hitherto a monopoly of the rich - can become reality for the many.

Second, in a civilised society, choice and opportunity cannot be absolutes: one person's choice of behaviour can restrict or damage the opportunities, choices, lifestyle or even the life of others. The vehicle for arbitration and enforcement of those responsibilities is again the state, through the democratically elected government. Though prohibitive, the aim and effect of these state actions are the empowerment and the provision of opportunity to the many - a pleasant community from antisocial behaviour orders or a smoke-free environment.

Third, opportunity based on informed choice assumes adulthood. Adults don't want any more government in their lives but they do want a little more government in their children's lives. Thus on gambling, we believe that adults should be free to gamble responsibly, just as those with gambling problems should receive support. But we are also introducingnew protection for children - including the removal of 6,000 fruit machines - at the same time as liberalising gaming for adults. Labour believes adults must be treated as adults and children allowed to be children.

On the other hand, the Tories think rich people are above harming themselves through gambling, while the rest of us are to be treated as children without a moral compass. As always for the Tories, the choices for the few are denied to the many.

Our approach informs the forthcoming White Paper on health improvement. We will make it easier for everyone to choose health by informing and encouraging us as individuals and by helping to shape the commercial and cultural environment we live in. We have to help protect children from the worst pressures of a consumer society.

Support for people to better themselves. Insistence that rights and opportunities are balanced by responsibility to others. Protection for the most vulnerable, especially children. And a role for the state in all three. These do no not contradict but sustain opportunity. And these traditional values endure within the modern approach of New Labour's commitment to an opportunity society.

John Reid is Secretary of State for Health

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