Faith & Reason: Who will pay for the effects of the Gambling Bill?

Government proposals to modernise UK gambling laws will simply move more money from poor to rich

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This weekend sees increased pressure on the Government to reconsider its controversial Gambling Bill. The fear that parts of our city centres will become neon-lit replicas of Las Vegas and draw ever more people into gambling dependency has produced strong responses. The rumpus has spread from reporters and surprised MPs to local authorities, charities, churches and faith groups. Statements from the Archbishop of Canterbury echo the concerns already expressed by the Methodist Church, the Salvation Army and the Catholic Bishop of Cardiff.

This weekend sees increased pressure on the Government to reconsider its controversial Gambling Bill. The fear that parts of our city centres will become neon-lit replicas of Las Vegas and draw ever more people into gambling dependency has produced strong responses. The rumpus has spread from reporters and surprised MPs to local authorities, charities, churches and faith groups. Statements from the Archbishop of Canterbury echo the concerns already expressed by the Methodist Church, the Salvation Army and the Catholic Bishop of Cardiff.

The Government has done its best to persuade us that everything has been carefully considered. The gambling laws need modernisation and we're assured that the Bill will bring in more protective regulation in relation to children and access to gambling machines. The motivation, we're told, is not to increase tax revenue, and the proposed changes are set to bring considerable benefits to employment, local authorities and from investment. But the underlying reality is that, with no demand from the British public, the Bill provides for a vastly expanding market for gambling and an open door for giant American companies like MGM Mirage to set up 24-hour casinos in urban centres in the UK.

For millennia, Judaeo- Christian teaching has shown an antipathy towards gambling, not because it holds a puritanical moralism, but because it has a theology of the person which recognises that people's weaknesses can be exploited and destroy them. The attitudes that feed serious gambling, and the patterns of addiction it builds, can leave vulnerable people facing desperation; can damage their families, their health, even take their lives. It was not only our Victorian Christian ancestors who worked hard to restore families of the poor made destitute through gambling. Many groups today are involved in helping those who struggle with poverty and gambling debts, and they see a very different picture from the facile optimism of the Government. They are not likely either to be reassured by the comment from the Minister for Gambling Regulation, Andrew McIntosh, who says of these groups, "We have an excellent relationship with them, they recognise the improvements we have already made and we will continue to listen to them respectfully."

If the Government is seriously interested in respectful listening, here are some other things they might hear. A long-standing Christian principle is that in a just society, resources should be distributed from rich to poor so that "there should be no poor among you". This was reinforced by Christ's words to a rich young ruler, who was encouraged to let go of the grip of his own wealth, and give it away. In our society, however, money already moves from poor to rich. The poorest fifth of households pay 5 per cent more of their income in taxation than the richest fifth, and the proportion of marketable wealth owned by the most wealthy 10 per cent has climbed from 47 per cent to 56 per cent between 1991 and 2001. Half the population owns a mere 5 per cent. The Gambling Bill will do nothing to reverse this trend. Its effects can only be to make many people poorer, and a few people very nouveau riche. It will effectively tax the poor to give to rich American conglomerates who, unlike those who run the Lottery, are not required to spend billions on good causes. If it is really true that the Treasury will not greatly benefit from taxes, then little of the money, either, will go to fund schools or hospitals, only to fund casino bosses. It is turning on its head the Christian emphasis of distributing resources for the care and protection of the poor.

Another principle involves the purposes of economic life. Much of the economy is taken up with producing goods and services and though the word is devalued, we do aim to see good in what we produce and buy. Yet, as a growing part of our economy, the gambling industry which this Bill expands will produce no goods at all. There is no product, nothing that is useful and beneficial. It is not even true that money is being created; it is merely being taken from other people and moved around. So the "productivity" of gambling is an illusion. The ecstasy of winners will be more than balanced by the horror of big losers and the steady despair of small punters. No "good" is produced other than to the relatively few people who will run these enterprises.

The New Testament offers us the choice of serving God or Mammon. It's a choice the Government may need to reconsider. For in liberalising a pattern of gambling which is likely to exploit the weak, generate more poverty, encourage financial risk, remain unproductive and put pressure on care agencies, its Gambling Bill seems to have already backed the service of Mammon.

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