It is not the state's role to prevent adults from spending their money on gambling

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The Independent Online

Tessa Jowell was being disingenuous yesterday when she asserted that the Government's plans to liberalise the UK's gambling laws are about "new protections, not new casinos". The objective of the Government's Gambling Bill is quite clearly to allow "new casinos" to be built. Indeed, some American entertainment companies are already sizing up tracts of land in the UK on which to build their vast gambling complexes. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was merely attempting to appease the increasingly vociferous opponents of this Bill.

Tessa Jowell was being disingenuous yesterday when she asserted that the Government's plans to liberalise the UK's gambling laws are about "new protections, not new casinos". The objective of the Government's Gambling Bill is quite clearly to allow "new casinos" to be built. Indeed, some American entertainment companies are already sizing up tracts of land in the UK on which to build their vast gambling complexes. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was merely attempting to appease the increasingly vociferous opponents of this Bill.

Ms Jowell should stand up for this piece of legislation more robustly. Britain's gambling laws are archaic and need to be brought up to date. At the moment, casinos are forced to register themselves as private clubs and, if a member of the public wants to visit, he or she must first become a member. Since the 1960s, adults have been able to walk into high-street bookmakers to place a bet. There is no reason why it should not be equally simple to gamble in a casino. The planning restrictions on where casinos can be built are also needlessly tight and the Government is right to ease them.

A number of benefits will result from this. New casino complexes, which include hotels, restaurants and theatres, will create jobs. They could re-invigorate run-down areas. The Government will also accrue more tax revenue than it presently gets from gambling. But the most important benefit is that the public will be able to exercise its free will when it comes to gambling. Rather than being impeded by petty government restrictions, people will be able to play roulette, blackjack or feed slot machines when they want to.

This is not to endorse gambling. The only group guaranteed to come away richer in that game is the betting industry. But we believe people have a right to spend their money on what they like, providing it does not harm others. And many people find gambling exciting, despite the odds being stacked against them. There is no reason they should not be able to enjoy their hobby in comfortable surroundings and without the stigma long attached to it.

Nor would we seek to deny that there are "problem" gamblers, who will be given a chance to make their lives even more miserable by this Bill. But restricting the majority's pleasure out of fear that a small minority will harm itself cannot be justified. And this particular objection to liberalisation does not add up. It is by no means proven that creating more casinos will necessarily result in a rise in the number of out-of-control gamblers. Evidence shows that the internet has provided problem gamblers with so many opportunities to bet that the provisions of this Bill will make little practical difference to their lives.

Of course, there must be some controls. Enforcing age restrictions on the use of slot machines and internet gambling sites is welcome, although it seems unreasonable to deny takeaways and mini-cab offices the revenues from fruit machines on these grounds, while ensuring that the coffers of multinational gaming companies are swollen. Surely a Gambling Commission could enforce age restrictions in these establishments as well as in new super-casinos? Allowing local authorities to prevent casinos being built if residents object is also sensible. If people are genuinely scandalised by the thought of a casino opening down the road they should be given an opportunity to do something about it. The market will ensure that only a limited number of casinos will survive in any case.

The Government is right to uproot these unnecessary restrictions on the gambling industry. It is not the job of the state to dictate what people should spend their money on, no matter how unpalatable certain habits may be to some. The opponents of this Bill argue that the result will be social disintegration. But similar prophesies were heard at the time of the last great liberalisation of the gambling laws in the 1960s when betting shops were legalised. We seem to have adapted to that transition without becoming a nation of irresponsible gamblers. The same will be true this time too.

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