Has Britain gone crazy for gambling? You can bet on it

Ian Burrell,Media,Culture Correspondent
Tuesday 09 September 2003 00:00

When William Hill spent his teenage years riding his bike from pub to pub in Birmingham taking bets from drinkers he could have had no idea it would turn out like this.

When William Hill spent his teenage years riding his bike from pub to pub in Birmingham taking bets from drinkers he could have had no idea it would turn out like this.

Yesterday the bookmaking giant that carries his name announced it had made £101.9m in six months after turning over £2.7bn, up 72 per cent, on the previous half-year.

Not only would the young Hill have been unable to recognise a firm with 1,600 outlets taking bets on 38,000 sporting events last year - the man, who died in 1971, would have been mystified too.

For in the space of a generation, Britain has undergone a betting revolution that is fast establishing it as the gambling capital of the world.

It is a country that has invented the concept of the betting exchange, where 12,000 bets are laid or placed every minute by phone or internet.

The National Lottery yesterday launched its first daily game for those unable to wait for the midweek and weekend draws, or content themselves with a flutter on a scratchcard.

Bingo has undergone a revival, aided by big prizes and Government legislation expected to go before Parliament next year, which will allow struggling seaside resorts to turn themselves into Las Vegas-style gambling meccas.

Britain has also given the world the idea of spread betting, where punters bet on outcomes, such as a Test match first innings total. Punters bet on whether the score will be higher or lower than the spread predicted by the bookie.

Yesterday David Harding, the chief executive of William Hill, said: "Are we bet-crazy? I think we probably are. It's a national pastime in the UK and there is now not just horse racing but Big Brother and football. Disposable income is going up faster than inflation, and people are not saving as much, so there is more to be spent."

A key factor in William Hill's success has been the recent availability of fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), a modern-day equivalent of the fruit machine that allow punters to gamble £20 a throw on games such as roulette.

The terminals also entice customers to bet on computer-generated greyhound and horse races, to keep them betting when the action is over on the real courses.

FOBTs - which are causing concern to government officials and the Gaming Board because of their lack of regulation - account for 26 per cent of William Hill's gross income.

Horse racing, which until three years ago made up 60 per cent of turnover, now makes up only 41 per cent.

Britain's disposable income has risen from £9,722 per head in 1998 to £10,897 last year, and the public is spending more and more of it on gambling.

Total stakes have increased from £24.8bn in 1998 to £31.9bn in 2002. Average bets increased from £6.50 to £8.50 in the past 12 months.

According to Mintel, the market research company, gambling is the fastest-growing leisure activity in Britain.

Professor Leighton Vaughan Williams, the director of the Betting Research Unit at Nottingham Trent university, said the arrival of the National Lottery in 1995 changed Britain's relationship with gambling.

Before the lottery era, the owners of betting shops had to make their premises as inhospitable as possible.

"You couldn't have carpets. Windows had to be opaque, so that you couldn't see in from outside. You couldn't provide refreshments," said Professor Vaughan Williams. "The idea was to keep people uncomfortable so that you didn't stay too long."

The arrival of the lottery, and the availability of scratchcards at every newsagent and supermarket led to 72 per cent of the population partaking in some form of gambling.

The stigmatisation of bookmakers appeared anachronistic and led to the removal of betting tax in October 2001.

The changes were introduced as tax-free internet betting threatened to bring an end to the traditional bookmaker, who charged 9 per cent in tax.

Professor Vaughan Williams said: "Why would sophisticated betters ... go into a betting shop when they could just go on the internet?"

In return for the big British bookmakers not disappearing offshore, the Government agreed to charge them only on gross profits instead of on turnover which, in effect, halved taxes.

Since the tax arrangements were restructured the turnover of British bookmakers has increased from £8bn a year to £15bn.

The charity Gamblers Anonymous is wary of the Government's new relationship with the betting industry.

A spokesman said: "They are losing income from taxation of alcohol and cigarettes because of the so-called booze cruises and so they are pleased to be accepting it from gambling."

According to government officials the dangers of addictive gambling are low in Britain and less than 1 per cent of the population experiences problems.

But Gamblers Anonymous claims that research in North America and Australia, where liberalised gambling laws are more established, has shown that nearly 3 per cent of people are vulnerable to becoming hooked on betting.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport claims its liberalisation of the gambling laws was a "necessary modernisation" in the face of increasing online betting.

William Hill could not have seen the internet coming. But if he had, he would surely have offered some kind of bet on it.

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