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Wanna bet?

The UK government wants to relax gambling restrictions - as long as we all agree to gamble sensibly.

Fran O'Leary

Topics Politics

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‘A Safe Bet for Success’ – the New Labour government’s White Paper on reform of the gambling industry – is a welcome step towards giving us more choice over how and when we gamble.

But some of the proposals show a marked disregard for our ability to understand what gambling is. Unlike the government, most people are aware that there’s no such thing as a ‘safe bet’.

Tessa Jowell, UK secretary of state for culture, recognises how popular gambling is: ‘They gamble by playing bingo, pool, playing the national lottery, and for most people, the overwhelming number of people, it’s a very small but pleasurable part of their lives. Who should stop that?’ (1) According to Marc Etchers, director of Leisure Parcs, over 75 percent of us gamble regularly (2) – with 33million of us supporting an industry that already has a turnover of £7billion and employs 125,000 people (3).

The government’s proposals include ending the ban on drinking at gaming tables, removing limits on jackpots, and setting up a Gambling Commission to oversee the implementation of changes. Also, the rule requiring membership of a casino at least 24 hours before playing is likely to be abolished; online gambling may be licensed; and local authorities are likely to be given responsibility for the licensing of gambling premises (4).

The White Paper also proposes an industry-funded gambling trust to support ‘problem gambling prevention’ and treatment programmes. If passed, the government may also reserve powers to compel licensed operators to make
financial contributions to the trust.

There has been a broad debate about the government’s proposals, but a number of controversial issues have not yet been touched upon – particularly regarding our ability to cope with gambling without treatment and help.

Few industry representatives have come out against setting up a gambling trust to help ‘gambling victims’. If the industry agrees to fund a gambling trust, this would seem like a tacit acceptance that the individual is not responsible for his or her gambling habit.

But how can someone with a gambling problem be expected to muster up the willpower to deal with it, when both the gambling industry and the state claim that it is an individual’s lack of will that causes him to become a ‘gambling addict’ in the fist place?

Paul Bellringer of the charity GamCare thinks there should be legislation to protect the gambling public from themselves:

‘We still need a filtering mechanism so that those adults who want to gamble know exactly what they are getting into and so that there are safeguards in place within the casino environment so that they know where to get help if they get into trouble.’ (5)

This could mean stocking casinos with leaflets or public warning signs about problem gambling and advice about where problem gamblers can seek help. But surely gamblers are aware that when they gamble they take a risk, that there’s a chance that they might lose money, and that the more they gamble the more they could lose? After all, risk is inherent to gambling – and gamblers know this. That is why many of them do it in the first place.

The White Paper also proposes to make it possible for gamblers to be served alcohol in casinos. John Kelly, chief executive of the Gala group, welcomes this proposal: ‘If you can stand at a bar and have four or five drinks over a three or four hour period, why on earth should you not have those same four or five drinks adjacent to you when you’re gaming?’ (6)

But the White Paper’s proposal on alcohol consumption only covers gaming in casinos. Licensed betting offices will be able to offer gamblers food and soft drinks but not alcohol (7). This disparity suggests that those who gamble in casinos can handle drinking and gambling, whereas those who gamble in betting offices cannot.

The Daily Mail argues that the government’s proposals could be to the detriment of ‘vulnerable’ families, allowing more people to gamble in a systematic way (8). It is possible that deregulation may increase our choice over when and how we gamble, and may well increase the number of people who choose to gamble as a leisure activity.

But is that such a problem? Concerns about problem gamblers are derogatory – both to long-time gamblers, and those of us who just enjoy an occasional flutter.

The rare incidence of problem gambling should be approached in a sophisticated way. Mixed messages and piecemeal legislation won’t amount to the safe bet for success that the government is looking for.

(1) Tessa Jowell speaking on BBC Radio Four’s ‘PM’ program on 26 March 2002

(2) Marc Etchers, managing director of Leisure Parcs, speaking on Sky News on 26 March 2002

(3) Richard Caborn MP replying to a House of Commons Oral Question put by Joan Humble’s question on 25 March 2002

(4) Government press release, ‘A safe bet for success’, from the 26 March 2002

(5) Mr Bellringer, of charity GamCare, speaking on BBC 1’s Breakfast programme on 26 March 2002

(6) John Kelly, chief executive of the Gala group, speaking on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on 26 March 2002

(7) Government press release, ‘A safe bet for success’, from the 26 March 2002

(8) Daily Mail editorial, 27 May 2002

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Topics Politics

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