You may remember that back in 2007, Gordon Brown’s first major decision as Prime Minister was to put on ice the building of a Las Vegas-style ‘super-casino’ in Manchester. At a stroke, Brown distanced himself from the policies of Tony Blair while appearing to take the moral high ground over proposals that had attracted fierce condemnation from both inside and outside Parliament. In truth, the decision almost completely missed the point. Whether or not Manchester has a super-casino will make no practical difference to the ongoing rise of gambling in our society. Furthermore, the Labour Government’s apparent U-turn did little to protect those who are most vulnerable to gambling addiction. If anything, it was a further example of the Government’s lack of joined-up thinking over the whole issue of gambling.
Whether we like it or not, widespread gambling is here to stay. Over the last 10 years, the introduction of fixed odds betting terminals in betting shops, internet gambling (including online poker, online bingo and online betting exchanges), spread-betting, mobile phone gambling, and interactive television gambling have revolutionized the world of gambling. Gambling has slowly moved away from dedicated gambling venues and into our home and workplaces.
A large and growing number of people now enjoy gambling and see it as a socially acceptable form of entertainment, rather than a stigma-laden vice. For many people, a night at a casino is seen as little different – and certainly no more expensive – than a trip to a Premiership football match. The world has changed and Government policy and legislation has to keep up – or risk being discredited. Online poker and betting exchanges are now the two big growth areas on the internet. Men and women are now equally likely to gamble. The genie cannot suddenly be put back in the bottle.
The political challenge now, which the Coalition Government are only beginning to fully grasp, is to safeguard those most at risk from problem gambling while educating gamblers about the risks they face. There is no doubt that gambling addiction can wreck lives, turn some previously law-abiding people to crime, and contribute to relationship breakdowns. Gambling – like drinking, sex or even driving a car – is an adult activity that contains an element of risk. A small number of people will get into problems, but the legislator’s job is not to ban it, but to ensure that there are proper safeguards, education and help for those who become problem gamblers.
The first principle should be to protect the vulnerable. And the first thing I would do is ban all child gambling. Slot machines are often described as the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling. The bright lights, noises, rapid turnover, relatively small stake and frequent small wins or ‘near wins’ combine to make a potent mix for gambling addicts. Yet in this country there are thousands of machines that children can legally play on, mainly in family leisure centres and seaside amusement arcades.
The Government should also reconsider a statutory levy on the gaming industry to help pay for research into problem gambling, treatment, education and prevention. Over the last few years – and to their credit – the gaming industry has given up to £5 million a year as a voluntary contribution to the Responsible Gambling Fund, but with more than 500,000 adult problem gamblers in the UK, this represents a contribution of around £10 per problem gambler, which I believe is inadequate. I would suggest that we examine the examples of other countries that have liberalized gambling such as Australia, where in some jurisdictions the gambling industry has to pay a mandatory contribution of around one per cent of profits to pay for social welfare. This would provide millions of extra pounds for research, education and treatment, yet would be relatively small change to the industry.
Another nettle the Government has failed to grasp is bringing all gambling (including spread betting, lottery, and scratchcards) under the control of a single regulatory authority. Only in this way can the British Government take an overall strategic view – for example making sure that all pro-gambling advertising is balanced by educational advertising.
The great irony of the previous Government’s U-turn on super-casinos is that Manchester won the bid to build Britain’s first-ever super-casino precisely because the city council pledged to put in place a social support network of education and research, coupled with professional support for problem gamblers. There are conflicting views on whether super-casinos provide meaningful levels of additional local employment and whether they bring wealth or take money out of the local community. The Manchester project was to test this out with the best available social safeguards.
Whatever the Government does about super-casinos – and my instinct is that, sooner or later, public demand will bring super-casinos to Britain – problem gambling has significantly increased in this country according to the most recent British Gambling Prevalence Survey. However, this can be minimized through education, prevention, and intervention. Instead of making decisions about a solitary super-casino in Manchester, the Government should act to minimize the risk of gambling addiction on a practical level by introducing controls on industry practice, education in schools and elsewhere, and treatment on the NHS for those who get into difficulty. And let the gaming industry – rather than the taxpayer – foot the bill.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University, UK
Wardle, H., Moody. A., Spence, S., Orford, J., Volberg, R., Jotangia, D., Griffiths, M.D., Hussey, D. & Dobbie, F. (2011). British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. London: The Stationery Office. Available at: http://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/PDF/British%20Gambling%20Prevalence%20Survey%202010.pdf