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Changes in Society: Gambling

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Why? It's incomprehensible. It makes no sense. Goodness knows, this government is running low enough on political capital, so why waste another precious drop on bringing scores of Caesar's Palaces in from America? That's what the gambling bill, published yesterday, will do.

How strange if the major cultural impact of the Blair era becomes the transformation of Britain into the offshore Las Vegas of Europe. No other EU countries are letting them in.

Casinos promote a glitzy image of blackjack and roulette tables served by sequined croupiers, but that is just window dressing to disguise the sordid business that really makes the money: the thousands of high value gambling machines, offering £1m or unlimited jackpots through mesmerising, dead-eye addictive 12-pulls-a-minute slots. People sit transfixed, stuffing in coins - not much fun but very compulsive. Much of the lobbying over this bill has been from the US companies, asking to be allowed as many serried ranks of these machines as they can cram in. The bill allows a ratio of 25 machines to each table; now they are arguing over how small a "table" can be.

Warning bells were rung long ago: the government could have stepped back, but as usual it went full steam ahead in explaining-a-bit-harder mode. The Guardian was shaking its old non-conformist fist at Tessa Jowell months ago, to very little effect. Now the Daily Mail has mounted one of its day-after-day cannonades, with the Sun and most of the rest in cavalry charge behind, we can only say lamely that we told you so. If only Labour would pick fights with these bullying behemoths more often ... but is this really the issue on which to face them down? This is not a core Labour value.

The Tories say they are "against a proliferation of super casinos"; the Lib Dems oppose them. There cannot be very many Labour back-benchers who do not instinctively shudder at a Labour government deliberately turning Britain into the American-owned gambling capital of Europe. So if I were a gambler, I'd put a pony and a monkey or two with William Hill on this getting a very rough ride in parliament. Jowell's people reckon Labour MPs aren't that bothered one way or the other: it's time they were.

The mystery is why Labour ever got into this. It seems to be a case of politicians getting so caught up in the fascinating details of an arcane industry that they lose sight of the political wood for the trees. And it looked so tempting. It means a lot of money for local authorities either in cash or in "planning gain", where the developer has to build socially useful things in exchange for a licence to print billions. Councils are very short of money and putting up council tax is not an option. The warm reception the bids from US companies have received in almost every city shows how temptation from super-professional persuaders is hard to resist. Tessa Jowell's people claim backbenchers are eager for these tourism-attracting cash generators on their patch. Do they know that American research shows that 6% of people who live near these magnet casinos become addicts?

This is a cash cow for the Treasury, which is losing gambling tax to foreign internet sites. The government calls the new casinos "regeneration" projects, and urges their siting in derelict outskirts of cities. US companies have approached places like Burnley, Hull, Corby and Salford - alongside bids for eight in London, five in Glasgow and other more salubrious spots. But the evidence from abroad is that these super casinos are not regenerators or job creators. They are not like great new arts venues that can draw new life towards them: Atlantic City shows how casinos create economic deserts. With their gigantic acreages of free restaurants and floor shows, they suck all the business out of a wide surrounding area.

US companies are reputed to have spent some £100m in their opening bids, assured by the government that this bill will pass. But as it comes under scrutiny, the government may find itself blushing at some of the language they use. "Gambling is now a diverse, vibrant and innovative industry and a popular leisure activity." "We will be the least restricted, most free-market based regime in Europe." The standard letter from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to the public says the bill will "provide new choices for gambling consumers" and "make the gambling market more competitive". It will also, I'm afraid, "modernise" gambling.

Antique gambling laws need reform; internet gambling is worth trying to regulate (though it's almost certainly impossible); the spread of video roulette slot machines in the high street needs controls. All these sensible parts of the bill will no doubt pass through ... but why the big casinos?

Government voices claim there will only be 20 to 40 super casinos, but the market will be left to regulate numbers. Since we already have small casinos, they say, what's the fuss? Of course, they say, "some people have religious or ethical socialist objections", but that's quaint, old fashioned stuff.

As for the projections that the number of serious gambling addicts will rise from 350,000 to 700,000, that's all questionable social science. The figures may or may not be right, but they are certainly an underestimate. Most families wracked by someone with a gambling addiction never get near officialdom. They bring their children up in the most abject poverty of all, unknown, unseen - and not counted, as their declared income (before gambling) may be high.

Gambling has shot up five-fold in the last three years, since Gordon Brown took the tax off winnings. Women now account for 64% of internet betting, the greatest growth. Gambling turnover has risen from £7.6bn to £39.4bn, and now Britons spend more than any other Europeans. This is not a flutter, but serious money a lot of people can't afford.

This government has been bold in trying to find ways to deal with social problems. Indeed the gambling bill brings in a new Gambling Commission, obligations on licence holders to watch out for addicts and powers to restrict the value of gaming machines in betting shops. But introducing the American casinos the rest of Europe has held at bay is like tackling obesity by inviting in Howard Johnson's ice cream emporiums. These casinos will make money because they will get more people to gamble a lot more money. The government has the power to restrict gambling outlets, so why let go now?

This bill heralds a whole new gambling culture in Britain. Don't be deceived by the idea this is just a small extension; this is a culture-shift of great proportions. If it is indeed a great draw for tourism, is that the country we want to be? Are we really that desperate?


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My father, the working-class communist, didn't smoke, didn't drink and didn't gamble. He was quite happy discussing working-class discipline with a Methodist bishop in a Temperance Hall. Betting and boozing seemed to belong to a different culture altogether.

So perhaps I shouldn't have felt so blind-sided by last week's reaction from centre-left people to some of the government's proposals to reform the gambling laws. Yet I did. The Mail arguing that there would be an "explosion of new casinos" meaning that "the number of teenage addicts is likely to soar" was to be anticipated. But this newspaper's editorial yesterday sounded terribly similar. "Labour MPs," it advised, "should ... strike out the clauses that will inevitably lead to an explosion of 24-hour casinos." My colleague Polly Toynbee warned us all that, "This bill heralds a whole new gambling culture in Britain."

So what exactly is the problem? For some critics this seems to be an aesthetic question. The new, re-regulated casinos will be great big, shiny places replacing our nice, poky, grimy, neighbourhood casinos. For others it is about who we are.

I've turned this round in my head, wanting desperately to find something that I too can bash the government about. But I cannot seem to get cross about this. Most of what the bill does is necessary nannying to stop kids running riot with fruit machines, to institute age checks and protect credit card integrity. The liberal bits permit casinos to open longer and on Christian holidays, to allow immediate (and not club) entry, to have unlimited jackpots in the larger casinos, and to allow casinos to advertise. The overall idea is to let places such as Blackpool add a Vegas element to their attractions, and help in regeneration.

You could do a cost-benefit analysis on this, as we did on the lottery. Exactly the same arguments were made about fostering a something-for-nothing culture, encouraging rampant compulsive gambling and so on. According toToynbee, among others, it was well worth the risk. "The lottery," she has written (rightly, in my view), "has been a great state benefit. Just look at the wonderful buildings, community enterprises and new arts venues springing up all over the country."

So it wasn't a matter of principle, despite all those scratch-card addicts, and whey-faced fantasists. Yet, the possibility of a few, larger casinos seems to have got everybody very heated. Heated, it seems to me, beyond the facts - heated enough for this to begin to take on the characteristics of a moral panic. And such moments generally contain the fear that others are about to behave appallingly in a way that one wouldn't behave oneself - drugs, knives, guns, road rage, mad dogs, car theft, the list is long. If X is done, then the irresponsible part of the population will - almost inevitably - fall into Y.

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I suspect that the founders of the Labour Party must be turning in their grave about the government’s proposed Casino Bill. They were rightly concerned about the role played by alcohol and gambling in the lives of the people. They disagreed with Karl Marx view that religion was the opium of the people. In fact, nonconformist groups, had an important influence on the early philosophy of the party.

New Labour takes a different view of alcohol and gambling. As long as it brings in revenue, it is alright with them. This is reflected in Blair’s views on the National Lottery. Most people who buy lottery tickets belong to the less well-off end of society. It in fact amounts to a tax on the poor. Much of this money is spent on subsidizing the pleasures of the rich.

As John Major pointed out at the weekend, the New Labour government has “raided the lottery fund for programmes which historically have been met out of central taxation”. Half the money raised for “good causes” is now used for spending on health, education, the environment and the community. Much of this money has gone into projects that would previously been paid for by the government.

Many people are concerned about why Blair is so keen on the Casinos Bill. Is he following the example of his mate George Bush and doing secret deals with those willing to provide money for the party? Why, for example, has Lord Levy, Blair’s chief fundraiser, been having meetings with Elliot Nathan, a senior executive of MGM Mirage, a company who is set to make in “excess of a billion” if the Casino Bill if it is passed next year.

Another person who has had plenty of access to Tony Blair is Thomas Baker, head of International Game Technology. This company is the world’s largest fruit machine company.

Not all Casino bosses are pleased with Blair’s proposals. British operators such as Gala, London Clubs International and the Rank Group have complained that the bill has been drafted in a way to help overseas operators. These are mainly based in the United States but one who seems to be getting preferential treatment is the South African, Kerzner International. It is believed Blair had a meeting with its boss, Sol Kerzner, while he was in South Africa recently.

Tessa Jowell, culture secretary, the main person behind the bill, has said that the opposition to the Casino Bill is by “people who think they should remain the preserve of the rich”. Jowell is determined to bring casino gambling to the masses. Others argue that the increased government revenues will enable Brown to cut income tax for the rich. Others have claimed that it will help local authorities reduce council tax. Maybe it will help Blair pay off his new £3.5 million mortgage.

A poll by ICM research shows that the bill only has the support of 34% of the public. That will not influence Blair. He no longer cares about focus groups and public opinion polls. Like Bush he is now a conviction politician. Like Bush he would like you to believe that this conviction has something to do with being a born-again Christian. In fact, it has more to do with the conviction that comes from a desire to become very rich. Blair is indeed the child of Thatcher.

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