A ‘socially responsible’ flutter

The UK government's proposals for reforming the gambling industry will place a regulatory hand on every card dealt.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

On 19 November culture secretary Tessa Jowell took forward the government’s proposals for reforming Britain’s £40billion gambling industry – announcing the major sections of the Draft Gambling Bill (1). The bill will reportedly be mentioned in the forthcoming Queen’s speech.

According to some reports, this means liberalisation – a removal of outdated restrictions on where, how and for how much people can gamble. However, in the place of old prohibitions, the government proposes a much more wide-scale system of regulation – which, it says, aims to ensure that the gambling industry and its customers both behave in a ‘socially responsible’ manner.

While these changes may make it easier to get to the table, the regulatory hand will be on every card dealt and every bet placed. The suggested regulations treat people who gamble as vulnerable individuals who need officials to help steer them a path through temptation. And they treat the gambling industry and regulators as a branch of the social services – with responsibilities that include tackling social disorder and treating ‘problem gamblers’.

Current gambling law, much of which dates back to the 1960s, imposes significant blocks on what has long been considered a dodgy pastime. Casinos can only be set up in designated areas; track betting can only occur on certain days of the week; individuals must join a gambling or bingo hall at least 24 hours before playing there; alcohol is banned; and there are strict limits on opening times and jackpot prizes. All of this is geared towards keeping the seedy world of the casino and the betting office under wraps.

Today, however, gambling has become more socially acceptable. The government’s concern is no longer to put a block on a seedy activity; instead, it is to ensure that ‘all businesses providing gambling apply high standards of social responsibility’, as well as providing ‘systematic protection for the vulnerable’ (2).

To enforce this, the government proposes establishing a powerful Gambling Commission. As one report says, the ‘commission inspectors will have more extensive, freestanding powers than those exercised at present by inspectors of the Gaming Board, and the powers will apply to a greater range of gambling activities’ (3). One of the key characteristics of the new regime, it says, is ‘flexibility’ – the commission will have a much freer hand to lay down codes of practice for the gambling industry, and to investigate and hold it to account.

Moreover, ‘the commission will have a wider role than a more traditional regulator – with responsibility to measure the social impact of gambling as well as tending to its efficient regulation’. It will take on a variety of social roles, which will include: ‘to prevent gambling from being a source of crime and disorder’ and ‘to protect children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling’ (4).

This is eerily reminiscent of New Labour’s reform of the licensing laws for alcohol; while more pubs will be allowed to stay open for longer, new regulations will guide pubs and punters in the ways of socially responsible drinking. New Labour’s habit is to remove blanket restrictions, only to create a diffuse set of regulations that don’t so much prevent activities, as supervise them. Rather than a prohibitive state, we have a state that ‘enables’ and ‘protects’. At the end of the day, the only thing that New Labour’s reforms deregulate is, well, regulation.

These new laws treat people less as responsible citizens than as vulnerable individuals who can only go about their business under bureaucrats’ watchful eyes. It is telling that gambling policy documents lump together ‘children and vulnerable persons’ as one group in need of protection – suggesting that when the chips are down, some adults are deemed as irresponsible as under-18s.

Gambling (like shopping or using mobile phones) is today increasingly talked about as an addiction, akin to that of hard drugs. ‘Addicted’ individuals are seen as unable to control what they are doing, and so need protection from temptation. The government’s new draft policy document suggests ‘that vulnerable adults are given protection to assist them in controlling their behaviour’, such as ‘on screen “reality checks” that will remind players of any losses and how long they have been playing’ (5). There is also a proposal for an ‘industry-funded gambling trust to support problem gambling prevention and treatment programmes’.

What the government misses is that, with the exception of a handful of obsessives, people gamble as a hobby, not a lifestyle. Gambling is something that the majority of people do on occasions in their free time, for a thrill and for a laugh – rather than something that dominates every aspect of their lives. While the government wants to post ‘reality check’ signposts all over casinos, most people who gamble know the odds: and they are perfectly capable of deciding when to raise and when to quit.

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Topics Politics


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