This case could make losers of us all

A British man is suing William Hill because they allowed him to gamble away £2.1million. But who is really responsible for what gamblers do?

Ken McLaughlin

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Greyhound trainer Graham Calvert is suing William Hill bookmakers this week for the sum of £2.1million – the total amount he lost to them over a two-year period. The basis of Calvert’s claim is that William Hill is in breach of the Gambling Act 2005, which requires bookmakers to promote ‘socially responsible’ gambling.

Bookmakers are obliged to ‘put in place procedures for self-exclusion and take all reasonable steps to refuse service or to otherwise prevent an individual who has entered a self-exclusion agreement from participating in gambling’ (1). Calvert had requested such ‘self-exclusion’ but his bets were still accepted. He had informed William Hill that he had an addiction and requested to be banned from placing any further bets. According to his solicitor, this means the bookmakers are legally responsible for Calvert’s losses, as they failed in their duty of care to him.

As someone who owns greyhounds and knows several trainers, owners and bookmakers, my own bank balance is testament to the fact that inside knowledge is no guarantee of success at the tracks. Nonetheless, by most accounts Calvert’s losses are excessive. He was betting anything between £1,000 and £30,000 a time, and on one occasion he allegedly staked £347,000 on America to win golf’s Ryder Cup. They lost.

I have no sympathy for the large bookmaking chains. If Calvert had been a shrewd gambler with a profitable account, instead of a ‘problem gambler’ who seems to have lost frequently, it is likely that his account would have been closed by William Hill or the size of his bets would have been severely limited. Bookmakers want gamblers, not winners. I know several shrewd punters who have had accounts shut down by money-hungry bookmakers (unfortunately, I am not one of them). It also seems to be true that Calvert’s life has been ruined by gambling. Along with all that money, he has lost his home and his marriage has broken up. He evidently has a gambling problem. However, a court victory for him would make losers of us all.

As many have pointed out on internet gambling forums, even if William Hill had refused Calvert any further bets, he could still have continued gambling. There are thousands of high street betting shops to choose from, as well as a plethora of online bookmakers and betting exchanges. It is easier to bet today than ever before, and betting is something that the vast majority of people enjoy without experiencing major problems. Also, increased competition between bookmakers and the introduction of betting exchanges (where punters bet with each other) has led to greatly reduced profit margins for bookmakers. Their overall profits have increased, but this is due to the rise in turnover. And, contrary to Calvert’s experience, punters have never had it so good: today, you have more chance of winning, or at least keeping your losses at a reasonable level, than at any time since betting shops were legalised.

However, my real concern is not for the technicalities of how and when bets can be struck, but rather for the fact that Calvert’s case is symptomatic of a social climate in which we are increasingly seen as victims unable to exercise control over our circumstances. The concept of addiction is indicative of this trend, having expanded exponentially in recent years. It is a contemporary social phenomenon that is being used to describe an ever-increasing range of behaviours over which we are said to lack control. ‘Addiction’ used to refer, almost exclusively, to those with alcohol or drug problems – now, alongside gambling, we are told that we can be addicted to everything from nicotine to pornography, and to the internet, chocolate, shopping, sex and love. No wonder, then, that the British Advocacy group Action on Addiction can claim that ‘one in three adults suffers from some form of addiction’ (2).

The promiscuous use of the term addiction, and the spread of ‘experts’ who step in to cure our various addictions, reflects a profoundly fatalistic view of people and a belief that we lack the capacity to control our own lives. We are increasingly seen not as rational decision-making agents, but as irrational patients in need of control. Indeed, for some proponents of the idea that people need protecting from themselves, it is the very assumption of capacity that is the problem. For Paul Devlin, director of the brain injuries association Headway, the problem is that the Gambling Commission’s rules on self-exclusion assume that gamblers have ‘sufficient decision-making capacity to exclude themselves’ (3).

No doubt, in some cases steps need to be taken to minimise the dangers to those who really do lack mental capacity. For instance, there was the case of a 39-year-old man who suffered severe brain injuries as a child and who gambled away most of his compensation despite having signed several exclusion orders with bookmakers in his local town. However, such extreme cases do not justify the assumption that we are all brain damaged until we prove otherwise. Certain individuals no doubt should be afforded protection – but the notion that vast numbers of us lack the ‘sufficient decision-making capacity’ to exclude ourselves from gambling, much less to take part in it as we see fit, is patronising and dangerous.

Calvert, for his part, may not be brain damaged. But his lawyers, in seeking to blame his uncontrollable mind for his behaviour, may help pave the way to a situation where all of us are seen as irresponsible, dependent children trapped in adult bodies.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England.

Previously on spiked

Alex Hochuli asked ‘who’s afraid of gambling adverts?’ Brendan O’Neill interviewed American addiction expert Stanton Peele. James Woudhuysen argued that the panic around gambling addiction was at odds with reality. Nathalie Rothschild discovered that gambling has been outlawed in the virtual nanny state of Second Life. Or read more at spiked issue Modern life.

(1) Gambler sues bookmaker for taking his bets, The Times, 14 February 2008

(2) Cited in Dr Michael Fitzpatrick’s The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the regulation of lifestyle, 2001 (London), Routledge

(3) Gambler sues bookmaker for taking his bets, The Times, 14 February 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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