David Skelton is Director of Renewal, a campaign group dedicated to broadening the appeal of the Conservative Party.
Go to any bingo hall in the country and you’ll see a vibrant, community hub that allows people from all kinds of backgrounds to come together in a warm, secure environment, playing for big prizes to small stakes. In between cries of “David’s den, Number 10” (long may it continue) and the shouts of joy and anguish, you’ll notice the sense of genuine community spirit.
It’s the kind of place that we Conservatives, rightly, cherish. They straddle the generations and bring families and communities together. And hundreds of thousands of people come together to play bingo every day. There were over 40 million visits to bingo halls last year, with the industry employing over 16,000 people. At a time when people like Robert Puttnam worry about the atomisation of society and people “bowling alone”, bingo halls bring people together and add real social capital. A recent poll showed that almost two thirds of voters agree that bingo provides a valuable social service and strong support for the game across the age groups.
Sadly, bingo halls were treated as cash cows by a Labour Government that showed little empathy or understanding for these important community hubs. Labour introduced a ‘bingo tax’ on the profit of bingo clubs of some 20 per cent (they originally tried to place it at 15 per cent) whilst the tax on other gambling establishments is only 15 per cent. It’s yet another example of Labour growing distant from communities they claim to represent.
And this clobbering of bingo halls with excessive tax by Labour had a negative effect on the industry and on the social fabric. Since 2005, 150 bingo halls have closed. 6,500 jobs have been lost in the industry in the past decade, and it’s estimated that up to 200 clubs might still be at risk.
A report by the Henley Centre found that when bingo halls disappear, it can have profound societal impacts. It said: “the demise of this pastime and network can have a detrimental impact upon the physical and mental wellbeing of patrons, particularly as there are often few other opportunities for this group to socialise. Bingo closures also appear to be both a manifestation and catalyst for a wider breakdown of local communities that could have a negative impact upon society.”
Because of the importance of bingo halls to many communities, Renewal is backing a campaign to reduce Labour’s disproportionate bingo tax that is still harming this crucial community facility. Tax on bingo should be reduced from 20 per cent to 15 per cent to bring it into line with other gambling establishments. This could also be fiscally neutral, with the £20 million cost of the change being more than covered by the £300 million that the Treasury expects to raise from taxing online gambling.
Today a petition with 300,000 signatures is being delivered to the Treasury, supporting an industry with six million members. Providing a level playing field for bingo halls would allow them to invest, modernise their halls, attract younger players, create more jobs and increase prizes for working people. Scrapping Labour’s unfair bingo tax would again show that the Conservatives are the real workers’ party, prepared to stand up for working people and their community institutions, which have been forgotten about and taken for granted by Labour.