There is not a shortage of examples when it comes to illustrating the law of unintended consequences. But if you enjoy reading about them, then have a look at the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report on the 2005 Gambling Act and you are in for a treat. The answer it proposes is localism – allowing local decision making on the basis of flexibility and common sense. The committee is chaired by the Conservative MP John Whittingdale but is, of course, all party.
For instance, the Act restricted the number of B2 gaming machines in each betting shop. These are machines where the maximum stake is £100 and the maximum prize is £500. So restricting the number seemed a worthy and responsible reform. The result has been that such establishments have been spreading like topsy along some high streets.
The report says:
"The 2005 Act has had the unintended consequence of encouraging the clustering of betting shops in some high streets by removing the demand test and limiting the number of B2 machines permitted in each premises. The clustering of betting shops is a local problem which calls for a local solution. We therefore recommend that local authorities be given the power to allow betting shops to have more than the current limit of four B2 machines per premises if they believe that it will help to deal with the issue of clustering. The limit of four B2 machines under current legislation should be maintained as a minimum limit to create certainty for operators. However, if problems arise with individual betting shop chains or premises in connection with B2 machine use, local authorities should have—as a safeguard—the right to require the removal of any machines over the minimum allowance."
Another consequence has been to favour big over small casinos. The report explains:
"The Act has created a situation where the Small Casino model is not considered financially viable. This is partly because a Small Casino must possess a larger floor-area for table play than a Large Casino in order to maximise its machine allowance. We note that not one Small Casino has been developed. It was not Parliament's intention in 2005 to make Small Casinos completely unviable. Given the fact that all casinos are highly regulated and access is limited regardless of the size, we see no rationale for the different gaming machine allowance. As 5:1 is the ratio presently in the legislation, we recommend that the Government introduce a single ratio of five machines to one table for both Small and Large Casinos. Local authorities should have the power to increase the number of machines permitted per table if they wish to do so and an operator requests it."
Who should decide whether or not a town should have a casino? The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt or the local councillors? The report says:
"Both the 1968 and 2005 Act provisions successfully prevented casinos from proliferating or clustering. However, there is no evidence that allowing local authorities to decide independently whether or not they wish to have a casino would lead to a significant increase in the total number of casinos. We believe that the decision as to whether a casino would be of benefit to a local area should be made by local authorities rather than central diktat. We recommend that any local authority be able to make the decision as to whether or not they want a casino. As a step towards this, we recommend that existing 1968 Act Casino licences are made portable, allowing operators to relocate to any local authority provided that they have the consent of that local authority. The portability of these licences would be constrained by the existing 'triple lock' contained in the Gambling Act: the need to obtain local authority approval, a premises licence and planning permission."
Localism would not always helping the gambling industry. The report noted the evidence from the Local Government Association that banks and betting shops are both classified by the planning category as A2. That means it is harder for a council to stop a bank being turned into a bookies than, for example, a school. It is also easier for a restaurant to be switched to a betting shop than an art gallery.
The report proposes more effective action to be taken against underage gambling and that advice for helping problem gamblers should be publicised in such a way that the relatives of gambling addicts are aware of it as well as the addicts themselves.
This is an excellent piece of work by Mr Whittingdale and his committee, and should be taken seriously.