By Peter Hoskin
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There’s much heat and fury about gambling at the moment, in the wake of a recent Commons report on the subject and today’s news that Brits are losing over £1 billion a year to slot machines. In response, Harriet Harman has said that New Labour erred by having a liberal attitude towards gambling regulations. The Daily Mail is warning the Coalition against the same, and urging them to cut out this “social cancer”.
In truth, gambling tends to be a difficult issue for Conservatives, as it cuts across two strains of thought in the party. There are those who feel it should be controlled, as it entrenches the social problems that surround debt and poverty. And there are those who take the more free market view that supply ought to aspire to demand, and the state has no place to intrude. It is this fundamental tension that confuses so much of David Cameron’s own “responsibility” agenda. He wants people to be responsible, but he doesn’t want to order them to be responsible.
So what’s the government to do? My guess is that they’ll do what they do in most of these cases, and commission No.10’s Nudge unit to find a happy middle ground. In fact, the book Nudge highlighted the example of “self-exclusion programmes”, by which problem gamblers could put themselves forward to be banned from casinos and betting shops — and these have gained some ground in the UK recently. But the blog curated by the book’s authors has since looked into how these programmes might be improved, particularly by promoting them more heavily and by ensuring that gambling outlets enforce them more rigorously.
Indeed, the culture, media and sport select committee’s recent report contained some similar points on that front:
“You can walk into one casino and self-exclude—a week and two days later, you can go into another one. You can go into a bookmaker and self-exclude—a week and two days later, you can go into William Hill as opposed to Coral, for example. That is the weakness of the exclusion system.”
And recommended that the government introduce a proper, national self-exclusion system:
“We recognise the significant practical challenges that introducing a national "universal" self-exclusion system would involve, including confidentiality and legal issues. However, the Government should support the development of a system which would allow a customer to self-exclude from all forms of gambling regulated by the Gambling Commission.”
I’m not a betting man myself, but that’s where I’d put my money for government action on gambling — as a bare minimum.