Fear of "super casinos" must not prevent us reforming gambling laws

The UK's outdated gambling legislation still needs updating.

Sir Alan Budd, the distinguished economist who was commissioned by the government to review gambling legislation a decade ago, has described the Blair government’s capitulation to anti-gambling campaigners in the run-up to the 2005 election as “quite shocking”. Budd has rarely commented on casino regulation in the years since he wrote a detailed report for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2002. That publication — known as the Budd Report — recommended that local councils be given the power to decide what gambling activities, if any, would be permitted in their area. The Labour government initially endorsed his recommendations but a subsequent press campaign against so-called "super casinos" led to the Gambling Bill being watered down and the boldest attempts at liberalisation were abandoned.

At a meeting at the Institute of Economic Affairs held to launch the IEA’s review of the 2005 Gambling Act (Seven Years Later: Casinos in the Aftermath of the 2005 Gambling Act), Budd explained that his proposals had not been designed to help the gambling industry, nor to raise extra money for the treasury. The interest of consumers always came first, he said, and their interests were “best left to the market”, albeit within the constraints of what local authorities and the Gambling Commission would countenance.

Reflecting on the government’s panicky response to the Daily Mail’s “Kill the Casino Bill” campaign of 2004-05, Budd accused ministers of “dashing around like frightened rabbits in response to a press campaign”. The government’s climb-down left casinos working in a regulatory environment that was created in the 1960s. The Budd Report set no limit on the number of casino licences that could be issued and would have allowed "resort casinos" of the kind seen abroad which incorporate restaurants, hotels and live music venues. The government later set a limit on such "super casinos" of eight, which was then reduced to one and then, under Gordon Brown, to zero.

Ultimately, casinos and their customers bore the brunt of a government’s pre-election jitters, but whilst the super casino became the symbol of attempted liberalisation, it was always peripheral to the main task of updating the archaic 1968 Gaming Act. In its haste to appease its critics, the government discarded necessary reforms which would have attracted little attention had they not been part of a broader package of deregulation. The casino industry had waited forty years for the gambling laws to be updated, but it never sought the free-for-all that was implied by “unlimited” development.

Sixteen smaller casino licences were created by the legislation but only one has yet been built. Arbitrary planning restrictions, high taxes and regulatory anomalies make it unlikely that more than a handful of new casinos will be built in the years ahead. In total, more than a quarter of the UK’s 202 casino licences are lying dormant. Some towns and cities have more licences than they need while others have none at all. There are, for example, more than twenty casinos in the couple of square miles around Westminster and Chelsea, but go south of the river and you will not find another one until you get to Brighton. The IEA recommends allowing unused licences to be transferred to councils who wish to make use of them. Budd described the think tank’s proposals as “sensible”.

Christopher Snowdon is an IEA Research fellow and author of "Seven Years Later: Casinos in the Aftermath of the 2005 Gambling Act"

The proposed site in Manchester that was announced in 2007 for the UK's first super casino. Photograph: Getty Images
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John Major's double warning for Theresa May

The former Tory Prime Minister broke his silence with a very loud rebuke. 

A month after the Prime Minister stood in Chatham House to set out plans for free trading, independent Britain, her predecessor John Major took the floor to puncture what he called "cheap rhetoric".

Standing to attention like a weather forecaster, the former Tory Prime Minister warned of political gales ahead that could break up the union, rattle Brexit negotiations and rot the bonds of trust between politicians and the public even further.

Major said that as he had been on the losing side of the referendum, he had kept silent since June:

“This evening I don't wish to argue that the European Union is perfect, plainly it isn't. Nor do I deny the economy has been more tranquil than expected since the decision to leave was taken. 

“But I do observe that we haven't yet left the European Union. And I watch with growing concern  that the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic.”

A seasoned EU negotiator himself, he warned that achieving a trade deal within two years after triggering Article 50 was highly unlikely. Meanwhile, in foreign policy, a UK that abandoned the EU would have to become more dependent on an unpalatable Trumpian United States.

Like Tony Blair, another previous Prime Minister turned Brexit commentator, Major reminded the current occupant of No.10 that 48 per cent of the country voted Remain, and that opinion might “evolve” as the reality of Brexit became clear.

Unlike Blair, he did not call for a second referendum, stressing instead the role of Parliament. But neither did he rule it out.

That was the first warning. 

But it may be Major's second warning that turns out to be the most prescient. Major praised Theresa May's social policy, which he likened to his dream of a “classless society”. He focused his ire instead on those Brexiteers whose promises “are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery”. 

The Prime Minister understood this, he claimed, but at some point in the Brexit negotiations she will have to confront those who wish for total disengagement from Europe.

“Although today they be allies of the Prime Minister, the risk is tomorrow they may not,” he warned.

For these Brexiteers, the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations did not matter, he suggested, because they were already ideologically committed to an uncompromising version of free trade:

“Some of the most committed Brexit supporters wish to have a clean break and trade only under World Trade Organisation rules. This would include tariffs on goods with nothing to help services. This would not be a panacea for the UK  - it would be the worst possible outcome. 

“But to those who wish to see us go back to a deregulated low cost enterprise economy, it is an attractive option, and wholly consistent with their philosophy.”

There was, he argued, a choice to be made about the foundations of the economic model: “We cannot move to a radical enterprise economy without moving away from a welfare state. 

“Such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support.”

Major's view of Brexit seems to be a slow-motion car crash, but one where zealous free marketeers like Daniel Hannan are screaming “faster, faster”, on speaker phone. At the end of the day, it is the mainstream Tory party that will bear the brunt of the collision. 

Asked at the end of his speech whether he, like Margaret Thatcher during his premiership, was being a backseat driver, he cracked a smile. 

“I would have been very happy for Margaret to make one speech every eight months,” he said. As for today? No doubt Theresa May will be pleased to hear he is planning another speech on Scotland soon. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.