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The UK's outdated gambling legislation still needs updating.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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage