Our leaders are reckless nannies

Observations on gambling

Cadbury is currently running a "Happiness Xpress" promotion. Those whose chocolate-bar wrappers bear the right code can win, among other prizes, the chance to visit Santa in Lapland. But this child-friendly reward is, according to the very small print, open only to those over 16 - an acknowledgement that, despite seeming harmless fun, this and other such offers are in fact a form of gambling.

Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University, calls these ubiquitous "instant-win promotions" gambling precursors, a form of "gambling training". Studies have shown that the earlier a child starts gambling the more likely he or she is to develop problems. And the "training" appears to be effective: the incidence of problem gambling is now higher among adolescents than adults.

Tessa Jowell, the secretary of state responsible for the Gambling Act, which started to come into force last month, could ask the new Gambling Commission to turn its attention to this epidemic, as one of the act's objectives is the protection of children. She is unlikely to do so, however, as she rejected pleas during the bill's passage to bring Britain in line with the rest of the developed world by banning children from using fruit machines.

What is it with Labour and the common vices - smoking, drinking and now gambling? How does the government manage to be both irritatingly nannying and yet so reckless of the social consequences of its legislation?

The act, among other things, scraps the provision requiring those who want to gamble in a casino to register 24 hours in advance. The consequence has been an immediate surge in visitors: the Times reported 100,000 new visits in the first five weeks and predicted a quarter of a million new gamblers within a year.

We shouldn't be surprised, because that is precisely what the act was designed to achieve, as well as providing for a huge rise in the number of casinos throughout the country, including a 24-hour Las Vegas-style casino which alone would cater for roughly three million visitors a year.

Friends of Labour such as the Salvation Army and the Methodist Church are horrified, arguing that the number of problem gamblers is already on the increase and that more casinos will have disastrous social consequences. The industry and the culture department say that there are only a few problem gamblers and harm to them can be minimised.

What they do not acknowledge is the advice given by the Royal College of Psychiatrists when the bill was being debated: that increased opportunity "leads to an increase in the number of those who gamble to such a degree that damage results". Earlier this year, the psychiatrists' body argued that the government was naive to think it could "control the inevitable increase in excessive gambling", and that its policy of responsible gambling in a deregulated setting was "a contradiction in terms".

One would expect Labour to provide evidence that there is a public demand. Yet an NOP poll commissioned during the bill's passage showed that 93 per cent of the population considered there were already enough opportunities to gamble in the UK. One would also expect Labour to produce evidence that the dangers are exaggerated. But, as with licensing laws, it merely promises monitoring and future reports. And just as ministers became fond of repeating the falsehood that the point of the Licensing Act was to prevent binge drinking, so it claims that the Gambling Act is to "minimise the harm that gambling can cause".

Dangerous nonsense. Longer opening hours are intended to sell more drink and the Gambling Act is designed only to part more of us fools from our money.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Apartheid