I suppose that if you have a problem with gambling, rather like having a problem with crack cocaine, you will find a way to feed your addiction – and that is a matter of free will and personal predilection which has nothing to do with the state. That’s one way of looking at it – but there must come a point when a mature, responsible society, which cares for its individual citizens, should step in to protect us from ourselves.
Inevitably, many of a right-wing, free-market disposition have inveighed against the “nanny state” following the government’s decision to cut the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) – the sophisticated, high-stakes fruit machines that populate high-street betting shops – from £100 to £2.
It is a draconian measure that will be a hammer blow to gambling companies and will result only in addicts finding other, less regulated outlets, they say.
We rail against interference from the state in our personal life, but to whom do we turn in times of crisis?
Those of us who rarely visit betting shops will probably have been shocked to learn some of the financial metrics around FOBTs. For example, it’s possible to have a £100 bet every 20 seconds (or, indeed, wager £18,000 an hour, any time of the day or night) on one of these machines; the amount that British gamblers lose on FOBTs over the course of a year is around £2bn; and the revenue each machine generates is twice the average national wage. The increase in the number of problem gamblers in Britain has been directly linked, with some justification, to the rise of the FOBT.
Campaigners say that lives have been ruined, and communities have been damaged by the effect of these machines, the advent of which can be traced to New Labour’s Gambling Act of 2007, which liberalised the betting industry in all sorts of ways, but, in particular, legalised the FOBT. The 16- to 24-year-old gambler is especially susceptible to the narcotic allure of the FOBT, according to research, and their prevalence is noticeable in areas of poverty and high unemployment, where they trade on the dreams of the poor and vulnerable.
The Church of England has praised the government for “showing admirable moral leadership” by cutting the maximum stake to £2, and while I wouldn’t necessarily want the Church to be involved in how I choose to lead my life, I am quite happy to embrace a higher (in this case, a democratically-elected) power on matters of public policy.
If you have a problem with gambling, rather like having a problem with crack cocaine, you will find a way to feed your addiction
The nanny state, rather like political correctness, is a term most usually used in a derogatory manner, but this is a right-wing trope. We rail against interference from the state in our personal life, but to whom do we turn in times of crisis? Who do we expect to bail us out when the rains come, or when the banks run out of money? The state, that’s who. We are quite happy with some nannying when we need it.
The gambling industry will go into full lobbying mode, saying the new rules will result in shop closures and job losses. We will see. The government, too, stands to lose – £400m in tax revenue. But sometimes a decision has to be made for the greater good. And we should applaud the state when it does that.
More from Simon Kelner
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