George Pitcher: Gambling with the moral fabric of British society

The Government aims to change gambling’s image by creating ‘family friendly’ casinos. But should young children be introduced to this vice? asks George Pitcher

Did anyone else feel a sense of unease last week, when the Government published its gaming White Paper and culture secretary Tessa Jowell appeared in a casino talking about the family-friendly future of gambling?

This was a disturbing development for a card-carrying libertarian, so almost immediately I started to feel uneasy about my unease. And, like most people caught with an unexpected response to complex moral issues, I looked for someone else to blame.

The Government is an easy target. Here is a regime – led by a Prime Minister who, when it suits, wears a high-minded and high-church morality on his sleeve – that proposes turning casinos into an altogether more accessible environment. And it publishes these proposals in Holy Week, for goodness sake.

There’s a whiff of hypocrisy in the air. For a start, the Government is less likely to be driven by the quality-of-life imperatives it professes, than by the tax revenues it will gain from a flourishing gambling industry.

But the sense of unease over the Government’s role goes further than that. The White Paper proposes that the new casino environment should be accessible to the young only when they turn 18, while making an exception for the National Lottery, which can be played at 16.

It would seem, at a glance, that the Government has an interest in protecting our children’s moral resistance only so far as its own vested interests allow it to do so.

But I do see that a distinction is to be drawn between casinos, gaming machines and the National Lottery. I agree with the White Paper that the Lottery represents one of “the lowest risks of harm”.

More importantly, I would contend that there is a difference between an institution that raises cash for good causes – whatever the excesses of Camelot in operating the process – and one whose sole purpose is to enrich its shareholders.

In the latter category, quite respectably, fall the likes of Rank and Stanley Leisure, the main beneficiaries of the White Paper’s proposals.

Their increased prosperity will further enrich the Treasury in tax revenues, but a 16-year-old may not be in a position to distinguish between contributing to the Lottery’s good causes and subsidising the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement.

Whether people of more mature years can or do is a moot point. But there is a moral relativism to be played here. It is precisely why Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson was able to temporarily occupy the moral high ground at the last Lottery licence review, by proposing an entirely non-profit-making operator.

But let’s stop pussyfooting about. Is the unease that I feel – and that I imagine others share – really something to displace onto the Government, or is it precisely in a broader interpretation of moral relativism that its roots are found?

At one level, the consensus has it that it must be healthy to move gaming out of the ghetto that it has hitherto occupied. Sleazy betting shops with no windows, it might be argued, are far more threatening to the young and vulnerable than bright and broadly purposed leisure arenas.

I see that argument. Bars and other licensed premises have taken a more positive place in our social environment since they were liberated from the windowless underworld that they once were.

In economic terms, we wouldn’t have industrial combines such as Diageo and Bass had this development not taken place – and nobody would describe them as weakening the fabric of society by developing family-friendly premises.

At another level, it’s a persuasive argument that gambling is endemic in a free market economy. Entrepreneurs and institutional investors gamble on their fortunes every day.

The City is full of gamblers – gambling is what it’s for. Look at the story in which a punter laid a &£5m spread-bet with bookmakers City Index on the post-flotation price of biotech company Cyprotex. City Index laid off its risk with a “contract for differences” with Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, which in turn hedged itself by buying &£5.16m worth of Cyprotex shares – some 80 per cent of the placing.

Did the bet move the market or the market make the bet? A good question, with which the regulators are wrestling. But a better question is how far are we prepared to let gambling into our culture?

The answer might prescribe our future attitude toward commercial activities that we consider immoral at present. Might we license prostitution in our casinos?

That’s different? How so? I’m sure our forebears, who consigned gambling to a hidden underworld, would not so easily distinguish the difference. And they might ask us where the march of progress is taking us.

Today’s alcohol-fuelled casinos could be tomorrow’s brothels – they already are in Amsterdam. We might be happy with that. But we should, at least, know that we are.

A safeguard might be to ensure that the retail end of the market, which knows what its customers want better than Government theorists, takes the developmental decisions. There is a very clear opportunity for gaming to be developed in the manner that pubs have developed – from spit-and-sawdust dives into socially-inclusive environments.

We shouldn’t perhaps be too concerned about the future if the likes of Whitbread and Center Parcs are to develop the market for gaming.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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