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The Culture, Media and Sport Committee's Report: a Bet Worth Taking?

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The cross-party Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has now published its much anticipated report examining the way in which gambling is and should be regulated in the UK, under the title, The Gambling Act 2005: A Bet Worth Taking?

In short, the Committee recommends that any local authority be able to make its own decision as to whether or not they want a casino, rather than the decision being made by way of what they call "central diktat" - what others might call national planning. The Committee does recommend a role for central regulation, however, to ensure high standards of protection for the vulnerable, particularly children.

As John Whittingdale, the Chairman of the Committee, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, they still want national rules governing such things as the age-entry requirement for casinos, the number of machines and limits on stakes and prizes.

The Committee also recommends that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport should develop an information campaign on problem gambling, to be made available outside gambling premises. Moreover, the Committee argues for more research on problem gambling, particularly with regard to children, and a greater emphasis on discovering the most effective ways of educating children about the risks of gambling.

So far, relatively uncontroversial, one might argue. After all, why should one local authority be barred by national diktat from having a casino which the local residents broadly favour while a different local authority is allowed to have five? After all, the Committee is not in favour of abandoning national guidelines on the age of entry to these establishments, or even the number and type of machines they are permitted to house.

Much of the rest of the report also looks pretty uncontroversial. For example, they highlight the failure of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to work with the Treasury and set remote gambling taxation at a level at which online operators could remain within the UK and be regulated by the Gambling Commission. This is pretty much common sense.

So is the report a pretty uncontroversial set of common sense recommendations? Broadly speaking, I would agree.

Where the Committee has pushed the envelope, though, is in its recommendations on the number of a certain type of machine allowed in betting shops and casinos. At present, high street betting shops and casinos alike are allowed a maximum of four B2 (FOBT) gambling machines, which offer a maximum £500 prize. The Committee says that casinos, the most highly-regulated sector, should instead be permitted to operate up to twenty B2-type gambling machines.

The Committee also found that limiting the number of B2 machines in betting shops has encouraged them to cluster in some high streets in order to satisfy customer demand. Local Authorities should have the power to allow betting shops to have more than the current maximum of four B2 machines per shop, the Committee argues, if they believe it will help to deal with the issue of clustering.

The reason this is so controversial is that there is a view prevailing in certain quarters that these particular machines are dangerous and highly addictive. They have been dubbed the 'crack cocaine' of gambling by certain newspapers.

If they are as dangerous as dubbed, of course, then they should not be allowed at all. Would we allow crack cocaine to be sold in supermarkets, as long as it is limited to just four shelves? Of course not! Casinos are in any case already allowed twenty much higher-prize machines than the B2 machines which the Committee is talking about.

So what is the evidence? The Gambling Commission has published a number of expert reports by leading experts in the field and the truth is that the evidence is just not there to ban these machines.

If we are not to ban them outright, how many should we allow? Is four the correct number that should be allowed in a casino or a betting shop, or should it be three or five, or two or six? It certainly seems strange that a casino should be allowed 20 B1 machines (maximum prize of £4,000) but only four B2 machines (maximum prize £500). If clustering is indeed taking place, as the Committee indicates may be the case, the current regulations might actually be leading to more B2 machines in total than would be the case if the rules were relaxed in terms of machines per establishment.

This is not to say that we should drop our guard with regard to the potential dangers from unregulated gambling, particularly unregulated online gambling. Australia is another example of a country where easy access to big-jackpot machines in the high street combined with complementary access to alcohol has created a culture of gambling we would be wise not to emulate. But the Committee is not recommending that we wander down either of these routes.
Before rising to cast stones at the recommendations of the Select Committee, therefore, we should pause to consider what they are saying. Whether we agree with all of it or not, ultimately we need to base our conclusions on the evidence, not on emotion.