You bet, Brits love a ‘flutter’

The spot-fixing scandal that has devastated the IPL points to the massive illegal betting industry that rides on cash-rich sports. Legalising betting is being suggested as a remedy, but it may only worsen the disease.

June 02, 2013 09:14 am | Updated November 27, 2021 06:53 pm IST

English language is rather good at evoking the British passion for gambling — people ‘gambling away’ their wealth, ‘betting the bank’ on a whim, ‘taking a punt’ on anything that might take their fancy, from horses and football matches to weather and the likely gender of the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton’s baby.

Brits love a ‘flutter’ and make no bones about it. Betting became legal in 1960 with the enactment of the Betting and Gaming Act, 1960. Today, it is a multi-billion pound industry. High-street betting shops, which represent just a fraction of Britain’s bourgeoning gambling trade, alone contribute £3 billion a year to the British economy, according to evidence submitted by the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) to Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sports Committee.

A study commissioned by Ladbrokes, Britain’s leading gambling company, in 2010 found that the total betting business, which includes gambling machines and online punts, was worth £6 billion a year, employing more than 100,000 persons. Ladbrokes chief executive Chris Bell was all gung-ho as he urged the government to take note of the “growing importance” of the betting industry.

“We need to remind Westminster and Whitehall that this not an industry made up of people running a couple of betting shops and driving round in Zephyrs. It’s a very important industry, which generates £6 billion worth of gross value to the taxpayer, and on which nearly 41,000 jobs depend directly, which is as many as the newspaper publishing business, and another 62,000 jobs depend indirectly,” he said.

Despite the recession, the gambling sector is reported to be booming amid growing fears that more and more people are getting “addicted” to various forms of gambling, with online betting on the rise and high streets swamped with betting shops and gaming salons. Roulette machines are becoming so popular that they have been nicknamed “the crack cocaine of gambling.” And things are set to get worse with new planning rules making it easier for shops to expand into betting/gaming establishments. The rules, designed to help revive small businesses affected by the recession, will allow pubs, for instance, to add a betting section without having to seek permission from local authorities. A “free-for-all” is feared as loss-making businesses diversify into betting and other forms of gambling.

Casino-style gambling machines are catching up. Last year, in the first sixth months alone, Ladbrokes and William Hill — two of Britain’s biggest bookmaker chains — between them collected a staggering £12.5 billion through these machines, reportedly yielding them a net profit of £350 million. Comparable figures for other major bookmakers such as Paddy Power and Carol are not available; but together the total money gambled across the industry was in the region of £46 billion.

According to a Guardian analysis, more than £5bn was gambled on “high-speed, high-stakes gambling machines in northern England cities and London boroughs with high levels of unemployment” last year. This was four times the amount spent by people in the more affluent areas of southern England with lower levels of unemployment.

“The profit made by betting shops, known as the gross gambling yield, in the 50 poorest constituencies was just over £173m, according to Fairer Gambling, which gleaned the figures from analysis of industry data,” wrote the paper’s social affairs editor Randeep Ramesh.

One Labour MP expressed “shock” that £190 million was being gambled in her impoverished constituency. “I think it is a moral question to ask whether it is a good thing that betting companies are targeting the poor and whether government lets them. According to these figures, there’s more being spent on gambling than by the council in my constituency on services,” said Lucy Powell.

A top economist has warned that some 22,000 new jobs could be at risk if spending on betting and other forms of gambling continues to grow because people would not be spending on other goods and services, thus affecting job creation in other sectors.

The view is shared by other independent experts.

“What is increasingly evident is that the impact of roulette machines in betting shops goes beyond the creation of a new generation of problem gamblers and the consequences that will produce, but now there are wider economic consequences for this shift in expenditure,” said Derek Webb, founder of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.

There are reports of people’s lives being ruined by a culture of betting that is seen to have gone out of control prompting calls for tighter regulation of the gambling industry. “If you look through the windows of bookies, all you see is young people losing money on these machines,” Labour MP David Lammy said.

The last official review took place in 2005 when the Labour government brought in the Gambling Act 2005 that proposed measures to protect children and other vulnerable persons from being “harmed or exploited by gambling.” Eight years on, many feel another review is overdue.

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