Friday, April 09, 2004

And many a gamble has been lost and won....

"A tax on the stupid" is how a friend of mine describes the national lottery. Whilst I would not entirely subscribe to her rather harsh judgement, I do fear the consequences of the government's new Bill to deregulate the gambling laws, and not just because it will lead to an increase in gambling addiction.

It isn't only the Mega Las Vegas style casinos in run down holiday resorts that bother me either. They will be the tip of the iceberg as people are enticed into the wonderful world of slot machines by the machine in their local chippy, through to the ones in pubs that now give you change from £5, £10, and £20 notes to avoid you having to keep troubling the bar staff to convert your wages into pound coins.

My Ward is described in the Planning guidance as a tight-knit community of Victorian terraced houses, with very little scope for increased car parking. A recent proposal by the loathsome Blue Chip Casinos to convert a local pub into an all-night gamblig casino was, quite rightly thrown out by Planning Committee. They rejected it on the grounds that it will cause a nusance to residents with the noise of punters coming and going, as well as the problems of traffic and parking. To make matters worse they have a ludicrous proposal to convert the pub exterior to a replica of an ocean going liner (the nearest sea is nearly 100 miles away). The residents are quite rightly convinced it will blight the area and lead to increased crime and a downward spiral of house prices.

Blue Chip have now appealed to the national Planning Inspectorate and some planning inspector wallah from Bristol will come to Smethwick to decide the future of the community before buggering off back to Bristol. The feeling in the area is very much the same as that over 'phone masts. The politicians have taken the Casino owners cash (I am told donations to the Labour Party from Casino owners make interesting reading, as well as MP's connections to various betting lobby groups) and this is the payback.

Personally, I feel sick for these people. There will be a public inquiry at which they will be able to put their view, but we are ordinary working-class folk who will be faced with Barristers employed by Blue Chip, and I fear for the result. Perhaps Mr Barry de Lacey, the owner of Blue Chip, would welcome his 'low-end of the market' casino in his own back garden, but I suspect his back garden is so large he wouldn't even notice.

So I was particularly impressed with John O'Farrell's lampoon of the new gambling laws in today's Guardian.

"Look how much we stand to win!" says Tony Blair, adding up the revenue from the new casinos and jobs in the leisure industry.

But like any hardened gambler, he's forgetting about how much it will cost him: hundreds of thousands of people getting into debt, losing their homes, unable to support their families. More people turning to crime to pay for their habit.

There are an estimated 300,000 so-called problem gamblers in this country (which is twice as many as I bet my kids there would be). But it won't be the casinos paying for all the social costs of more addicts. Maybe the all-party committee should explain everything it has learned to the prime minister, and he might think twice about the morality of it all.

"So, guys, how do these big bookmakers maintain such enormous profit margins?"

"Well, it's simple really, PM. They take loads of money off millions of poor people, but keep them passive by occasionally giving small amounts back."

"Hang on a minute," says the prime minister. "I thought that was what the Treasury did."