Saturday, 12 January 2013

Bookies a blight on the High Street?


Harriet Harman has had the humble bookie in her sights this week. Labour's Deputy Leader described betting shops as a "blight" on London's high streets. Her comments come after the Government on Friday ruled out a crackdown on high-stakes gambling machines from betting shops despite warnings about their addictive nature.

This gives me a chance to dust off my hobby-horse again: the role of the ethical bookmaker. Ms Harman has commented before about the way that the betting industry preys on the most vulnerable in society, particularly by moving into the high streets of deprived areas, often in high concentrations.  Interestingly, betting shops are classified as financial services, meaning that if a bank closes a betting shop can open in the property unchallenged.

There are 1,773 betting shops in London, according to the Campaign for Fairer Gambling. But it is what goes on in them that was the subject of this week’s House of Commons Culture debate. Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) have long sparked concern. The machines can accept stakes of up to £100 and offer prizes of £500. Research by the Campaign for Fairer Gambling again links gambling to poverty. It estimates that FOBTs in the 50 parliamentary constituencies with the highest unemployment rates saw a turnover of £5bn in 2012, generating a profit of £173m. In the 50 constituencies with the greatest employment levels, the bookies made only £44m. Dianne Abbott has accused the industry of targeting the poor, saying: ‘It’s a business model which sucks money from the poorest communities.’ The Daily Mail, never one to miss a trick, has got its teeth into this as well, bandying about puritanical headlines pointing to 'the crack cocaine of gambling’.

However, the Government is not for turning. Culture minister Hugh Robertson said there was little evidence they caused serious problems.

For my part, I would like to see bookmakers that can contribute to the regeneration of these deprived areas they serve and to be more proactive in identifying and tackling addictive behaviour. I’ve blogged before about the ethical bookmaker. A bookie that is run as a social enterprise and re-invests profits into the local community where it is based and from where the customers come. Even better, the bookies could be run by those communities. There is an increasing trend for community organisations to become more entrepreneurial: competing for the right to run local authority services; developing enterprises that can help to regenerate areas.

As Ms Harman has observed, bookies have a deep reach into many of the most deprived areas in the country. Half an hour in any bookie off the Holloway Road would confirm that. A social enterprise makeover for the humble bookmaker could provide investment in local infrastructure and services. They might also act as a gateway to other advice and support services, perhaps including help with gambling and other addictive behaviour. Profits would be harvested from responsible gambling and re-invested in community projects.

There would be barriers to such an approach, of course. Moralistic arguments, amongst others. Prospective investors in the model – likely to be public sector in reality – might be squeamish about basing a community policy that relied on encouraging gambling. On the other hand, we seem to have got over that problem when it comes to the National Lottery, often perceived as a tax on the poor. And now we have a new Health Lottery that has been criticized for creaming off too many profits for its operators.

I’ve suggested this approach before. This time I’m going to write to the Shadow Culture Secretary to see what she has to say.  

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