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Swire: The Government's reckless encouragement of gambling

Speech to seminar on problem gambling, London

"Can I begin by thanking our speakers, and everyone attending today for taking part, I would especially like to thank Lady Brittan who has agreed to chair today's seminar. We are holding today's discussion because over recent months, it has become clear that this Government, under the guidance of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has failed to grasp the very real problems posed by irresponsible gambling in this country.

We are particularly concerned about the rise of problem gambling. As a Conservative I believe that individuals should be free to live their lives as they see fit, free from unnecessary interference from an overbearing nanny state. But I believe there is no contradiction between a liberal approach to individual freedom, and a compassionate conservatism that seeks to protect the most vulnerable in society.

All the indicators and all the actions of this Government show that we are heading into uncharted waters with regard to problem gambling. The Government itself has no reliable figure as to the current number of problem gamblers. Tessa Jowell's Department uses an out of date figure of 0.6% of the adult population having some sort of gambling addiction, while John Prescott's department uses a much higher figure of 1% of the population.

Of course, the most obvious manifestation of this is regional casinos. We opposed the Government's proposals for 40 Resort style casinos, and forced concessions to allow a pilot of only one. Yet constantly we hear from the Department and from Ministers themselves a whispering campaign to increase these numbers. A nod from the Department here, a wink from Richard Caborn there, and the intention is clear, Ministers are, by sleight of hand, determined to increase the numbers of Regional casinos in this country.

Under the stewardship of Tessa Jowell, we have witnessed the biggest explosion of gambling that this country has ever seen. Since 2001, according to Nottingham Trent University Research, we have seen a seven fold increase in betting alone. This amounts to £50 billion a year, the equivalent of more than £800 per person.

This is at a time when personal debt is at its highest ever figure, and even more worryingly, the numbers using the online advice service from Gamcare (only one of a number of charities helping those struggling with gambling addiction), have risen from 5,000 people per month 3 years ago, to over 62,000 per month today. They report that the average debt reported by people looking for advice is £25,000.

Why, in the face of such figures, is the Government not more concerned about the impact of problem gambling? This is a Government that has not only stood idly by and watched an explosion in Britain's gambling habits, it has actively encouraged the growth of gambling in this country. It is our belief that the priorities of the Treasury and the need to fill Gordon Brown's black hole has taken precedence over protecting the needs of British society.

Supercasinos aside, we need only take a cursory glance at the Government's record to see their reckless encouragement of gambling. We should acknowledge that for many years, the industry in Britain has acted responsibly to deal with issues of problem gambling and crime. I applaud them for the way they have acted.

Potentially the most dangerous form of gambling, online gambling, done in the privacy of the home, away from prying eyes has increased massively. Yet Government have done almost nothing to encourage reputable operators to come under the new regulation in the UK, or to discourage rogue companies. Not a single online gambling company has been prosecuted under the 1968 Gaming Act, which forbids the use of any form of inducement to gamble in their advertising. Yet daily, adverts featuring supermodels, fast cars and glamorous locations appear on the side of buses and at virtually every tube platform in London. Now the Government is to allow advertising of gambling on TV.

Is it incompetence or neglect that despite promising to control gambling and protect the vulnerable under the new Gambling Act, a loophole allowed an explosion in the number of applications to creep under the wire of the new legislation? In 1997, there were two applications under the 68 Act for new casinos. This year, ahead of the deadline, there were 47.

Even in the last week, we see a proposal from Advertising Standards Authority and the Gambling Commission to scrap the ban preventing television companies from showing adverts for gambling on our screens.

How can any of these measures go anywhere near to addressing a £50 billion gambling habit? Or is the reality that an estimated revenue of £3 billion to the Treasury is actually at the heart of Government policy on gambling?

No one wants to see gambling banned or the enjoyment of consenting adults curtailed.

But we must have an honest and open debate about what are the true intentions of the Government, and what we want to see in this country. It is shameful that even though we are shortly to have the announcement on where the regional casino and the 16 large and small casinos will be sited, we have no idea how the effects of the pilot will be judged. There are as yet no benchmarks to judge success or failure, no guidelines as to what will constitute a damaging impact and what will constitute a further increase in the numbers allowed. We are being blindly led by the Government into a pilot where potentially the rules will be decided by the Government to meet the needs of the Treasury.

We need more information about the size and scale of problem gambling in this country. We must have more information about what the regenerative benefits of regional casinos will be. It is not enough to suggest that a host of regional casinos will be the panacea for many run down towns and cities. This is lazy thinking on the part of the Government, and it fails to recognise the realities and challenges of urban regeneration.

So can I once again take this opportunity to thank you for contributing today. We are not a party that is anti-gambling. But we are a party that is determined to ensure that we fully understand the implications of gambling on society before we go any further."

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