Betting our lives

Labour’s love affair with the gambling industry

Thank God for the tobacco industry, gambling's front man in the United States, Frank Fahrenkopf, tells his friends. ‘I say my thanks every morning when I say my prayers.’ Fahrenkopf, who is a former Republican party chairman, heads the American Gaming Association, and he has good cause to praise the Lord. Gambling is such a controversial, not to say ungodly, activity that in America it only remains an also-ran in the bogeyman stakes as long as tobacco is around; you can bet that the evils of cigarettes will dominate the people's attention, campaigners' efforts and politicians' time, rather than the evils of gambling.

Over here in Britain, however, it seems that gambling doesn't need God's help in any way. It’s got the government on its side. The British gambling industry doesn't need a flak-catcher of Fahrenkopf's distinction. It doesn't need a flak-catcher at all. Where's the flak? Our national lottery's licence is up for grabs and the only question is: will Camelot win it again? The lottery's sole problem is that we are spending only £100m a week on it, so they are launching a new game next week to tempt us to blow a little more.

We are five years into the lottery and already it is hard to imagine Britain without it. Ask seven-year-olds how they would spend the jackpot and you can listen to the lottery-winning future they have got all mapped out. Touching adult lives, it is up there as a phenomenon, along with Margaret Thatcher, the internet and the pill. That £100m a week on lottery tickets is more than we spend on KitKats or Coca-Cola.

Now, before the licence is given away again, might be a good time to look carefully at what the lottery is doing to this society.

This isn't happening. Instead we have got something called a ‘National Gambling Prevalence Study’ supposedly designed to look at how we gamble and the harm that it might do us. Launched by Jack Straw's Home Office, it was swiftly passed to a steering group that is dominated by the gambling companies. They, not the Home Office, are paying for the research. A man called Paul Bellringer is the steering group's chairman. A former probation officer, he is director of Gamcare, the charity for gamblers in trouble that is funded by the corporations who get gamblers into trouble.

Ladbroke, the lottery, the casinos and the slots pay for Gamcare's help lines, its education packs and its director, who is quick to tell you he is not ‘anti-gambling’. Far from it. Mr Bellringer says it is just another branch of the entertainment industry.

I asked him, with his chairman's hat on, to name the steering group's members. They got together at the beginning of this year, they have appointed a research company and now they are finalising the study's questionnaire. ‘I'd need to check out people's sensibilities about being named,’ Mr Bellringer said.

Last year one independent, British, world-class academic revealed that more than 100,000 children in their early teens were seriously hooked on gambling. Those findings, based on publicly-funded research, were so worrying that the government tried to suppress them. I wondered if that particular academic, Plymouth University's Sue Fisher, would be involved this time. ‘Er, no,’ said Mr Bellringer. ‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘It was a seriously competitive bid we accepted,’ he said, and that was that.

‘What's your budget?’

‘It's a very competitive market out there,’ he replied. ‘I'm drawing a line there.’

Mr Bellringer and his anonymous committee plan to reveal their findings in February next year, by which time the lottery will be into the second of its seven-year franchises. Who knows what the research will turn up about gambling's impact on society? I'd lay generous odds that it won't offend the industry or the government.

In the recent past, you wouldn't have thought any government could love gambling more John Major's. He gave us the lottery when no one but the gambling industry was asking for it. The lottery, as insiders knew it would, triggered breakneck further deregulation for the slots, casinos and betting shops.

The Tories cheerfully sat their wives on gambling company boards. Relations were so cordial it is hard to fathom what there was for former sports minister Colin Moynihan to fix for his £5,000 a month retainer from GTECH.

Nowadays, the love affair with gambling scales new heights with New Labour. They have rebranded it the ‘people's lottery’ and raided it for health and education, things we thought we had paid for in our taxes. Deregulation hurtles along and the Wives' Job Club is going strong.

When Jack Straw's wife Alice isn't running resources at the department of health, she is a director at Littlewoods, the pools company. Lord Donoughue, a government frontbencher, has teased the gambling companies: support Gamcare, ‘or you won't be on the list of new Labour Lords’.

His son Stephen is the industry's adviser at consultants KPMG. They recently advised the government to privatise the Tote and to free casinos from rules that help punters hold on to their money. And, phew, despite the change of government, Lord Moynihan's £5,000 a month still seems secure.

Everything in the gambling garden is lovely, just as it was in Britain for tobacco no doubt before the people who got cancer and the people who looked after them turned uppity.

In America the people who get hurt by gambling and the people who look after them are indeed just as uppity, so over there the gambling companies have adopted tobacco's tricks and devised a few of their own. They are buying up academics - remarkably good value - and pumping money into research that shows, thank God, there is no connection between gambling and crime, suicide or bankruptcy. Such a thing could not happen here, of course. Could it?

And if we are going to have government-backed gambling, why indeed shouldn't Camelot continue to help run it? Sure, there's been a little trouble. The lottery's father, Guy Snowden of GTECH, planted the seed in the Tory party, made Camelot what it is today and tried to bribe Richard Branson. He had to go - with £8 million to ease his pain. The lottery regulator, bumbling Peter Davis, had to go as well and with a pay-off.

But for all the trouble and turbulence there has been in Britain's lottery world, no one who matters has been hurt. So you can all look forward to years of happy gambling. Don't forget: Thunderball, your brand-new lottery game, starts next week.