Robin Oakley

Excessive gambling is dangerous – a flutter on the horses is not

Politicians are right to scrutinise Britain’s betting habits, but they mustn’t be allowed to kill horse-racing

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Sorry is allegedly the hardest word to say — so Carolyn Harris, chair of the all-party parliamentary group studying gambling-related harm, scored a significant success recently by extracting apologies from a number of leading gambling-industry executives about the damage caused by their business. Representatives from Paddy Power Betfair, William Hill, Sky Bet and bet365 agreed that their firms hadn’t done enough to tackle problem gambling after Dan Taylor of Flutter Entertainment, Paddy Power Betfair’s parent company, acknowledged: ‘The industry has got things wrong and has caused harm to individuals. We mustn’t forget that.’

It is hard to remember now that we have lottery outlets in almost every newsagent and betting shops in every high street, but until 1960 it was illegal to bet anywhere in Britain except on a racecourse or dog track. Everything especially changed on 1 May 1961 when the first licensed betting shops — famously described by bookmaker John Banks as ‘a licence to print money’ — were opened. Vigorous lobbying by the gambling industry, with the Mirabelle restaurant and the Hyde Park Hotel dining room becoming extensions of the House of Commons canteens, had ensured that the alternative idea of a Tote monopoly was beaten off. The Jockey Club, several of whose politically connected leading members were suspected of being in hock to the bookmakers, had opposed such a monopoly, despite the Tote having effectively been initiated by Winston Churchill’s Racecourse Betting Act of 1928.

Rab Butler, the home secretary who oversaw the introduction of betting shops, was certainly no enthusiast, saying that ‘someone leaving a betting shop should feel like they are leaving a brothel’. His legislation insisted there should be ‘no television, radio, music, dancing or refreshments on the premises’.

Parliament’s interest in racing and betting since has been spasmodic at best. In his later years Churchill enjoyed racing, with the grey Colonist II winning 13 races in his chocolate and pink colours, but few MPs in recent decades have had any involvement with the racing industry or been racehorse owners. One of the last was the generously convivial Tory whip Spencer Le Marchant. I played hookey from Westminster as a political correspondent one day to join him watching his horse at Windsor races. He planned to treat the party to dinner at the Waterside Inn at Bray with the proceeds of its expected victory. Alas, the horse ran a stinker, Le Marchant had a row with the jockey in the unsaddling enclosure and we finished up eating takeaway pizza from a car boot in a Holiday Inn carpark — an early lesson in politicians’ promises.

Now parliament’s attitude to racing and to the betting industry profits it depends on for its finances has become suspicious, verging on the hostile. In the quest for votes, politicians have become readier to tune in with animal welfare lobbies, voicing opposition not only to the use of the whip but to racing animals at all for entertainment. Those understandably concerned with the harm done to individuals by excessive gambling are gaining an ever stronger political voice.

In particular, there is growing opposition to the lowest-common-denominator advertising barrage which draws into problem gambling those who can least afford it. Gambling’s opponents in parliament have already succeeded in reducing the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals from £100 to £2. Gambling advertising —already banned in Italy — is their next target. Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has made a number of interventions indicating planned new restrictions on gambling with a ‘culture of limits’ imposed on stakes and spending. Gambling Commission surveys have found that almost 80 per cent of respondents think there are too many opportunities to gamble, more than 70 per cent think gambling damages family life and, more worryingly for the industry, 25 per cent think it should be banned altogether.

From racing’s point of view, a ban on gambling advertising similar to that imposed on tobacco advertising could threaten its survival. Such a ban would drastically cut race sponsorship and prize money and would soon result in cutbacks in terrestrial television coverage of the sport. That in turn would slash the money coming into racing via the levy on bookmakers’ profits and from media rights.

We all know excessive gambling is dangerous. One newspaper executive I knew lost his home and his marriage that way. Meet him after the second race and he would have a back-pocket wad; meet him after the last and he would be touching you for the price of a taxi home. But he went to casinos too. Racing is the most sociable of sports — ‘How did you do in the last?’ ‘What do you fancy in this one?’ — and having an occasional flutter, especially in company, is fun. Yes, we need safeguards to protect those most likely to be harmed by gambling excess but don’t let us wreck a truly national sport because a bunch of parliamentarians see votes to be gained from the British public in one of its occasional fits of pressure group-induced morality.