Bookmakers help punters stay safe, says Donald Morrison
Fifty-five years ago, the Government of Harold MacMillan revolutionised the way Britain gambled as the first legal betting shops opened across the country. Before then, betting had been carried out clandestinely, on street corners, in pubs and clubs, even in factories. In Scotland there had been a significant increase in illegal betting shops, leading to criminal proceedings against 16,812 people in just one year. With an estimated 1,000 shops in Scotland alone, the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act, introduced by Home Secretary Rab Butler, was an attempt to end the black market in gambling and usher in a new era of legal betting shops. The Government view in Scotland was summed up by Under Secretary of State for Scotland Niall Macpherson. In a Commons debate, he said: “People want to bet. If they cannot bet legally, they will find ways of doing it which are not within the law.”
But the reforms would only go so far. in his memoirs, Butler wrote: “The House of Commons was so intent on making betting shops as sad as possible, in order not to deprave the young, that they ended up more like undertakers’ premises.” Indeed, they were not for the fainthearted – in the early days, bookmakers were smoky, dingy, uninviting venues with blacked out windows so as to avoid corrupting the passing public. But for a nation emerging from post-war austerity, they proved popular. Within 18 months, around 10,000 bookies had opened across the country.
Today, bookmakers remain very much part of our high streets, albeit they are very different to their 1960s counterparts and fewer in number. Gone are the blacked-out windows; today’s bookmakers are smoke (and alcohol) free, bright, modern and welcoming retail spaces. The austerity of the 1960s is a thing of the past.
Today’s bookmakers face a great deal more competition than they did in the 1960s. Now, it’s possible to gamble in an array of venues and even from the comfort of your own home. But bookmakers have endured for 55 years and remain popular. Around 650,000 people across Scotland enjoy a flutter in their local bookmakers. For many, the bookies is a community hub, a place to catch up with friends, watch live sport and enjoy a bet. The vast majority of customers bet responsibly, only spending what they can afford to lose.
The 1951 Royal Commission on Betting, Lotteries and Gambling – which paved the way for Butler’s reforms – suggested that “the object of gambling legislation should be to interfere as little as possible with individual liberty to take part in the various forms of gambling but to impose such restrictions as are desirable and practicable to discourage or prevent excess.’ Those principles have stood the test of time. Today’s bookmakers are more tightly regulated than at any time, with an industry regulator empowered to revoke betting shop licences, and new powers for the Scottish Government to regulate the number of gaming machines. But bookmakers are also working to tackle problem gambling via initiatives such as the Responsible Gambling Code, Gamble Aware Week, restrictions on advertising, and a nationwide multi-operator self-exclusion scheme introduced this year.
Sadly, a very small number of customers don’t or can’t heed the responsible gambling messages displayed prominently in betting shops. That’s where our professional staff – 5000 in Scotland alone – can make the difference. They’ve been trained to identify problem signs and intervene in a friendly, constructive manner whenever they see someone in difficulty. Where necessary, they can direct customers to gambling awareness charities or help them self exclude from betting shops. It’s that ability to intervene that sets community bookies apart and makes them, in our view, the safest place to bet responsibly.
There is for all governments a balance to be struck between promoting individual liberty and protecting the most vulnerable. But the evidence shows that, for most people – whether they buy a weekly lottery card, play bingo or take a punt on a horse – gambling is an enjoyable way to spend their money and leisure time. As responsible adults, they make an informed choice to do so.
As he steered Britain’s new gambling laws through Parliament, Butler’s view was that “gambling, like every indulgence, should be kept within reasonable bounds”. If he were alive today, he would hopefully take comfort from the fact that levels of problem gambling in the UK have remained relatively constant over the years at around 0.5 per cent, and slightly lower in Scotland.
After 55 years of betting shops, Scots still love a flutter – but they’re canny enough to decide for themselves when and how much to spend at the bookies.
• Donald Morrison is director of ABB Scotland, the trade association for high street bookmakers in Scotland, www.abb.uk.com