It's a safe bet that extending gambling will lead to dispute

With bookmakers being allowed to open on Good Friday for the first time, Hazel Mollison looks at the argument for keeping religious holidays special and whether increased opportunities to bet will create social problems for some people.

FIRST there were fears about shops opening for business on Christmas Day. The concern was so great that MSPs last year voted to pass new laws forcing larger stores to stay closed. Now we are being told the traditional Easter holiday weekend is under attack. Bookmakers opened on Good Friday for the first time, following changes to another law last year.

The move has provoked protests from Christian groups, who say some days should be kept special, and that this particular move sends out the wrong message about gambling.

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The bookmakers in turn argue they are simply following customer demand. In an age when gambling is available 24-hours-a-day on the internet, the previous ban on Good Friday opening was unfair and outdated, they say.

The new Gambling Act, introduced last year, brings bookies into line with casinos and bingo halls, which can open every day except Christmas Day. William Hill opened ten per cent of its shops on Friday, including 50 in Scotland, and reported they had been busier than expected.

Public opinion is firmly on the side of the betting industry on this issue, argues Graham Sharpe, William Hill's spokesman, despite concerns about shop workers being obliged to work on what were traditionally family days. "We are one of the last businesses to be allowed to open on Good Friday. We are a legal business and I'm not aware of any opposition," he says.

"Every member of staff has volunteered to work on Friday. We are already open on other bank holidays. I don't think this will contribute to any social problem."

Staff no longer expect to have bank holidays off, according to Edinburgh-based Morrison's Bookmakers, which opened 27 of its shops on Friday. A spokeswoman said: "There have only been slightly fewer customers than normal. Staff expect to work all year round. This is just about meeting customer demand."

There's no doubt gambling is big business and all the evidence suggests there is a huge demand for betting on public holidays as much as at any other time of the year. According to a Gambling Commission report, more than two-thirds of adults placed bets last year, although that figure falls to 48 per cent when you discount the National Lottery. That's still an increase of two per cent on the previous year.

Horse racing is the most popular sport to bet on, according to William Hill, followed by greyhound racing and football. The Grand National is the biggest single event, with more than 500 million in bets placed last year. But fears remain that allowing betting shops to open on bank holidays is inviting social problems and eroding precious opportunities for families to spend time together.

Morag Mylne, convener of the Kirk's Church and Society Council, said: "Even if you're not Christian, there are good reasons to keep some days of the year special. Otherwise there's no time for reflection or celebration."

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The Church is also concerned that the recent change in the laws only serves to make gambling more accessible and socially acceptable. "I think there has to be a concern that by increasing opportunities, you increase the risk. It might be said that one day isn't much, but it sends a message that it's okay," says Ms Mylne.

With the growing number of people betting, the number with gambling problems is increasing too, according to the Salvation Army. Spokesman Tim Stone said: "The opening of bookmakers on Good Friday, a most sacred day for Christians, is extremely disappointing. As Christians, we are not killjoys but we would have preferred Good Friday to remain gambling-free.

"There are already an estimated 370,000 problem gamblers in the UK, and we expect this figure to rise in the future. Problem gambling destroys lives and families. We repeat our appeals to the Gambling Commission to keep a watchful eye on the gambling industry and we challenge the commission to ensure that appropriate investment is in place to assist vulnerable people who are, or may in future be, at risk of becoming addicted to gambling."

Gambling hit record levels in Scotland in 2005, with the average adult spending 1900 on games of chance. Gamblers' Anonymous reported a 200 per cent increase in calls in the same year.

But research by the Gambling Commission suggests it is not bookmakers but newer forms of betting that are the problem. They found that spread betting, fixed odds betting terminals and online casinos, had the highest numbers of problem gamblers.

According to Gamblers' Anonymous, addicts will always find a way of meeting their addiction, no matter when casinos and betting shops are open.

Like cheap supermarket booze, it's difficult to avoid linking the wider availability with a rise in problem gambling. But with so much access available online, at casinos and so on, it seems highly unlikely the lifting of the ban on bookmakers opening on Good Friday will have any significant effect.

From business perspective alone, there is no good reason why high street bookmakers should be disadvantaged, when many casinos can already stay open until 6am.

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The move perhaps raises questions about our attitude to gambling today – the opportunities to indulge in the pastime and whether the laws overall have struck the right balance.

Churches would understandably rather keep the day special, but for most of the service industries it is now business as usual on bank holidays.

That in itself raises questions about our modern, 24-7 society. So, if you are reading this on a day of relaxation with your friends and family, count your blessings that you are one of the lucky ones.