Here’s a solution to Britain’s gambling problem – nationalise the industry

Sam Wolfson Opinion There is not a lot of subtlety in the games they design for fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). In one, Goddess of the Amazon, badly rendered illustrations...

Sam Wolfson Opinion

There is not a lot of subtlety in the games they design for fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). In one, Goddess of the Amazon, badly rendered illustrations of big-breasted women in leather underwear point you towards slot machines – you literally have to tap on their crotch to spin the wheel. In another, Rainbow Riches, a leprechaun points you to a “wishing well”, a fairly on-the-nose metaphor for a game that involves pointlessly chucking coins you’ll never see again into a hole.

While the games are stupid, the profits they make for the bookmakers are serious. In the year ending September 2016, £1.8bn was wagered on them, including 233,000 sessions where players ended up losing more than £1,000.

There is nothing good about FOBTs. They take money from the most vulnerable in society and give it to the bookmakers. The bookies say reducing stakes will lead to betting shop closures, but on high streets overrun with nasty shops where people get themselves into debt and distress, fewer would be a good thing.

Yet last week, the Gambling Commission couldn’t bring itself even to recommend reducing the maximum bet to £2, instead leaving the decision up to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. There’s a lot you can say about its secretary, Matt Hancock – a man who suggested the best response to the Salisbury attack would be England winning the World Cup – but being likely to stand up to the gambling lobby on moral principle is not one of them.

Frankly, the focus on FOBTs is nonsense. It is as futile as trying to reduce childhood obesity by banning tubs of lard over 10kg. Gambling is less regulated in Britain than just about anywhere in the world. I know this because I’m a gambler. I used to have an annual flutter on the Grand National, but once I had downloaded the app to bet on that, I was enticed with other offers. Now when I watch a football match, the ad breaks are filled with live odds, and voiceovers imploring you to “bet now”, while the app on my phone belts out notifications with alluring throughout the game.

There are absolutely no limits on what bookies can do to try to make you bet more. Paddy Power offers a scheme where if you make five bets of more than £10 within a week it will give you a free £10 bet, an offer that seems specifically designed to push people betting the occasional couple of quid into being problem gamblers.

Gambling is now so embedded in our society that it would be impossible to ban. Its sponsorship funds sport, its shops employ thousands of people and, on occasion, it can bring communities together. I am obsessed with my local bingo hall: the hundreds of regulars, £2 Jamaican dinners, tiny stakes and huge prizes. Last Christmas, they had a deal where if you went four times they would give you a turkey. We should be fighting to save places like this, not closing them down.

There is absolutely no reason, however, why betting shops and online sites should not be nationalised, in the same way the lottery is. You don’t have to be a radical socialist to think that private bookmakers shouldn’t be given a licence to print money. Private companies would be able to bid to run betting shops, as Camelot runs the national lottery, making 0.5% profit on each ticket. But the vast majority of profits could go back into grassroots sport, community projects and taxes. With a single government owner it would be infinitely easier to stop problem gamblers moving between bookies and stamp out dangerous money laundering.

I am not the first to float this idea. In 1976 the Tote, then a government-owned bookie, suggested all bookmakers should be nationalised. If it had happened we’d have had billions in government revenue and a controlled gambling environment. Instead we got high streets overrun with bleak betting shops, apps that pass British earnings into the accounts of faceless foreign casinos, and a game where you can pay £100 to touch a cartoon woman’s loincloth.

How I learned to find my friends

For a long time the only people quitting Facebook were teenagers sick of their parents phoning them to ask if they had liked their pictures yet and Sunday-supplement journalists “living a week without tech”. But in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica news, thousands of ordinary people are quitting the site. This could be the wake-up call privacy campaigners have dreamed of.

Yet I find myself going in the other direction; not only do I share a concerning amount of my personal data with pretty much every social network, I’m also an avid user of Apple’s Find My Friends app. It lets you give permission for certain friends to constantly track you and for you to see where they are.

Whenever I tell people who don’t track about this they make a face like I’m an idiot, but honestly, I find this one of the most comforting technological advances. It’s hard to find an excuse to hang out with people in a city like London, unless it’s birthday drinks or an office party. But if you happen to be in the same bit of town there’s no stigma about suggesting a drink.

Yes, there have been a few occasions when privacy concerns have been noted. I’m late for everything, but I have been rumbled with my “five minutes away” excuseswhen it’s clear I’m still in the bath. When a friend ended up back at her ex’s, just hours after promising to cut him out of her life, we were all quick to jump on the Whatsapp thread and start ribbing her. Still, I think the positives far outweigh the invasions. If we’re going to let a bunch of faceless nerds in San Francisco into our darkest secrets, I don’t see why we can’t show our mates we’re in a pub round the corner.

Overegging Easter

As a Jew raised in London, I normally hate the Easter weekend. I kind of forget it’s arriving and then suddenly it does and half the people I know disappear from the city. What are you all doing? I get Christmas, it has a strict schedule, but is it really just the chocolate egg thing? That doesn’t feel as if it will fill four days. I’ve heard about “egg blowing” but am too scared to Google it. Thankfully, Passover and Easter overlap perfectly this year so at least I’ll be distracted by my dad’s gag-filled rendition of Dayenu (a song that boasts the schlep God had to go through to save the Jews) and a meal where no one is allowed to eat for the first five hours.

Source: The Guardian