The legal challenge of gambling policy – how to regulate for social outcomes against the overwhelming profit motive

At the moment we are renewing our Gambling Policy, and our discussions have again focused on how far Local Government should or can regulate businesses to play a productive and socially responsible part in the life of Lambeth. However there are two areas where weak guidance and a timid approach can lead to poorly run venues being out of our enforcement reach when problems arise.

Firstly is how to make premises responsible for the impact on their immediate locality, in particular that venues should have to bear responsibility for the bad behaviour of their customers. The contention is that punters who hang out at a bookies and abuse, harass or otherwise cause nuisance outside the venue whilst smoking or simply loitering in between bets, are the responsibility of the management. If the venue wasn’t there, neither would the nuisance.

But how far do we take this and how do we protect businesses that are well run that cannot cope with being in a bad neighbourhood?

The second, and more controversial issue, relates to a specific aim: “protecting children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling.” The guidance states “it will for regulatory purposes assume that this group includes people who gamble more than they want to; people who gamble beyond their means; and people who may not be able to make informed or balanced decisions about gambling due to a mental impairment, alcohol or drugs.”

How can we evidence or prove that shops are being mindful of these issues, especially when lots of mental illnesses are not physically obvious, when people who are less able to manage their money do not usually wear a T-shirt saying so, and whether it is their right to spend what little money they have betting on the GeeGee’s?

There is obviously a civil liberties / nanny state issue here but I’m putting that to one side because it would be unimaginable to enforce against a premises without evidence of an individual being exploited or harmed in this way.

The issue for me now, is to what extent the bookie is responsible for its customers, whether for their wellbeing or their behaviour, and how can we ensure that they do take it seriously. Especially when businesses are primarily focused on profit. How is this written into policy so that it is enforceable and reasonable?

Our big problem is that the legal playing field is uneven. Whilst individual bookies are usually a franchise, their legal backing is mighty, and the industry will fight any extension of regulation which requires shops to have a regard for their customers wellbeing or their customers behaviour. Our legal advice is understandably cautious when the public purse is at stake.

We have seen in very recent history the disastrous consequences of weak regulation whether through wilful deceit lax enforcement. Gambling, and of course the sale of alcohol, has a huge impact on individuals and communities. To not regulate locally is to ignore our responsibilities, for the welfare of our citizens and the safety of our streets. Also because we pick up the pieces when it all goes wrong.

How do we regulate industries at a local level without having to constantly look over their shoulder, or engage in costly enforcement. How can we ‘make’ them consider their social responsibilities over and above their profit targets. I imagine it’ll be one for the lawyers eventually but until then we can but regulate…


Author: jackhopkins

Labour Councillor for Oval ward in London Borough of Lambeth, and Cabinet Member for Jobs and Growth covering economic development, regeneration, planning and entrepreneurship. (formerly Community Safety) Interested in partnerships, training and development, social mobility and Arsenal.

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