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…


LGA Conference 2012 – learning or listening, peer to peer coaching the key

My first LGA conference was great and I will be back next year. I learnt a lot, I made some great contacts who I will follow up with and political friendships which no doubt will last as long as we all remain in office.

I leave Birmingham with some fresh ideas and approaches, some existing thoughts better developed and some dots joined up in my head. But 2 thoughts dominate for me and they are essentially about how we operate and whether we are making best use of our human resources.

What sticks out first is the difference between constructive dialogue and just being talked at. When people share experiences, work through problems with peers and colleagues from a practical perspective you get better learning which means something and a deeper understanding of problems and solutions in the context they come from.

Unfortunately many of the sessions I attended were old skool set pieces with ‘expert’ speakers making presentations or giving speeches to an audience, followed by short time for Q&A (which invariably never get answered) It struck me as strange that with so much experience in one place, there were not more opportunities to sit down and discuss some of the challenges that we are practically dealing with – to share learning and experiences honestly and openly?

Secondly we have not bridged the Councillor / Officer divide but there are bright spots. LGA peer reviews are done by joint officer and Councillor teams, but also ensures it happens in the host authority. Many Councils are piloting joint problem solving approaches, or changing structures to bring Councillors and officers together but it’s a little hit and miss and people I spoke to acknowledged that where these did happen, good working relationships were generally already in place.

When the @lgchallenge finalists were asked to outline the content of their 1st briefing to the leader when they become Chief Executive, not one of them mentioned manifesto’s, political priorities or values. In an era of austerity, political choices are absolutely key. I didn’t get the sense talking to officers or other Councillors that we are making sure officers understand that they work in a political organisation and equally whether Councillors understand how their own organisation works to get better outcomes for their residents.

In saying all that I feel that the sector is in a healthy place, with bright young things and wise heads, innovation as well as ambition to face the most challenging circumstances ever. Sharing across the sector better in a meaningful way so necessary culture change is realised and contextual is vital going forward with innovation happening in so many places and at a pace that has been set so crushingly fast.

I’m interested by anyone who is doing anything new or old that brings together officers, partners and Councillors (maybe even residents!!!!) in a meaningful way, so please pass on anything you know or want to shout about.