Lottery Takes the Fun out of Leisure

Article excerpt

Camelot's Arthur and Guinevere are once again the people's champions. The two machines that randomly select the winning numbers in the weekly National Lottery draw are also causing havoc in the leisure industry.

Hundreds of lost jobs already lie in the wake of the lottery, an eight- month-old fledgling, and 200 more were added to their number yesterday at Ladbroke Racing, Britain's largest betting shop operator with 1,900 outlets.

The National Lottery and the recently introduced instant-win scratch cards are collectively extracting pounds 100m a week from the nation's pockets. From zero to annualised turnover of pounds 5bn, it would be churlish to underestimate its financial and social consequences.

Betting shops and the football pools companies have felt the most pain. The outlook for betting shops was good before the televised, random selection of the lottery's first numbered balls last November.

Betting turnover, however, is falling. William Hill, a main rival to Ladbroke in the betting shop stakes, surveyed its regular clientele and found that nine out of 10 were spending between pounds 3 and pounds 9 a week on the weekly lottery draw and scratch cards.

Here lies the heart of the problem. The minimum pricing of lottery tickets at pounds 1 has struck at the core of the leisure industry, which predominantly draws custom from a mass market with low-priced offerings such as bingo, discos, ten-pin bowling, pubs and the cinema.

Preaching from the pulpit about the lottery's sins has become a weekly event among chief executives from leisure companies. The sermons make valid points, but there is a hidden agenda behind the oratory.

The agenda is political, and is aimed at securing a release from the handcuffs of the 1968 Gaming Act, which is as draconian as it is arcane. At its worst, the Act bans the use of the word casino in a telephone directory. And who can explain the logic of prohibiting the sale of alcohol in betting shops while allowing pub customers the freedom to gamble on slot machines?

A great deal of cotton-wool has been wrapped around the lottery to ensure that it went down in the Government's books as a success. However, to have two sets of gaming rules - one for the lottery under the auspices of the National Heritage department and another presided over by the Home Office - can only be unfair.

The legislative playing field really does need to be levelled, particularly since the lottery is already an institution and is not yet displaying any signs of over-exposure. Many leisure companies are at the delicate stage of recovery, and desperately need to be able to stimulate demand through advertising before they become another receivership statistic. …