Magazine article The Spectator

The Penny Drops

Magazine article The Spectator

The Penny Drops

Article excerpt

Remember all those grim warnings that the National Lottery would turn us into a nation of compulsive gamblers? The puritans and doom-mongers claimed that, with the new betting craze sweeping across the land, all too many of us would spend our waking hours staggering, glass-eyed and dissipated, between the slot-machine and the greyhound track. Typical of this mood of foreboding was the statement of Lord Donoughue about the introduction of the Lottery, `We are creating a boom in gambling. We are in danger of creating a bonanza society, where citizens see their purpose as to win the Big One.'

Almost nine years after the start of the Lottery in 1994, those dire predictions could hardly look more hollow. Far from creating an explosion in betting, the National Lottery seems to have achieved the exact opposite. On many fronts, gambling is now on the decline in Britain. The football pools, for instance, now appear to be in terminal crisis, with the number of participants falling dramatically over the last seven years, down from around 9 million in 1996 to only about 1.4 million today. By the end of this decade, it seems unlikely that the pools will be played at all in this country.

The same problems can be seen in so many other parts of the gambling industry. Greyhound racing is in serious trouble, while the number joining in newspaper lotteries has gone down by 36 per cent since 1997. According to a study by the ORC research organisation, the proportion of British adults who gamble fell by 6 per cent between 2001 and 2002. ORC found big drops in numbers using fruit machines and casinos, as well as the pools and the Lottery itself. Referring to gambling as an `ailing industry', one of ORC's directors, Chris Brookes, said of his company's research, 'A substantial proportion of people we interviewed claimed that it wasn't just concern over money that had stopped them playing. They all said that they had lost interest in the activity.'

Contrary to the idea that we all love a flutter, only about 70 per cent of Britons gamble at all, a far lower proportion of the populace than in Sweden, that supposed paragon of social responsibility, where more than 90 per cent of citizens gamble regularly.

This weekend sees the Grand National at Aintree, a race that used to be one of our national institutions. But interest in such events has been waning in recent years - last year's TV viewing figures for the Grand National showed a dramatic fall. Reflecting the difficulties of the sector, the number of bookmakers' shops has fallen by 15 per cent since 1996/97, down from 10,200 to 8,700. The latest figures from the Home Office show that the number of applications to renew betting-office licences fell by 19 per cent between 1990 and 2000.

Those working in the industry would, no doubt, dispute this picture of gloom. They could point to the growth in online betting through the Internet, the fashion for spread-- betting, and the continuing popularity of bingo. They could also point to an increase of 35 per cent in betting-shop turnover since October 2001, when the government changed the industry's tax regime. Under the new system, the duty on punters' stakes was replaced by a 15 per cent levy on the gross profits of the bookmaker.

Yet the very fact that the government felt compelled to introduce such a measure was an indicator of the crisis gripping the industry. …

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