Friday, 13 May 2011

It's fifty years since legal betting shops opened - what's been the result?

One thing you can bet on is that nothing stays the same.  And that’s been the case with gambling in Britain ever since legal betting shops opened fifty years ago on May 1st 1961.

Like many young men of his generation Gordon Traynor was just fourteen when he started gambling on the horses. Back in the 1940s it was easy enough, within tight knit working class communities, to do so. 

He’d just started working at Seaham Colliery, where the coal seams stretched out miles under the North Sea. 

His dad, Joe - an invalid after being gassed during the First World War - was a daily gambler whose dole money meant he could only ever wager tiny amounts.  Trying to ensure success meant Joe was even prepared to put his staunch Labour Party political principles to one side by daily buying the Tory supporting Daily Express because it had the best racing coverage.

Augmented with the knowledge gleaned from the weekly Racing and Football Outlook - that his son still reads more than sixty years later - the ex-military man would each morning write down his bets on a scrap piece of paper and await the arrival of the bookie’s runner before handing over his stake.

Going to Hudsons Betting Shop would have been a waste of time.  It was open, but only someone with sufficient credit to set up an account and able to do their wagering by telephone could place a bet. That hadn’t always been the case and back in the first half of the 19th century there existed hundreds of betting shops across the country all happily taking money off those keen enough to gamble on horse racing. 
Victorian morality attitudes soon put paid to this and the 1853 Betting Houses Act shut them down.  Serviced by a network of paid runner’s going to homes, workplaces, pubs and clubs betting continued.  As punters didn’t want to be identified a non-de-plume was necessary to allow for the identity of any winners. Joe’s dry sense of humour meant his was always ‘0-2-L’ I’m having a bet.
It was a day after collecting his first pay packet that Joe’s son took up runner Charlie Cullen’s suggestion to have a bet. “Virtually every male my age and over was having one and you could see Charlie weaving his way in and out of people’s houses each morning collecting the bets,” recalls Gordon
Despite the illegality “no-one saw the likes of Charlie as a criminal”, he laughs. Generally such community attitudes were mirrored within local police forces but “every now and again there’d be an arrest.” On the third a prison sentence could be assured. So in order to try and stay one step ahead of the law it was not uncommon for bookmakers to pay local police officers to tip them off before any planned raids on the homes of their employees. 
Around the same time the government took a more pragmatic line on football pools coupons, which were first distributed outside Old Trafford in 1923. Along with the Football League it had previously tried to suppress this form of betting but now decided instead on pools betting duty of 20%.

As prizes rose 1950 saw Mrs E Knowlson of Manchester become the first winner to scoop £100,000. By 1959 the Football League had concluded a ten-year deal with the pools promoters in which they earned 0.5% of each gross stake, paving the way for football to become the highly lucrative game that we know today.

It’s likely that the 1853 Act would have gone earlier if Labour had retained power at the 1951 election, but the Conservatives’ stronger ties to religious institutions meant they needed to tread more carefully before, under Harold Macmillan, they brought in the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act, which took force a year later.

The changes were welcomed with the Daily Mirror saying ‘ABOUT TIME!’ above its leader column. Headline writers had a field day. ‘BETTING SHOPS START LIKE WINNERS’ came from the same paper, which added that bookies had got away to ‘a good gallop.’

And they’ve kept up the pace since.  Estimated, at today’s value as worth just over £600 million in 1960, this industry’s turnover has risen, according to the Gambling Commission, to £5.7 billion in 2009-10, taking in casino’s, bingo, arcades and of course the rapidly growing online betting market.

William Hill has the most betting shops, with Ladbrokes a short head behind. Together with Gala, Betfair and the Tote they account for more than 80% of the 8,000-plus shops that employ the equivalent of 40,000 full-time employees. Betting on horses continues to be the stable fare, with 60p in every £ waged.

George Gifford from Thirsk has been a regular gambler on the horses for four decades.
“I do it because of the buzz, especially when I win. I also like to think I am reasonably shrewd and I have never managed to let it get out of control although I have had a few bad weeks when I’ve lost a lot of money.

“You need to study recent form, look at the jockeys on the horses and the racing conditions and only bet what you can afford to lose.”

Currently unemployed and keeping his gambling to a minimum, he’s aware betting habits are changing. He’s noticed fewer people entering betting shops - with two dedicated horse racing TV channels gamblers prefer to bet online at home.

Gambling on dogs is the second most popular form of betting but is being caught up by football, which last year was worth £450 million.

With ITV, Channel 4 and 5 having stepped up this season their coverage of the nation’s favourite game the advertising opportunities that have been taken up by the big betting companies make it just a matter of time before footballers outpace dogs in the total betting stakes.

Gordon Traynor fears young people watching the adverts may find themselves attracted to gambling before they know the possible dangers.

Such concerns were one of the reasons the previous Government acted when those working with problem gamblers lobbied hard in 2004 as the Gambling Bill made its way through parliament.

As a result the rules were tightened up such that slot machines were removed from locations children might use such as cafes, and placed in amusement arcades. The result was a quite dramatic fall from 4.9% to 2.0% in problem gambling amongst adolescents.

This is double the figure amongst all age groups, although the 0.9% figure it has to be pointed out is up 50% since 2007. And as this equates to 450,000 people who have problems then is enough being done to prevent people getting into trouble and helping them when they do so?

According to Tom Kenny, senior executive at the Association of British Bookmakers, the answer is yes. He said; “Bookmakers are mindful of our wider social responsibilities and for that reason we contribute £5 million annually on a voluntary basis to fund research, education and treatment. We also have a self-exclusion programme whereby customers who feel they are getting into trouble can exclude themselves.”

Although 16,000 people did so last year more than half then broke the agreement. Much lower down the scale close to 300 people excluded themselves from bingo halls in 2009-10.

Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University and Britain’s only Professor of Gambling Studies isn’t against gambling. He enjoys going to the casino and points out that it’s often a lot cheaper than going to watch Nottingham Forest. But he feels that no one should be complacent that less than 1% of the population could be described as having a gambling problem.

He says: “Gambling is a compulsive behaviour like alcohol, and yet while there are lots of health messages and warnings about the dangers of drinking that’s not so for gambling.”

Griffiths regularly receives calls from people needing help and remains concerned that only one NHS Trust has established a specialist clinic to support problem gamblers. GPs looking to help are left referring people to clinical psychologists.

There are however 200 plus Gamblers Anonymous groups and knows Gamcare, a national charity providing support to problem gamblers, handles over 35,000 calls a year and helps deliver over 20,000 counselling sessions each year.

According to Adrian Scarfe, Gamcare clinical training and development director, there has been a significant change in those needing its services since it was established 13 years ago. Previously it was mainly males from lower working class backgrounds. Now there are more women who need help, and the problems have crossed ethnic and religious boundaries, with 30 per cent of its London callers being from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. College students are also becoming hooked.

“The means by which people can now bet is now more varied and this is reflected in the changing demographics of those who require our help,” says Scarfe.

But few want a return to the pre-1961situation Griffiths would not want “to spoil the enjoyment of the vast majority of people who gamble without experiencing any problems.” 

Gordon Traynor, who left the pit in his 20s to become a successful singer, “still has a little bet and it doesn’t do me any harm even if I lose.”

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