Should children really be gambling?

There has presumably been much back-slapping and high- fiving at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport after a rare item of good news for the government this week. The great New Labour dream of making Britain a land fit for gamblers has moved a step nearer to fulfilment. Most thrilling of all, it is young gamblers – sometimes children – who are joining the cause.

Redundancy and financial panic are, to judge by the latest financial results from the government’s favourite gambling firm Camelot, good news for the gaming industry. The more fearful people are about their future, the greater the likelihood of them trying to solve their problems with the roll of a die, on the nose of a horse, or on Lotto HotPick.

The firm that runs the National Lottery is reaping the benefit of the downturn, and has announced its “best sales performance in a decade”. Some of the credit for Camelot’s £5.15m turnover should apparently go to City workers, who form syndicates in an attempt to win massive rollover jackpots. Yesterday’s villains – those greedy City gamblers – turn out, rather peculiarly, to be today’s heroes.

The most rapidly expanding part of the market is what Camelot call “non draw-based sales”, by which they mean scratchcards. Two years ago, a survey revealed that scratchcards appeal most to the young, with one in five children aged 12 and 13 admitting to playing them in the previous year. The cards nonetheless feature film-star heroes like James Bond and Indiana Jones, which appeal to children. There has been a spectacular 10 per cent increase in sales. The growth is so impressive the firm has raised its commission on sales to retailers to 20 per cent.

By promoting the lottery on the one hand – but liberalising gaming on the other – the government has created its own, rather odd Camelot. Gambling has become an act of civic responsibility. It is something for all the family to enjoy. The great personal dream of citizens, one which children are encouraged to aspire, is win some impossible jackpot and never work again.

Through the cunning expedient of funding good causes, the government has silenced criticism from those who might otherwise have had qualms about its sleazy, back-scratching arrangement with the gaming industry. The national lottery is, in the words of Camelot, “serving the nation’s dreams”.

Last year, online gambling in the UK reached an all-time high, according to a recent ICM poll. Another survey, recently published by the Gambling Commission, has revealed that the gaming industry takes a studiously relaxed attitude to the fact that their marketing increasingly influences the behaviour of the young. Ninety-eight out of 100 betting shops, the commission discovered, were prepared to serve under-age punters. The bookies’ trade body admitted that these results were “embarrassing” but seems unlikely to dwell on them for long. After all, if the National Lottery is presented as fun for the kids, why should a flutter on the 2.30 at Kempton be any different?

Meanwhile, online poker is eagerly promoted every time a computer is switched on. Betting is advertised during football matches on TV. Greed, recklessness and fantasy, the very qualities which are said to have caused the crisis in our national economy, are encouraged in our private lives, and passed on to the next generation.