What is the Big Society? Who does it involve? How will it work? Are we all in this thing together?
They are interesting questions and they are being asked by many commentators. Thus far no real satisfactory answer has been given and perhaps that is the perfect solution to these questions. By defining an articulate answer then surely we, by default, regulate the big society as a set idea. Rather it should be an unorganised, non-definable thing, something we can’t express but something we know when we see it, experience it or participate in it.
Logically, for citizens, businesses and charity to have more of an active role in dealing with society’s needs and ills a push or an incentive is required. The greatest of those pushes being a withdrawal by the state. Many things we allow the state do to for us today were in fact done by the citizen and charities in the past, long before universal benefits. I believe as the state withdrawals, people will have to step up to the challenge. This is a generational shift and won’t happen over the life of this parliament or the next. We as a society are too used to paying our excessive taxes, but in return we expect the state to pick up all the pieces.
I like the idea of a smaller state and less regulation and I want to start with gambling and its relationship with the Big Society. Through what may seem as an argument for greater regulation, it is in fact not. The Gambling Act must be amended because Parliament has created a huge stumbling block to local freedom, what I call ‘presumption’.
The Gambling Act 2005 (‘the Act’) is permissive in its nature. It makes it fundamentally clear that gambling establishments are to be allowed subject to a few flimsy safeguards. The Act says that the Licensing Authority has a statutory duty to “aim to permit”. Now that’s a huge presumption.
The Act has three objectives:
They read very nicely but in practice are quite insufficient. They are construed in such a way that they favour granting a licence, as operators will have systems in place to comply with these objectives. The Gambling Commission has its own codes of Practice & Guidance, which operators observe.
Licensing Committees are not allowed to take into consideration ‘demand’ or ‘cumulative effect’ issues. This means that there is no onus upon the applicant to show that there is demand for their trade and even if they could provide no evidence of any demand in an area, the Committee would have to grant the license anyway because the Act says it must unless it fails to fulfil one or all of the objectives, which they rarely do. There is no express ground for refusal based on the fact that there are too many establishments concentrated in one area. As long as the above three objectives can be met, it is a gambling operators’ paradise. The community has its hands tied. It’s not free to choose. It is not free to be that Big Society.
This brings me to my point about the Big Society. The Gambling Industry is, according ONS statistics, an £84 billion a year industry. That means £84 billion pounds is taken out of the citizen’s pocket every year and into a handful of bank accounts. What does the industry give back? Not a hell of a lot from what I can find.
The Act does allow for a national levy, but that is not imposed because the industry has a voluntary arrangement to fund three bodies to research the effect, education and treatment of gambling. That’s like heroin addicts voluntarily funding research into the effect, education and treatment of heroin use whilst they sit on a warehouse full of heroin. The incentive is pretty weak to find real solutions.
If the Big Society is to work then it must do its best to prevent big business sucking the very money out of the poorest communities. It must give power back to the very society it seeks to make bigger. Gambling gives little back and takes so much.
In parts of my borough, communities are blighted by these seedy little betting operations. In 2009/10 in Ealing we had 179 allegations of crime occurring ‘within a gambling premises’, half of those in the most deprived area, Southall. One particular ‘brand’ of betting shop in the area had 41 incidents; these ranged from threats to kill and sexual assault to handling stolen goods.
As recently as this month, our Licensing Committee had to grant a gambling license to operate in Southall, despite there being no need for another establishment in the area (there are 17 already!). They did so with great reluctance. Our Licensing Committee has agreed that the Chair will write to the Secretary of State and ask that council’s be given greater powers over location and be allowed to consider the cumulative effects of gambling establishments to a particular area, including demand. I urge other Licensing Committees to do likewise.
These big operators target the poorest in our society. They are allowed to proliferate virtually unfettered. The bizarre thing is, we now as councils have the power (or should I accurately say freedom) to adopt a ‘sex establishment’ policy which can limit the number of lap dancing clubs and sex cinemas etc within our area of control, but we have no say over how many gambling premises there are. Surely both industries have the potential to screw the community and thus deserve equal treatment in their management by that community?
Gambling, being an £84 billion a year industry however, makes me think we won’t get any freedom on this anytime soon. There are vested interests at play, rich and powerful ones. The industry bosses may wear suits and ties and operate from corporate offices, but gambling operators are, in my opinion, just as sleazy as their sex establishment counterparts. They produce and provide virtually nothing whilst making huge profits on the false hopes and addictions of others. They should be subject to greater freedom by way of citizens, residents and elected leaders having the freedom to say; ‘You’re not wanted here!’ That’s the Big Society standing up to Big Interest. We need greater freedom for communities to decide how their community develops if we want a Big Society.
Let’s get Parliament to remove its presumptions on what it thinks it knows is best and have it give back to us, the citizen, through our local communities the ability to make free choices about what we want in our community. That will certainly create the Big Society.
Contact me on www.benjamindennehy.com to join my appeal for greater gambling freedom for communities.