A Tory MP making a stand for the poor? Don’t bet on it

First published by The Herald on 6 November 2018

WHETHER it’s a Scottish politician praising legislation designed to curtail the reproductive rights of the poor or a Westminster front bench giving vociferous support to what are seen as poverty-inducing benefit reforms, the Tories are doing a great job of living up to their image as a nasty party whose sympathies lie only with the privileged few.

Thank goodness for Tracey Crouch, then, the Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford who resigned as sports minister last week in protest at what she said was an “unjustifiable” delay to a policy aimed at tackling the scourge of problem gambling. Having long campaigned for the maximum bet that can be placed via bookie-shop slot machines to be reduced from £100 to £2, Ms Crouch said she was taking a stand after Chancellor Philip Hammond announced that the change will be introduced in October next year and not April as she had been expecting.

The effects of this, she said, will be profound, with £1.6 billion expected to be lost on these machines between May 2018, when the reduction was agreed, and October 2019, when it will now take effect. Worse still, she wrote in her resignation letter, “a significant amount” of the total will be lost “in our most deprived areas”.

It is no secret that gambling and hardship go hand in hand, with the Scottish Government as long ago as 2006 issuing a report that found that “disadvantaged social groups who experience poverty, unemployment, dependence on welfare, and low levels of education and household income are most likely to suffer the adverse consequences of increased gambling”. The clustering of betting shops in areas of deprivation such as Glasgow’s Dumbarton Road has long been a cause for concern and that report, which was written by University of Glasgow professor Gerda Reith, whose research focuses on problematic forms of consumption, also found that “availability and convenience are strongly associated with problem gambling”.

Having been introduced after then Chancellor Gordon Brown abolished betting duties in 2001, the so-called fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) Ms Crouch has resigned over were still in their infancy when Professor Reith’s report was issued. In the years since, though, they have come to represent all that is wrong with the gambling industry, not least because they enable customers to place £100 bets every 20 seconds, leading some to lose thousands in a single sitting.

In Scotland, which, according to Gambling Commission figures, not only has more gamblers as a proportion of the population than Britain as a whole but more problem gamblers too, FOBTs are seen as such an issue that the Scottish Government – which cannot set gambling legislation – was given special powers under the 2016 Scotland Act to limit their prevalence. Yet while Holyrood has been able to cap the number of machines installed in new betting shops for the past two years it has not yet taken action to do so, preferring instead to wait for the UK Government to show its hand on maximum stakes first – a decision that is looking less sound in light of the Westminster delay.

Given this proliferation of issues it is no wonder that Ms Crouch has been so roundly praised for taking a stand on the delay to implementing reduced FOBT stakes, with commentators from across the political spectrum highlighting not just the passion and courage that led her to make the move but her principles and morals too. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, took to Twitter to praise her “commitment to doing right”.

Yet as Ms Crouch’s parliamentary voting record makes clear, this is not a politician who usually cares so deeply about doing what is right for those living in deprivation, but rather someone who is usually happy to toe the Nasty Party line. Indeed, according to parliamentary monitoring website They Work For You, while Ms Crouch has consistently voted in favour of tax breaks for higher-rate taxpayers and against taxing bankers’ bonuses, she has also been consistent in her opposition to using public money to create jobs for young people in long-term unemployment and in her support of reducing welfare spending and restricting the scope of legal aid. She has even voted against giving local authorities the power to regulate the use of FOBTs and opposed a plan that would have required online bookies to automatically ban any problem gambler who had registered for self-exclusion.

Put in that context the motivation behind Ms Crouch’s resignation is harder to fathom, particularly as her parliamentary colleagues have rubbished the claim that the rule change was due to come in in April anyway. One thing is clear, though: this is not a rogue Tory whose moral compass has led her to care more about social justice and deprivation prevention than her own party and career. Sure Ms Crouch is to be admired for taking a stand on problem gambling, but if every other political decision she makes is to the detriment of those whose plight she is supposedly trying to highlight, who, ultimately, stands to benefit?