This story starts for me on Strood high street, about four years ago. It was a cold, wet, windswept night, the kind that makes the perfect counterpoint to the kind of quiet desolation that permeates Medway’s neglected town centres. A boy, maybe seven or eight years old, was standing shivering in the doorway of the William Hill bookmakers opposite Wilkinsons.
I wondered what he was doing there, at 8pm in November, why he was outside, on his own, at that time of night. Then it occurred to me that he’d be too young to go into the bookies, and that he was most likely waiting for someone older, possibly his dad, to come out. It got me wondering just how powerful the need to gamble, be it financial, or compulsive, must be to leave your own kid out in the cold on their own at the onset of winter.
Poverty, gambling, debt and the recession
Visit the average high street in Medway and it won’t take long for you to pass a betting shop, a pawnbrokers or a store offering payday loans. Switch on daytime TV when you get home and it won’t take long either before you’re bombarded with adverts for online bingo, betting, or the Wonga Grannies, cheerfully extolling the ease of saddling yourself with a short-term loan at 4,140% interest.
The prevalence of gambling and short-term, high interest payday lending is partly a result of the desperation bred by five-years- and- counting of economic hardship in the UK. It’s also the product of the long-term de-regulation of these industries at government level. Coupled with these factors is the alarming intersection of private interests in the gambling and loans industries, members of parliament and government policy.
What is being played out in the high streets of Medway is the cynical exploitation of the unemployed, the poor and the desperate, by industries that feed on that very desperation. But the explosion in the availability of high street betting and payday loans isn’t merely symptomatic of hard times and cold-blooded policy making by the government, it’s also reflective of a war on workers’ rights and the systematic degradation and exploitation of those out of work or on low incomes. It’s a conflict that is played out at national level, but also one that is taking place on our doorsteps, and in the chambers of Medway Council.
There are around 37 gambling premises in Medway, not including bingo halls and single slot machines in pubs and small businesses. Reaping the benefits of governmental re-regulation, bookmakers and casinos have never been freer to open premises, leading to a proliferation of gambling shops in the Medway Towns. Rules regulating the advertising of gambling and related products have also been loosened in recent years, meaning that daytime TV and footballs matches are bookended by adverts for online bingo, web casinos and mobile betting.
It’s shockingly easy to gamble, and shockingly easy for bookies to entice you to do it. For an industry that feeds off addiction, an industry that even has its own gambler’s equivalent to Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous, the GA, it seems that gambling companies have a free hand to peddle products that feed off addiction and desperation.
The desperation isn’t coming from the affluent Ascot-attending crowd or the folks who enjoy an occasional flutter on the Grand National. The concern expressed by Medway Council over slot machines in bookies stems from the fact that the kind of constant, high-spending gambling enabled by bookies is most prevalent in areas of social deprivation and high unemployment:
‘High-time/high-spend gamblers…displayed the most adverse socio-economic profile. They were more likely to live in areas of greatest deprivation, live in low income households and be unemployed. This group showed a relative preference for betting on horse races, fixed odds betting terminals and playing casino games.’
Unemployment in Medway currently runs at 4.5%, below the national average of 7.8%, but well above the Kent average of 3.4% (compare that to 1.7% unemployment for Tunbridge Wells for example). Poverty is endemic in Medway, with current child poverty figures standing at 23%. Economic conditions among the poorest people in the Towns are a breeding ground for the kind of acute desperation that feeds the low end of the gambling industry. As people are hit by this year’s benefits cuts and bedroom tax, the need to find extra cash, even if it’s at a high risk and a potentially disastrous cost, can only get greater.
The payday loans industry forms an interesting nexus with the fallout from the kind of high-risk, high-volume gambling going on in Medway. The same people at the bottom of the economic pile who pay out large amounts on bets or slot machines are often the same people who resort to high-interest, quick-paying loans to clear gambling debts or feed a gambling addiction.
Outside of gambling, buying essentials like food or paying utility bills accounted for 60% of the 8.2 million payday loans taken out in 2011-2012 (Which?/The Guardian). Medway, with its ingrained poverty and unemployment, has the highest volume of payday lenders’ shops in the country. Like the bookies, these lenders are well placed and well primed to feed off the desperation of those out of work and struggling to get by on dwindling welfare payouts. Although this fact doesn’t seem to trouble some of our local MPs.
Lenders like Wonga also share common ground with the gambling industry in their lobbying of Conservative MPs to pursue further de-regulation of their sector. High interest lenders and bookies thrive when the rules governing their activities are relaxed, allowing them to operate and advertise free of government hindrance or scrutiny. As a party ideologically committed to loosening the rules governing the private sector, the Conservatives are an obvious target for morally dubious industries looking to advantage themselves.
The story of payday lenders, lobbying and the Conservative Party goes further than the mere de-regulation of the lending industry. The Beecroft Report, published 2012, was a report on employment law that recommended stripping workers’ rights, restricting parental leave and making it easier for firms to sack employees at short notice. It was a report commissioned by the government, with very real potential to influence policy towards employment law, a report which contained ‘a number of excellent ideas that we are taking forward’ according to the Prime Minister.
The report in itself was controversial, but what is even more so is that Adam Beecroft, a long-standing donor to the Conservatives, is chairman of Dawn Capital, a venture capital firm whose investments include Wonga. At which point you consider just how cynical it would be to wonder if someone, whose business interests touch on high-interest lending to unemployed people, would have at least a slight interest in creating more unemployed people.
The Beecroft report fed into an instinctive opposition to workers’ rights that has been a feature of Conservative belief since the inception of the labour movement in the 19th century. Improving working conditions, and the rights of employees, is seen as oppositional to the interests of business and industry in traditional Conservative ideology, with ‘freedom’ in terms of businesses’ freedom to keep costs down, prioritised over the needs of workers.
It’s at this point that focus shifts back from the Conservative-led government at national level to Medway’s Conservative-led council. Last year, the council proposed to withdraw from national pay and conditions terms for its staff, proposing to effectively sack and re-hire its entire workforce in order to avoid a nationally enforced 1% pay-rise for its employees. This was done in the face of national cuts to local government budgets, but must also be seen in the context of a council that pays fourteen of its executives an annual salary of over£100,000.
So on one hand, the council is committed to opposing high-stakes, high-volume gambling, with its Labour members seeking a curb on payday lenders. On the other hand, we have a council that is seeking to exclude its employees from a 1% pay rise, when inflation currently stands at 2.8%, meaning that Medway council workers are in for what could effectively be a 3% pay cut over three years. It’s the kind of decision that could quite easily drive the council’s own employees into the arms of payday lenders and bookies, and its’ the kind of attack on workers’ rights that all too often characterises Conservative administrations at national and local level.
If Medway Council’s own workers aren’t safe from their financial wellbeing being put at risk, then what of Medway’s poor? With a Conservative council, and Conservative MPs, under a Conservative government that’s all too ready to listen to the interests of betting shops and payday lenders, and all too willing to cut the welfare budget at every opportunity, you have to fear for the thousands of people unemployed or living in poverty in the Towns.
If the state can’t or won’t maintain the welfare of its out-of- work-citizens, and indeed if what Stewart Lansley says, that the ‘traditional Conservative belief…that the blame for poverty lies in a lack of personal and social responsibility, that the poor themselves are largely to blame for their own situation’ is true, then Medway’s least well off citizens are in for an even harder, harsher time. This, ultimately, can only mean more destructive gambling, more debt, more pay day loans, and more kids waiting in the cold for their dad to come out of the bookies at 8pm on a November evening.
Words: Andrew Day
Pictures: Richard Reader (luciferscage)