The departure of Tracey Crouch as Minister for Sport is an undoubted loss to the Government. She may not be a household name, but she was popular on both sides of the House and highly respected for her ability, integrity, expertise and compassion. She was also Minister for Loneliness, in her dream job, and assiduously beavering away to slash the highest-permitted stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) from £100 to £2, because the ‘social blight‘ and appalling cost of this absurdly high stake had become intolerable. The policy was due to be implemented in April next year, but a six-month delay was announced in the Budget, and so Tracey Crouch resigned on a point of principle, which politicians now rarely do.
She explained her resignation letter:
Unfortunately, implementation of these changes are now being delayed until October 2019 due to commitments made by others to those with registered interests.
From the time of the announcement to reduce stakes and its implementation, over £1.6 billion will be lost on these machines.
In addition, two people will tragically take their lives every day due to gambling-related problems and, for that reason as much as any other, I believe this delay is unjustifiable.
The Church of England has long campaigned for something to be done about FOBTs:
The evidence of harm is incontrovertible. The General Synod heard that two-thirds of the calls to GamCare, the country’s main problem gambling charity, were from bookmaker customers, with over half citing FOBTs as the root of their problem.
The Bishop of St Albans has said: ‘Since I began looking into this I’ve found myself inundated with people coming to me with terrible stories and I’ve realised what a tragedy it is.’ General Synod members spoke in the debate of their first-hand experience of the harms suffered by those with a Gambling problem. The accounts of harm are too numerous and consistent to be dismissed as merely ‘anecdotal’.
When a gambling addict can throw away £100 every 20 seconds without let or hindrance, it’s rather like leaving an alcoholic in the corner of a pub with a personal and limitless supply of spirits. Landlords have a duty of care to decline to serve those who are intoxicated: indeed, it has long been illegal to serve someone who is drunk. But in betting shops, gambling addicts can stand at FOBTs and fritter away £1000s in a flash, and bookmakers have no duty of care. Debts spiral, children suffer, depression and suicide may follow. Lowering the maximum stake from £100 to £2 is a no-brainer.
So why did Philip Hammond announce a six-month delay? Well, these machines subsidise thousands of jobs in bookmakers shops, and the delay will rake in a £billion or so for HM Treasury so the Chancellor can pay for those ‘little extras‘ he promised schools. There may be other reasons, but let’s be cynical: Tracey Crouch referred to “commitments made by others to those with registered interests”, and there’s no greater registered interest than that of Mammon.
But what is odd about this resignation is that Tracey Crouch had won: she was getting everything she wanted, and so was the Church of England. Unlike Labour and their love of ‘super Casinos’, along with their decision to take gambling licensing away from magistrates and hand decisions to councils who have a vested interest (through business rates), the Conservatives were intervening to mitigate harm and fortify accountability. And politics is a long game: William Wilberforce prepared his first parliamentary motion for the abolition of the slave trade in 1789; it first became a bill in 1790, but did not become an act until 1833.
Wilberforce’s commitment never wavered, despite frustration and hostility. He was supported in his work by fellow members of the so-called Clapham Sect, among whom was his best friend and cousin Henry Thornton. Holding evangelical Christian convictions, and consequently dubbed “the Saints”, the group mainly lived in large houses surrounding the common in Clapham, then a village to the south-west of London. Wilberforce accepted an invitation to share a house with Henry Thornton in 1792, moving into his own home after Thornton’s marriage in 1796. The “Saints” were an informal community, characterised by considerable intimacy as well as a commitment to practical Christianity and an opposition to slavery (Wikipedia).
If Wilberforce could persevere for 44 years with the prayerful support of faithful Christians, you’d think Tracey Crouch could cope with a delay of six months – with the prayerful support of the Church of England. But perhaps the world has changed. Or maybe politicians have become less willing to endure and contend. Either way, it just seems very odd.
Even more odd was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s intervention by Twitter. He praised Tracey Crouch for her “principled and courageous” decision, and prayed that God would “bless her commitment to doing right”. When the hand of God moves upon a political resignation, certain ripples radiate outwards, and varieties of minor disturbance may be detected.
What about ministers who courageously resign on a point of principle who don’t attract an archiepiscopal blessing? May one assume that the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn’t support their principle, or that he doesn’t recognise their courage? Or maybe he thinks their resignation is devoid of both principle and courage? If, henceforth, when a government minister resigns and the Archbishop’s Twitter is Trappist, may one assume that he thinks ‘Good riddance’? Was it the policy he didn’t care for, or that particular minister?
Perhaps it would have been too much to expect Justin Welby to tweet about Boris Johnson’s principles and courage on the day he resigned as Foreign Secretary, but what about Dr Phillip Lee, the MP for Bracknell, who resigned over the Government’s handling of Brexit? Set aside whatever you think about his ‘betrayal‘ of the Conservative Party manifesto, or about his pro-EU beliefs and political convictions generally: we are concerned here with moral principle and political courage, and there have been few ministerial resignations more principled or courageous than this former Justice Minister who gave it all up so he could “better speak up for [his] constituents and country over how Brexit is currently being delivered”. He is convinced that the Prime Minister’s approach will damage businesses in his constituency and cause irreparable harm to the whole country on a scale far more epic than that caused by FOBTs – a proposition to which both Brexiteers and Remainers might jointly assent.
But the Archbishop of Canterbury didn’t tweet his support for Dr Lee, despite his sanctified conviction that the UK’s departure from the EU might lead to war (or the Archbishop of York’s conviction that nobody would ever trust the UK again). Isn’t the prospect of World War III (or global pariah state) rather more dreadful than a six-month delay in reducing the maximum stake on FOBTs? The Archbishop of Canterbury also believes the Brexit debate has become divisive an poisonous, and that “The EU has been the greatest dream realised for human beings since the fall of the Western Roman Empire“, which sounds a bit more significant than the advent of FOBTs. Dr Phillip Lee resigned courageously on a point of devout principle to reinforce such convictions: he resigned boldly and bravely to save the United Kingdom from Theresa May’s Brexit.
But the Archbishop’s Twitter was silent.
What are we to infer?
That the Archbishop believes FOBTs to be more important than Brexit? That Tracey Crouch is more congenial than Phillip Lee? That ministerial women who resign over cuddly social policies are more blessed by the Church of England than ministerial men who resign over spiky political reforms? Or is it that the Archbishop sometimes speaks without thinking, or tweets without considering, or hyperbolises without reflecting? We await his response to the next government resignation with bated breath.