Labour loses £112m gamble

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EVEN though Tony Blair’s obsession with super-casinos was one political gamble that did not come off – Gordon Brown dropped the plan as soon as he became Prime Minister – Yorkshire is still paying a heavy price for New Labour’s decision to relax the laws governing the betting industry.

This is borne out by shocking statistics which reveal that £112m was lost in the region last year on controversial betting machines that have been rightly condemned as the “crack cocaine” of gambling, and in which people can lose £100 every 20 seconds if they have a run of bad luck. Put in context, this sum is the equivalent of the cost of electrifying the main railway to Hull.

It is ironic that Labour has turned this issue into a party political one by accusing David Cameron of dragging his feet over the licensing of fixed odds betting terminals when it was the party in power which ignored every conceivable warning about these machines.

Given this, Ed Miliband cannot escape the charge of hypocrisy after he highlighted this issue at Prime Minister’s Questions. If an individual was able to spend £100 every 20 seconds on alcohol, that person would have felt the full force of the ‘nanny state’. Ditto smokers who purchase tobacco in large quantities.

Yet this does not absolve the Government from acting with greater haste. While changes to planning rules are inevitably contentious, and Shipley MP Philip Davies has argued that a betting shop is still preferable to an empty unit, local councils should be given greater discretion, if only to avoid a proliferation of betting shops in those areas where hard-up people may be more liable to succumb to the temptations of gambling.

And while individuals should always remember not to bet more than they can afford to lose, this should not preclude the bookmakers – the people making money out of this craze – from adapting the machines in order to deter addicts, and doing more to promote and help charities like Gamblers Anonymous.

Pensions ‘in plain English’ please

IT has taken years for householders to begin to appreciate the importance of shopping around for the best energy deal, and many will regret that they only started to do so once their household heating costs had become so prohibitive because of the sharp business practices of the so-called ‘big six’.

It is a mindset that now needs to apply to private pensions following a damning report by the Financial Conduct Authority which revealed that eight out of 10 people would have been better off if they had shopped around for a new provider.

Both instances indicate the extent to which the concept of loyalty now appears to belong to a bygone age – until recently, people could trust their energy supplier or pension provider to look after their interests and provide the best possible deal. This faith has now been breached by a succession of scandals, not least the mis-selling of payment protection insurance which has again returned to haunt the banks this week.

As such, the FCA report is a salutary reminder to the 1,000 new people buying annuities each a week, a market worth £14bn a year, that they need to read the small-print and take it upon themselves to secure the best possible deal for their needs.

Yet this is only part of the solution. As Tony Blair’s former pensions adviser Ros Altmann has concluded, there need to be far clearer rules defining the management of annuities so individuals are not stung by unexpected charges and so on. As she says so clearly, there needs to be compunction so the rules and regulations are written “in plain English”.

Dr Altmann is correct. People are more likely to be persuaded to save more money for their retirement if they understand the process. The problem, at present, is that too many individuals are not saving sufficient sums because they’re deterred by the abuses, such as those uncovered by the FCA. That is why the culture of the whole pensions industry – and why it is in the interests of the Government to make it happens.

Brothers become hospital pioneers

IF it wasn’t for the ultimately successful campaign to secure, for now, children’s heart surgery at Leeds General Infirmary, the future would be even more uncertain for brothers Ethan and Kyle Roper who have become the first children in the country to be fitted with a revolutionary heart rhythm monitor.

After both boys collapsed unexpectedly, and doctors discovered that their worried mother Zoe McConville also suffers from an extremely rare heart condition, the data transmitted from the monitor will enable doctors to keep a closer eye on Ethan and Kyle and, hopefully, identify the cause of any sudden distress that they might suffer in future.

This is one instance where the use of ‘Big Brother’ technology could save lives. But the consequences are far more profound – the family would be having to travel even further from their Doncaster home for treatment if services at the LGI had not been saved and it would, therefore, be remiss not to acknowledge lifesaving expertise that is still available in Leeds after such a challenging two years for the cardiac team.