Friday, July 30, 2010

You lose, they keep the money; you win, they keep the money

I can see why Mike Lee is unhappy.
Back in 2007, the Vancouver Island man knew he had a gambling problem. He was losing too much money and couldn't stop.
So he signed up for B.C. Lotteries' voluntary self-exclusion program. That's supposed to bar you from bingo halls and casinos and online betting. Staff will be on the alert to keep you out, the corporation says, and you can be fined up to $5,000 for breaking the agreement.
And, the current rules say, you can't keep your winnings if you go back into a casino and beat the odds.
But Lee says he was able to keep on gambling, winning sometimes but mostly losing. B.C. Lotteries didn't keep up its end of the bargain when it came to preventing him from gambling.
Until January, when he won $42,500 in a VLT at Duncan's mini-casino.
Sorry, the casino said. You're on the self-exclusion list and you don't get the money. It will subsidize B.C. Lotteries' harm-reduction programs.
Lee's lawyer is fighting the decision. Partly, it's a technical question of whether Lee ever agreed to forfeit any winnings.
But on a more basic level, the issue is fairness.
Despite all the talk about helping gamblers save themselves, B.C. Lotteries didn't enforce Lee's exclusion when he was losing money and increasing its profits. Only when he won did the Crown corporation and its agents leap into action.
You could write this off as an aberration, a one-off.
Except the self-exclusion program has been around for 11 years. And so far, not one fine has been levied against a gambler for sneaking into casinos.
Another gambler is suing over the self-exclusion program. Joyce May Ross. She too registered to be barred from betting in 2007. Since then, she has lost $331,000. There was no serious effort to stop her from gambling, she alleges. Casino staff knew she was a participant in the self-exclusion program, but didn't stop her from gambling, she claims.
It does suggest a double standard. The program isn't great at catching gamblers, until they win.
The notion of giving protecting addicted people from their illness is appealing. (This has to be an illness. Imagine someone who can think of no way to stop gambling and losing except by making a public declaration and being barred.)
But the reality, in B.C., is flimsy.
Casino employees are supposed to memorize 6,600 pictures of British Columbians who have asked to be kept out of casinos and then confront them. They're filed in big binders. (Ontario is considering cameras and facial recognition technology to help. It is facing a proposed $3.5-billion class action lawsuit on behalf of addicted gamblers who claim they asked to be barred, but were allowed to keep losing.)
And they do. B.C. gambling establishments turned away people on the list about 8,200 times last year, according to a Vancouver Province review of the issue. They kept 102 people on the exclusion list from claiming a jackpot.
But is that good? When people put themselves on the list, they are acknowledging they no longer can control their gambling addictions. They need someone to stand at the door of the bingo hall or casino and say you can't come in.
If there are 6,600 of them, and they each test the safeguards every couple of weeks, then the program is catching about five per cent of people who have asked to be barred.
Rich Coleman, responsible for increasing gambling, reducing harm and limiting gambling-related crime, acknowledges the program has problems. But the addicted gamblers have to take responsibility too, he says.
Except that's why it's called an addiction - they can't stop. And that's why they sign up for the self-exclusion program.
It's depressing. The government knows that for every 1,000 new gamblers, some 40 will have problems. Their lives will be worse - often a lot worse.
But it still is setting out to recruit about 240,000 new gamblers per year.
Footnote: Meanwhile, the government's online gambling site remains closed until further notice after the botched launch, privacy violations and less-than-honest communication. The shutdown is costing the B.C.Lottery Corp. about $800,000 a week. But it's saving gamblers money.

Harper’s self-destructive census bungle

Maybe Stephen Harper, in his heart, has mixed feelings about being in power.
Perhaps he fears it means he has sold out.
That’s one explanation for the Conservative government’s bizarre decision to turn the census into some sort of do-or-die issue.
The census hasn’t been top of mind for most Canadians. Or even bottom of mind, really.
But it’s a big deal for researchers and governments and businesses and policy advocates. Every five years, Canadians fill out census forms. The data is rolled up into a portrait of the country and how it’s changing.
Provincial governments and municipalities use it to assess programs and future needs; business groups monitor the state of the economy and the challenges ahead; school boards plan for future needs; researchers try to figure out what is changing - and why - in the lives of Canadians.
The Conservatives, for no compelling reason, want to make the data less reliable, the census less useful and comparisons with previous years difficult.
Most Canadians fill out a short census form every five years. Twenty per cent of us get the mandatory long census form, which asks more questions. That sample, randomly selected, provides Statistics Canada with reliable date.
The Conservatives, with no consultation or warning, are making the long form voluntary.
That’s a mistake, according to virtually every statistician, researcher and census user.
The decision means the census sample is no longer random. Single moms working two jobs might not fill out the forms; retired people might be happy to take the time. Natives living in remote reserves and hard-charging business executives might not get around to the census.
The portrait of a nation is skewed. Which means decisions made on the basis of the information is also unreliable.
So why would the Conservatives risk wrecking the census with a decision that is being denounced as wrongheaded by almost everyone involved?
Three answers make sense.
Harper could genuinely believe that the benefits of an accurate census aren’t enough to make it mandatory for Canadians to fill out the long form.
Or the Conservatives could be trying to please the portion of their base that sees government as the enemy and the requirement to fill out the census form as Big Brother run wild.
Or they figured the census wasn’t likely to attract attention and didn’t anticipate just how widespread and credible the opposition would be.
Whatever happened, it’s turned into a big problem.
I expect the Conservative strategists were right about the census as an issue.
But this isn’t about the census anymore.
The government stands accused - by everyone from the Conference Board of Canada to the province of Ontario to big unions - of making a bad decision.
The National Statistics Council - appointed by the government to advise Statistics Canada - wants the mandatory forum used in 2011 and proposes an overall review of the census before the next survey in five yhears. (The council includes former TD Bank vice-president Don Drummond, born and raised in Victoria. He found it shocking that the decision was made without consulting the council.)
And it has been dishonest. Cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister’s Office have claimed that Canadians were up in arms about the census. But Statistics Canada said it sent out 12 million forms in 2006 and had only 166 complaints about all aspects of the census.
They talked about the threat of jail and bureaucrats knocking on people’s doors in the night to demand answers.
But no one has ever been jailed for not completing the census form. And no one has faced a late-night call from the man.
Most seriously, Industry Minister Tony Clement said StatsCan supported the change. The agency’s head, Munir Sheikh, said that was not true and resigned as a matter of integrity. Who should you believe - the career government employee who resigned in protest, or the glib minister?
The changes to the census were a mistake. The Conservatives’ arrogance and dishonesty in refusing to acknowledge that are doing much more damage.
Footnote: An Ottawa Citizen editorial suggested another motive. “Ideologues don’t just ignore research,” the editorial argued. “They actually abhor it, because it gets in their way. If you approach the problem of drug addiction from an ideological point of view, then you have nothing but contempt for medical researchers who can show that safe injection sites reduce the harm of illegal drugs… This contempt for empirical research is not the Canadian way, but it has become the Conservative way.”

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Who should you believe on children's safety?

About six weeks ago, I wrote a column about a Representative for Children and Youth audit of a child support program. It found children were being put at risk and called for an effort to make sure they were safe.
Children's Minister Mary Polak said no. I wondered what she was thinking, as the audit found more than 1,000 children could be at risk.
Polak, or the Public Affairs Bureau, wrote a letter to newspapers that ran the column.
"Based on an audit of the program, Mr. Willcocks feels it is appropriate that the ministry now knock on the door of every CIHR recipient and suggest that while we may not have a specific concern about the care you as an uncle, aunt or grandparent provide - we are going to examine your individual care-giving situation," she wrote. "That audit which involved more than 1,200 CIHR cases, turned up concerns in four instances which the Representative for Children and Youth reported to MCFD."
That's not actually what the column said, but it's a response.
But not an accurate one, according to a letter to the same newspapers from the Children's Representative.
"The minister's letter incorrectly states that my audit 'turned up concerns in four instances...' This statement misrepresents my audit findings, and seriously misinforms the public.
"In reality we found that in 28 per cent of files audited, serious issues of safety and evidence of risk were identified, including relating to either a prior ministry child welfare contact or a criminal record of concern. Based on 4,500 children, this could equate to more than 1,000 cases with evidence of risk. Conclusions in this rigorous audit are reliable at a 95 per cent confidence level, giving us a precise overview of the risk this group of children face.
"Most of the children in this program are safely supported by relatives, to whom we owe a deep debt of gratitude for their commitment and dedication to supporting a child in need, a child who might otherwise come into foster care."
But, the representative concluded, there is an "urgent need to go back and do the screening right" to ensure children are safe.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Court costs no worry when taxpayers pick up tab

It's time to rethink the idea that governments should automatically pick up the tab when politicians or managers get into legal disputes.
Taxpayers in North Saanich, a Victoria-area community, are on the hook for $170,000 in extra costs after Coun. Peter Chandler was found to have made false statements that damaged the reputation of Donald Hunter, who lives in the community.
The award was only $15,000. The Municipal Insurance Association paid it, along with the district's legal fees above a $25,000 deductible.
But the municipality's insurance rates will now rise $144,000 over the next eight years as the insurer gets its money back. Add the $25,000 deductible and taxpayers are out about $170,000.
That didn't have to happen. When Hunter felt Chandler had attacked his integrity in a damaging way, he didn't immediately sue.
"There followed an exchange of letters between counsel in which an apology was requested and refused," the B.C. Supreme Court judgment noted. "Litigation was then commenced. Mr. Chandler has neither retracted nor apologized."
The taxpayers might have been spared any costs with an apology. A negotiated settlement could easily have been reached, cutting the costs by at least $120,000.
Instead taxpayers funded a losing legal battle and will be paying for it over the next eight years.
Chandler likely believed he was doing the right thing in refusing to apologize or settle.
But would he have committed $170,000 of his own money to pursuing the principles involved?
Even if he would have, that doesn't mean residents share his enthusiasm.
Most disputes are settled outside the court system because people look at the costs, rewards and risks of full-scale legal battles and settle.
It's not just a municipal issue. The B.C. government has funded expensive legal battles when settlement would have made sense. And taxpayers paid something like $2 million to the six lawyers representing Brian Mulroney's at the inquiry into his relationship with Karlheinz Schreiber.
And it's also not just a question of the cost to taxpayers.
For starters, there is a big fairness issue. Individuals or small companies, paying their own legal bills, find themselves facing governments with unlimited resources and the ability to wage a legal war of attrition.
Willow Kinloch sued the Victoria police after she was tethered in cells and pinned against a door for four hours. She had been picked up as a drunk 15-year-old.
Months before trial, her lawyer offered to settle for the lawsuit $40,000.
Instead of making a counter offer, lawyers for the police and city didn't respond.
The case went to trial. Kinloch was awarded $60,000 and the city spent something over $100,000 on its legal costs.
And the court ordered the city to pay her legal bills because it had been "unco-operative and difficult" during the litigation. Lawyers for the city and police had needlessly engaged in activities that increased for both sides, the Supreme Court judgment noted.
Which leads to conclusions of either gouging or a strategic attempt to make it too expensive for a 15-year-old to get access to the justice system. (The city appealed the award, then dropped the challenge and reached a confidential settlement.)
And then there are the messages sent when governments are so quick to turn to the courts.
Victoria's response to the Kinloch suit indicated to police officers and the public that it violating prisoners rights - the jury's conclusion -- was acceptable.
It's right to pay the legal bills of politicians and employees - government or private - who end up in court as a result of doing their jobs in good faith. Without that protection, they might shy away from issues for fear of legal action.
But when protection is automatic and the legal bills the taxpayers' problem, there is a risk governments will become bullies and waste taxpayers' money on unnecessary court battles.
It's time for governments to acknowledge the risk and turn decisions on legal case management - including negotiated settlements - over to an independent expert panel.