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General Synod: Betting ads under scrutiny

01 March 2019

THE Synod voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion calling on the Government to reduce the “quantity and persuasiveness” of gambling advertising.

Introducing his motion, the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, said that the “huge social change” in the gambling industry in the past 15 years had crept in largely unnoticed. Gambling advertising, unlike tobacco advertising, had never used to be permitted, but today, 55,000 children were so-called problem gamblers: more children gambled than drank alcohol, smoked, or took drugs. “This generational scandal sees young people immersed in social-media and tech platforms where the gambling industry relentlessly promote their products as part of a £1.5 billion annual spend on advertising, including TV and sports advertising.”

The Church had a “moral duty” to raise awareness and support victims, he said, not only by lobbying the Government through his motion, but through pastoral support for people suffering from addiction. The estimated cost to the NHS was between £240 million and £1.2 billion a year. Gambling addicts were also more likely to take their own lives. “We can make help make a better and safer society.”

Robin Lunn (Worcester) had not registered how many gambling adverts there were, on Premier Football shirts and elsewhere. “Gambling is made to be seen as a harmless mainstream activity that could be done easily online.” Do not be fooled, he said. “Gambling ruins lives.” He agreed that laws were made to curb gambling advertisements. It was a socially responsible motion: “We are not against gambling, but we are against encouraging addiction that ruins lives.”

Jonathan Cryer (Leicester) asked for clarification on some of the statistics, and where they came from. He suggested three common ways to reduce the effect of problem addiction: banning it would not be effective; telling people it was harmful would never work on its own (just consider smoking, he said); the third way was to regulate, so that people could take control of the way that they behaved.

Moving his amendment, David Lamming (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) proposed that the motion be strengthened by substituting for “reduce the quantity” of gambling advertising a call to ban it entirely. He spoke of the millions of pounds in profits made by the gambling advertising industry, and the “power and influence” of this on the Government and the economy. Children were being “groomed to gamble”: a serious safeguarding issue.

His amendment fell for lack of support.

The Revd Zoe Heming (Lichfield) understood that churches did not want to be a “killjoy”, but the issue was not about education, but algorithms to form addictive patterns that equated with “slow walking off the edge of a cliff”. The Church could not provide good news without presenting the bad first, she said.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, thanked Bishop Smith for championing the issue. The question was how to regulate the digital world. “Many people say that it is impossible to regulate the internet.” It had to be seen, therefore, as a public space to which the Church had a duty of care, which should be subject to principle-based regulation. Then a regulator was needed to hold the digital environment to account, he suggested.

Peter Adams (St Albans) said that the gambling advertising companies were not making money on Synod members, who might not see so many adverts, because they were not the target audience. But children and young people were, and their “heartstrings are being pulled” by tailored advertising. “We need to be wise; we have to act to restrict this destructive force in our society.”

Prebendary Brian Williams (Lichfield) said that Bet365 was the biggest employer in Staffordshire, which he used to be proud of. He was an ex-child and an ex-gambler for his grandmother. He had once changed a pound note for coins and spent the whole lot on slot machines, and had never gambled since. “I was so shocked at myself.” He did not support gambling. “We have to be very careful, because of our use of the Lottery Fund.”

Carrie Myers (Southwark) said that her husband had had a shock when he heard that a friend and much-loved member of the church community had defrauded the church, and spent millions of pounds on gambling, including £1 million on one gambling website. “I do not have the words to describe the devastation that caused . . . the spiritual damage.” Gambling websites should do more to act on trends that have emerged, and banks should pick up on transfers of large amounts of money to single websites. It was very much a “hidden” condition.

The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone (Oxford) had three teenagers at home who had just received letters from the building society saying that they would not be able to use their cards on gambling websites, national lottery tickets, or in casinos or shops. He praised this move.

Clive Scowen (London) supported the motion, and would have voted for the amendment as well. He had been pleased with the result of the Synod’s previous debate on fixed-odds betting terminals, and the same could be achieved through this motion. He suggested, however, that the Church’s witness had been compromised by its support of and benefiting from Lottery funding, most of which came from the poorest people. He questioned whether raffles and tombolas at church fetes were “harmless fun. . . Are we lobbying the Government as credibly as we can?”

Dr Nick Land (York) said that he had spent difficult days in his teenage years in the arcade. He would not have been so easily saved. He had felt “dehumanised, guilty” about his actions. And he was more vulnerable to gambling advertising as a result. He clicked on one gambling advert on YouTube, and, though he did not succumb, since then, his internet feeds had been covered in gambling advertising.

In a maiden speech, Richard Jones (Salisbury) simply said that his father had spent all his money on gambling when he and his four siblings were children, and they had lived in poverty.

The Revd George Newton (Guildford) said that many families had been destroyed, and vulnerable adults were targeted and at risk.

Wendy Coombey (Hereford) was concerned about the negative comments regarding Lottery funding, when many poor parishes were struggling to get their buildings fit for mission. “Yes, we wish that there were more resources and funding, but until then, do not send out that message to parishes.”

Canon Kate Wharton (Liverpool) said that she could not bear the National Lottery, because she had seen it ruin lives. She faced a dilemma when the roof of the parish’s Grade I building caved in. The parish refused lottery funding. The roof was being repaired through grants from Heritage England.

The motion was carried overwhelmingly. It read:


That this Synod, noting the greatly increased levels of gambling advertising and research showing significant levels of gambling by children:
a) call on Her Majesty’s Government to reduce the quantity and pervasiveness of gambling advertising and introduce a mandatory levy on gambling firms to fund
independently commissioned research, education, and treatment programmes;
b) encourage churches to be an open place for people who have problems with gambling to seek support; and
c) ask churches to support initiatives which educate children and young people about risks related to gambling.

Click here to read about other General Synod debates and motions

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