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Government must do more to curb problem gambling, says Bishop of St Albans

20 November 2020

Review of 2005 Act is chance for significant changes, he says

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THE Government’s forthcoming review of the 2005 Gambling Act is “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect families and young people from the havoc caused by problem gambling”, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has said.

Government ministers have said that the Act will be reviewed to ensure that it is “fit for the digital age”, although details have yet to be announced.

Dr Smith said on Tuesday: “The anticipated government review of gambling legislation is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. It’s a once-in-a-generation chance to protect families and young people from the havoc caused by problem gambling in the UK today. This isn’t just about having tighter regulation of operators, but about adopting an approach that recognises how gambling-related harm is fed from a range of sectors and affects a diverse range of people in different ways.”

Dr Smith referred to the Gambling Commission’s recent report of a rise in problem gambling among 11- to 16-year olds, from 55,000 in 2019 to 61,000 in 2020 — “despite the current laws stipulating that young people should neither see gambling adverts nor bet”.

He continued: “This is not solely about operators behaving irresponsibly, but results also from the propagation of a culture that normalises gambling through what should be the innocent enjoyment of sport.

“When the Government announces they are going to ban junk-food advertisements online on the grounds that they promote unhealthy lifestyles, I ask: what is stopping them from extending this to gambling adverts, particularly when the harms have been well documented for years? I would urge the Government to act quickly to protect our young people from further exploitation.”

Dr Smith also spoke of “a huge but invisible” gambling problem in the UK military, which had, he said, been ignored for too long. Studies in the United States showed, he said, that service personnel and veterans suffered gambling-related harm to a greater extent than members of the general public. The US government passed a gambling-prevention Act in 2019 “exclusively aimed at the military”, Dr Smith said — but the UK Government did not have plans to enact similar legislation.

“What is unclear is what assessment this is based on,” he said. “Currently, there has been no academic assessment of problem gambling in serving personnel in the UK, a study which many believe is drastically needed. Having taken the time to speak to veterans and medical professionals working in gambling clinics, the overwhelming message received is that there is a problem in the UK military, to which existing studies conducted abroad point.

“It would be arrogant to assume the UK is exempt from these trends — in fact, given that online sport betting has been more widely available in the UK than in the US, it could be the case that the problem here is even worse. Is that why the Government is so reluctant to properly investigate the issue? I call upon the Government to protect our soldiers, sailors, and pilots from gambling harms by undertaking rigorous research and introducing stronger regulations.”

Dr Smith also said that existing gambling legislation in the UK contained “a swath of loopholes which create significant problems”; for example, when the Gambling Commission banned the payment of deposits by credit card, this applied only to UK-licensed operators. “Anyone who has delved into the world of online gambling knows how easily accessible unregulated operators are to find, and, of course, they are not required to prevent credit deposits.”

The five biggest banks in the UK already offered optional credit-blockers on credit cards, he said, which meant that gambling transactions could be blocked if the customer chose.

“The question is: why isn’t this mandatory? It’s simple: there is no requirement on the bank to do this, since their licences are regulated by the FCA [Financial Conduct Authority], not the Gambling Commission. Furthermore, this isn’t even within the FCA’s remit.

“Until new legislation comes into force that expands and joins up the remit of regulators, loopholes such as the one that allows credit-card deposits will continue, and those most at risk will suffer. I believe it is vital that the Government brings in strong legislation to block these financial loopholes.”

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