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Gambling reforms are needed without delay

12 May 2023

The Government’s White Paper is a good start — but decisive action is now required, not more consultation, argues Alan Smith

AFTER three years of delays, the Government has finally published its White Paper on gambling, High Stakes: Gambling reform for a digital age (News, 5 May). It is tragic that it has taken so long; in that time, probably more than 1000 people will have taken their lives because of gambling, and it has delayed practical measures to support the 333,000 adults and 62,000 children in this country who are adversely affected by gambling harms.

Although many of the proposals could be implemented immediately, without further legislation, the Government has announced that it wishes to undertake additional consultations. For those of us who have been campaigning on this subject for more than seven years, it is another example of the inertia that only gives the gambling companies more time to lobby the Government and water down the proposals.

Nevertheless, there is much in the White Paper which is welcome. First and foremost, it is significant that the Government has recognised the scale of gambling problems, caused in part by the huge disparity in regulation between online and land-based gambling.

It is refreshing to read the comments of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Lucy Frazer, about the “shattered families, lost jobs, foreclosed homes, jail time, [and] suicide” caused by problem gambling. Importantly, it is clear that the Government is now using the language of harm reduction.

A second proposal is to introduce a mandatory levy on gambling companies, which will be spent on the treatment of those who are suffering from gambling-related harms. It will also fund research into ways of preventing addiction to gambling.

For years, the industry campaigned against a mandatory levy; but, when it became clear that the Government was going to impose one, the industry changed its position, and is now claiming that it has always supported this measure. This money, it is hoped, can be spent on funding the seven NHS gambling clinics that have been opened in recent years in different parts of the country.

IT IS proposed that affordability checks will be introduced. When so many people take their own lives each year, after racking up enormous gambling debts, this is an important measure that needs to be introduced quickly. Unfortunately, the extensive affordability checks will come into play only when there are daily losses of £1000 (or £2000 in 90 days). Affordability checks need to be implemented faster, and with far more nuance, to ensure that we do not see the terrible knock-on effects for gamblers, their families, and their dependants.

Finally, the Government has made a commitment to appoint a gambling ombudsman. It will, however, be non-statutory and subject, again, to further consultation. It seems as though the Government has not yet been persuaded of the urgent need to act quickly.

The big disappointment in the White Paper is the lack of proposals to reduce gambling adverts, especially those that relate to sports sponsorship.

All we have is a vague promise to undertake further consultations. One researcher has suggested that, if you watch a Premier League football match, you will see 700 gambling adverts on the footballers’ kit and the adverts around the pitch. Even the Football Association is waking up to the negative effect this has on fans, some of whom will not allow their children to watch matches, because they do not want them to be groomed into gambling.

Most gambling adverts are individualised texts and emails, offering those with gambling addiction free spins and free bets, and enticing them to gamble away more of their money. Research from the Gambling Commission suggests that 35 per cent of people with gambling disorders receive daily incentives to gamble, compared with four per cent of those who do not suffer from gambling-related harm.

Restricting gambling advertising, so that it can no longer target the most vulnerable, would be a welcome first step to fixing this catastrophic problem. The Church of England has already responded to at least three consultations on gambling advertising in the past three years; so it is puzzling that it should be said that we need more consultations.

GAMBLING companies spend more than any other industry on lobbying politicians. The Conservative MP for Blackpool South, Scott Benton, was filmed offering to lobby ministers on behalf of a fake gambling firm (he did not pursue the offer of a paid advisory position).

But it illustrates the widespread practice of offering to pay MPs for consultancy services, and offering them hospitality and free tickets to sporting events. In return, the industry has been offered privileged access to ministers. Many of those MPs who receive money from gambling companies table questions opposing regulation, and lobby for the industry.

Despite all that is lacking in the White Paper, it is good that the Government has recognised the catastrophic consequences of problem gambling. Importantly, the paper takes a “public health” approach to gambling harms, which should result in a more comprehensive set of measures to reduce the damage that gambling causes.

The White Paper is a good start. We now need decisive action from our politicians.

Dr Alan Smith is the Bishop of St Albans and Convener of the Lords Spiritual. He was a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Gambling Industry, and is a vice-chair of Peers for Gambling Reform.

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