A REPORT issued this month calls for a series of measures to tackle gambling-related harm in the UK. The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Gambling Related Harm paper calls for ‘root-and-branch’ reform of online gambling, including a ban on betting with credit cards, the imposition of a £2 limit on stakes, mandatory ‘affordability checks’ for gamblers and more stringent advertising restrictions.
The report recognises growing gambling-related harm following the wholesale deregulation of gambling under the Gambling Act 2005. Brought forward by Tony Blair’s government, the Act stripped away layers of protection which had been in place since the 1960s, paving the way for a proliferation of casinos and bookmakers, high-stakes betting machines, advertising and online betting.
Gambling has exploded across the UK since 2005. Most high streets have at least one bookmaker. Betting shops are concentrated in some of the most economically deprived areas of the country, targeting those with low disposable income. Gambling advertising accompanies sporting events, fills ad breaks on television and pops up during cursory browsing of the internet or social media. It targets football supporters, housewives, the elderly, students and, increasingly, children. In 2016, the Gambling Commission estimated that gamblers lost £13.6billion in a period of just twelve months.
This advertising onslaught affects youngsters. Last month, the commission revealed that tens of thousands of young Brits are ‘problem gamblers’.
According to the group, 55,000 11- to 16-year-olds would be classified as having a gambling problem. The overall number of people in Britain with a serious gambling problem is estimated to be at least 430,000.
Gambling addiction can be a matter of life and death. Earlier this year, academics in Sweden noted a significant link between gambling addiction and higher rates of suicide. A study from Lund University concluded that those battling addiction are 15 times more likely to commit suicide than those in the general population.
Those who are not plagued by suicidal thoughts still grapple with poor mental health, financial hardship, the breakdown of relationships, loss of employment and even homelessness.
The gambling industry is out of control. Fourteen years on from the Gambling Act 2005, a huge deregulated industry is making a killing at the expense of vulnerable people across Britain, with little constraint on their business. Even gambling industry chiefs admit to some fault. Confronted with evidence of the harms of gambling at a parliamentary hearing in September, representatives of some of the biggest firms in the UK admitted that they ‘need to do better’. It was a major understatement.
The scale of gambling-related harm today is truly staggering, yet politicians are doing little to combat it. Earlier this year, ministers did curb Fixed-Odds Betting Terminals by cutting the maximum stake from £100 to a £2 stake but, whilst welcome, ultimately it only makes losing money a slower process.
Perhaps the Government is constrained by the knowledge that gambling brings hundreds of millions of pounds in tax revenue to the Treasury each year. (Revenue lost by cutting FOBT stakes was estimated at £400million.)
Belatedly, MPs are starting to acknowledge the scale of gambling-related harms. But the situation we are in today was completely avoidable.
In 2004, Blair’s Gambling Bill was lambasted as dangerous and irresponsible by MPs and campaigners alike. The Joint Parliamentary Committee established to scrutinise the proposal stated: ‘Almost all of the evidence we have received points to the fact that this legislation would increase the number of people in the United Kingdom with a gambling problem.’ (House of Lords, House of Commons Joint Committee on the Draft Gambling Bill, Session 2003-04, HL Paper 63-I, HC 139-I, vol. I, p7)
Harmful consequences of a change in the law identified by the committee included ‘job loss, absenteeism, poor work/study performance, stress, depression and anxiety, suicide, poor health, financial hardship, debts, asset losses, exposure to loan sharks, bankruptcy, resorting to theft, imprisonment, neglect of family, impacts on others, relationship breakdown, domestic or other violence, burdens on charities and burdens on the public purse’. (House of Lords, House of Commons Joint Committee on the Draft Gambling Bill, Session 2003-04, HL Paper 63)
We at The Christian Institute warned: ‘It will turn Britain into one of the gambling capitals of the world, heralding a proliferation of addictive slot machines and betting shops, and casinos of a size never seen before in Britain. Gambling advertising will appear everywhere from street corners to television and gambling in a casino will become as easy as playing the National Lottery.’ Sadly, all these predictions have come true.
It’s time to work together to address the harms of gambling de-regulation and rein in an out-of-control industry.