Thursday, 31 January 2013

Time to stop gambling with our future? First signs of a rethink on dangerous gaming machines

A recent Government statement suggests that critics who have been warrning of the normalisation of gambling in the United Kingdom are getting their message across. While the Government has announced no specific measures to reverse the dangerous trends of recent years, it endorses what charities, churches and campaigning groups have been saying: gambling is not just another leisure activity but dangerous in view of the extreme harm that problem gambling can cause individuals and communities.

In 2011 the Methodist Church and its ecumenical colleagues were invited to give written and oral evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s enquiry into the implementation of the Gambling Act 2005. The churches were among the few groups to state clearly that the evidence from the Gambling Prevalence Survey in 2010 was worrying. The Act specifically mentioned the need to protect children and vulnerable adults. If the Act was working as it should, problem gambling should have gone down. Instead, not only had it maintained previous levels: it had risen. (Despite a largely unsympathetic response, the Committee asked the Methodist Church for supplementary evidence on key areas, which may be viewed here.) 

The Committee’s subsequent report showed little recognition of the seriousness of the situation. One of the Churches’ key concerns was around the clustering of betting shops on high streets, particularly in poorer areas. This is largely because these are allowed to contain up to 4 of the profitable and highly addictive, casino style B2 gaming machines. The Committee recommended that  betting shops be allowed to contain more than 4 B2 machines: this would enable the industry to maintain its profits without needing so many betting shops on the high street. But at a time of increasing poverty and inequality, it is unacceptable that the gambling industry should seek to maximise its profits in ways which will impact on vulnerable communities. 

It is somewhat encouraging that the Government’s statement says “It would not be right for the Government to consider any liberalisation with regard to category B2 machines until evidence is in place, potential options for harm mitigation are better understood and the industry has demonstrated its capability to manage better the harm its products may cause to some customers”. However the need for caution remains: this suggests that continued liberalisation is basically desirable, even of category B2 machines, as long as the industry makes some improvements in harm mitigation. It also focuses concern on 'some customers', supporting the outdated view that addiction is only a problem of a susceptible minority. But churches and charities argue that research already shows liberalisation has gone too far and too fast and that the Government should return to a default assumption of caution rather than laissez-faire in gambling policy.

Other statements suggest greater awareness that Government policy since 2005 has involved risky liberalisation and that greater regulation is required. The draft legislation requiring all gambling operators selling into the UK market to obtain a license from the Gambling Commission will be introduced as soon as possible. This is necessary to prevent a free for all of unregulated online gambling. Also the Government has retained the right to impose a statutory levy on the gambling industry to provide sufficient funds for research, education and treatment around gambling and problem gambling. This is important as it has not yet been proved that the current system of voluntary donations is sufficient to ensure funds for suitable research.

From 2005 onwards, stakes and prizes on gambling machines have increased, advertising on television and gambling has been legalised and online gaming and advertising has proliferated. The Churches have been among the few groups that have argued the need for caution and public protection. It remains to be seen how the Government will enforce its commitment to ensuring public protection and a balance between the needs of the gambling industry and the bodies that regulate it. This is a small but significant victory for campaigning groups and churches, but those concerned must continue to make their voices heard, locally and nationally.