One third of a million of us are problem gamblers. On average, one problem gambler commits suicide every day.
The young are most at risk:
The harm goes wider: for each problem gambler, six other people, a total of two million, are harmed by the breakup of families, crime, loss of employment, loss of homes and, ultimately, loss of life.
The gambling industry spends £1.5 billion a year on advertising, and 60% of its profits come from the 5% who are already problem gamblers, or are at risk of becoming so.
Addiction to alcohol or drugs is high profile and highly resourced. The comparable harm caused by gambling addiction has not received the same attention and is only now beginning to be recognised.
How did we get to this state? Until the Gambling Act 2005, public policy decreed that while Parliament did not want to ban gambling, it would do nothing to stimulate it. All that changed with the radical Budd Report of 2001 which laid out a blueprint for the liberalisation of gambling, promoting consumer freedoms to choose in a wider competitive gambling market. The Government accepted this departure, and it was on this that the 2005 Act was based.
A second revolution, unforeseen by policy makers at the time, was the almost universal adoption of the smart phone and other devices which enabled gambling 24/7—whenever and wherever the gambler wanted, totally unsupervised.
Gambling operators have made hay exploiting the laissez faire regime that has existed hitherto, while successive governments and regulators have failed to keep up with the revolution in the UK gambling sector. Our report demonstrates the wholly reactive nature of regulation since gambling was liberalised. The unscrupulous methods and ingenuity of some gambling operators makes for shocking reading. Their tactics are to change their working methods just enough to avoid more regulation being imposed on them from outside; and to date that has worked well. This cannot continue.
We have made over fifty recommendations which, we believe, will begin to address the misery that a gambling addiction can visit on individuals and their families and friends.
At any age, affordability is key. A bet which to one person may be no more than what they might spend on any other form of enjoyment, to another may be a step towards becoming a problem gambler. The people most at risk are also the most profitable to the industry: the greater the problem, the bigger the profit. We have heard appalling stories of the most vulnerable people being targeted with inducements to continue gambling when the companies know they cannot afford to. Sometimes this is through failure to carry out the most basic checks, sometimes it is even deliberate. The industry has the resources to discover what is affordable, and we place on them the duty of not accepting bets from those who cannot afford them.
Some of this conduct would have been prevented if the full range of penalties had been used by the Gambling Commission. Heavy fines can be imposed, orders made to return bets which should not have been taken, ultimately an operator’s licence can be removed. It is only recently, and as a reaction to criticism, that the Commission has begun to make better use of its wide powers. We have explained how more can and must be done.
We have considered whether all communications to customers with inducements to gamble should be banned. We have concluded that they should only be allowed to continue within strictly controlled limits. These include age limits, particularly stringent affordability checks, and a positive agreement by the customer to receive such communications.
New games are constantly being devised, often highly addictive, sometimes with a particular appeal to children. There is currently no adequate system of checking such games before they are put on the market. We recommend that new games should not be allowed until they have been tested against a range of factors to ensure that they do not score too highly on the harm indicator scale.
Throughout our inquiry individuals have been in touch with us to tell us how impossible their position is when they are in dispute with operators: no or inadequate response, failure to accept responsibility, dispute resolution which resolves nothing. Only a transparent and independent ombudsman system can resolve this.
However strict the controls, some gamblers will continue to fall through the net. This is a health problem, where the NHS should be at the forefront. Research, education and treatment are expensive, but can be and should be paid for out of the industry’s profits. It is beyond belief that the Government have steadfastly refused to exercise the powers they already have to impose a mandatory levy on the industry. They must drag their feet no longer.
We do not overlook that for most people who gamble this is a source of enjoyment that can foster social cohesion. We have been careful, in formulating our recommendations, to make sure that they impact on the undoubted benefits of gambling only to the extent necessary to make gambling safer for all.
Only in response to pressure from MPs, the public, pressure groups and the media, is any action being taken to deal with the harm caused by problem gambling. At last, all main political parties are promising action, notably in their most recent election manifestos.
The time for that action by the Government is now.