Gambling with our country's wellbeing
Growing up, I was well aware of my mum’s delight at her trips to the bingo hall and the pleasure my dad derived from completing his pools coupons. The reward of enjoyment far outweighed the very limited financial risks and these days it remains so for millions.
Bingo halls such as the Regent in Spalding still provide great value and great fun, but their share of the market has fallen as highly sophisticated online bookmakers allow punters to gamble on sporting events and casino-style games 24 hours a day.
That, in part, explains why the number of problem gamblers in the UK now stands at 430,000. The devastation of addiction is hard to bare, especially as research shows a compelling link between problem gambling, mental health problems, family breakdown and crime.
Knowing this, I have campaigned vigorously in recent months for additional measures that will reduce the extent of online gambling addiction in the UK. I was therefore delighted to see the announcement earlier this month that Britain's biggest gambling companies have voluntarily agreed to a "whistle-to-whistle" television advertising ban during live sports broadcasts.
It is encouraging that those involved have recognised the harm that such adverts can cause.
Nevertheless, the Government must redouble its efforts to help those who have fallen into the spiral of addiction. The Department of Health should recognise problem gambling as a public health issue, working with Clinical Commissioning Groups and local health authorities to measure local need, develop a tailed strategic response that provides assistance to those at risk.
We can make immediate progress by tackling the human misery caused by fixed term betting terminals – machines that allow users to lose hundreds of pounds within seconds. The Government’s decision to reduce the maximum stake to £2 per spin on fixed odds betting terminals was a welcome example of common sense and I am hopeful there will be no delay in implementation.
Contrary to the claims of corporate betting giants, these machines actually cost jobs within the industry, reducing the need for staff within betting shops. Moving forward, it would also be sensible to ensure there is a longer delay between spins, allowing gamblers to break out of the betting spiral, collect their thoughts and consider whether or not to place a new bet.
Though now worth a staggering £13.8 billion, many within the gambling industry still refuse to behave responsibly, illustrated vividly by their decision to contribute just 0.1 per cent of their profits to schemes designed to assist problem gamblers. These multi-million pound companies use a variety of morally-questionable strategies to actively pursue those at risk of developing a gambling habit.
Most shocking of all are revelations that gambling businesses deliberately target children online, using cartoons and offering games initially free to play and requiring no age verification. It is horrifying that 25,000 children aged between 11 and 16 are now considered problem gamblers. They deserve meaningful action.
I was deeply disheartened to learn that some bookmakers are consciously focusing on the poorest communities in Britain, with twice as many betting shops in the poorest 55 boroughs as in the wealthiest.
Of course, betting can still be fun. Yet it’s clear many require a helping hand from the Government if they’re to break free from their addictive compulsion to gamble. We must be brave in confronting those global online bookmakers who show little regard for the wellbeing of their customers. As the think tank Respublica has stated previously: ‘Unless the Gambling Commission is prepared to revoke a license for breaches of advertising standards, its wider calls for industry compliance and social responsibility risk falling on deaf ears’.
Research suggests up to ten people within the social network of a problem gambler suffer. Returning gambling to its roots in local communities will not only liberate individuals from obsessive online gambling, it will have a positive impact on places up and down the country.