Problem gambling is soaring. Labour is right to pledge radical reform

‘The pledge this week to ban betting firms from sponsoring football shirts appears to be the first such “radical change” proposed by Labour.’

The promise to ban football shirt sponsorship is a good start to tackling this crisis, but cross-party action to mitigate the suffering of addiction is urgently needed

When Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson was challenged on Newsnight last week about his party’s role in liberalising gambling, he signalled a long-awaited shift in Labour’s philosophical approach to how it should be regulated, away from the “growth” orientated framework introduced by Tony Blair that has led to 430,000 problem gamblers in Britain, with more than 2 million people in the UK either problem gamblers or at risk of addiction.

On the day those figures were revealed, Watson told Emily Maitlis: “There needs to be massive reform, we’ve got a gambling industry that spends many millions of pounds lobbying ministers, journalists, civil servants, on the message that they believe in responsible gambling, and what we’ve seen today is irresponsible gambling. We are not going run away from this, we are going to be demanding that the government take this hidden crisis seriously.”

But most revealingly he described Labour’s 2005 Gambling Act as “analogue legislation for a digital age” and “not fit for purpose”, assuring the government that it will have Labour’s support if it wants to make some “radical changes” when it responds to the gambling review in October.

The pledge this week to ban betting firms from sponsoring football shirts appears to be the first such “radical change” proposed by Labour. While the prevalence of gambling companies on football shirts is a symptom of the vast sums of money lost to gambling in Britain and around the world, where the Premier League is also watched, it has also created a vicious circle. Their rapid rise in profits has been off the backs of those experiencing harm. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report for Gamble Aware last week suggested that 59% of online gambling companies’ profits come from either problem or at risk gamblers.

This means the proportion of their customer base generating the majority of their revenue are likely to “play to extinction” – an industry expression meaning “lose all the money they have, or can get access to”. This creates a business model dependent on a constant stream of new players, so advertising is integral to that. Curtailing advertising is the first step in forcing the industry to rethink its business model, a model that has been feeding off addiction for too long.

As well as banning sponsorship of football shirts, the government should at the very least end the pre-watershed exemption for gambling ads that applies to live sporting events and, as Sky Bet have announced unilaterally, ban affiliate marketing programmes that have given rise to “phoney tipsters” who deliberately recommend long-shot bets to punters as they profit from the losses of customers they refer.

The objective of any gambling legislation should be to prevent harm, but for those who do become addicted, and there are hundreds of thousands of them in Britain, there simply isn’t adequate support available. The current arrangement is a voluntary system, where the gambling industry is supposed to contribute 0.1% of its profits to Gamble Aware, a charity with industry executives on its board of trustees. Last year this should have given Gamble Aware a budget of £13.6m, but the industry coughed up only about £8m. This paltry sum is supposed to fund research, education and treatment. Aside from the obvious issues related to an industry charity commissioning research, the budget only stretches far enough for one specialist clinic for problem gambling, which is NHS-run but Gamble Aware funded, and based in west London. We need more clinics like this, all over the country.

I’m told that Jeremy Corbyn is very supportive of Watson’s moves to clamp down on the gambling industry, and that Labour will be developing more policies to deal with the growing crisis of gambling addiction over the coming months. The government’s review in October relates to gambling advertising and machine stakes and prizes, including fixed-odds betting terminals. A reduction in the maximum stake on the latter from £100 a spin to £2 would signal a cross-party consensus on scaling back the failed experiment of rampant liberalisation we have endured for far too long and go some way to help mitigate the suffering gambling addiction causes.

 Matt Zarb-Cousin is spokesperson for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling

Source: The Guardian

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