Bishop of St Albans suggests steps to tackle social harm caused by problem gambling

On 12th September 2018 the Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in a House of Lords debate tabled by Lord Broooke of Alverthorpe “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the trends in different types of addiction in England and Wales.” He focused his comments on gambling addiction and the steps needed to address the social harm being caused.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for raising ​this issue and to the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington; I wish to address the same area, but he has done it with eloquence and passion. I will try not to repeat the arguments he made, although there may be a little bit of duplication.

Gambling addiction is now a major public health issue in the UK. We have an estimated 430,000 problem gamblers. As well as the huge financial cost to us as a nation, which falls on the taxpayer, it is affecting other areas of life. Last week, for example, Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, spoke of the huge additional burden it is putting on the NHS; some estimate that it is costing the NHS £610 million per year at a time when budgets are really stretched. But this is not about the financial costs alone. Gambling addicts have higher rates of separation and divorce than the general population, and higher levels of homelessness. Problem gambling affects all age groups, but particularly large numbers of children are either at risk or designated as problem gamblers.

We are told from the research that children will, on average, see at least three gambling adverts each day, so it is not surprising that recent research shows that 450,000 children aged from 11 to 15 in England and Wales gamble. We saw this clearly in the summer during the World Cup; every break was dominated by adverts. If we think that is just something that happened over the summer, what about last Sunday’s expose on BBC Radio’s “5 Live Investigates”, on which we were both featured? It exposed the number of Premier League club websites with youth sections directly linked to gambling sites. These sometimes even used the team’s colours. Within hours of the expose, all the clubs had removed the links, saying, “It was just one of those unfortunate things.”

This is serious. The advertising strategy is clever; for example, just last month a gambling company sponsored sports fixtures with adverts particularly designed to attract teenagers, as the personalities promoting the fixtures were dominated by well-known YouTubers. The straplines used to show they offer responsible gambling are incredibly clever: “When the fun stops, stop.” But if one looks at it, the word “fun” is in capital letters, in bold. In other words, it is subliminally saying just the opposite of what we are told they put it up to say; it is just a blatant advert.

Children, as we have heard, are being conditioned to think that gambling is both normal and a necessary enhancer of game play. Online games are increasingly using in-game gambling features. The lax regulation on online gambling poses a worrying threat to future rates of gambling, so I am not at all surprised that the number of people who think that gambling is dangerous to family life and should be discouraged has risen steadily since 2010. Research shows that problem gambling affects people in every part of society, but it is disproportionately harming people who are economically inactive or living in deprived areas. These communities have the greatest number of betting shops and FOBT machines.

The noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, has already mentioned some of the things we need to do. I concur with him on a number of them. We certainly need some form of mandatory levy on the gambling industry. ​I do not know how we would do it—I am not an expert—but, as Simon Stevens pointed out last week, the system of voluntary contributions is not working. We need independent academic research totally separate from the gambling industry, probably funded by that levy but with the money going through a third-party so that it cannot be influenced. It needs to look into the way that online games are normalising and socialising gambling among a whole generation of young people. Many parents I speak to are deeply concerned about this.

Thirdly, we need to give regulators additional power and responsibilities to police online gambling adverts. Fourthly, we need to get a handle on the social problems that gambling addiction is causing—in particular, suicide. We need to find a way to record the effect that gambling is having on suicides and to give coroners a statutory obligation always to record when there is clearly some link. We need that sort of research. No one is suggesting that responsible adults cannot have an occasional bet, but we have now moved way beyond this and we need to take action urgently.