This week, amid the turmoil of a vote of confidence in the Prime Minister, an important debate took place at Westminster. On Tuesday morning, MPs came together to scrutinise the idea of a statutory levy on gambling companies, to help address spiralling gambling harms in the UK. The debate has been a long time coming, given a promised whitepaper on gambling reform is now long overdue, and Ministers are flip-flopping on what will and will not be included in any reforms.
On Tuesday, Welsh MP Carolyn Harris, a leading campaigner for gambling law reform, argued that a levy would drastically increase funding for research into addiction, to help Britain’s hundreds of thousands of problem gamblers. And she expressed fear that a levy, as well as other proposals to toughen up gambling regulation, are being abandoned by the government, despite pledges to take robust action. Last week, a government leak suggested two vital ideas for reform had been shelved.
At CARE, we have lobbied hard for a statutory levy for years. Since the last major legislative reform of gambling laws in 2005, the betting industry has been required to pay its share to deal with the costs of gambling addiction. At this point, it is donating around 0.2% of gross gambling yield, which is nowhere near enough to meet the scale of the problems the industry is causing. Ms Harris’ proposals would introduce a one per cent levy, significantly increasing funds.
The scale of gambling-related harms in our country is staggering. The annual economic burden of harmful gambling is approximately £1.27 billion. The overall cost of health harms is estimated to be £961.3 million. Dealing with gambling-motivated homelessness costs £62.8 million. Suicide, £619.2 million. Depression, £335.5 million. Alcohol dependence, £4.7 million. Illicit drug use, £2.0 million. Loss of employment, £79.5 million. That’s according to the government’s own research.
The case made by Carolyn Harris and many other MPs – notable proponents include Tory grandee Iain Duncan Smith and the SNP’s Ronnie Cowan – is hard to argue with. Why shouldn’t the industry that is causing harm to the tune of £1.2 billion in economic costs, and immeasurably more in terms of human suffering, be forced to make reparations for what it is doing? As Carolyn Harris says, the principle that says the “polluter should pay” is fundamentally just.
The repeated delays to the government’s whitepaper on gambling reform – a manifesto pledge in 2019 – and public back-and-forth on the scale and substance of these proposals is not doing the government, parliament, or the public any favours. It makes the government appear callous in the face of a great mountain of human suffering, compounded by laws that are not fit for the age we are living in. And in thrall to an industry that truly does put profits ahead of people.
The dithering and delays prevent parliamentarians scrutinising, and supporting much-needed reforms to gambling laws, last updated in the technologically inferior days of 2005. There is a strong cohort of MPs and Peers in parliament that are responsive to their constituents, who support tougher laws. And, most importantly, it prevents the public from gaining the legislative framework they need to be able to have a flutter without being preyed upon by greed-driven companies and left without support and protection when gambling becomes a problem.
Statistics from the National Gambling Treatment Service released in 2020 suggested that fewer than 3 per cent of problem gamblers are receiving the treatment they need. The effects of this lack of support are devastating, leading to severe debt, loss of employment, ruined relationships, and poor physical and mental health. Surely, as a country, we can do better than this? Surely, we can do better than allowing a wealthy industry to profit from the pain of citizens, without appropriate oversight?
By retreating from sorely needed reforms like a statutory levy on companies, Ministers will fail in their duty of care towards vulnerable gamblers, who have suffered significant harm. “We call on MPs in all parties to hold the government’s feet to the fire on gambling reforms. We need a new, evidence-led, public health approach that makes the industry truly accountable. Action is many years overdue.
This article first appeared on Parliament News