This article first appeared in the Western Mail, November 9
Gambling addiction is having a devastating effect on people’s lives in Wales and Tracey Crouch MP showed moral courage in resigning as Sports Minister as a challenge to the Government’s inaction, write the Archbishop of Wales, John Davies, and Wynford Ellis Owen, a specialist counselling consultant and lead on the Beat the Odds campaign.
Examples of moral courage and integrity are striking in modern politics and should be applauded. The recent decision by Tracey Crouch M.P. to resign from her role as Sports Minister is, we believe, one such example.
Mrs Crouch resigned in protest against the Government’s decision to postpone the date for the introduction of a reduced maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). Currently the maximum stake is £100 and this will be reduced to £2, but not until October 2019. It had been hoped that the reduction would come into effect at the start of the next tax year, in April 2019. Pulling no punches, the Minister said that, in the UK, an average of two people a day commit suicide as a result of gambling addiction. It was clear, therefore, that the decision to postpone would cost lives. Among the reasons cited for the delay, by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, in his Budget, speech was a desire for the proposed change to take effect at the same time as changes to duty charged on gambling firms based abroad but operating in the UK. Co-ordinating the date of the two changes would mean the Government would not be hit by a fall in tax revenue.
Our view is that the Government has, in the past, been able to find money for particular purposes at particular times and that any delay in this case perpetuates acknowledged damage to the lives of vulnerable people. Money to cover the fall in tax revenue evidenced by the Chancellor could and should be found. Gambling addiction, often a hidden addiction, can have a devastating effect upon the lives of individuals and their families. It has been calculated that in Wales alone, betting on gaming machines costs the equivalent of £675 a year for every adult in the country, and that each of the 1,450 machines in Wales takes an average of £1m a year. It is estimated that there are 114,000 at risk and problematic gamblers in Wales, with 12,000 meeting the criteria for ‘pathological gambling’.
‘Beat the Odds’, which has undertaken considerable outreach work and research on the scale of excessive gambling in Wales, supports more than 100 excessive gamblers who have sought help as part of their recovery.
When the Prime Minister came into office, and perhaps sensing the national mood, she pledged a country that would work for its people, where the poorest and most vulnerable would be given a voice. When Mrs Crouch, in her resignation letter stated that there were MPs who were “very interested in the bookmaking industry”, she came close to articulating what has long been suggested by some, namely that the gambling industry’s money risks compromising, in some cases, the government’s commitment to legislate for the well-being of the vulnerable.
Some have suggested that any crack down on FOBTs would risk jobs on the high street. But surely fewer FOBTs would actually create employment as individuals and their families would not end up in poverty and would have disposable income to spend on useful goods and services.
However, far beyond this economic consideration is the spiritual, mental and sometimes physical harm that gambling addiction has done to people and wider society. The Government has allowed the gambling industry to target some of the most vulnerable in society with false hopes, which actually amount to inducements to impoverish themselves, using untenable and tawdry temptations to overcome what ought to be their common sense and their natural impulse controls.
Victims – addicts – are frequently left in crisis, and too often a judgmental narrative of blame is served up to them, alleging that they only have themselves to blame for their own predicaments.
The FOBT gambling industry, aware of human weakness and vulnerability to temptation leaves nothing to chance and operates by design. The profit motive appears to be mercenary and ruthless, and it prospers beneath a veneer of respectability with glib statements about the harmlessness of a little flutter. Whether such statements have any moral basis is debatable, but it cannot hide the terrible damage and social disruption which gambling addition visits upon the weak. The Chief Medical Officer for Wales has described problem gambling as a public health issue, and churches and other voluntary groups such as the Samaritans, Gamblers Anonymous and Christians Against Poverty regularly encounter people in spiritual, mental and physical crisis because of this very issue, and the money spent in the NHS treating the results of personal despair is a chilling reminder of the dangers posed to personal well-being by gambling.
In addition to our concerns about adult addicts, we also have particular concerns about the effects of gambling advertising on children. The ‘Beat the Odds’ conference this year highlighted recent research about the extent to which children are being exposed to advertising for gambling on TV and via social media platforms, and in particular through associations with sport. Gambling is being marketed as a positive experience, as being fun and as an easy way to get money. Children are learning how to bet using the phone, and ‘Beat the Odds’ is planning a youth forum event next year to discuss excessive gambling in Wales among a younger generation.
The gambling industry, with its enticements and its temptations is a real danger to the well-being of many individuals, and a threat to the cohesion of too many families in Wales. It must be restrained, and sooner rather than later. Tracey Crouch has challenged the political world to protect the vulnerable and not serve vested interests. We admire her, and we support her.
The Beat the Odds Campaign is creating a Gambler’s Charter with key demands for far reaching change in legislation to protect the industry’s victims. We invite the public, academics, politicians, educationalists, doctors, gamblers and their family members to join us in creating the charter and demanding meaningful change. For more information, see http://www.cynnal.wales/beattheodds/