It’s been a tumultuous year in British politics, with two leadership contests in the space of just a few months, after an outpouring of public anger about the transgressions of Boris Johnson. To the politically disinterested, news of infighting, backbiting, and chaos inside the corridors of power will have been a tiresome spectacle. Something to tut about with friends over a pint, before agreeing that politicians are the worst kind of people. But for campaigners agitating for positive change, the events of recent months have been more disheartening.
Political chaos down south has had a devastating impact in the area of gambling law reform. The Tories pledged to fix out-of-date gambling laws in 2019, aware that it is no longer serving the British public well. A whitepaper was promised to set out a way forward that puts the welfare of gamblers first, and makes betting companies more accountable. This whitepaper has been delayed repeatedly and is still nowhere to be seen, despite it reportedly being ready for sign off by Boris Johnson when he was still in office. It appears to have left Number 10 with him.
This really matters for millions of people. UK legislation governing gambling, the Gambling Act 2005, is hopelessly out-of-date. Since it was introduced, online betting has exploded and punters are now targeted with adverts and promotions 24-7: online, in apps, on TV and on radio. This lax situation has led to: one gambling-related suicide every single day; A&E clinics being overrun with distraught punters; an estimated 2.2 million people in the grip of addiction, or at risk of addiction. In other words: suffering on a grand scale.
Despite all this, the government appears to be swithering about what to do. Well-funded betting executives in expensive suits remind Ministers that their industry raises around £3 billion every year for the treasury. But close to half of this money goes towards mitigating the damage the industry is causing. According to the government’s own research, the annual economic burden of harmful gambling is approximately £1.27 billion. Health harms – £961.3 million. Homelessness – £62.8 million. Suicide – £619.2 million. The list goes on.
Does a fat cheque from gambling giants, operating in a practically unregulated market, really justify all this? A government that continues to fill its coffers with industry money, whilst overlooking industry harms, is morally bankrupt. Those calling for reform aren’t asking for anything controversial from the state. They just want sensible curbs on companies that are operating without proper accountability, who have failed to take steps to prevent their own abuses. Politicians have a duty to protect the public. Big betting can no longer be allowed to run riot.
One reasonable step suggested to Ministers is a mandatory levy on betting companies each year to fund treatment for addiction and addiction research. At present, companies can donate voluntarily but give well below what they can afford. It is not right that fat cats in charge of gambling companies take home hundreds of millions in bonuses each year whilst those whose bank accounts they’ve pillaged suffer untold harm. Companies that pollute the environment get fined heavily. Tobacco companies are taxed to the hilt. It’s time for big betting to pay its dues.
Ministers will also need to think about measures that reduce the impact of betting adverts. Sport is saturated with gambling content, despite evidence that people who gamble on sports are more likely to become addicted. Those struggling with problem gambling can’t attend a match, watch one on TV, or pick up a paper without being bombarded with ads. There have also been troubling reports about gambling products being marketed to children – companies grooming the next generation of cash cows. reasonable people can see restraints are needed.
Barely a day goes by without devastating headlines concerning gambling addiction. Yesterday, bereaved mothers wrote the the Prime Minister calling for action. Suggesting that “gambling kills” should be listed on every betting advert, the mothers wrote, “never, ever, were we, or our children, warned or educated about the risks of gambling, and how easy it is to become addicted”. Their stories are echoed in thousands of households and will be in perpetuity if things don’t change.
It’s time for the government to do the right thing. Continuing with the status quo is an inexcusable gamble with the lives of vulnerable people.