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Volume 450: debated on Monday 9 October 2006

2. What assessment she has made of recent trends in the number of people who are problem gamblers. (92566)

The latest estimate, from 2000, suggested that 0.6 per cent. of the adult population in Great Britain are problem gamblers. That is a low proportion and we intend to keep it that way. The Gambling Commission’s next prevalence study is under way and will report in September 2007, to coincide with the introduction of the Gambling Commission. The figure for problem gambling in that report will provide the benchmark against which further judgments will be made. We intend that the Gambling Act 2005 will introduce the most protective regime in the world, with the key aim of protecting the vulnerable and children from the risks of gambling. It is worth underlining the extent to which the Gambling Commission and I, as Secretary of State, will have unprecedented powers to intervene in how gambling is run to minimise harm, protect children and keep the levels of problem gambling low.

GamCare says that the number of people using the charity for gambling-related counselling has increased by 41.3 per cent. between 2004 and 2005. The Secretary of State gave a figure of 0.6 per cent. in her answer. Does that mean that 250,000 to 350,000 people have gambling problems? Therefore, has she not presided, perhaps irresponsibly, over an enormous explosion in problem gambling?

Not at all. The figure that I quoted of 0.6 per cent. represents about 360,000 people in Great Britain, and derives from the 2000 prevalence study. It is time to update the figure, because new technologies mean that more people are gambling. It is precisely because of the inadequate protection offered by the existing regime that, two years ago, we introduced the Gambling Act 2005. It established the Gambling Commission, which will be a powerful regulator, with the central aim of promoting social responsibility among operators and keeping problem gambling low.

What specific measures will be taken to reduce what is now a severe social problem, given the number of problem gamblers?

Can I say, to reassure the hon. Gentleman, that we have one of the lowest rates of problem gambling in the world, and we intend to keep it that way? That is not in any way to diminish the suffering of those people and families for whom gambling becomes a problem. However, the list of measures includes, from September next year, the removal of 6,000 machines from unregulated premises such as minicab offices and fish-and-chip shops, to protect children from the risks of addiction to fruit machines. The Gambling Commission will have powers to oversee and to control the rate and frequency of play, stakes, and access to gaming machines which, as we know, can be a source of addiction. In particular, £3 million a year will be levied from the industry to support services for people who become addicted. Such work will be undertaken through the good offices of GamCare and the Responsibility in Gambling Trust, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). In addition, at the end of the month we will host an international summit that will look at the exponential increase in online gambling. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) will take comfort from the measures that the Government have put in place to protect people from gambling and the risks, particularly from new technologies.

The Secretary of State will be aware of concern about the rise in online gambling. It is difficult to see what social good will come from it, as it does not even create jobs. She will be aware, too, that the US Congress is examining steps to clamp down on online gambling by stopping credit card companies processing payments. Are the Government looking at such measures for the UK?

As I said to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), at the end of the month we will host an international summit to address precisely that problem. As things stand, such offshore gambling is beyond the regulatory reach of the UK. The United States has recently introduced new legislation to enforce existing powers. We can certainly—[Interruption.]

I apologise, Mr. Speaker.

To sum up, of course, we will look at that issue, but our approach to gambling regulation is different: to avoid prohibition, to introduce regulation and to avoid the damage that the free market will do. That is the approach—not just to gambling in this country but to the increased gambling opportunities online.

The Gambling Commission is central to this, so I congratulate the Secretary of State on the decision, taken over the summer, to locate it in Birmingham. May I suggest that she take a similar approach to the regional casino and to what may technically be known as the London Olympics but which we in Birmingham hope will be known as the Birmingham and rest of Britain Olympics?

I thank my hon. Friend and I am sure that the Gambling Commission will flourish in Birmingham. The decision about the location of the single regional casino is a decision for Parliament, on recommendation from Professor Crow when he and his panel report later this year.

Is not the Secretary of State right in acknowledging that, if online gambling is the largest cause of increases in problem gambling, it is crucial that we get online gambling organisations registered and regulated in the United Kingdom? She is right to say that in this country we have the toughest regulatory regime, but at the moment nobody is coming here because we do not have the taxation regime right. When will she sort that out with the Treasury?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, my Department is in discussion with the Treasury about precisely that point. We are concerned to ensure increasingly that online gambling companies understand the benefits of registering in this country. The consequence of that is their good name in complying with the very high regulatory standards and standards of public protection and social responsibility that will accompany the issue of their licence.

But is not the real problem that the internet is now spreading gambling as a vice, as it does with pornography? I welcome the action of the American authorities in clamping down on that. A little bit of prohibition in both areas would be a good thing. Will the Secretary of State talk to the United States to see what we can do to stop pornography as well as online gambling polluting the screens that our children and too many of our fellow citizens look at?

I understand why my right hon. Friend links the two issues, but it is important to take this on a case-by-case basis. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country gamble online and never have a problem with it. We have to ensure that the small majority who have a problem are properly protected and that there is no scope for exploitation, fraud or any of the other detriment that will harm people and undermine the objectives of our policy. We certainly ban internet material where it is pornographic and promotes violence. It is not our intention to ban internet gambling as such, but it is our intention to make sure that people are properly protected when they play.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Presumably, the Secretary of State agrees with her official briefing, recently quoted in the press:

“It is a government-wide policy, and that includes HM Treasury, that Britain should become a world leader in the field of on-line gambling.”

How can the Secretary of State justify giving tax advantages to online gambling operations that other forms of gambling and betting will not enjoy? Given the mounting evidence that problem gambling is growing fastest in the field of online gambling, what assurances can she give that Britain will not become a world leader in problem gambling as well?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts my assurances, and indeed the careful scrutiny before the House of the Gambling Act 2005 as a measure to prevent problem gambling. In relation to his point about the regulatory status of online gambling, there are decisions to be taken by my Department; ultimately the taxation position is a judgment for the Treasury. It may be that in other countries—other jurisdictions—the tax advantages will be better, but in the long run it is in the interests of modern gambling companies, if they want to protect their reputation, to be prepared to comply with and to abide by the social responsibility standards that we will insist on in this country. That is what we offer online firms which come to this country.

Following the previous question, I, too, read the press report suggesting that the Government are seeking to make Britain a centre for online gambling and I am much more concerned about that than even Front-Bench Members. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to think about reversing that policy and not make Britain a centre for online gambling?

As I think the Daily Mail pointed out today when it made that claim—[Hon. Members: “And The Times.”] And The Times. It is certainly not our intention that we become a world centre for online gambling. Do not confuse that, Mr. Speaker, with our aim to get online gambling companies to register and to come on-shore. If we do that, we will have better powers and those companies will be in a better position to act in a socially responsible way, so we will ensure that, in a rapidly increasing area of gambling, we can keep down the proportion of problem gambling. We are not marketing the UK as a centre. We are marketing the UK as having the toughest regulatory regime in the world and as being the safest place for people to gamble. It is a public interest test.