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Jack Ritchie: Gambling Act Review

Volume 711: debated on Monday 21 March 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

I am grateful to have been granted this debate.

Jack Ritchie was a constituent of mine; an outgoing young man, popular and bright, with lots of friends; a teacher, just starting his career, with everything to look forward to. But in 2017, at the age of 24, he took his life, driven by his addiction to gambling.

I did not know Jack, but I have come to know his story because of his inspirational parents, Liz and Charles, who are with us in the Gallery this evening. They have made it their mission to stop gambling addiction claiming the lives of others, as it does too often—more than 400 people in England alone each year; around 8% of all suicides.

Jack became addicted at the age of 17 when he started playing fixed odds betting terminals at a local bookies with a group of friends in his school lunch hour. Sadly, he was soon hooked, and we know that it is an addiction that comes quickly. Jack moved to online gambling, with products licensed by the Government. When he recognised his addiction, he struggled to break it. He managed to stop for long periods. When he died, he had been pretty much free of gambling for more than a year and a half. He had not gambled at all for five months, but he slipped back on 19 November 2017 and took his life just three days later, after a single day of intense gambling. Although he had lost money through gambling, he died with hardly any debts and with money available in one of his bank accounts. Until I heard Jack’s story, I had always thought the financial consequences of gambling addiction pushed people to suicide, but I learnt that it was the addiction itself that does this; the clinically recognised impact it has on the brain destroys that sense of self. Jack felt that he had lost control of life and would never be free. He felt ashamed and he blamed himself, which is what the industry-promoted responsible gambling model seeks: putting blame for gambling disorder on the individual, convincing them it is their fault, their weakness and their problem to solve.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for holding this debate. Northern Ireland has the highest rate of gambling disorders in the whole UK, with some 2.3% of the adult population addicted. Gambling with Lives is a great charity set up to work with secondary school pupils by grieving parents in Fermanagh who lost their son to suicide. Such charities are wonderful, yet they do not negate the duty on this House to get this right, through the legislation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes a point I will be reflecting on throughout my contribution. I was saying that the industry promotes this idea of blame on the individual, but when the coroner looked at the evidence at Jack’s inquest he pointed the finger at us, saying:

“Jack didn't understand that being addicted to gambling wasn’t his fault.”

The coroner went on to blame a failure of diagnosis, of treatment and of regulation. That is hugely important, because it resets the approach we have to adopt. It finally moves us away from the vulnerable individuals model of regulation. I welcome the fact that a few days later the Minister recognised that, by saying that

“everyone is at risk of developing”

a gambling disorder.

The coroner also said that the services available to Jack were “woeful”. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that until we ringfence a statutory levy that can properly fund, through the NHS, the help, support and education that is required, the services will continue to be woeful and more young men such as Jack could be forced into taking their own lives?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and pay tribute to the work he does on this issue. He is absolutely right about that and it is a point to which I will be returning.

I joined Liz and Charles to hear the coroner’s verdict on the last day of the inquest. They had secured the first article 2 inquest into a gambling suicide, examining whether any arm of the state had breached its duty to protect Jack’s life. The coroner found multiple failures spanning three Departments, those responsible for regulation, for education and for treatment. These are failures we have the opportunity to address in the review of the Gambling Act 2005. I know that the Minister shares the concern. He has met Liz and Charles, and others, and he has spoken powerfully on the issue, but there will be powerful forces trying to stop him, just as there were when we took on the tobacco industry.

As I said, Jack was still at school when his addiction started, and the coroner highlighted the following:

“The evidence was that young people were the most at risk from the harms of gambling yet there was and still appears to be, very little education for school children on the subject.”

According to research by the University of Bristol, 55,000 children aged 15 and under have a gambling addiction. That is shocking and it is not by chance, as a generation of gamblers are being hooked before they understand the harm. The industry cannot legally aim its advertising at children, but that is the effect. In 2020, Ipsos MORI and the University of Stirling found that 96% of 11 to 24-year-olds had seen gambling marketing in the previous month and were more likely to bet as a result. Nowhere is this more pervasive than in sport and, particularly for young people, in football. Gambling advertising on shirts, in stadiums, on TV and on social media has merged sports and gambling into a single integrated leisure experience. The industry knows what it is doing, and so do the public, over 60% of whom want a total ban on gambling advertising. We could at the very least return to the approach before the 2005 Act, so I hope the Minister will share his thinking on that, particularly in relation to children.

As my hon. Friend rightly points out, the regulations are out of touch with the online age. For young people gambling marketing is all-pervasive online in video games and streaming services. We need regulation that is up to date and protects young people from that marketing, including free credit offers, VIP clubs and the whole range of things that bring them into the mechanics of gambling early and powerfully.

My hon. Friend is right. The 2005 Act was flawed, but it did not anticipate how the terrain would change and it is now completely out of date given the challenges we face. Meanwhile, the industry is using every opportunity to exploit people to maximise profits.

The Minister may also reflect on the coroner’s suggestion, as endorsed by the CEO of GambleAware in her evidence, to provide warnings on products saying, “Gambling kills”—just as we did with tobacco. The coroner was also damning of the regulations, saying:

“Despite the system of regulation in force at the time of his death, Jack was able to continue to gamble when he was obviously addicted.”

Despite small changes since 2017, the coroner insisted that “significantly more” needs to be done by the state to protect people. The inquest also revealed the failures in the regulation of dangerous gambling products—some with addiction and at-risk rates of 50%—and the inadequate requirements on operators to intervene and prevent harm. The Gambling Commission must step up its game and take a proactive role in testing and licensing new products, which should be allowed only with safeguards and warnings, and the commission needs to be funded to do that job properly.

The industry must not be given the job of policing itself, and that is a powerful lesson from the inquest. Eighty-six per cent. of its profits come from just 5% of its customers—those who are addicted or at risk of harm. The conflict of interest is clear. Effective regulation starts with protecting those facing harm by tracking their activity across multiple operators, but the industry has been given responsibility for developing a technical solution—the single customer view—to protect those at risk or addicted. The last time the industry was tasked to develop a similar harm reduction tool, GAMSTOP, it dragged its heels for six years, and it failed.

The Betting and Gaming Council has been told to deliver data from its first pilots of the single customer view at the end of March—not far away—so I hope the Minister will update us on what progress, if any, has been made. He should also commit that the single customer view will be put in the hands of a properly resourced and independent body if the BGC fails to deliver what has been demanded by next Thursday.

Linked to that, affordability checks are vital to help addicts and those at risk of harm. Affordability checks for those who lose more than £100 a month gambling would make a profound difference. Some have questioned whether £100 a month is proportionate, but research by the Social Market Foundation found that any affordability checks above that level would continue to allow high losses. Crucially, it would not pick up addiction early enough. Liz and Charles believe that Jack would be alive today if such checks had been in place, flagging his behaviour much earlier and allowing meaningful intervention. He did not lose large sums of money until later, by which time his addiction was entrenched. I ask the Minister to look carefully at affordability checks.

We could also place a duty of care on operators to make them active partners in harm reduction. It would change the landscape, requiring companies do all reasonably possible to avoid harm and allow redress for those who experience it. As well as his thoughts on that, I hope the Minister can share what other regulatory action he is exploring.

As the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) said, the coroner described the warnings, information and treatment as “woefully inadequate”. His prevention of future deaths report states:

“The treatment available and received by Jack was insufficient to cure his addiction—this in part was due to a lack of training for medical professionals around…diagnosis and treatment.”

The coroner highlighted that Jack did not know that his addiction was not his fault. As we move away from the individual responsibility model to a public health approach, we need to change the Gambling Commission’s objective 3 so it has a clear responsibility to minimise gambling harm by protecting the whole population.

Jack was told by health professionals that he had an addictive personality that he would have to learn to live with. He was not diagnosed with gambling disorder. If it had been recognised sooner, if more information had been available to him, to Liz and Charles and to the healthcare professionals he saw, Jack would be alive today. The inquest heard from Dr Matt Gaskell, who leads an NHS northern gambling clinic, that the treatment Jack received was insufficient and that this contributed to his death. Dr Gaskell spoke about the impact gambling has on the brain, causing major changes as addiction develops—and develops quickly. He also underlined that the whole public are at risk, not just a vulnerable few.

We need a new approach that recognises that the problem is with the product, not with the patient, and corresponding public health messaging—an approach that provides early diagnosis and treatment pathways that build on the excellence that exists in the NHS, but make it available to everyone across the country. I recognise that that would require significant additional resource, and there should be no suggestion that the NHS or the taxpayer should have to find that money. We need to adopt the polluter pays principle on this issue as we have on others—that those who create the harm must deal with the damage. The current voluntary arrangements are not up to the task; they will not guarantee the funding we need. We need a statutory levy, independently collected and channelled to the NHS, so that the industry does not have undue influence over its allocation. I hope the Minister agrees.

The coroner’s statement painted a clear picture that gambling led Jack to his death. Jonathan Marron, the director general of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities at the Department of Health and Social Care, agrees. He told the inquest:

“I don’t think there’s any dispute that there’s an association between gambling and suicide.”

That changes everything. The responsibility to make the change falls to Government and to Parliament. We have it in our hands to prevent more deaths.

Given the seriousness of his findings and the multiple failures he identified, the coroner’s prevention of future deaths report was issued to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care. The Departments have to respond within 56 days giving details of action taken, or proposed to be taken, and setting out the timetable for action. I do not expect the Minister to speak for them all today, or to provide insight into all the discussions in Government, but I hope he will demonstrate that the Government are ready for the scale and pace of action that we need to stop this industry gambling with lives.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this important and moving debate, inspired by a young man, Jack Ritchie, whose life was tragically lost as a result of gambling addiction. I join him in paying tribute to Jack’s brave and determined parents, Liz and Charles, who as he says are with us this evening and whom I have had the privilege of meeting on at least three occasions since becoming the Minister responsible in this area, about six months ago, for their campaigning and work to bring something constructive and positive from their son’s tragic death. They have pursued their campaign with great vigour and have succeeded in getting the attention of Government and Parliament, as this evening’s debate clearly demonstrates.

The coroner’s report into Jack’s tragic death is very powerful, and I will turn to its contents in a moment. Clearly, the coroner’s report lays out, as the hon. Member said very eloquently and powerfully, a number of inadequacies and failings. I have in front of me a copy of the coroner’s Regulation 28 report, which says that

“the system of regulation in force at the time of his death did not stop Jack gambling at a point when he was obviously addicted to gambling.”

That was a point that the hon. Member cited in his speech. The second point that it makes, under its section “Matters of Concern” says:

“The warnings Jack received were insufficient to prevent him gambling.”

The record of inquest, a separate document, says:

“The evidence was that gambling contributed to Jack’s death.”

It makes it very clear that there was a link between the two.

I thank the senior coroner for the South Yorkshire West area, David Urpeth, for the time and trouble that he took in preparing this thoughtful report and in writing to us. He said in his report:

“I issue this preventing future death report in the hope that Government finds the concerns raised informative and of assistance, especially at a time they are considering the whole issue of gambling and its regulation.”

We do find the report informative and of assistance, and I am grateful to the coroner, to the family, Liz and Charles, and to everyone who played a part in that inquest for their work in bringing this report to the attention of the House and to the attention of Government.

It is worth putting it on record that there have been some positive changes since 2017, but, clearly, these do not go far enough. Just for the record, it is worth emphasising what those changes are. Clearly, this House voted a couple of years ago, after a powerful public campaign, to reduce the stake on fixed odds betting terminals—the B2 machines—from £100 down to £2 because of the overwhelming evidence that they were causing and fuelling gambling addiction. Gambling on credit cards has now been banned, online slot games have been made safer by design, the age limit for the National Lottery has been increased to 18, and there are tighter restrictions on the VIP scheme. In addition, there are currently two, about to be five, and there will be 15 gambling addiction treatment clinics funded by the NHS long-term plan, but, as I will say in a moment, these measures are not enough by a long chalk and we need to go further.

I welcome all those measures, but the Government have brought every single one of them to the table kicking and screaming. They have all been from pressure groups outside looking in and saying, “You must change this.” What I want to see is the Government leading by example, particularly when it comes to the entire review of the Gambling Act 2005.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I hope that he has heard me speak on these topics relatively frequently, including just a week or two ago, and I hope that he will gather from those comments that he has heard me make—families will say the same thing, as I have spent time with many families over the past few months—that there will not be any kicking or screaming required when it comes to the Gambling Act review, which is now imminent. The evidence that we have seen, including from this coroner’s report and from many other sources, makes the case that we need to go significantly further to make sure that people are appropriately protected.

As Members will appreciate, I cannot pre-announce all the proposals on which we are working that will form part of the White Paper, the Gambling Act review. Clearly, a great deal has changed in the 17 years since 2005 when that Act was passed, not least the explosion of internet gambling, which was not really a phenomenon back in 2005. Since then though, it has exploded. It now represents about half of all gross gambling yield. The nature of the online games, the fact that people can access them 24/7, the fact that frequency of play is very high, and the look and feel of some of the features make them significantly more risky than other forms of gambling, such as gambling in person at a racecourse, playing bingo or playing the National Lottery. All those things can be addictive, but the online games have a much higher risk.

Of course, when the 2005 Act was conceived, that was not appreciated or understood, but it is appreciated and understood now. That is why the gambling review will take the significant additional steps needed to protect people like Jack and to protect everybody who is gambling. We want to be proportionate in taking those steps—we do not want to prevent people who want to gamble on a leisure basis from doing so or put unreasonable obstacles in the way—but we do need to take action.

Another piece of evidence we should all consider in making the case for action is that of the failures being committed today by gambling operators. For example, just a couple of weeks ago one of the major operators —I think it was 888—was fined £9.4 million by the Gambling Commission for a series of failures. Those failures included allowing someone to lose £37,000—not to gamble £37,000, but to lose it—in a very short space of time without any checks or intervention. Obviously, that is an unaffordable amount for almost anybody. It also allowed an NHS worker to have a loss limit set at approximately 90% of their monthly salary.

There was another case where a gentleman was eventually jailed, I think, because he had stolen £15 million to fund a gambling addiction. How can it be possible that someone can be allowed to lose £15 million without appropriate checks? It is just absurd. A further fine was levied against a major gambling operator, which I think was owned as part of the Flutter Entertainment group, which had sent marketing material actively promoting gambling products and promotions to recovering addicts.

The Minister is correct to point out that 888 was fined £9.4 million for its tardiness, but the point behind this is that the operators decide what rules they implement, because they are governed by their own body, the Gambling Commission, which they fund. 888 is a gambling firm—a bookmaker. It will have weighed up the odds: “Fine me £9 million? I’m making £29 million. I’m making £200 million. If you’re going to fine me £9 million for breaking the rules, I’ll do that anyway.” 888 is a bookie. That is what it does.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The reason I highlighted those failings was to make the point that proportionate reform is needed. I agree with him that it is no good the Gambling Commission’s identifying some of those cases after the event—and it by no means identifies all of them; these are just the cases it finds. They are just the tip of the iceberg. The fact that these examples were found after the event is further evidence of the need for appropriate reform. It needs to be proportionate, as I say, but reform is needed.

One area where we can go is using data. I mentioned that online gambling is one of the areas that carry higher risk, unlike betting at a racecourse, for example, which carries a risk, but a significantly lower one. Data should and will enable the Gambling Commission to do a much better job at identifying what the operators are really doing and getting a complete picture of whether they are intervening when people’s gambling patterns of behaviour indicate that there is a problem, which clearly did not happen in Jack Ritchie’s case.

I take the point about the single customer view that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central made. We are watching that extremely carefully and will be commenting further on that in the White Paper. I also take his points about timing and about the need for it to be effective and appropriately overseen and governed.

I also take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of affordability checks. They need to be proportionate and pitched at the right level, but they have a really important role in making sure that some of the situations that I have mentioned, and situations like Jack Ritchie’s, do not occur. The data is available if operators properly use it and if the Gambling Commission has proper access to it to deliver that result. That should be a very significant area of attention in the Gambling Act review that is coming up very shortly.

I repeat my thanks to the hon. Gentleman for convening this debate and for speaking so powerfully and eloquently on this topic. I look forward to working with him, with the shadow Minister and with other colleagues across the House on this issue, which I think commands cross-party support. As we seek to reform our country’s gambling legislation through the review, we do so with cases like Jack Ritchie’s in mind. I know that all of us in this House will be profoundly and powerfully conscious of our duty and our obligation to protect young people like Jack Ritchie and many, many others to make sure that we learn the lessons from his tragic death and so protect our fellow citizens. I conclude by saying once again how grateful we all are for the campaigning and courage of Charles and Liz in bringing this important issue to the attention of the Government and of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.