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Problem Gambling

Volume 798: debated on Tuesday 2 July 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for DCMS earlier today in the other place:

“Mr Speaker, with your permission, I would like to make a Statement about today’s announcement on support for those affected by problem gambling. While we all want a healthy gambling industry that makes an important contribution to the economy, we also need one that does all it can to protect those who use it.

Problem gambling can devastate lives, families and communities. I have met users who have lost more than the UK’s annual average salary on credit cards during one night of gambling online and parents who are now without a child as a result of gambling addiction. Over recent months I have also met representatives from the gambling industry and colleagues from across the House to discuss what more needs to be done. We can all agree that it is best to prevent harm before it occurs, and to step in early where people are at risk. But we also need to offer the right support for those people who experience harm. We have already acted to reduce the minimum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals to £2, from £100. This has reduced the potential for large losses on FOBT machines and has reduced the risk of harm to players and wider communities. We have also tightened age and identity checks for online gambling websites, an important step to protect children and vulnerable people who may be at risk.

Today five of the biggest gambling companies have agreed a series of measures which will deliver real and meaningful progress on support for problem gamblers. This announcement has been welcomed by the Gambling Commission, GambleAware and Gamban. These are companies which, together, represent around half the British commercial gambling industry.

At the heart of this package is a very significant increase in their financial contribution to fund support and treatment. Last year voluntary contributions across the whole industry to problem gambling yielded less than £10 million. Now five operators—William Hill; Bet365; GVC; which owns Ladbrokes and Coral; Flutter, formerly known as Paddy Power Betfair; and Sky Betting & Gaming—have pledged that over the next four years they will increase tenfold the funding they give to treatment and support for problem gamblers. In this same period they have committed to spending £100 million on treatment specifically. The companies will report publicly on progress with these commitments, alongside their annual assurance statements to the Gambling Commission.

Last week NHS England announced it is establishing up to 14 clinics for those with the most complex and severe gambling problems. This includes where gambling problems coexist with other mental health problems or childhood trauma. It has also been announced that the first NHS problem gambling clinic offering specific support for children is set to open. The funding announced today enables a huge boost for the other treatment services that complement specialist NHS clinics and will help us to place an increased focus on early intervention. I know that Members across the House have argued for a mandatory, statutory levy to procure funds for treatment and support of problem gambling. I understand the argument, but of course the House knows that legislating for this would take time to complete; in all likelihood more than a year. The proposal made this morning will deliver substantially increased support for problem gamblers this year.

It may also be said that receipts from a statutory levy are certain, and those from a voluntary approach are not. However, it is important to stress two things. First, these voluntary contributions must and will be transparent, including to the regulator, and if they are not made, we will know. Secondly, the Government reserve the right to pursue a mandatory route to funding if a voluntary one does not prove effective. This is a clear financial commitment from the industry to address the harms that can come from gambling, but this is not solely about spending money: this is a package of measures, spanning a number of different areas, to ensure we tackle problem gambling on all possible fronts.

First, a responsible gambling industry is one that works together to reduce harm and wants customers to be safe, whatever platform they use or however they choose to gamble. The companies already identify customers whose gambling suggests they may be at risk, and they take steps to protect them. Their licences require this, but they will go further. We have already seen the successful launch of GamStop, the multioperator self-exclusion scheme. I am pleased that companies have committed to building on this through greater sharing of data to prevent problem gamblers experiencing further harm.

Secondly, the five companies will use emerging technology to make sure their online advertising is used responsibly. Where technology exists that can identify a user showing problem gambling behaviours and target gambling adverts away from that person, they have committed to using it. More generally, the industry has already committed to a voluntary ban on advertising around live sport during the daytime, which will come into force next month.

Thirdly, operators have committed to giving greater prominence to services and campaigns that support those in need of help. They have pledged to increase the volume of their customer safer gambling messaging; to continue their support for the Bet Regret campaign, which is showing promising early results; and to review the tone and content of their marketing, advertising and sponsorship to ensure it is appropriate. These are welcome commitments and represent significant progress in terms of the support operators give for those impacted by problem gambling. However, as technology advances we need to be even more sophisticated in how we respond. The five companies which have proposed these measures today will be working closely with the Government, charities and regulators so that we can address any new or developing harms.

These are landmark measures and I commend the leadership of the five companies that have put them forward. They are proposals from some of the industry’s biggest companies and I believe it is reasonable for the biggest companies with the largest reach and the most resources to do more and show leadership. The industry as a whole needs to engage in tackling problem gambling, and we want other firms to look at what they can also do to step up.

I repeat: it will remain open to the Government to legislate if needed, so this is not the end of the conversation. We will keep working hard as a Government to make sure we protect users, whether online or in the high street.

There is still much more to do, but today’s announcement is a significant step forward. It means substantially more help for problem gamblers, more quickly than other paths we could take. We must and will hold the companies that have made these commitments to them, and we will expect the rest of the industry to match them. They will change lives for the better and contribute to the ongoing work we are doing to make gambling safer for everyone.

I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I am delighted to hear the Statement and thank the Minister for repeating it. I and others will welcome those who have made the commitments that were described in this Statement and recognise that it is indeed a step in the right direction.

I am just back from Birmingham, if I may start autobiographically, from the Methodist conference. Some 25 years ago I was the president of that conference, and I was installed in my office in Leeds town hall. It was the year that the National Lottery was launched, and I was launched into putting the Methodist position on the National Lottery almost from the time I left Leeds. I confessed to myself that it was useless to put what some noble Lords would recognise as a traditional Methodist position on gambling: it was here to stay, it was part of our culture, so where was the room for manoeuvre?

I remember going on television with my noble friend Lady Bakewell on a Sunday evening; I limited myself to two points, which I have stuck to ever since. First, the proceeds of the National Lottery should not be used to spend on programmes that were properly the responsibility of government—they would be extra, over and above. Secondly, since there was a proven percentage—I had the facts at my fingertips in those days—of those who gamble becoming problem gamblers, a levy should be imposed on the National Lottery to deal with the problem gamblers that were going to be produced by that industry. This was directed towards the National Lottery at that time, but why not impose it on all lotteries? Those were my two points 25 years ago; they remain my two points now.

The Statement is good, as far as it goes, but we have to recognise that this voluntary levy is simply not producing the goods. My O-level maths, which is where I left the subject formally, in the year that King Uzziah died, suggests that the agreed percentage of the turnover of the gambling industry should produce something like £145 million a year. It produces £10 million. The voluntary agreement is not working. The Statement says that we should be prepared to recognise that what has been proposed is for now, but it will take a year to produce the necessary legislation to achieve the mandatory levy. Let us do what has to be done now, and do the legislation a year hence also. We can wait a year, but we cannot wait for things to happen until we come back and say, “Let’s do it”, because then it will be a year after that. It seems necessary for us to move inevitably towards a mandatory levy.

I know that these figures were given in the other place an hour or two ago, but they are worth repeating. SportPesa, which sponsors Everton, and Fun88, which sponsors Newcastle, gave £50 last year. Both are white labels of TGP Europe. Best Bets gave £5: I have just paid more than that for a taxi to get here. GFM Holdings Ltd gave a pound. What on earth would you get for £1 anywhere these days, even on the high street? Pound shops are giving up on that one.

We have 430,000 gambling addicts, 50,000 of whom are children—it is just not acceptable. The mandatory levy is the step that we have to take, and I urge the Minister not to just echo his master’s voice from another place in suggesting that because it will take another year it is better to settle for what we have. It is necessary to take the first steps towards imposing a levy now, so that the National Health Service, which picks up the cost of dealing with problem gamblers, can perhaps have—even in a hypothecated way—the proceeds of such a mandatory levy to deal with the problem.

I trust that your Lordships will see this point of view, which makes a lucid and obvious case, and that the body language, if not the words, of the Minister shows that he agrees.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I am a member of your Lordships’ Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry Committee.

It is, however, my membership of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gambling Related Harm that has led me to meet the parents of a number of children who have committed suicide because of gambling. It has given me the opportunity to meet people with mental health problems who have done everything they can to exclude themselves from gambling websites but are still being bombarded with gambling advertisements and free bet offers. I have also met people who have lost thousands of pounds in a very short time because they have been using multiple credit cards.

For far too long, the gambling industry has failed to take responsibility for the harm that it is causing not only to individuals but families and communities. As the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, pointed out, far too many of the gambling companies are failing to contribute even the 0.1% of the gross gambling yield to the voluntary levy for research, education and treatment. This Statement is of course welcome. The commitment by the so-called “big five” is welcome and I congratulate all, in all parts of the House and elsewhere, including Ministers, who have managed to shame some—but not all—of the gambling companies into taking this action.

An increase from £10 million to £60 million for research, education and treatment is of course welcome, but we should put it into context. Just some of the £60 million will be used to help the approximately 430,000 people, including children, with gambling problems, when we know that only 2% of them are getting any form of treatment. That £60 million should be compared with the £40 billion annual turnover of the gambling companies, the nearly £1 billion of government cuts to our public health budget and the annual salary of the boss of just one gambling company: today we are welcoming £60 million, while Denise Coates, the head of Bet365, earned £265 million last year.

The £60 million is welcome but, as the Secretary of State admits, there is much more to be done, and we need to ensure that this is not a cynical ploy by the gambling companies to prevent the Government introducing further regulation. The Secretary of State says that he is not yet minded to introduce a compulsory levy. If we do not have one, how will the many companies that are not party to this deal, and which do not make an adequate contribution, do so? Surely the way forward is a compulsory levy.

Further, what more does the Minister believe needs to be done to prevent problem gambling in the first instance? Does he agree, for example, that we need to do more to ensure that individuals can afford to gamble at a particular level, and that we should ban the use of credit cards for gambling? Does he agree that we need a code of practice for advertising? The industry says that it is keen to have one but has so far failed to come up with the goods. What will the Government do to make sure that we have one?

Should we not also have a system of redress for individuals? I am sure the Minister is aware that, if an individual has a problem whereby, for example, they have self-excluded but are still bombarded with advertisements and therefore lose more money because they are tempted, they can go to the Gambling Commission and report it. The commission will take evidence from them and other such individuals—it may take action against the gambling company or even fine it, as has happened in the past—but there is no redress for the individual because the commission does not act as an ombudsman. At present, all someone can do is go to the gambling company and seek redress or take expensive legal action. Does the Minister agree that we need a proper redress scheme? Today’s Statement is a small step, but it is certainly not a giant leap.

I am grateful to both noble Lords. Among the criticism, I think that today’s announcement was welcomed. It is important to reflect on the fact that, whether there is a mandatory levy or not, this is a considerable amount of money in addition to the existing sum.

The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, said that the current voluntary levy does not produce the goods. We agree, which is why we negotiated with the five biggest companies a significant tenfold increase: they have agreed to increase 0.1% to 1% and, in the first four years, to commit a minimum of £100 million to treatment. Providing more money is not the only important thing here; the companies have also agreed to other voluntary things. We hope that noble Lords will accept that this is a big step forward. Of course, many people have talked about a mandatory levy for some time, saying that nothing would happen without one. Today’s announcement shows that something significant can happen; a tenfold increase is significant in anyone’s terms. As I said, this is about not just money but the attitude of the five largest companies, which should be given credit for providing leadership.

I agree that there is an issue with the remaining 50% of the industry. As I said, and as the Secretary of State made clear, we have not taken a mandatory levy off the table. However, the difference between this approach and doing the mandatory levy now is that we will get money into where it is meant to be, which is treating problem gamblers. That is to be welcomed.

The issue of credit cards was raised. We acknowledge the question of whether they should be used for gambling. We are looking at the evidence that the Gambling Commission has finished taking and at what the banks can do in addition to what they currently do, using their data on customers to look at forms of behaviour that their systems tell them might indicate problem gambling.

Today’s announcement comes in addition to the 14 new clinics already announced by the Secretary of State for Health; they are there to treat problem gamblers and addicts. We think that the Statement brings significant benefits. We will observe what happens over the next four years. This is entirely transparent. The companies will say what they do in the annual assurance that they must give to the Gambling Commission, so we can monitor them. We hope that the extra money and action will make a significant difference to what is generally acknowledged to be a significant problem.

I welcome this announcement today, but I notice from a press release from the companies that they see it as a health issue:

“The key priority will be to quadruple the number of those accessing treatment from 2.5% to 10%”.

After four years, 90% of those with gambling addiction problems will still be unable to access help. Surely that cannot be acceptable.

We know from Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS in England, that it looks like it will cost the NHS between £260 million and £1.2 billion a year. This is costing the general taxpayer a huge amount, when the industry, as I have said in the past, is privatising the profits and nationalising the costs. The key issue here is that we have to treat this as a public health issue. I declare my interest as a member of the Select Committee on the Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry, which is just beginning to do its work. We need to take a fresh look at this. In particular, we have to legislate. All these companies are competing with one another, which is one of the reasons why we have this explosion in advertising; even the “whistle to whistle” ban is not going to stop the logos on shirts and the wraparound adverts that are blazoned all the time. We need to legislate to put these companies on an equal footing and protect the vulnerable, especially the young.

The right reverend Prelate, who has been vociferous in his views on this—I have been on the receiving end for several years—has done good work, but he is overexaggerating slightly. On the increase in the proportion of problem gamblers receiving treatment, we will never reach 100%. They have to agree to be part of it. We have significantly increased the resources available to do it. We had one gambling clinic in the east; another has just opened, specialising in children. We have announced plans to open 14, and today’s announcement is in addition to that. In every other sphere of potentially harmful industries, such as smoking and alcohol, the industry pays taxes and the treatment of people affected by those industries is paid for out of general taxation. The gambling industry pays £3 billion in gambling tax plus income tax and NI. In addition to that, the top five companies have agreed to pay a 1% levy on that to fund treatment. They are producing a large amount of money. Because it will be transparent, we will monitor what needs to be done, but this is a dramatic increase in resources in a very short time and it will make a significant difference.

My Lords, betting advertising around televised sport, both live and recorded, has reached saturation point. The dominant sports broadcaster in this country is part of a bigger business that has a sporting and gaming division and it advertises on the platform on which the sport is broadcast. The sports advertisers use sports presenters and sports pundits to advertise, and they advertise live odds on the events that are happening and being broadcast. All this is aimed at—and has succeeded in—blurring the difference between the advertising and the event itself. It all looks like the one thing and it works for them. In this context, therefore, what on earth is expected to be delivered by a voluntary ban on advertising around live sport only during the daytime? What do the Government expect this to deliver in reducing this problem, and why did they agree to it if they did not expect it to make a real difference?

I do not see why the noble Lord thinks that the proposal will not make a difference, but it is in addition to other areas. It works in sync with the fact that there is now agreement to use online technology to target gambling advertisements away from people identified as being at risk of problem gambling. Responsible gambling messaging will be increased and the tone and content of marketing will be reviewed. That is an addition to the previous commitment that the noble Lord mentioned of a whistle-to-whistle ban and the funding of a new multimillion-pound responsible gambling advertising campaign led by GambleAware. We are asking gambling firms to act responsibly. Where they do not, we will continue to talk to them as we have—the results of which have come today. We are not, however, ruling out legislation. We expect change and we expect firms to behave responsibly, but if they do not we will have to take other measures.

I remind the House of my declaration of interest. I just do not understand this—I really do not. I do not think I can be accused of putting forward the Methodist point of view but, given that we have this agreement, why can we not set in train plans for some sort of legislation? That seems sensible. Secondly, given that the chief executive of one of the firms joining in this year paid herself four times the amount of money that the whole industry is putting into this scheme, is the amount sufficient? How do we expect those firms that have not joined in—the 50%—to join in? Is it not necessary to say to them, “You have not joined in voluntarily, so the first thing that will happen is that everyone has to join in up to the level voluntarily agreed”?

I want to see this move on and I ask my noble friend to accept that there is problem gambling, and that we should make gambling more difficult. So why is it possible to gamble on credit? That cannot be right. It should never be possible to gamble on credit. That is the first thing the Government could stop.

As I said, the Gambling Commission has just finished taking evidence on that very subject and it is something that we will look at. The Secretary of State has indicated that it is an area that concerns him. We have to work on the basis of evidence, but that evidence has been collected and I assure my noble friend that it is an area being considered at the moment.

I just do not think there is any connection between the amount that a private owner of a gambling company pays him or herself and the issue. The issue is: where is the harm to the just under 1% of problem gamblers and how are we addressing it? Today’s announcement means that it will be addressed. Combined with the increase in NHS facilities, it means we are able to do a lot more to help problem gamblers than we have before. The remainder of the gambling industry not among those five big companies will be under no illusions after today. Hitherto, we were told that a voluntary system could not work and today we have increased the amount available tenfold. We will see what the remaining 50% of companies do, but it is much better to get people to contribute the right amount voluntarily than to make regulations for the sake of it. But we will monitor that and regulation will come if it is necessary.

My Lords, following on from the presidency of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, of the Methodist Conference, I declare my interest: I became the Minister with responsibility for gambling back in 1995. Indeed, at that time we wanted to deregulate the gambling industry in a reasonable, balanced and gentle way to bring it up to date and more into line with the circumstances we found ourselves in. However, I never thought that we would end up with the situation we have now. The Statement, as far as it goes, is helpful but does not tackle the underlying problems that all of us see day after day as we watch television or go online. We are bombarded with advertising encouraging gambling at all levels. My noble friend talks about problem gambling. It is difficult to assess at what point someone’s gambling habits become a problem. Is it a problem to them or a problem to society? All gambling must have regulation and be responsible. All those involved in producing the gambling industry must be responsible and answer to regulation that the Government must bring up to date—and bring up to date soon.

I absolutely agree, and that is why we are doing so. The industry is regulated by the Gambling Commission, which was set up to do that. One of the licence conditions is that those in the industry should behave responsibly. Having said that, we have made recent changes. It is not just a question of the amount of money spent on treatment, important though that is, but a question of preventing problem gambling in the first place. I accept my noble friend’s point, which is that while the statistics are imperfect and debatable, and the number of problem gamblers small, there is a wider problem to the extent that, even if there are fewer than 1% problem gamblers, they affect a wider number of people, including families, communities and so on. However, the figures are not particularly big in numerical terms and are not, from all the evidence we have, growing; they are under 1%. A lot of work has been done on increasing the preventive element as well, not just treatment. There has been agreement on using new technology to divert advertising away from online gambling. More people are gambling online, so using online technology is a modern response to that.

We want to increase the availability of online messaging to review the tone and content of gambling companies’ marketing. We have launched a modern, up-to-date online system, GamStop, which is not perfect but is making a significant difference. It is a real-time self-exclusion scheme and the results so far have been good. That is in addition to the changes in advertising. The Government have not sat still and done nothing. We understand that changes have been made and that we must monitor the evidence to make sure that we are up to date. As I say, this is not cast in stone and, together with our advisers, the Gambling Commission, we will monitor the situation to make sure that we keep up to date.

I commiserate with the Minister for having to repeat this embarrassing Statement. Does he realise that it essentially shows that the Government have become the pawns of the big gambling industry? He has said, with the full authority of the state behind him, that the Government are not prepared to move at all to tackle a massive social evil that is wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives, including those of young people who are becoming addicted to gambling in their early and mid-teens, which will then afflict them for life. Instead, the state is relying on the industry that has caused these evils to regulate itself by making paltry contributions, given the overall figures involved in this industry.

The noble Lord started to lose the House when he accused the right reverend Prelate of exaggerating. He made a compelling argument, along with the noble Lord, Lord Foster, about exactly what the social evils are and why the Government should be addressing them. When people come to look back at this massive social evil of gambling, they will equate it with the problems caused by tobacco addiction in the previous generation, when, after huge rearguard actions by the industry involved—particularly on the issue of advertising—the state finally moved. After that, everyone said, “Why has it taken so long?” The big issue that the Government will have to address is: when will they move to end the wall-to-wall advertising that promotes people into gambling? To my mind, that is morally and socially unjustifiable. Until the Government start to move on banning gambling advertising, everything they do in the meantime will seem beside the point.

The noble Lord has made many predictions in this House and we will see whether he is right. If it were true that the present Government were pawns of the gambling industry, they would not have reduced the FOBT limit from £100 to £2.

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister on his comments about technological advances, particularly with regard to what my noble friend said about pop-up advertising. These adverts are insidious. They are made possible by the use of cookies and algorithms, and are directly designed to entrap the people most likely to want to gamble. Can anything be done with the technological advances that he is talking about to prevent that kind of advertising?

I shall not give a technical answer to that but there is technology using cookies and other data to direct advertising and gambling advertisements to certain people. If you can do that, you can also target it away from people, and that is what the companies have committed to do today. Banks and other financial institutions can use data and algorithms to work out when people are getting involved in problem gambling. We are investigating that with the banks and it is something that we would expect them to do. As I said to my noble friend Lord Deben, we are also looking at the use of credit cards in that respect.

First, following on from that point, can the Minister say whether the Government have had discussions with the gambling industry about the use of algorithms? Secondly, he says that the Government are now looking to the industry to act responsibly and will be monitoring what it does. How long will that period of monitoring last? Thirdly, a Select Committee in this House has been appointed to look at this issue. Will any agreement that the Government reach with the gambling industry inhibit the implementation of recommendations from the Select Committee?

I do not know specifically whether we have directly talked about algorithms. However, I know that we have talked about the use of data, which of course is the food for algorithms. Essentially, whenever you use data and computers to make decisions, you use an algorithm. I assume that is the case but I have not been given the specifics on it. The noble Lord asked for how long the industry will be monitored. We have been clear that there will be monitoring. It happens the whole time. Gambling companies have to give an annual assurance to the Gambling Commission and that will continue on a permanent basis. We will certainly take the Select Committee’s deliberations and conclusions into account, and we may or may not act on them depending on what they are.

My Lords, when will the Government review the outcome of the change to fixed-odds betting terminals, which has recently come into force? Will there be a review this year?

I do not know the answer to that but I will write to the noble Lord. The evidence that the Gambling Commission gets will be monitored continually. I shall have to ask whether it will be made public but the commission will certainly look at that. I signed off a Written Answer today about the number of outlets. That of course is significant in terms of the reduction in the FOBT limit, because that was one of the worries that the gambling industry had. It will be interesting to see what happens to the number of outlets. However, I will write to the noble Lord on that subject.