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Volume 809: debated on Thursday 7 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the cost to taxpayers of problem gambling.

My Lords, Public Health England has undertaken a review of evidence on the public health harms relating to gambling and their social and economic burden. Publication has been delayed by Covid but is expected in the first part of this year. We have also launched our review of the Gambling Act. We are calling for evidence on how best to reduce harms and how we will recoup the cost to society.

When the Minister announced the gambling review, he mentioned the tax receipts provided by the industry, but there was absolutely no reference to the social costs, particularly those associated with health services. We know only that, as part of the Government’s NHS mental health plan, £6 million has been committed to gambling-related harm by 2023. How much do the NHS problem gambling clinics cost the NHS, including the 14 new clinics due to be opened by 2023-24? If the Minister is unable to give these figures, would she write to me?

To take the right reverend Prelate’s first point, I know he will acknowledge that it is very difficult to tease out the specific costs related to gambling harm, particularly on health and mental health. I will endeavour to dig out the updated figures from the mental health implementation plan for the 14 clinics, but I also note that this investment is in addition to the investment being made by GambleAware in specialist clinics in London and in the Northern Gambling Service.

My Lords, when I was a Minister in the Home Office in charge of gambling some 25 years ago, the rule was that operators were not allowed to stimulate demand. They were prevented from advertising or doing anything that encouraged people to gamble. Now, people are being bombarded on television and on the internet with offers of free bets and goodness knows what else. Is it any wonder, with many people in lockdown and subject to financial strictures, that we have an increasing problem with gambling? In considering the review, will my noble friend consider going back to that situation where demand cannot be stimulated, which means that people who want to gamble can do so but that we do not draw people into the net, which has had catastrophic consequences?

My noble friend makes important points. He will be aware that we are calling for evidence on the benefits and harms of advertising and sponsorship as part of the review. He will also be aware that there are already very strict rules around gambling advertising and promotions, particularly to those who have self-excluded and, importantly, to children.

The Royal Society for Public Health reported that not only loot boxes but skin betting created gambling problems for young gamers. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government’s call for evidence on loot boxes will also investigate skin betting and horizon scan for how the future monetisation of gaming can adversely affect young players?

Our number one priority in the Gambling Act review, which I appreciate is broader than the noble Viscount’s question, is the protection of children and their access to gambling. The call for evidence on loot boxes closed at the end of November. We received tens of thousands of responses, and we will publish our response to that early this year. I will need to confirm the position on skins and write to the noble Viscount.

My Lords, an effective review of gambling legislation requires consideration of social costs, which are undoubtedly substantial. Does the Minister agree that the review would need to include at least the costs of the effects on immediate family, relationship breakdowns, domestic violence, depression, attempted suicides, crime, cost to the criminal justice system, loss of employment, job searches, health treatment, bankruptcies and productivity?

I absolutely agree that we need to understand the social costs, but the more important issue is that we reduce the scale of problem gambling, because however well we measure the social costs, we will not capture the impact on human beings and their families.

My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register. Despite all the publicity surrounding the promised increased voluntary contributions from gambling companies, in this financial year they are providing just £5 million extra to fund the treatment and prevention of problem gambling, yet leading charities and academics, the Advisory Board for Safer Gambling, your Lordships’ Committee on gambling, and even some gambling companies, are calling for a statutory rather than voluntary levy as a fair, robust and sustainable way forward. When will the Government accept this, and, recognising that change can be made without primary legislation, act?

As the noble Lord is aware, the review will look at all options for funding this area. The Government are open to alternative funding mechanisms, but it is only fair to acknowledge that the five major gambling companies have committed to an extra £100 million over four years.

My Lords, gambling legislation is a strange mixture of voluntary codes and inadequate self-regulation of advertising, all supervised by a regulator recently accused of needing to “up its game”. Can the Minister confirm that the long-awaited review will consider imposing a duty of care on operators, as the Government are doing regarding online harms?

Unfortunately I cannot confirm that to the noble Lord today, but we are inviting evidence on the effectiveness of the regulatory regime and of what reduces problem gambling. The noble Lord shakes his head, but we do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the review. We would welcome him contributing the evidence he has, which we would consider carefully.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. The unregulated and at times unscrupulous ways in which some online and social media tipsters and affiliates operate may lead young and impressionable people to gamble in a potentially excessive way. As such, would the Minister agree that tipsters and affiliates should be licensed?

I thank my noble friend for his question. He is right, and although in practice some affiliates have been fined by the Gambling Commission, many act irresponsibly, and that will be within the scope of the review.

My Lords, the Minister’s response on this topic has been encouraging, but does she accept that it is highly likely that gambling, particularly among children, has increased during lockdown? Can she request that the assumptions in the delayed report be revisited to ensure that it is an accurate assessment of the current problem?

The noble Lord is right to raise the issue of gambling during lockdown. The evidence of an increase is not as clear-cut as he suggests. We are concerned and have taken very prompt action, including requiring operators to intervene in online gambling sessions lasting more than an hour, and increasing affordability checks.

My Lords, problem gambling disproportionately affects vulnerable groups, exacerbates social inequalities and imposes large economic costs on society. Back in 2017, the Gambling Commission described it as a public health concern. Does the Minister agree that if problem gambling is to be taken seriously as a public health issue, policy responsibility for prevention and treatment should primarily lie with the Department of Health and Social Care and not the DCMS, a department described by the Public Accounts Committee as both slow and weak on this subject?

We do not see ourselves as, and nor are the officials working in this area, slow or weak. As the noble Lord knows, the Department of Health and Social Care is responsible for the Government’s addiction strategy across all forms of addition. He will be aware of the comorbidity between different forms of addiction, and there are other aspects of gambling. We know that the vast majority of people who gamble do not experience harm, and that is the balance the department is trying to strike: to reduce the harm, and to allow those who gamble safely to do so.

My Lords, I am afraid that we have once again got to the end of time before we got to the end of the speakers’ list. We now come to the fourth Oral Question.