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Armed Forces: Gambling Disorders

Volume 814: debated on Monday 13 September 2021


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to legislate (1) to require annual medical screening questions related to gambling disorder in the military, and (2) to annually assess the prevalence of gambling disorder among members of the armed forces.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I ask the Question standing on the Order Paper in the name of my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans.

My Lords, this Government have no such plans. We take problem gambling seriously and monitor for the emergence of problem gambling instances within the Armed Forces. We provide welfare support and financial awareness training for our people. The Ministry of Defence also blocks gambling websites on its networks to reduce their accessibility. I am satisfied that our existing approach to awareness of gambling-related harm, where it is identified, is appropriate and proportionate.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Compared with the United States of America, there is a real dearth of UK literature reviewing the gambling habits of serving personnel and veterans. What plans do the Government have to encourage, or possibly fund, academic research into this area as part of an evidence-led approach to reviewing the issue of problem gambling in the military?

The right reverend Prelate will be aware that a study by Swansea University, sponsored by the Forces in Mind Trust, is currently taking place to understand the levels of gambling participation and attitudes to gambling in ex-service personnel. We have not seen the report, but we hope that it will enable officials within the MoD to evaluate the extent of gambling participation, its nature—that is, leisure pursuit by comparison with addiction—and if there is anything more that can be done.

My Lords, military veterans are eight times more likely to become problem gamblers than those in the general population. That is the view of the Army Headquarters Regional Command, in its headline facts on page 3 of its transition IPPD information sheet which itself is entitled GamblingA Serious Risk to Military Personnel. The appropriate questions are: why are soldiers more vulnerable to gambling, why do military veterans have such a heightened prevalence of problem gambling as opposed to the general population, and what is the MoD doing to understand what lies behind that prevalence and how it can be tackled before the vulnerability forms?

These are all pertinent questions, and we are looking closely, as I say, at what this University of Swansea study will disclose. There is anecdotal evidence that people who go into the Armed Forces may be innately more inclined to take risks and therefore may be of a disposition that predisposes them to acquiring a gambling addition rather than to recreational gambling. We try to inform and educate by activity within the Armed Forces, giving advice and support within the chain of command and from other agencies. We certainly try to support our veterans both in the transition programme for them to re-enter civilian life and then through, for example, Veterans UK’s veterans welfare service and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs.

My Lords, internationally the evidence is very clear that gambling problems are greater among military veterans than they are among the general population yet, as we have heard, the Minister is unclear whether that applies in the UK. While I welcome and look forward to the Swansea report, does she recognise that there would great merit in getting the King’s cohort study, which is already being funded by the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, to also look at this? Will she also consider whether some of the very welcome additional funds for the Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Service should be directed to help veterans with gambling problems?

I agree with the noble Lord that it is important to know whether there is a problem and, if there is, its nature and where it is to be found before trying to deploy solutions and remedies to address it. He will be aware that every year the Armed Forces continuous attitude survey is conducted. It includes a question on debt management. There is a free text box at the end of the survey that personnel are encouraged to fill out with any issues they wish to raise outside the survey question set. Gambling has never been raised as an issue.

My Lords, I know the excellent work done by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans on gambling. I support him very much in what he has been trying to do about online gambling and advertisements for gambling. However, in this case, notwithstanding what the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, I think it would be quite unfair to suggest that soldiers who are doing their duty by this nation should be subjected to special tests, and that is what the Question says. Of course we must look into mental health problems and indeed extra problems with gambling—if there are any—among veterans, but veterans are no longer subject to military discipline.

My noble friend echoes the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Foster and Lord Browne of Ladyton. As I indicated, we are anxious to ascertain what we can. Your Lordships will understand that there is always a problem with the collection and collation of data for a variety of reasons. We shall await with interest the report from the University of Swansea and look at that carefully. I have also indicated that the Armed Forces continuous attitude survey could certainly be a vehicle to explore further if we feel there are concerns about the activities and habits of serving personnel.

My Lords, the military has been gambling for hundreds of years but it is much easier now because it can all be done online. We now also know the dangers to an individual’s mental health. Are individuals encouraged to seek help within their units? This really should be from independent support staff and not from any organisations that sit within the military.

I seek to reassure the noble Baroness by telling her that new recruits to the Armed Forces receive comprehensive briefings on the importance of financial security and the values and standards expected of them, during which the issue of gambling is raised. They are signposted to a full range of support and assistance. She may also be aware that we rely on experts in the field, including the Royal British Legion’s Money Force initiative, which aims to assist all service personnel, their partners, families and dependants to be better equipped to manage their money.

Building on what my noble friend Lord Browne said, when he quoted an Armed Forces paper that said that gambling was a very serious problem for Armed Forces personnel. I think the House will want to hear from the Minister how the Government will collect evidence about the prevalence of gambling, when that evidence will be available and what they are going to do about it. Here is one suggestion. Perhaps the Minister could outline to us how the Ministry of Defence is working with DCMS on its gambling White Paper to ensure that the MoD and DCMS are working together on that serious issue.

I have already outlined a variety of activities and range of support measures we deploy to help both serving Armed Forces personnel and veterans. The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, referred to evidence from a previous University of Swansea study about the higher prevalence of gambling among veterans. We are conscious of that and, on the basis of the information we have, we do everything we can to signpost support.

My Lords, while we would certainly not want to curtail the recreational activities of our military personnel, gambling is extremely addictive. What conversations have the MoD had with its American counterparts about the effectiveness of the US military gambling screening and research programme, as required by the 2019 US National Defense Authorization Act?

We in the MoD believe that we are already taking many of the measures that the United States has enacted and deployed. We are doing that in a variety of ways, as I have said. Part of it is done within the services themselves, but an important point was raised about servicepeople’s confidence in speaking through the chain of command: there might be an inhibition about doing that. They can then access the independent expertise of the Royal British Legion. We have a wide range of support measures to assist where a problem pattern of gambling emerges.