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Veterans’ Strategy Action Plan: Gambling Addiction

Volume 818: debated on Thursday 27 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why their Veterans’ Strategy Action Plan: 2022 to 2024, published on 19 January, makes no reference to gambling addiction.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and draw attention to my interest as the chairman of Peers for Gambling Reform.

My Lords, the action plan contains over 60 commitments worth over £70 million and sets the direction for delivering for our veterans between 2022 and 2024. It does not represent the limit of the Government’s ambitions, and we continue to work across government to address issues affecting veterans. We take gambling seriously. Veterans can access a range of support, including via the 24/7 Veterans’ Gateway, and the National Gambling Helpline also gives advice to anyone affected by gambling problems in England, Scotland and Wales.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but, as in other countries, recent research from the Forces in Mind Trust and the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund shows that the UK’s service personnel and our veterans are more likely to experience gambling harm than the general population, and yet Operation Courage, and now the Veterans’ Strategy Action Plan, make reference to help for drugs and alcohol problems but not gambling problems. Does the Minister now accept that there is sufficient evidence to justify much greater action on this issue?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord’s work in this area. I will not allow myself to venture into personal opinions on gambling—I am answering as a Minister. We are grateful to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund for its work and are assessing its findings and the Forces in Mind Trust report. We will take both those reports very seriously in considering our work going forward.

My Lords, we are at times in danger of giving the impression that the majority of our veterans who leave service are troubled, yet I remind your Lordships’ House that 96% of service leavers make a successful transition to a civilian career within six months of leaving. It is an excellent action plan, but if I were to have one criticism, it is that it is not until page 32 that the Government first talk about promoting a positive image of our veterans. Can I ask my noble friend if that could be the headline—that service veterans are excellent people to employ?

I agree profoundly with what my noble friend said, and he is right that the significant majority of veterans go on to live happy and healthy lives when they move out of the Armed Forces, and make as great a contribution to our society when they are not serving as when they did. That does not absolve the Government of the duty to stand by those who need additional support.

My Lords, the RAF Benevolent Fund research, to which the noble Lord, Lord Foster, refers, merely corroborates the Army’s own assessment that military veterans are eight times more likely to have gambling problems than the rest of the country’s population. Should the Government ask themselves not what do we do for the people whose distress has caused them to fall into this difficulty, but why there is such a prevalence of those who give their military service to this country developing this distressing condition?

I do not detract from the significance of what the noble Lord said, with his very great experience. The reality is that this Government take seriously the gambling concerns and problems in all sectors of society, and are committed to tackling gambling-related harms. As he will know, the Ministry of Defence is continuing to develop welfare support policies for supporting personnel, including those with gambling problems, and the MoD restricts the ability of service personnel to access online gambling sites.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a necessity for an up-to-date community survey that will measure problem gambling among both Armed Forces and civilian populations?

There is a Gambling Act review, which I know that some noble Lords will feel is taking a little time. It will be, and is, the most thorough review of gambling law since the Labour Government’s Act and we need to get it right. We are continuing with that and have already taken interim action—for example, banning gambling on credit cards.

My Lords, it is absolutely right that we pay tribute to those veterans who have successfully transitioned back into civilian life, but nevertheless the research by the RAF Benevolent Fund is striking, with much higher levels of problem gambling and at-risk gambling among veterans, which we need to attend to. Are there any plans by Her Majesty’s Government to screen those transitioning back into civilian life, and to provide additional support where necessary?

As I have already said, the Government are grateful to the RAF Benevolent Fund and are considering that research. The NHS long-term plan is addressing provision for those who have gambling problems, and we will continue to work to ensure that we detect and support problems where they arise. In that respect, I am on all fours with every noble Lord who has contributed so far.

I commend the Government for establishing a review of the treatment of LGBT veterans who served in our Armed Forces between 1967 and 2000, when many were disciplined, dismissed and humiliated for homosexual conduct which was perfectly legal in civilian life. Can my noble friend assure these veterans that, when the review is completed, it will be followed by action to address the suffering and hardship that they endured?

I pay tribute to my noble friend and others on all Benches who have campaigned on this matter. I am pleased to tell him that setting up this process is not the end; the end is the action that follows. We are committed to taking tangible action, where appropriate, to redress past wrongs. To do this in a meaningful way, we have to fully understand the impact that the historic ban still has today, and the independent review will help to do that.

My Lords, we know from research from Swansea University and others that veterans are 10 times more likely than non-veterans to experience problem gambling, yet we do not screen for it. Support for those leaving the Armed Forces has vastly improved in recent decades but there is still more to do, and support cannot be provided if we do not know those most likely to need it. When the Minister goes back to his department and speaks to colleagues at the MoD, will he encourage them to include screening for a propensity for problem gambling as part of the usual mental health screening?

I am sure that my colleagues will take note of everything said in this House; I certainly promise the noble Baroness that. I remind the House, if anyone doubts this Government’s commitment, that it was this Government who set up the first ever dedicated Office for Veterans’ Affairs, to champion veterans in every respect, at the heart of government. We have an action plan and we will have a veterans strategy refresh, drawing on all the wise advice given by your Lordships and others, but I think the Government deserve some credit for what has actually been done here.

My Lords, is not the truth of the matter that the explosion in gambling addiction is a consequence of the Labour Government’s decision to change the law which previously prevented people promoting and stimulating demand for gambling?

My noble friend puts me in a dangerous place. The Government’s answer—and it is right—is to undertake as comprehensive a review of the Gambling Act as there has ever been, and that will be pursued. My personal view, as a sports fan, is that I am sick and tired of gambling advertising being thrust down viewers’ throats.