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House of Commons Hansard
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Gambling (Industry Levy Review and Protections for Vulnerable People)
24 April 2019
Volume 658

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a review of the case for a levy on the gross revenues of gambling firms and to require that review to make recommendations on the possible uses of revenue from such a levy in connection with research on gambling addiction, protections for children and other vulnerable people at risk of being harmed by gambling, and gambling addiction clinics; and for connected purposes.

There is very little, if anything, more important for MPs to do than supporting and protecting the most vulnerable in our nation. Typically, that is reflected in the huge amount of our public spending rightly spent on welfare and pensions, in using science and technology for remarkable solutions to health issues, including mental health issues, and in much greater awareness of and legislation against hatred and prejudices of all kinds. This Bill, however, aims to help with a different sort of vulnerability—that resulting from the increasing amount of addiction to gambling, which, in extreme circumstances, has led, and does lead, to suicide. There is nothing more sad than meeting a constituent, or non-constituent, who has lost a child to suicide as a result of the pressures of gambling debts. Even one life destroyed by gambling is too many. The depressing thing is that we simply do not know how many people have committed suicide as a result of gambling.

The only statistics available suggest that last year, between 250 and 650 gamblers committed suicide. I know of at least one case where the family ensured that gambling was not the reason given at the inquest. For how many more is that true? What is the real figure of suicide gamblers? Whether it is 250 or 650, it surely tells us forcefully that the assumptions in the Gambling Act 2005 about gambling being harmless for the vast majority of people need to be challenged; that existing protections are not working as they should; and that we—Government, Parliament, the regulator, the gambling sector, charities, us as a society—need to do a lot more to protect those vulnerable to gambling addiction.

This is urgent, because the problem is getting worse. More than 55,000 young people under the age of 14 are already addicted—a figure up sharply on even two years ago and rising fast. That is alongside 430,000 adults with a serious gambling issue—what we would in normal English call addicts—and 2 million at risk. That, above all, is why I seek leave today to bring in a Bill to ask the Government to review the case for a levy. I cannot in a ten-minute rule Bill ask directly for a specific levy, although as Simon and Garfunkel once put it, if I could, I surely would.

The main aim of such a levy would be to research what causes gambling addiction. How does it start? Who is it most likely to impact? Who is most vulnerable? How can we spot the signs, and what can we do to prevent it? Although prevention is always better than cure, what more can we do through gambling clinics and other means to help those already addicted? What can we learn from those who have almost become addicted and pulled back successfully, on their own or with help?

This needs immediate and deep investment in research to analyse the extent of gambling addiction, including looking at all aspects of marketing and advertising by gambling companies. The chair of the regulator, the Gambling Commission, has said that

“problem gambling has a real cost to the economy and to the individuals and families affected by it, although the scale of the adverse impact is currently poorly understood.”

That is a huge understatement. The damage done not just to individual lives but to families and friends, with strains on relationships, marriages, jobs and mental health, is already considerable and getting worse.

Let me say something about a potential levy on gambling company gross profits. The industry’s gross profits of £14 billion, tax receipts of £3 billion, 100,000 employees and £200 million of advertising revenues give an idea of the volume of gambling. Although the regulator requires a voluntary contribution, the current amount raised— £9 million a year—is tiny compared with the size of the industry. A reasonable levy could generate significant revenue to fund new independent research to recommend much greater protection for children and other vulnerable people at risk, including university students, often lonely and mentally unconfident in new surroundings. Such a levy could also fund jointly commissioned gambling clinics, like the new one in London and the one coming soon in Leeds. At the moment, just 2% of those who need help get it, and that cannot be right. The Gordon Moody Association rehabilitation centres have long waiting lists; a levy could bring them down and provide help as soon as possible. In short, addiction is a public health issue, but gambling addiction involves every aspect of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. A levy on the gambling sector to fund the help needed has to be right.

Research could also inform my belief that more action is needed to protect the young from gambling advertising. That means eliminating gambling advertising on live sports programmes. More than 90 minutes of betting adverts were shown during the football World cup, and no live sport on non-BBC channels is free of gambling advertising. Three big companies have already agreed in principle to do that, and I believe it should be implemented as soon as possible, but we should go further and the Gambling Commission should ban gambling advertising during live sport altogether.

The levy could also be used to build on much stronger self-exclusion, with real commitments from banks. How can gamblers access credit that they clearly cannot afford, racking up massive debts, without gambling companies, banks or the regulator being able to prevent it? Why cannot banks identify the issue earlier, and how easy is it for gamblers to completely self-exclude, to stop getting emails or texts highlighting the latest improbable deal? There is currently no easy way for gamblers to put effective blocks on debit card transactions. That is why I fully endorse the Gambling Commission’s discussions with banks about how to improve protection for problem gamblers, and I urge both to move fast on taking real action. I hope that research would echo that.

There has been progress on the software used by some gambling companies to allow for effective self-exclusion, but I have also been shown how easy it is to get around that; some gamblers will go to great lengths to get around self-exclusion blockages. I have seen evidence of how difficult it can be to contact a human in the gambling companies, and I have seen how once a company has an individual’s contact details it will pump out attractive, if sometimes misleading, special offers, day and night. The review could look at how self-exclusion can become an absolute guaranteed 100% opt-out—no ifs, no buts.

I presume such a levy would go to the Gambling Commission, which could also recommend how we can best use technology to protect more people, not just to expand the amount of gambling. Using software such as gamban to block gambling sites can help with self-exclusion, and it should surely be mandatory for all gambling companies to have such systems. Other tools could be developed to help protect the young, such as facial recognition to block under-age gambling more effectively.

This ten-minute rule Bill cannot solve all the problems thrown up by the opening up of the gambling sector through the 2005 Act, nor is it remotely an attempt to ban all gambling. Ultimately, however, it was Parliament that opened the door to online gambling, and with it has come a growing number of citizens vulnerable to gambling addiction. It is no good imagining that the regulator can manage all of the problems alone. We here have a special responsibility, and I believe that a review of the mandatory levy, to fund vital research, protection strategies, changes to policies on credit and access to money that have led in some cases to tragic deaths, and new policies, clinics and rehabilitation centres to help cure those addicted, would make a real difference.

As I said at the beginning, we—society—need to consider our approach to gambling. Will it be the tobacco of this generation—something once widely advertised, then restricted and finally banned from advertising altogether? Will those damaged or even killed by gambling be our legacy, or is this our chance to get the right balance between funding sport, using technology and having the right protections to prevent tragedy? I believe that this Bill, which would require a review of a mandatory levy, would, were the Government to go ahead with it, result in recommendations across different aspects of gambling and protection and would be a major step forward, for we need action now.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Richard Graham, Mr Iain Duncan Smith, Sir Peter Bottomley, Simon Hart, Andrew Selous, Alex Burghart, Tom Watson, Carolyn Harris, Graham P. Jones, Christine Jardine, Ronnie Cowan and Jim Shannon present the Bill.

Richard Graham accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 10 May, and to be presented (Bill 380).