22 November 2011

Act now on problem gambling, churches and charities tell parliament

A substantial increase in problem gambling in the last four years is unacceptable and needs urgent action, a group of national churches will tell parliament today.

On Tuesday, 22 November, the Salvation Army, Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs, the Methodist Church, the Evangelical Alliance and CARE (Christian Action, Research and Education) will give evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into gambling.

In their contribution to a parliamentary inquiry on gambling, church groups will tell the select committee that the government must take action on child gambling, the clustering of betting shops and funding independent research, education and treatment.

The 2010 prevalence study showed that the number of problem gamblers in the UK has jumped by 50 per cent to around 450,000 since 2007. Problem gambling is defined as gambling to a degree that compromises, disrupts or damages family, personal or recreational pursuits.

One problem gambler who shared his story with the Salvation Army said: "Three people know of my addiction. My bookie, my bank and myself. Only one of us is prepared to take responsibility despite the others being legal and regulated."

James North, public issues policy adviser for the Methodist Church in Britain, commented: "The figures speak for themselves: problem gambling is on the rise. But the government seems determined to liberalise gambling laws. It is vital that the government understands the challenge posed by this worrying increase in harmful gambling and takes action to reverse it. We are also deeply concerned about their plans to cut the funding for the Gambling Prevalence Survey. This is the only comprehensive study of gambling in the UK and is essential if we are to prevent and treat problem gambling."

Britain is the only country in Western Europe to allow children to gamble. The Gambling Act gives the secretary of state the power to put an age limit on some or all of the machines that children are allowed to play and the churches will suggest that now is the time for this power to be used.

Gareth Wallace, who will be giving evidence from the Salvation Army, said: "This enquiry into the effects of the 2005 Gambling Act is long overdue. It is shocking the UK is the only major nation that allows under-18s to gamble on fruit machines. The government must commit to coming into line with the rest of the world and stop children from gambling. No further regulation would be needed for this move."

The churches are increasingly concerned over the location of betting shops and the concentration of gaming machines in poorer areas. Reports by the Responsible Gambling Fund and Harriet Harman MP, shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, show that betting shops and their highly addictive B2 machines (aka Fixed Odds betting Terminals) are increasingly common in our poorest areas. Local authorities currently only have limited grounds to reject an application for a new betting premise.

Daniel Webster from the Evangelical Alliance insisted that: "The government must give local authorities the power to decide what gambling activities can take place in their communities. Betting shops can pop up anywhere and there is very little councils can do about it. If localism is to mean anything, it has to mean that councils can say no to more betting shops."

The church groups will call on the government to introduce a compulsory levy on the betting industry to fund research education and treatment for problem gambling. The 2005 Act gives the government all the necessary powers, and such a levy would provide a simple and efficient solution. This is particularly necessary following the recent breakdown of the funding arrangement between the fundraiser, the GREaT Foundation, and the distributor, the Responsible Gambling Fund.

Helena Chambers from Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs, said: "The time has come for a levy on the gambling industry, as the Gambling Act allows. The level of funding for research, education and the treatment of problem gambling needs to increase. We are deeply concerned, because it seems these funds will no longer be distributed by an independent body, but by the industry itself. This involves some inevitable conflicts of interest. We need a levy and robust structures of accountability to ensure that the money is spent in the public interest. The good work that has been done on tackling issues like density must not be lost."

Lauri Moyle, representing the Christian social policy charity CARE, will also be giving evidence highlighting issues relating to online gambling. He said: "It is high time that the government came out with some firm commitments and a timetable in response to the consultation on regulating internet gambling in the UK. The consultation closed over a year ago and we have only had a holding reply by the relevant department. People who suffer because of irresponsible and unregulated gambling websites need help now. The government needs to act." 

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