12 January 2004

Parliamentary committee hears evidence on gambling from Christian groups

Christian groups appeared before the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Draft Gambling Bill last week (Thursday 8 January) to highlight concerns about the potential harm that could be caused by Government proposals.

Helena Chambers, Director of Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs (QAAD), Jennifer Hogg, for the Evangelical Alliance and a representative of Guildford Churches, Rachel Lampard, Secretary for Parliamentary and Political Affairs for The Methodist Church and Jonathan Lomax, Public Affairs Officer of The Salvation Army, gave oral evidence to the committee which is made up of a cross-party group of MPs and Lords.

The Christian groups were highlighting concerns surrounding the protection of children and the importance of social responsibility practices in the gambling industry. Attention was also drawn to an NOP poll commissioned by The Salvation Army which showed that 93% of the population think that there are already enough opportunities to gamble, a statistic that appears to undermine the need for extensive deregulation. The group expressed strong concerns about the dangers of slot machines. The Bill will introduce new machines with limitless stakes and prizes and continues to allow children and young people under-18 to play certain kinds of fruit machine, even though the NOP poll showed that 82% of the population said that children under the age of 18 should not be allowed to play fruit machines.

"We welcome the idea of social responsibility in the draft Gambling Bill," said Helena Chambers of QAAD. "However, we are concerned that some measures are likely to result in a rise in problem gambling. Large casinos will be able to provide unlimited numbers of high-value slot machines, and children will still be able to use some slot machines. We hope that the committee will have heard our message that children and gambling do not mix."

The Draft Gambling Bill could see a dramatic increase in the number of gambling opportunities in the UK and could lead to the development of 'mega-casinos' in towns such as Blackpool. In their evidence the Christian groups called for local people to be given a strong voice in local planning applications.

"Churches in Guildford where I live have discovered how difficult it is for local communities to resist applications for new gambling premises, and this will only be made harder after deregulation," said Jennifer Hogg who has campaigned against the construction of a 9-floor casino in Guildford. "We recommended to the Committee that local planning authorities should consult more widely over proposed new casinos and be required to assess their social impact on a community, especially if this covers a wide geographical area. Councils should be able to reject applications if they are judged to involve negative social costs."

The panel of witnesses outlined how they were very concerned about the rapid pace of the proposed deregulation and called for codes of social responsibility to be enshrined in legislation.

"The development of gambling on the internet and via interactive TV shows that the gambling laws are clearly in need of modernisation," said Rachel Lampard from the Methodist Church. "However the Government faces the challenge of deregulating without increasing the negative consequences of gambling. In our evidence we were very clear that any changes should be introduced cautiously, especially with the high risk forms of gambling. The gambling industry has to be able to demonstrate that they operate in a socially responsible way before being given licences."

The panel raised concerns that problems with debt caused by problem gambling would hit those on low incomes hardest, particularly if the proposed extension of gambling with credit cards goes ahead. It was also noted that the Government was taking risks with public health by trying to push this legislation through.

"All the studies show that those with lower incomes tend to spend disproportionately more on gambling than those with higher incomes so we are very concerned that any increase in problem gambling will hit the most financially vulnerable," said Jonathan Lomax from The Salvation Army. "If the number of problem gamblers rises as a result of the measures in the Bill the Government will have to answer some very difficult questions, particularly as there is no public demand for more gambling opportunities."

The committee is taking evidence from representatives of the gambling industry throughout February and is required to present its finding to Parliament by 8 April 2004.

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