Parliamentary committee hears evidence on gambling from Christian groups

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

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

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

"We welcome the idea of social responsibility in the draftGambling Bill," said Helena Chambers of QAAD. "However, we areconcerned that some measures are likely to result in a rise inproblem gambling. Large casinos will be able to provide unlimitednumbers of high-value slot machines, and children will still beable to use some slot machines. We hope that the committee willhave heard our message that children and gambling do not mix."

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

"Churches in Guildford where I live have discovered howdifficult it is for local communities to resist applications fornew gambling premises, and this will only be made harder afterderegulation," said Jennifer Hogg who has campaigned against theconstruction of a 9-floor casino in Guildford. "We recommended tothe Committee that local planning authorities should consult morewidely over proposed new casinos and be required to assess theirsocial impact on a community, especially if this covers a widegeographical area. Councils should be able to reject applicationsif they are judged to involve negative social costs."

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

"The development of gambling on the internet and via interactiveTV shows that the gambling laws are clearly in need ofmodernisation," said Rachel Lampard from the Methodist Church."However the Government faces the challenge of deregulating withoutincreasing the negative consequences of gambling. In our evidencewe were very clear that any changes should be introducedcautiously, especially with the high risk forms of gambling. Thegambling industry has to be able to demonstrate that they operatein a socially responsible way before being given licences."

The panel raised concerns that problems with debt caused byproblem gambling would hit those on low incomes hardest,particularly if the proposed extension of gambling with creditcards goes ahead. It was also noted that the Government was takingrisks with public health by trying to push this legislationthrough.

"All the studies show that those with lower incomes tend tospend disproportionately more on gambling than those with higherincomes so we are very concerned that any increase in problemgambling will hit the most financially vulnerable," said JonathanLomax from The Salvation Army. "If the number of problem gamblersrises as a result of the measures in the Bill the Government willhave to answer some very difficult questions, particularly as thereis no public demand for more gambling opportunities."

The committee is taking evidence from representatives of thegambling industry throughout February and is required to presentits finding to Parliament by 8 April 2004.