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Gambling White Paper: a Feeble Response to a Social Scourge

Robin Burgess, the first CEO of the Responsibility in Gambling Trust, argues that both Labour and Conservative parties have focused on a few damaged ‘addicts’ and not the wider structural harm

Photo: Maddie Red Photography/Alamy

Gambling White Paper‘A Feeble Response to a Social Scourge’

Robin Burgess, the first CEO of the Responsibility in Gambling Trust, argues that both Labour and Conservative parties have focused on a few damaged ‘addicts’ and not the wider structural harm

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The recent UK Government white paper on gambling is either a watershed, pivotal moment in gambling policy or an incoherent inadequate mess, dependent on your point of view. Some observations on the development of social policy regarding gambling can help establish which of these is more accurate.

Full disclosure: from 2004-2006 I was CEO of the Responsibility in Gambling Trust (RIGT), the charity set up by the industry to distribute funds to support treatment for problem gamblers, research and education.

The context is important here: at this time the Labour Government was trying to open up gambling, linking it to urban regeneration, seeing it as a force for good, creating jobs and income for deprived communities (a great contrast to work carried out by the same government at that time on tackling the damage caused by drugs to the same communities).

At RIGT, the balance of power was quite clear: the industry ruled, in its split form: the casino association and the bookies making up to the two main power centres, with only nods to the emergent online sector and the declining world of bingo.

RIGT attempted to ensure its approach was as separate as possible from the industry.  It obtained ESRC match joint funding for research, recruited experts from the wider addiction world to help decide the allocations and the projects, and to a degree established the first research programme that was substantively free of industry influence. This was not however true of the other two areas, treatment and education.

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The industry at this time was unwilling to provide very much at all to support RIGTs work – only just over £2 million. Their view was that research suggested a very small number of problem gamblers, so they did not need to offer more funding; giving more was a tacit recognition that the numbers and the harm were greater. And on education they were more assertive in fighting new approaches, getting onto the project group for the development of an education programme for schools RIGT was scoping.

Their ideological approach was clear: education was really not needed as there was no harm in gambling, except to a few addicts, so children needed no education about risk; this would of course hit profits. They stonewalled (as far as I am aware, no substantive education programme for  schools has ever been commissioned with industry funding)

At the same time, RIGT was striving to set out a developed network of treatment provision and how much this could cost – though this was laughably small against need, being realistic as to what we thought we could receive – but they did not like the idea of providing £7m or more for treatment that was proposed and blocked it.

Another issue was that we were talking extensively to the various towns and cities looking to allow licences for Labour’s new super casinos. We were being honest: there was limited research evidence that suggested the economic advantages were real and research pointed to the downside of greater local addiction and crime etc. And we said this to every city that asked for our views. This of course did not go down well either. 

Within weeks it was clear the writing was on the wall: the independent chairman ‘left’, replaced by a Conservative MP with extensive links to the industry, and I then also asked to leave.

Casino Politics: Westminster’s Gambling Addiction

The dangers of having the industry so in control of decisions made about how society tackles gambling-related harm is self-evident; the successor body to RIGT, Gamble Aware, has not shaken off similar suspicions. There must be real, and total separation for the new levy – we have already seen the industry react negatively to suggestions as to how it might be managed and what it is spent on.

However, there are many other facets and influences on policy involved here. The first is government.

Conservative Governments since 2010 have been profoundly lobbied by the gambling industry and this clearly explains a lot of the resistance to making policy changes. But it is the role of the Labour Party that is equally interesting.

It was a Labour government that wanted to liberalise and open up gambling in the period and they were unwilling to see gambling as a parallel harm to drugs. As Matt Zarb-Collins has demonstrated, the Labour Party today is equally friendly towards gambling. But the reasons why perhaps need investigating.

It’s not just, let’s say, ‘financial incentives’ or lucrative jobs in the gambling industry that discourage a willingness to regulate the industry. It is potentially something also to do with the perceived appeal of gambling to the working classes. Labour then and now possibly believe that control of gambling is not a vote winner amongst its traditional voters and are still wedded to the view that it’s just a matter of a few addicts and everyone else is fine. There is a belief that upsetting them could affect conservative Labour voters in the likes of the ‘Red Wall’.

Until we get a mature understanding of the real nature of gambling-related harm and see it is much, much more than a few damaged, vulnerable addicts, there will be no sensible mature policy response

It’s this depressing lack of understanding of the nature of gambling harm that retards mature policymaking. Just spend a few minutes looking at tweets in comments on Matt Zarb-Collins’ postings on gambling-related harm and you will see a visceral, horrible and abusive world of denial that gambling causes harm, except to, in their view, a few sad addicts and beginners.

Experts can make money gambling, and no government should tell them how they should spend their money. There is limited awareness or admittance of the reality of gambling harm, of suicide and financial ruin, compared say to the general public acceptance that surrounds drinking, and certain drugs. If a significant group of the public thinks this, then it perhaps explains some of the reasoning behind the major parties’ denial; they both reflect and also share this view.

Despite brilliant work by charities like Gambling with Lives, there are too many people who just don’t understand or see the relationship between gambling and harm.

Closely related to this viewpoint, and also sadly absent from Labour policy making is the recognition that the gambling industry, even when it is not creating and profiting from individual addicts, is still a really destructive force in local communities generally.

A developed view might be that the industry is a cynical, vulture-like, disabling tax on poverty, that damages communities, sucking out money that should be in people’s pockets – as well as wrecking the lives of addicts.

Instead, both parties take the non-structural view, as they also do to some degree even for drugs and booze, that the problem of gambling is down to vulnerable individuals and is not a matter of exploitation of unhealthy, poor communities in which addiction is only a part of the harm.

This is also exactly the approach the industry uses; narrowing the definition of harm and identifying and blaming the very few ‘damaged’ individuals as the only downside, caused not by the industry themselves, and carefully hiding the obscene profits they strip out of deprived communities as less important than the ‘jobs they create’.

Governments of both parties have effectively colluded with the industry in perpetuating this perspective. So, advertising survives unregulated, because advertising only creates gamblers, not problem gamblers, right? Everyone likes a ‘flutter’, as the minister announced when launching the White Paper.

Who Funds Red Wall Conservative MPs?

Until we get a mature understanding of the real nature of gambling-related harm and see it is much, much more than a few damaged, vulnerable addicts, there will be no sensible mature policy response.

This is important because it affects the way we then fund policy responses. It is baffling to understand the continuing policy decision to fund gambling not through taxation but by some sort of direct levy. Such an idea in relation to the tobacco and alcohol industries was discounted by most decades ago, but it hangs on in the world of gambling.

It’s a coherent view that the longer we argue that gambling is different from other legal and destructive substances, there will be no real progress on the related issues of advertising that were won in relation to smoking and drinking decades ago, and lost in the new White paper.

Until it is recognised that gambling is a societal ‘scourge’ just like politicians say drugs are, we will never progress to a mature policy approach. We have to campaign for equal treatment, whereby it is taxed and provided for by the NHS and an independently funded voluntary sector.

That the White Paper is still frankly a feeble response, in the eyes of many commentators and gambling experts, to the harm gambling causes, shows how hard we have to campaign, win minds and challenge lazy thinking. We have to get gambling out of its money bubble ghetto and see it as truly equal and similar to smoking and alcohol. Only then will be able to formulate sensible, intelligent policy responses that reduce harm, reduce debt and financial ruin, and save lives.

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