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The end of the experiment? Labour’s new position on gambling policy and practice

Slot machines. Credit: Pixabay/stokpic

In 2005, gambling in Britain underwent a radical overhaul. No longer was gambling to be treated as an embarrassing secret, something that many did but didn’t admit, it was to be brought into the light by New Labour’s Gambling Act.

At the time, the Gambling Act’s architects argued that “in the future, well-informed adults will have greater freedom and choice to spend their leisure money on gambling if they want to. The law will, for the first time, treat them like grown-ups. Outdated restrictions … will be removed and the industry will be able to develop innovative new products. Gambling will be increasingly combined with other leisure products in attractive surroundings providing high quality entertainment for adults.”

This was to be done by aiming to permit gambling, subject to some protections for children and the vulnerable, and allowing that demand for gambling could be stimulated – in other words, it was perfectly fine for Ray Winstone and others to implore people to ‘bet in-play’.

How times have changed. This week Labour announced that, should they come to power, they will create a new Gambling Act which has prevention of harm as a core value. This is a notable about turn; a recognition that since 2005 the balance between the protection of people from harm vis-a-vis the promotion and permission of gambling has been less than adequate. The pendulum has swung in favour of greater protections and many will say about time too.

Gambling, as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Tom Watson said, is a hidden epidemic: it is all too often hidden from friends and families until it is too late. It is hidden from medical professionals or those involved in help services, who deal with the consequences of gambling but, often, not the underlying cause (the gambling itself); it is hidden from the public, whose views of gambling problems are largely influenced by media portrayals, with the true costs and extent of harms unrecognised.

At its most severe, gambling costs lives. Extensively quoted in the Labour Party Review is evidence from the charity, Gambling With Lives, who highlight the plight of people (mainly young men) who have taken their own lives because of their gambling and the plight of those left behind. An apt illustration of how the consequences of gambling extend beyond the individual to effect families, communities and society more generally.

In Britain, it is estimated that the financial cost of suicide is around £1.5 million per life lost. In Victoria, Australia (a state with a population of around six million people) it is estimated that there were approximately ten gambling-related suicides per year. If proportionately similar rates are evident in Britain, given its greater population size, then it is clear that the costs associated with gambling are likely to be very severe indeed.

Against this, the paltry amount currently raised for Research, Education and Treatment for gambling (about £10 million per year) is arguably a national embarrassment – an embarrassment increasingly recognised by all involved, including the national regulator, independent advisors to government and increasingly the industry itself.

Labour are right to call for a statutory levy to address this. However, this alone won’t create sustained change – a cross departmental, government-owned national strategy for reducing harms is essential – something which doesn’t exist to date. Implementation of the actions included in the review will likely require a change in government though some recommendations like a ban on credit cards, are on the existing government’s radar. Even then, gambling would need to be a priority action for a new Labour government and legislative change takes time.

As they say, a day in politics is a long time, until then its business as usual. Therefore, Labour’s review may not represent the end of the experiment, it may not even be the beginning of the end but it does signify an important increase in political will and visibility of the harms associated with gambling, and that’s to be welcomed.

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