New rules ‘will crack down’ on exploitation of gambling addicts
But campaigners say measures to protect those at risk are just a sticking plaster over a serious problem
The stakes could be about to get a lot higher for the gambling industry, if regulators are to be believed. This week saw the introduction of new rules aimed at protecting problem gamblers and ramping up the pressure on firms that might exploit them.
A key measure is an upgraded “self-exclusion” system, under which addicts tell betting companies not to take their money. The new system lets addicts sign up to a central register shared by bookmakers, rather than excluding themselves from individual firms.
Companies also have to perform “local area risk assessments” before opening a new bookmakers or casino, checking for factors that might make new gambling premises undesirable.
The rhetoric accompanying the changes suggested that a bright light is going to be shone into some of the dingiest corners of the industry. But one difficulty for regulators and campaigners is that they are taking on an industry that makes annual revenues of £5.4bn, according to the latest available figures, and claims to support 38,000 jobs.
Sarah Harrison, who took over as head of the commission last year, certainly talks a good game: “My message has been that if you do not learn the lessons of recent cases and raise standards, we will intervene further, and this is likely to mean taking much tougher enforcement action.”
Paddy Power recently made a voluntary payment of £280,000 – equivalent to less than three hours’ worth of takings – to a “socially responsible” cause after it was found to have encouraged a problem gambler to keep betting.
he question of whether such punishments are sufficient is, says Harrison, a “live issue” for the commission. This may have been a tacit warning that harsher penalties await the next offender, but some campaigners say the improvements to the self-exclusion system are the mark of a watchdog missing a few teeth.
Matt Zarb-Cousin, spokesman for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, used to be addicted to fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), which are sometimes called the crack cocaine of gambling. He points out that the self-exclusion system relies on staff remembering the faces of problem gamblers – in some cases dozens in one area.
“They’ve simply made it easier to sign up to a system that doesn’t work,” he said. “The vast majority of self-exclusions are related to FOBTs, so wouldn’t it be more effective to look at the products causing addiction?”
According to the latest Gambling Commission research, problem gambling affects 0.5% of the adult population, about 280,000 people, with men and young people particularly at risk.
A study by Cambridge University found that problem gambling rates soar to as high as 11.6% among the homeless.
Part of the thinking behind the new local area risk assessments is to ensure gambling companies are not targeting vulnerable groups. Westminster and Manchester councils are launching online mapping tools, developed by Bath-based Geofutures, that show areas where people may be at higher risk of harm from gambling. Users can spot bookmakers that set up shop near Gamblers Anonymous meeting places, payday loan shops or unemployment blackspots, and thus risk compounding existing social problems.
Harrison believes the Geofutures system could be used by all local authorities. “We’re keen to see this sort of tool rolled out across other authorities and to see gambling companies drawing on this to shape their local risk assessments and take action,” she said. But those whose lives have been affected by problem gambling fear such innovations are a sticking plaster that does little to address the roots of addiction.
Zarb-Cousin cites efforts to reduce the harm caused by alcohol, cigarettes and, recently, sugar: “The smoking ban did a lot more for reducing smoking-related illness and reducing the number of people that smoke than educating people about the dangers ever did.”
What four years working in a bingo hall taught me about problem gambling
Comment: Mary McCool on the dark underbelly of the cosy bingo hall.