Published:

Brigid Simmonds OBE is Chairman of the Betting and Gaming Council.

Far too often emotion, instead of evidence, drives the debate around betting and gaming in the UK. Nowhere is this substitution felt more keenly than in the discussion about how problem gambling is tackled through Research, Education and Treatment (RET).

It is a perplexing paradox. Every month, some 22.5 million British adults enjoy a bet. According to the independent regulator, the rates of problem gambling in the UK are now at 0.3 per cent, down from 0.6 per cent 18 months ago.

No one at the Betting and Gaming Council is complacent about this; however, those figures are positive when compared to other European countries. In Italy the rate is 2.4 percent, Norway 1.4 percent, and France 1.3 percent.

To any dispassionate observer, the obvious conclusion would be that Britain boasts a rigorously regulated market that is keeping rates of problem gambling low.

For the past twenty years, the industry has rightly shouldered the financial responsibility for that work by paying a voluntary levy to fund independent charities tackling problem gambling.

Despite that, anti-gambling campaigners are demanding a new Statutory Levy on the industry, a new tax by another name, to fund RET.

That poses a key question: would a Statutory Levy given to the Department of Health and Social Care really make a tangible difference to delivery of RET and problem gambling rates in the UK? The clear answer, for me, is no.

We believe the current system is making good progress, and in any event, a blanket levy would not raise materially more money for RET. But it would disproportionately hammer casinos and bingo halls, where a one per cent hit on turnover equates to a 10 per cent hit on profits.

Under current arrangements, all companies regulated by the Gambling Commission are expected to make a voluntary contribution of 0.1 percent of turnover. In the year 2019/2020 this was £10 million.

Most of this funding goes to GambleAware, which is a totally independent charity – the industry has no say on how it spends that money. In their five-year strategy, published last year, they say they expect to see income increase to £39 million by 2023/24.

The increase has in most part been made possible by the decision of the four largest gaming companies (Entain, William Hill, Flutter and Bet365) to increase their contributions to one per cent of turnover, with a ratchet which began in 2020/21 that will reach the full one per cent by April 2024. That’s a total of over £100 million additional funding over four years.

All this funding goes towards tackling and preventing the causes of problem gambling, that is to say gambling that can have a negative impact on a player’s wellbeing.

Most problem gamblers do not thankfully suffer from addiction, and they need different, but nonetheless, important help. This is a distinct challenge to disordered gambling, or gambling addiction, which requires a clinical assessment. The two are often conflated, but they are entirely different.

If we were to compare betting to alcohol, you can see a parallel. For someone who drinks more than is good for them, that may have a detrimental impact on their wellbeing. But that is often manageable with advice and support, and wholly different from a chronic addiction to alcohol, which is where the NHS steps in.

Disordered gambling is a mental health problem and like many other mental health problems occurs alongside other addictions, like alcohol and drugs. It needs NHS care, but many of those who have different problems with gambling are helped by third sector charities, who are much better placed to help.

Despite this, the NHS still does not have a long-term strategy to tackle gambling addiction. It was only in 2019 that the Department of Health and Social Care announced they would open fifteen new NHS clinics for addicts, of which five are open and three more should open later this year.

Meanwhile the industry and charities have spent the last two decades busy getting on with the issue.

Currently, there around 160 locations used by charities for face-to-face counselling services, part of an already mature network of clinics, treatment centres and outreach programmes, which are making a real difference right now.

GamCare operates a National Help Line via telephone, face to face and online – and provides counselling services. An impressive 79 percent of users successfully completing treatment programmes.

Gordon Moody is a charity which provides residential treatment and over 70 per cent of those who use the service complete their treatment, while YGAM is educating a generation of school children, young people, and teachers about gambling harm and how to avoid it. There are many more.

A Statutory Levy would risk their funding models by potentially taking cash out of their coffers, and putting it into the NHS, which is not set up to deliver these services.

Furthermore, this clumsy one-size-fits-all approach would have a disproportionate effect on land-based operators including casinos, betting shops and bingo halls, which are only just recovering from the pandemic. In truth it would be catastrophic as they, like the rest of the hospitality sector, have so many fixed costs including staff, business rates, taxes and licences.

We say better to employ a tiered system which takes this into account, and would better protect jobs.

There is a clear argument that third sector charities are effective and making real progress. In contrast, a Statutory Levy looks like a retrospective solution for a problem that doesn’t exist at the levels anti-gambling campaigners want policy makers to believe.

Is it really designed to help RET or the general public – or is it a punitive measure to placate the anti-gambling lobby?

Any Statutory Levy will not boost funding for RET; the money is already in the system with a bigger, broader commitment going forward.

So think very carefully whether a statutory replacement would be better, would have better outcomes, and would help the vast majority of those who have a problem with gambling which can be helped outside of an NHS framework.