Children: Gambling Advertisements - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:43 pm on 14th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Trevethin and Oaksey Lord Trevethin and Oaksey Crossbench 12:43 pm, 14th September 2017

My Lords, I also express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, for raising this important issue. It will become increasingly important and troubling as the gambling industry develops.

I was prompted to speak partly by the fact that I have received instructions recently to act in a number of cases brought by pathological or problem—ie, addicted—gamblers in respect of massive losses sustained after they attempted to limit the damage done to themselves by that addiction by “self-excluding”, which means saying to the bookmakers, “I can’t help myself but I don’t want to bet any more”. For obvious reasons, I will not say anything about the detail of those cases, some of which are ongoing, but the work I have done on them brought to my attention one or two aspects of the problem on which I will say a few words.

The evidence from the research of neurologists and psychiatrists into gambling addiction is at a very early stage. However, there is already evidence based on brain scans and other work done by neurologists which strongly suggests that a susceptibility to gambling addiction is linked to certain chemical states in the brain, about which the vulnerable person can do nothing whatever. That tallies with one’s own experience of life: we all know that most people can have a flutter on the National, and maybe a few other flutters as the year goes on, without being in peril. But we also all know that there are people who fall literally into mortal peril because of their inability to control their gambling.

One of your Lordships used the term “epidemic”, while acknowledging that the evidence for what one might call an epidemic in this area is at present sparse. I would tend to suggest that some evidence is now emerging that this country is facing what might properly be referred to as an epidemic. The Gambling Commission publishes figures drawn from surveys into problem gambling which reveal the following: the rate of problem gambling in England, based on a 2012 survey, was 0.5%; the rate in Scotland, based on a 2015 survey, was 0.7%; and the rate of it in Wales, based on a slightly later and therefore very recent survey, was 1.1%. Even if I could think of any reasons why the incidence of problem gambling should be higher in Scotland and Wales, I would not voice them in your Lordships’ House, although the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, may wish to comment on the last statistic. However, one notices a very striking thing: that those figures have been going up, and fast, in the past four to five years.

In working on the cases I mentioned, I also became acquainted with a rather odd league table. It sets out the positions of various nations by reference to the average amount lost by citizens per head. The country at the head of that league table, by a significant margin, is Australia—the country in which the liberalisation of the gambling laws, which we saw in this country by way of the Gambling Act 2005, took place back in the 1980s. That was earlier than in any other country in the world. There are two or three Scandinavian countries close to the top of those charts, possibly because there is not much else to do in the winter months there, while the UK is rising fast. The average sum lost per head here has more or less doubled over the past eight to 10 years and we are now in the unhappy position of rising in the charts. I think that we have reached seventh or eighth.

Ultimately, the nature of the problem lies in the fact that, entirely lawfully, gambling providers—otherwise known as bookmakers—increasingly make a very large amount of money out of the gambling habits of the British people. I was struck by the fact that in the most recent six-month figures for the consortium formed by the merger of Ladbrokes and Coral, the return from the digital division of that conglomerate has risen by 18% year-on-year. The digital division relates to activities such as gambling on smartphones. It is clear from that rise, and other material to which I have had access, that bookmakers are doing particularly well now because gambling is so accessible by way of smartphones and tablets, in the way that other Members have described. The annual loss sustained by UK punters across the board to September 2016 has been estimated at £13.8 billion. Finally on the topic of a possible epidemic, I refer to a very recent study on the incidence of gambling among students which makes very worrying reading indeed and tends to suggest that the advertisements that we are currently debating have had an effect on the attitudes of young people.

Why is this happening? I can take this shortly to avoid repetition. One reason is the liberalisation of the gambling industry that took place pursuant to the 2005 Act, an Act about which I think regret has quite recently been expressed by one of the Ministers involved in its enactment.

The other, and much more fundamental, reason is that gambling has become so astonishingly easy to access. I do not know whether any noble Lords fall into this sad category, but those who in the 1970s were interested in having a flutter would find that if they visited a betting shop they would not be able to look in because the windows would be frosted. It was against the law to see what was going on in there, and that conveyed, rightly we might think, that something transgressive was taking place within. If you were sad enough to want to go to a casino, you would have to drive up to Soho or some other metropolis, deposit your passport and wait for 24 hours before they would let you in. It was a significant, if not entirely comprehensive, deterrent. Now our children can at the touch of a button using a debit card, or when they get a bit older a credit card, deposit as much as they want on literally hundreds of different websites, I should think, and immediately start playing the roulette tables, online blackjack, online bingo and, I note, a number of other exotic games which I cannot even identify by name, and which seem—certainly to my eye—to have been designed to appeal to young people. Things have changed, and changed massively, and the problems that have caused the noble Lord to raise this debate are going to get markedly worse before they get better.

Some speakers have spoken of the advertisements that one now has to watch if you want to watch the rugby in New Zealand, the tennis in America or whatever other sporting event takes your fancy. The tone of those advertisements is troubling. There is the one featuring Ray Winstone, who masquerades as a junior member of the Kray family while providing a running commentary on the activities of a lot of rather glamorous-looking young people who, oddly, are travelling all over the world. There they are up in the Arctic, there they are in the Australian outback, there they are in New York and all the time they are locked to their mobile phone gambling on something like the number of corners or throw-ins in a match between two teams in the Premiership or whatever it may be. That is presented as the way to live and then, as has been pointed out, a small sop is offered to the regulator in the form of a statement that, at that particular gambling operator, “We bet responsibly”. The first problem with that is that that is a contradiction in terms; the charm of gambling lies in the fact that it is irresponsible, so I wish that phrase would simply disappear. The second specific problem is that the statement “We bet responsibly” is immediately followed by the name of the gambling provider in question, a name which appears to be designed to suggest that the proper approach to this recreation is to bet every single day of the year.

I am taking more time than other speakers, but I will certainly avoid running over the 12 minutes. There is another advertisement which is deeply troubling. It depicts an unhappy young man who, one infers, has very few if any friends, and suddenly his life takes a turn for the better because the characters in the virtual casino which he can access on his computer start singing, dancing and talking to him, and then his cup runs over because he achieves a big win on his mobile telephone. There are many further advertisements of this type, which appears to be aimed at young people.

The enticements now placed before potential gamblers are deeply troubling. Almost every advertisement somewhere is offering what is called a free bet—but if you look into the matter, it is not a free bet, because to get the bonus or the advantage in question you have to stake a large amount of real money. The so-called advertorials, which have been referred to by a number of speakers, are a deeply troubling development. Those of your Lordships who did not pick up the article in the Times yesterday about a recent ruling of the ASA on such a case should do so, because it is extremely shocking.

What is to be done? Obviously there are no easy solutions. No one has suggested, and it would be absurd to do so, that gambling should be banned. That would get one nowhere. For obvious commercial reasons, it does not make sense to rely on the industry regulating itself. That would be naive. I would make three proposals.

First, consistent with much of what has been said by others, the vices and dangers of gambling should form part of the curriculum at our schools. There is no reason whatever why children should be warned about the hazards of sex, tobacco, alcohol and drugs but not about gambling. They could be acquainted with the risks of gambling quite conveniently in their maths lessons. Secondly, increased and compulsory contributions from the industry to GambleAware should be provided for. Thirdly, I would like to see health warnings attached to all gambling advertisements. If cigarette manufacturers can be forced to place a skull and crossbones on cigarette packets, I see no reason why gambling advertisers should not draw the attention of potential gamblers to the fact that, in the long run, the bookmakers always win and the gamblers always lose.