Problem Gambling

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:00 pm on 17th May 2011.

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Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 1:00 pm, 17th May 2011

My hon. Friend is, as ever, on the ball with what is happening in her area. She has quickly established a reputation for herself as a champion of her constituents and her area. She is absolutely right that Merseyside currently lacks a GamCare treatment facility. It is not GamCare’s fault; its provider had funding from other agencies taken away, so it has closed down. I know that GamCare shares my hon. Friend’s concern that there should be a provider on Merseyside, and I hope that it will be able to find a replacement provider soon for the benefit of her constituents.

GamCare has established a national helpline with an international reputation and an infrastructure delivering counselling to 70% of the country. The helpline, including a net-line live chat service and forum, provides a service for gamblers and others affected by gambling. The helpline receives about 1,000 calls a week. It offers help and support to people in crisis, some of them suicidal. GamCare’s professionally trained advisers explore the best way to support the caller by signposting them to debt advice, family therapy, self-exclusion or further counselling.

In 2010-11, GamCare provided sustained confidential counselling for some 2,500 people, which is 20% more than the previous year. GamCare also worked closely with the National Problem Gambling clinic in London to provide the best treatment for customers. And it works; some two thirds of the problem gamblers it treats are no longer problem gamblers at the end of their treatment. At the beginning of counselling, 88% of GamCare’s clients are assessed as problem gamblers; by the end of treatment, that figure is 28%.

GamCare has calculated the cost-benefit analysis of its treatment. It has estimated that each problem gambler costs the state about £8,000 a year. With 450,000 problem gamblers in the UK, that could mean an annual bill of about £3.5 billion. By contrast, GamCare has estimated that, on average, it costs just £650 to treat each individual.

With two-thirds of clients successfully ceasing to be problem gamblers at the end of their treatment, that produces a return on investment that is greater than 8:1—compared with the treatment for drug users, where the return is estimated at just 2.5:1. That surely highlights that the money is well spent and that expanding the service should be a priority.

GamCare has recently launched a new e-learning package, with the aim of helping more companies to improve their standards of player protection. Considering that there are 127,500 people under the age of 24 with a gambling problem in the UK, GamCare is ready to introduce education into schools and for parents and to open the communication lines with GPs. That is all ready to go if the funding is in place. However, at a time when more money than ever is available—a funding target of £6 million this year and £7 million next year—the industry is seeing more and more of it swept up into burgeoning bureaucracy.

In particular, the Responsible Gambling Fund established under the previous Government is crippling front-line services, which is where the money is needed most. In 2009-10, the RGF spent almost £500,000 on staff costs and overheads, including £51,000 on consultancy. Even more interestingly, it is estimated that those costs will have risen by 10% for the year 2010-11. In an age of austerity, such an attempt at empire building is extremely worrying, and it is vital that we guard against the growth of a monster that constantly calls for more and more money, bigger and bigger budgets and more and more employees to deal with a problem that is being tackled effectively by organisations such as GamCare.

On top of that, the RGF is funding eight PhD studentships at an average of £20,000 a year to widen participation in gambling-related research as a means of informing public policy. That is a prime example of the unfocused nature of its research. In addition, the RGF has done very little on education for adolescents, while GamCare has already researched and outlined a fully costed actionable programme to implement. Can the Minister enlighten us about what research commissioned by the RGF has led to a major policy implementation that has made a real difference to reducing problem gambling? If he can do that, he is doing better than I can.

The people on the front line desperately need that money to fund treatment and to launch education and prevention programmes. By contrast, GamCare’s funding for 2010-11 has been frozen, which makes it difficult even to maintain existing services, let alone develop new ones. Furthermore, the RGF has decided that GamCare’s helpline should become a national problem gambling telephone helpline, thus throwing away the industry’s investment over many years in an established and successful service and brand.

GamCare is currently basing its programmes on interim funding on a month-by-month basis, when what it really needs is a strategic three-year funding programme. In fact, with the correct funding, GamCare could provide the treatment, education and prevention services—either itself or with the appropriate partners—for an annual cost of around £3.5 million a year. The Government should concentrate on ensuring that the money is well spent, rather than just ensuring that more and more money is being pumped into a situation where it is being badly spent. The structure that was put in place nearly three years ago is just not working. There has been time for it to prove itself and, sadly, it has failed. Most of the people involved in the industry would recognise that.

The answer to this conundrum is threefold: strip away the unnecessary levels of bureaucracy; let those experts on the front line, who know how to help people in trouble, get on with delivering and expanding their existing services; and put proper programmes quickly in place to educate those most in need.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport appeared before the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, of which I am a member, and expressed his concern about problem gambling and the importance that the Government attach to dealing with the matter. It is therefore the Government’s responsibility to ensure that there is a coherent strategy for education, prevention and treatment. The industry needs an effective body that makes good strategic decisions about risks and takes proportionate measures in terms of allocating funding to deal with problem gambling. The majority of the research should go to treatment providers and there is no justifiable reason why GamCare should not remain as the principal treatment provider and operator of the national helpline.

The industry, working directly with the charities, can step up to the plate and sort out the issue of problem gambling, but it would find it easier if it knew that it had the Minister’s support in stripping away bureaucracy, getting the money quickly to the front line and trusting the experts. I hope that the Minister will give me his assurance today that that is what the Government will do.