Gambling-related Harm — [Christina Rees in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 10:59 am on 29th March 2022.

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[Christina Rees in the Chair]

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East 2:30 pm, 29th March 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered gambling-related harm.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I am delighted to have secured this debate to talk about the urgent need for reform of the gambling laws. After two and half years of debates, reports and evidence sessions and, sadly, years of harm, addiction and ultimately loss of life, I was pleased to hear the Minister last week confirm that the publication of the long-awaited White Paper is not just imminent, but “very, very imminent”.

I urge the Minister to keep his word. He knows that the longer we wait to bring outdated and ineffective gambling laws into the digital age, the more people will fall victim to insidious online gambling products. For years, colleagues across the House and I have faced an onslaught of opposition from the gambling industry, for which the status quo is the perfect mix of outdated legislation, weak sanctions and limited scope. The reforms that we propose would fix that broken state of affairs.

Last week, GambleAware, a charity linked to the industry, reported that an estimated 1.4 million people suffer harms related to gambling, and that gambling has returned to pre-pandemic levels. According to the Gambling Commission, there are 55,000 problem gamblers aged 11 to 16. A Public Health England report found that 0.5% of people are problem gamblers, 3.8% are at risk and 7% are negatively affected by others’ gambling. The same report estimated that the cost of gambling-related harm is £1.27 billion annually.

Online gambling in particular must be addressed. The majority of online gambling revenue is derived from those classed either as problem gamblers or as at risk. The House of Lords Select Committee on the Gambling Industry found that 60% of gambling industry profits come from the 5% experiencing gambling harm. The University of Liverpool found that for online gambling that is even higher, with 86% of profits coming from that small cohort.

Rather than enter into a proper dialogue with those who are looking to reform and improve our gambling laws, the industry has come forward with very little in the way of remedies. It has resorted to playground name-calling, labelling those who are seeking improvements and reform as prohibitionists and, in my case, a Methodist. As a Welsh woman, I do not consider that an insult. That response is simply not good enough.

People having a bet on the Grand National, placing their Saturday accumulator, or enjoying a night at bingo or in the casino, are not—I repeat not—the focus of our reforms. We are fighting against people being seriously harmed, families being destroyed and lives being lost through gambling addiction and disorder. We cannot, in good conscience, stand by and see any more gambling-related suicides. Nor can we see people turn to substance abuse or crime as a way out of their addiction.

The playbook that the industry uses is very similar to the one it used during the debate on fixed odds betting terminals. We must not be fooled by that narrative. The industry says that the problem is historical, yet just a few weeks ago 888 was fined to the tune of £9.4 million for multiple failings. The industry says that reforms will harm the economy and result in job losses, which is exactly the same argument it used ahead of the reduction in the stake on fixed odds betting terminals. Despite warnings from the industry that 4,500 of the 9,000 betting shops would close as a result of reducing the stake to £2 a spin, 8,000 betting shops are still open today, and many are still clustered in some of our most deprived communities.

Last year, Peers for Gambling Reform commissioned a report, which was carried out by NERA Economic Consulting and concluded that

“industry profits are likely to exceed” any financial costs associated with proposed reforms. The report stated that

“diverting expenditure by the public to other sectors which are more labour intensive than the gambling sector could create up to 30,000 new jobs, and employee earnings could increase by up to £400 million.”

Proposed reforms would see a

“net increase of £68-£87 million in tax revenues”, rather than a net loss to the Exchequer. The industry argues that any reform at all will drive people to the black market, but the Gambling Commission has already said that the industry overestimates the existence of the black market, and it is not an argument to hold back reform.

What improvements are needed in the upcoming White Paper? Most importantly, the case for a centralised and independent affordability assessment is overwhelming. It cannot be right that online operators permit customers to deposit and lose hundreds of thousands of pounds, despite those customers having no regular source of income and often using money that is funded by crime. There has been a lot of debate about the level of a soft affordability cap, by which I mean the point at which an open banking check would kick in. Putting a limit of £100 a month on net deposits is a sensible, proportionate and, more importantly, evidence-based position, especially when we consider that the average level of disposable income in Britain is £450 a month, and that 73% of slot players and 85% of non-slot players lose £50 or less a month. A soft cap at £100 is therefore low enough to enable the vast majority of gamblers to continue without any checks whatever, as the vast majority of gambling activity occurs below this level. A £100 check would kick in only for those who gamble well above the average amount each month. Moreover, it does not preclude gamblers spending more than that. It just means that they would have to have an enhanced affordability check, which—surprise, surprise—many of the industry operators already carry out.

I also want to mention several banks that have been supporting their customers by providing gambling blocks. Monzo and Starling were among the first to do so, and I cannot understand why many banks do not offer the same support. It should be mandatory. There are now loopholes whereby gambling companies can accept non-card payments or the information available to the block is not accurate. I ask that Ministers work with the banking industry to ensure that all banks provide a comprehensive blocking facility.

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Assistant Whip

I wonder what the answer is. I fully understand what the hon. Lady is proposing, but look at the hard evidence from Norway. Norway has done exactly what the hon. Lady is proposing, but 66% of all gambling stakes in Norway are done on the black market or dark web. How does the hon. Lady propose that that does not happen in this case?

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

Doing nothing is certainly not the answer. I know little about the Norway study, but just because Norway has not been successful, it does not mean to say that the UK Government would not be successful. We cannot afford to have any more of the issues that we have encountered for the last 17 years. Enough life has been lost, and doing nothing is not an answer.

I would like to pay tribute to Annie Ashton, who bravely started an e-petition when her husband Luke sadly took his own life after being lured back into gambling by relentless operators. I strongly back her calls to end the poisonous inducements that the industry uses to hook people on its addictive products. There is no such thing as a free bet.

It is not just inducements that are a massive problem. Gambling advertising has proliferated in recent years. We are now bombarded with gambling adverts on TV, online, at football matches and on billboards. I know that colleagues are particularly concerned about the impact that that has on children. If we look at recent published data, we can see the scale of the problem: 96% of people aged 11 to 24 have seen gambling marketing messages in the last month and are more likely to bet as a result; 45% of 11 to 17-year-olds and 72% of 18 to 24-year-olds see gambling advertising at least once a week on their social media, with one-third of young people reporting seeing it daily; 41,000 under 16-year-olds—children—are estimated to be followers of gambling-related accounts on social media; and 1,200 hours of gambling ads have been played on the radio during the school run hours over the last year.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

Does the hon. Lady welcome the whistle-to-whistle ban on advertisements for gambling, which has seen a 97% reduction in the amount of adverts that children see? Would she support what Bet365, a company in Stoke-on-Trent, is supporting, which is that only branding should be advertised, mainly on the pitch side, not any actual odds or free bets that, I agree with her, can be too inducing and, therefore dangerous?

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

The whistle-to-whistle ban is not worth the paper it was written on. As for supporting anything Bet365 has done, I am sorry, I could not possibly do that. My experience of it does not allow me to do that.

That is a fraction of the alarming statistics that come across my desk each day. We know from research by Ipsos MORI and the University of Stirling that regular exposure to gambling promotions can change perceptions and associations with gambling over time and impact the likelihood that young people will gamble in the future. That advertising is a catalyst to risk and problem gambling in secondary school-aged children as a result, according to the Journal of Gambling Studies.

How can we let gambling companies spend more than £1.5 billion a year on advertising to the extent that in one single televised football match over 700 gambling logos were visible throughout the game? That is insane.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green

Does the hon. Lady think that kind of answers the last intervention? If the gambling companies that are businesses did not think the advertising was successful in capturing more people, would they put £1.5 billion into it, or would they stop advertising now?

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

The right hon. Gentleman will know my answer. I was surprised when I saw the comment from the industry that advertising did not affect people’s behaviour. I thought if that was the case spending £1 would be ridiculous, but to spend £1.5 billion beggars belief.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

I am going to make progress. Economic research has already proven that a ban on gambling advertising in sport would be unlikely to significantly harm sports leagues and teams. The non-gambling sponsors exist and are ready to fill any gap created. With our proposed carve-outs for sectors such as horse racing, we can ensure protection on all sides.

Next is the need for a statutory levy. Chronic underinvestment in the gambling treatment system has led to a scenario in which treatment is unregulated, unaccountable and fails to use the evidence base in the treatment strategies. Between 2% and 3% of people with gambling problems enter the treatment system and nearly all of them enter it through self-referral. A 1% smart levy on industry revenue would provide £130 million, which would be an increase of over £100 million on what we currently receive. That would significantly reduce the UK’s disparity with other nations that spend far more per gambler on treatment than the UK does, increasing funds for improved and—most importantly—industry-free education. That would put the UK at the forefront of research on an issue that affects millions of people across the world, would improve our understanding of how gambling is developing in this country and would inform future regulation.

There should be stake limits for online gambling, to give parity with land-based venues, including a maximum £2 stake on harmful slot content. Given the rapidly changing nature of both land-based gambling and online gambling, it is essential that limits on stakes and prizes, and potentially other factors, are renewed on a triannual basis.

A gambling ombudsman must be set up to ensure fair representation for those who experience problems with operators. Although the Gambling Commission receives complaints as the basis for possible enforcement action, it does not act on behalf of customers in pursuit of redress. That has allowed operators to withhold winnings unfairly and to use obscure terms and conditions to require customers to wager their deposit dozens of times before they are allowed to withdraw their money.

I know that the Gambling Commission has already introduced very welcome identity and age verification requirements, banned the use of credit cards, acted in relation to speed of play and length of time spent on a game, taken measures to require customers to have information on their winnings and their losses, and required all operators to sign up to GAMSTOP. However, there is far, far more to be done.

It is not just my colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on gambling-related harm or the Peers for Gambling Reform group who support these measures. Recent polling commissioned by YouGov confirms that the British public are also on our side. Of those surveyed, 78% believe that gambling advertising should be completely banned on all platforms before the watershed and 67% also think that sports clubs should no longer have gambling sponsors on their kits or around their stadiums. In addition, 79% of those surveyed believe that under-18s should not be exposed to gambling advertisements in any form and 72% agree with me that affordability checks should be in place to help to prevent people from losing more money than they can afford to lose. Also, 69% of those surveyed think that online slots should have a maximum stake of £2. Finally, 76% of those surveyed think that the gambling industry should not get to choose where funding for treatment for gambling addiction and research goes. For me, that is a bit of a no-brainer, because doing otherwise is letting the gambling industry mark its own homework; the gambling industry gives the money, so it gets to say where it is spent. It is the people who are damaged the most who lose out; this industry only cares about its profits.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

The hon. Member is making the most impassioned contribution. I hope that I will not interrupt the stream of useful statistics that support her argument, but I will just give an example of—I had better be careful in my description—a senior medical person in the highlands who was well-off and well-paid. They committed suicide and it was discovered afterwards that they were a gambling addict.

The point I am making, and I am sure the hon. Member will agree, is that it is a mistake to think that gambling is something that just affects one particular sector of society; it is a problem that can hit anyone. And the local community in the highlands has never quite got over that person’s death.

I will conclude my remarks by saying that it is worth remembering that gambling is all over the place; it is found at every level of society.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

I will not name names either. I will just say that there are people in this room at this very moment who have made the greatest sacrifice of all, having given their children to an addiction, with little done to support them.

It is clear that the British public, the evidence, and the momentum are all on the side of reform. All we are asking for is effective protections to be put in place for customers, and for an industry that is all too often shamelessly exploitative to be reined in and regulated effectively. If we tackle the question of affordability, ensure restrictions on advertising and introduce stake limits to help prevent harm, we can tackle gambling disorder and addiction at its very core. If we push to introduce a statutory levy on the industry to properly fund research, education and treatment, along with a gambling ombudsman, we can at least try to help those who are already stuck in the depths of exploitation.

This is a once-in-a-generation chance to update our laws and, most importantly, save lives. It is now in the hands of a few people who I pray to God are listening to this debate, because the time for talking is done; now is the time for action. The gambling industry has run amok for 17 years. It cannot be allowed to be so destructive any longer.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

I intend to start the wind-ups at 3.27 pm, so if Back Benchers take a maximum of four minutes, we should get everyone in.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green 2:51 pm, 29th March 2022

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I will be reasonably brief, as the hon. Lady—in this case, my hon. Friend—Carolyn Harris has laid out all the criteria. I want to emphasise a couple of points, and then appeal to my colleagues to think carefully about what their arguments really are.

It is worth reminding ourselves that this is a very cross-party affair. Across the political parties, we all campaigned for reform back in 2019. Recent polling shows that 70% of existing Conservative MPs agree that people should be protected from losing more than they can afford, so straightaway my own party is very strongly in favour of the changes that the Minister, who will be answering in due course, is looking to make; and I encourage him in doing so. Some 64% of Conservative MPs agreed that the industry needs greater regulation, and 68%—I know these figures have been given already—agreed with stake limits for online gambling. That is my political party, but this is very much a cross-party issue, and I know that Members who represent other parties will make similar points. This is not party political; it is about harm, and how we control that harm.

We have been told frequently by the gambling companies—I remember the debates on fixed odds betting terminals and so on—how they would all do self-regulation very carefully and responsibly. The industry simply did not take the big and early decisions that it should have taken; in a way, it has brought this on itself. I happen to think that many of these companies are very greedy. They have resisted regulation because they have been making such handsome profits out of the way that the industry works right now—excessive profits, in a way—which should be the giveaway. Failing to have self-regulated early means that it is simply not feasible to trust those companies to do what they should do.

As I understand it, the public agree that these changes need to happen and, as I say, parliamentarians are also in favour. If any colleagues have not done so, they should meet those who have suffered enormously as a result of gambling-related harm. Proportionately, a very high number of the British public—7%— are involved in serious gambling harms. That is to say that their families, family members, children, husbands, wives and partners also get sucked into their situation, because an individual or individuals have got themselves sucked into terrible debts, spending more than they can afford and becoming more in debt than their family can afford.

I want to draw attention to one element of the issue about which I have been particularly furious, which is the existence of VIP rooms. The gambling companies persisted with those rooms until they finally started explaining that they were somehow not going to do so anymore, but this has been going on for years. VIP rooms target the most vulnerable people—the people who, as the hon. Member for Swansea East said, the gambling companies make their money off—who are seriously caught up in gambling, often spending much more than they can afford. They are encouraged and incentivised to gamble more, getting special tickets to events, meeting celebrities, and being told what wonderful and clever people they are. All of this is a vortex of debt to them.

We know something about debt that is really important, and the Centre for Social Justice did a lot of work on this: debt is the single biggest cause of family breakdown. It is a dramatic and damaging process that destroys lives. It has led, as we know, to embarrassment, shame and eventual suicide—although in some cases people are caught before they get there. The truth is that debt is damaging, and for many people gambling is a real cause of serious and unregulated debt.

I do not believe in constantly regulating everything, but at time industries need to be regulated to shape the market. The gambling industry was deregulated far too much. At the time, I made a speech saying that I thought it would lead to serious problems, and that speech was right. It is not about the fact that the Labour party did it at the time; the reality was that it was wrong, whoever did it. Now we have to try to make that better. To improve the situation is not about being against gambling. It is about the gambling harms that come from an unregulated and unsupported process, and it is about not allowing people who do gamble to fall into the deep trough of debt.

My final point is about black markets. I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told, when any reform or change is planned, that there is going to somehow be a black market, and that people are going to go off and use it. A gambling black market is a pretty specialised area. If we are worried about that black market, we should simply seek to reform it; we do not stop doing something because we think it will somehow plunge people into debt. I appeal to colleagues, and those who may not be here today, to accept that the time is long overdue.

The hon. Member for Swansea East is quite right that we must move now and swiftly. I urge the Government to come forward and not to listen to the shrill voices that surround them at times, telling them, “This is going to destroy and damage an industry, and it is going to lead to huge hardships and problems.” Given the level of profits and the private money that is taken out of the industry, frankly, if it had common sense it would plough that money back in and then not need to suffer anything at all.

The time is overdue; the Government are now in the right place, although the Minister will no doubt explain that further. The Minister responsible for this issue—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Chris Philp—has already explained his intentions. It is time for the gambling industry to recognise that the time is up, change is coming—it has to come—and it is not too soon, given the lives that have been lost and the damage that has been done to families. I say to my colleagues, do not continue to defend bad practice.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Wales) 2:57 pm, 29th March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris on securing this important debate, and for the typically passionate way in which she set out the case for the Government to act faster on combatting gambling-related harm. I declare my interest as a member of the APPG on gambling related harm.

As we know, the Government’s review was completed a year ago this week, and it received 16,000 submissions. Gambling-related harm is an issue that I care passionately about. Why? It is not because of the statistics and the facts, although they are compelling and I congratulate colleagues on reminding us of them. The reason that I care is closer to home: I see the impact of gambling-related harm in my constituency on a regular basis, as do so many of us through our work with constituents. Faced with those stories, I cannot fail to see the case for reform. I share the view that problem gambling in the UK should be treated as a public health issue. Gambling harm is happening every day. It destroys lives, damages health and mental health and, at worse, can lead to the loss of loved ones. There is also the cost to society in lost tax receipts, benefit claims, welfare, and the cost to the NHS and the criminal justice system. Above all, the impact on the health of those affected and the families around them should concern us most, and should be the focus of the Government as they prepare to release the White Paper.

The publication of the gambling White Paper cannot come soon enough. I urge the Minister and his colleagues in Government to take the opportunity to deliver meaningful change where the industry has not. Others across Parliament, in the media and beyond will say that the industry has already introduced significant reforms. Although change is welcome, the stories that so many of us continue to hear demonstrate it is not enough. The time for action is now, and our message is that we do not need to wait; so much can be done before we reach for primary legislation. I hope that the Government will grasp the urgency of the situation and announce changes that can be delivered as soon as possible.

The case for reform is not only mounting; it is overwhelming. However, I and my colleagues across Parliament who have campaigned tirelessly to stop gambling harm face a common challenge. With alarming regularity, we are now told that reform will stop the average punter spending a few quid or that it will prevent people from enjoying themselves. That narrative has to stop. Reform is not about prohibition. It would not stop people doing something they have enjoyed without harm for many years. Reform is about preventing harm and stopping an out-of-control industry from taking advantage of people who are suffering. I have heard several times that gamblers will be driven to the unregulated black market. My response is simple: I do not believe it. The Gambling Commission has previously said that the risk is overstated.

Beyond that, we have to ask ourselves, if harm is already taking place on a vast scale through licensed operators today, why would we not want to regulate so they act more responsibly? There is no reason for us to be caught in a regulatory race to the bottom. As the publication of the White Paper comes ever closer, I hope that the Government have listened and acted on the many concerns raised in order to prevent gambling harm across the country.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East highlighted, it is estimated that in excess of 55,000 children in this country between the ages of 11 and 16 are gambling addicts. The gambling industry spends more than £1.5 billion a year on advertising, and 60% of its profits come from the 5% who are already problem gamblers or at risk of becoming so. On average, a problem gambler commits suicide every day. A recent report from Public Health England showed that the annual economic burden of gambling harm is estimated to be more than £1.2 billion, with the greatest risks occurring in the more deprived areas of the country. That is not levelling up, but levelling down.

There are many actions we need to take, but I add my name to the calls for four key reforms, several of which can happen now as we begin to deal with this terrible problem in our communities and societies. First, to underline what others have already said, we need to an online system that ensures that people cannot spend more than they can afford. Secondly, I cannot understand why online gambling is not subject to the same stake limits as fixed odds betting terminals and in-person gambling. That has to be changed. During lockdown, people were at home more and restricted in their movements, with access to mini casinos on their laptops or mobile phones. That easy access to online gambling is dangerous and puts vulnerable people at much greater risk. Thirdly, there should be a smart statutory levy on the gambling industry to pay for education, treatment and research. Finally, we should remove gambling advertising from sports and sports team, especially sports to which children are exposed.

The Gambling Act 2005 is outdated and has often been described as analogue legislation for a digital age. It was in place before the advent of mobile smartphones that provide access to the mini casino in our pockets and before the internet provided an even larger platform for gambling advertising. The asks that I and many others have outlined are a foundation to build on in creating a society where the risk from real harm and gambling is not acceptable. The evidence is there, the harm that is being caused is well documented, and the time for action is well overdue.

Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Conservative, Newcastle-under-Lyme 3:03 pm, 29th March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and it is also only right to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that before I came to this place, I was employed by Bet365 between 2006 and 2019. I have not come to this place to be a spokesperson for the gambling industry, but I hope that my experience can be used to inform the House in such debates. Bet365 is a major employer in Newcastle-under-Lyme—I see two colleagues from Stoke-on-Trent here as well—and contributes a huge amount to the local area and to skilled jobs there. I will come to that later.

First, I congratulate Carolyn Harris on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to her tenacity and that of my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, and to everybody who has pushed the subject of gambling-related harm, which we all want to see reduced. I see the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Nigel Huddleston in his place. The Gambling Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Chris Philp, visited Bet365 last week, and I know that he shares that ambition. I want to share my experience and understanding of how the industry works to respond to some of the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Swansea East in her opening remarks, and to say that I do fear the impact on the black market. I will come to that in a minute.

The hon. Lady is right to have held the industry to account for so long. It has been too slow to adapt in the past, but has made some big changes in recent years, such as the whistle-to-whistle ban and the code on high-value customers, as referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. High-value customers are not just addicts; some are seriously wealthy, so have been treated as VIPs in the past. They are big customers that any capitalist firm would wish to have. However, I accept that VIPs have gone wrong in the past.

Points have already been made about advertising, but I am pleased that 20% of TV adverting by the industry now promotes safer gambling and that we are tackling problem gambling. Figures published by the regulator the Gambling Commission, covering the period to December 2021, showed that the problem gambling rate was down from 0.6% to 0.3%, and that the number of those at moderate risk has fallen from 1.2% to 0.8%. In countries such as Italy, Norway and France, those rates are much higher and there are more black markets, either because online gambling is illegal, there is a state monopoly or there are such high tax rates for the companies registered there. I accept that the black market is not a big problem in the UK at the moment, but that is because we have a well-regulated structure for gambling. We can regulate it better and I hope we do so through the review, but we must be mindful that that risk is out there.

I will now talk a little about Bet365 and what it is doing. The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and I visited Bet365 last week. The company has been at the forefront of the industry in trying to address the issue, and has gone above and beyond current regulatory guidance. As I have said, it is rooted in north Staffordshire and did not offshore its sports betting to Gibraltar when most other firms did in order to avoid tax. It has always paid its fair share of taxes, and Denise Coates has always paid her fair share of income tax and not sought to avoid that, despite the headlines that come with that every year.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure)

This is a caveat, but Denise Coates paid herself a billion pounds over the course of four years. If I earned a billion pounds, I would make sure I paid my tax as well.

Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Conservative, Newcastle-under-Lyme

I am glad to hear that. The fact that she has paid her tax and has not sought to keep that money in the company or do anything else with it is admirable.

Bet365 pays a huge amount of tax and is a British company with huge export success. A lot of its revenue comes from abroad, and any bet taken from abroad improves our balance of payments as an export success. Denise Coates has donated a nine-figure sum to the Denise Coates Foundation, which funds charities locally, nationally and internationally. Bet365 also owns Stoke City football club, so it is rooted in that community.

The hon. Member for Swansea East rightly raised a number of issues, but Bet365 has already gone above and beyond regulatory and industry guidance, by setting deposit limits, picking up on red flags, and having a huge team for responsible gambling proactively contacting people believed to be at risk. The hon. Lady said she wanted a net deposit limit of £100 a month, but I hope she will understand my genuine concern that the process of asking people for data, such as mortgage and bank statements or pay slips, is very intrusive.

In the experience of Bet365 and other firms that I have spoken to, people do not want to provide that information and at the point at which they are asked for it, they stop betting with that firm. We do not know where they then go. Do they go to another firm, elsewhere or stop gambling all together? We do not have enough information, but lessons from the industry tell us that asking people for pay slips and mortgage and bank statements stops them engaging with the firm that already knows their behaviour best. I am not against deposit limits, and neither is Bet365, but we have to get the level right and have lower levels for young people, and so on. Equally, Bet365 has set slot stake limits lower than previously and is prepared to look at feedback.

Change is necessary. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Swansea East for her campaign. I hope that in the course of the review the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport can learn from firms that are at the forefront of the sector, such as Bet365, which is a major local employer that is setting standards for responsible gambling within the sector that I believe we can learn from.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Can Members reduce the length of their comments to three and a half to four minutes? I call Jim Shannon.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:08 pm, 29th March 2022

I congratulate Carolyn Harris on her passion and her commitment. I fully support her. I like to think that I am equally passionate when it comes to this issue and I am very keen to see the changes that we all desire. On the whole, I believe people should be entitled to live and let live and make their own mistakes, but only in so far as that mistake does not harm others. Unfortunately, gambling does affect others and, as the hon. Lady said, it affects entire households, including people I know and will speak about, without mentioning any names.

In Northern Ireland, an online survey identified 2.3% of the population as having a gambling problem. Although that percentage is likely to underestimate the number of problem gamblers, it is still more than four times higher than that recorded in mainland Britain and almost three times higher than in the Republic of Ireland. Again, that illustrates my concerns. I can think of one lady in particular in my constituency, whose husband would often come home on a Friday night with no money to pay the bills. It put her and her children in a desperately difficult position. It almost drove the couple apart and ruined their marriage, lives, health and wellbeing. That is just one example.

Some 4% of suicides among 20 to 24-year-olds are gambling-related. There are 250 gambling-related suicides per year in the UK. A Swedish study found that the suicide rate for those with a gambling disorder was 15 times that of the general population. I give those figures because that is what we are looking at: lives that could be saved by a change in legislation. I understand that the gambling sector has done a lot, but it has not done enough. I ask the sector and the Minister to engage with gambling organisations and those who are trying to make lives better and save lives. It is clear that the damage to the community at large is not met with an equal amount of regulation. With that in mind, I ask the Minister to take every step to make the changes.

Gambling with Lives is a charity that was set up in Fermanagh in Northern Ireland by grieving parents who lost their son by suicide after a gambling addiction. They are putting their time, money and effort into raising awareness to ensure that no other parent will know the pain they feel from their loss. They began an initiative in schools because they know that is where it begins for many gamblers, and never more so than now when the world is at our fingertips through our smartphones. I take my hat off to their drive and determination to bring good from loss. Can we say in this House and in this debate today that we are approaching the matter with equal drive? With respect, are the Minister and the Government also involved in pushing hard on the issue?

I would like to see the introduction of regulations that would require operators to pay an annual levy to the Gambling Commission, to create a joint advisory levy board with oversight over the levy paid to the Gambling Commission, to reallocate the £60 million pledge to GambleAware for 2023 to the Gambling Commission under the oversight of the levy board, and to implement the targeted findings into the smart levy. That is why this debate is important. It is about changing lives and saving lives. Lives and families depend on this, and I believe the Government’s approach is not dependable. With that in mind, it must change, and I look to the Minister to assure me that it will change and for the better.

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Assistant Whip 3:12 pm, 29th March 2022

Everybody here understands the damage caused by addiction, not just to the individual but to families, marriages and communities. Nobody doubts for a minute the challenges that the Government face in trying to regulate, in this case, the gambling industry to protect the most vulnerable, while at the same allowing the vast majority to enjoy their hobby or, in some cases, profession without it becoming an overburdened, bureaucratic straitjacket or without imposing a nanny-state solution on the majority. I say that because if the industry is restricted too harshly, the evidence shows that it just forces people on to the black market or the dark web, where there are absolutely no checks or balances in place to protect people. No, it is not difficult to access for someone who wants or needs to use it.

The reality is that problem gambling rates in the UK, at 0.3%, are low compared with our neighbours: in Italy, it is 2.4%; in Norway, 1.4%; and in France, 1.3%. Despite what Carolyn Harris says, a big part of that success is down to what industry in the UK has embraced, with programmes like “BeGambleAware”. That is not just a saying or catchphrase, but something tangible in every regulated high street betting shop with human interaction, as well as their online presence. The large industry players in this country have pledged contributions of over £100 million for research, education and treatment in this area.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that for the money the industry has given, it says where it is spent? It has influence over how that money is spent and therefore it precludes people from accessing services because they feel there is industry interference.

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Assistant Whip

I was trying to highlight the fact that the hon. Lady said earlier that the industry was doing nothing, and the reality is that it is not doing nothing. It is actually part of why we have a much lower gambling problem in this country than our neighbours do. The industry is also spending a further £10 million on safer gambling education for all 11 to 19-year-olds throughout the country. As we have seen during the pandemic when we were all working from home, advertising on safer gambling is a much larger proportion of the money spent on gambling adverts.

That does not mean that we do nothing more. Of course there is more to do, and anyone who has experienced living with a problem gambler knows how potentially life-damaging it is for everyone around them. It is therefore right that any review of gambling has the most vulnerable at its heart.

Let us briefly look at what happens when we abandon a balanced, competitive, regulated market, which is the only way to deter the hugely increasing black market. I mentioned Norway earlier, which introduced restrictions on stakes, strict affordability checks, and curbs on advertising. Instead of protecting the most vulnerable, it drove them to the black market, where 66% of all gambling in Norway now takes place. There is no human interaction on that market, no checks on affordability, and no lifelines available, either. So Norway’s 1.4% problem gambling figure is much higher because it does not know where the problem gamblers are.

Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Conservative, Newcastle-under-Lyme

On the black market, my hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the lack of protection for problem gamblers, but there is also no protection for people to ensure they get paid if they have a winning bet. They do not have any of the security that we have here in the United Kingdom that ensures people will be treated fairly by the operator, nor all the problem gambling measures that we have.

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Assistant Whip

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We get legal protection in the regulated market that we have here in the UK.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I draw the Chamber’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. There is a further point that has not been mentioned. I represent the Cheltenham racecourse, and 45% of horseracing’s income comes from bookmakers. It is extremely important that we tackle problem gambling. One problem gambler is one too many, but is not that statistic very important when the Government consider how to take a balanced approach? The entire sport of horseracing is very worried indeed about the potential loss of income in what is not a well-funded sport.

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Assistant Whip

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we see that in snooker and darts as well, which rely on funding to ensure they remain popular.

I mentioned Norway and I will highlight a similar story in France, where online gambling is illegal and 57% of all gambling is done on the black market. In Bulgaria, it is 47%. In Italy, 23% of all money staked now goes to the black market. Here in the UK, although the figures are low in comparison, we have seen a large rise in online unregulated gambling, from 2.2% to 4.5% over the last 18 months. In unregulated, black market gambling—

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman wind up, please?

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Assistant Whip

Of course. The average stakes are much higher, with billions and billions of pounds involved.

Let us be careful what we ask for. Although the scourge of addiction is a problem that we need to address, we have to be very careful that an act of good intention does not make the problem far worse than it currently is. The evidence is there if the Government are keen to look. We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Government need to work closely with the industry on solutions and not destroy good intentions by imposing on the industry rather than working with it.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

I am sorry for the three speakers remaining. We have less than nine minutes left, so that is three minutes each.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:19 pm, 29th March 2022

I am indebted to my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris, who secured today’s debate. My biggest challenge is perhaps for the Minister, because we do not have a public health Minister sitting in his place and we are talking about a public health issue. I am pleased that in York, after much persuasion, we have now got somebody from our public health team appointed to look at the problem, but they are starting with a blank sheet of paper because we do not have the local data that they need to drive the health initiative.

As a country, we were shocked to hear that 55,000 children had a gambling addiction. Some 14% of young people aged 11 to 16 had spent their own pocket money to gamble in the week before the report was carried out, spending an average of £16 a week. The report also found that, over the year, 39% of children had gambled, with 6% using their parents’ online account to do so.

The next generation of gamblers are being drawn in by not only the gambling industry, but the gaming industry. That industry has not been mentioned today, but with 31% of gamers opening loot boxes, it is causing equal harm. One young constituent was thousands of pounds in debt from gaming—what a way to start their life. Young people are really at risk.

The behaviour of the gambling industry is to groom young people and put them in a place of harm. We see the lobbying that takes place in this place—the gambling industry just does not hold back. We see the intrusive behaviours online and the grooming techniques. We have heard so much today about the advertising, the free bets and those luxury days out that are offered to lure people into that space and draw them into debt. The industry has the data—it knows what it is doing. It is therefore a deliberate act. We have to approach that with an equal and opposite bold approach and not be fearful of the industry.

I am really grateful for the work that people are doing across the health sector to take this issue seriously. Matt Gaskell, who runs the northern hub of the NHS gambling service, is exceptional at the work that he does.

We have to break the links through which the gambling industry thinks it can control what health interventions are made. Yes, we should tax the industry up to the hilt, but we should use that general taxation to fund proper investment in the public health measures that are now being put in place.

The treatment provided by the service is 92% effective. However, only 8,500 people have accessed it, while only 6% have accessed the helpline provided. We know that it is not effective intervention. It expects very vulnerable people to be able to access those services.

We need to open up the conversation and the dialogue. It is really important that we start talking about this issue and open it up, so that people feel they have a safe space in which to talk about their debt problems, as opposed to feeling at risk.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South 3:22 pm, 29th March 2022

Thank you for calling me, Ms Rees. Like all Members present, I recognise the real importance of addressing problem gambling. However, I think it important that we put this issue in context, especially given that the latest Gambling Commission figures show a drop in problem gambling from 0.6% to 0.3% in the 18 months up to December 2021. Those figures compare with far higher rates of problem gambling among many of our European neighbours.

The vast majority of people in the UK gamble responsibly and safely. EY has suggested that the sector supports 119,000 jobs and contributes £4.5 billion in tax and £7.7 billion in gross value added to the economy. In Stoke-on-Trent alone, the industry supports 4,500 jobs, predominantly at Bet365, many of which are highly skilled. We have very few of those high-skilled jobs in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, which is still on the journey towards the levelling up of opportunities.

It is also important to recognise the significant investment by the sector in sport and wider charitable causes, such as through the Denise Coates Foundation, which most recently gave more than £1 million to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. More than £40 million is provided annually to the English Football League alone—which, as my hon. Friend Aaron Bell mentioned, includes Stoke City Football Club, which is based in my constituency at the Bet365 Stadium. Most of the investment in the club and the Stoke City community foundation comes from Bet365. The community foundation, in particular, does fantastic work to engage young and vulnerable people in sports. Without the investment of the gambling sector in such causes, much of that work simply would not be possible.

Most recently, we have seen many in the sector lead the way by improving standards, including investing in improvements in safer gambling education and in efforts to address problem gambling. The action that industry has taken, including to introduce a whistle-to-whistle ban on sport advertising and almost entirely removing gambling ads seen by children, has resulted in a significant reduction in problem gambling. Those standards should be implemented across the sector. I have met Bet365 and I know it has led the way on much of the work, including significant measures for those who need that support and flagging concerns where they exist.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

It is important that these actions are further rolled out throughout the sector, but there is a significant risk that if we do not get this right, we will just encourage a growing black market industry. The number of people accessing unlicensed betting websites doubled between 2019 and 2020. I urge the Government to be very cautious and to fully understand the implications, to ensure that we do not see unintended consequences that would only further gift those criminal black market operators. We want proper action focused on those who really need help and support.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Order. Thank you. Jonathan Gullis, you have two minutes. Go for it.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 3:25 pm, 29th March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate Carolyn Harris on securing this debate. Ultimately, what she said is important. No one here is in denial of the fact that reform needs to happen or that we need to go further.

In Stoke-on-Trent we have Bet365, which is acting impressively to make sure that we see improvements in what they are doing, such as the age verification policy, a deposit limit, advice and the ability to set. If someone wants to change their deposit limit, it takes 24 hours and a cooling-off period before they can do so. Behaviour algorithms monitor that behaviour, which means that someone could be picked up by the early risk detection system, which leads to safer gambling messages. There are on-site messages signposting tools, sharing with the customer information on their behaviour, mandatory problem gambling self-assessment, phone calls with customers, affordability assessments being trialled at the moment, and tailored net deposit limits. Those things are in place. The gambling industry is working hard to improve and to find solutions. Although reform is needed, it must be done sensibly.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure) 3:27 pm, 29th March 2022

I must say, I am pleased that people have come here to talk on behalf of the gambling industry. Too often, we talk in a silo and do not hear what other people have to say. I am glad they have come here, spoken out, expressed themselves so eloquently and read their Bet365 briefing so beautifully.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure)

It absolutely is true. I was sat here beside you and watched you read it.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

The hon. Gentleman refers to a briefing that I was reading. I was, indeed, reading a briefing that was presented to the Minister when he visited to explain what the industry was doing, which is forming part of the gambling review. I do not see why it is bad to get a briefing from companies sharing what they are doing. What the hon. Gentleman said is ludicrous.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure)

As I said, a briefing from Bet365—that is exactly what it was.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure)

It does not matter who it was written for; it is a briefing from Bet365.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

You have never had a briefing from anyone else.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure)

We will cover that in a minute; we are wasting time.

It is simply not true that 66% of Norwegian gambling is on the black market. I am not trying to replicate Norway. In Norway, gambling is state monopolised, and because of that they use the internet a lot to gamble. In fact, the 66% relates to people using online gambling. It is not black market gambling as we understand it.

On whether the whistle-to-whistle ban works, Stirling University carried out a survey during five football matches with a whistle-to-whistle ban and recorded 2,000 gambling marketing references. It is clearly not working or protecting the people it is supposed to protect.

The all-party parliamentary group on gambling related harm has spoken to all the chief executives of the big gambling firms. We have listened to what they have to say. We have spoken to gamblers who gamble every day and do not have a problem with gambling—we are not trying to step on their toes. If they want to gamble and they are comfortable, they can gamble. We are not prohibitionists. We have spoken to people who control the provision and support for people with addiction. We have spoken to academics, to addicts and to people whose lives have been destroyed by the gambling industry. That is the rounded, responsible way to go about forming a view on this topic, not to sit here and read a briefing from a gambling firm. A number of figures have been chucked around, and they came straight from the PoliticsHome article by Michael Dugher, chief executive officer of the Betting and Gaming Council.

I am not accusing anybody in this room—absolutely no one—but I do know that among those who support the gambling industry, a number of elected MPs are well funded by the industry to do so, while among the people who are fighting to reform gambling and make it a safer environment for all our constituents, no money changes hands.

The film “Erin Brokovich” tells the true story of a campaign against the practices of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which had illegally dumped hexavalent chromium—deadly toxic waste—and poisoned the residents in the area. For most people, it is inconceivable that directors sitting in the boardroom of a large and successful company would allow such damage or behaviour in the full knowledge of the harm that they are doing, but that case is not unique. Large corporations have a history of putting profit over people, be they the tobacco giants, which have a long history of denying the health risks of smoking, or the logging companies that ruthlessly exploit the Amazon rainforest for personal gain.

In that respect, industry and politics share the same dynamics. The power to make decisions that affect the lives of many are often made by a few people who sit at the heart of the process. Just like Prime Ministers and senior members of the Cabinet, chief executives and company directors make choices that can have huge impacts on people’s lives, for good and for bad. When they act in their own self-interests, they can heap misery on many others. The damage that they cause may not be apparent to them—they can confine themselves to their ivory towers—but plenty of people who witness that harm are prepared to testify if listened to. Throughout history, a catalogue of people have been willing to turn a blind eye to injustices in return for the opportunity to feather their own nests. When chief executive officers are driven solely by the pursuit of massive personal wealth and the privilege that it brings, the plight of others can easily be ignored or underestimated.

The gambling firms must be today’s equivalent of the tobacco firms. They have taken vast amounts of money, generated massive profits and paid their elite employees huge salaries, while ruthlessly pursuing punters and squeezing every penny out of them. The health and welfare of their customers is not a priority. Games are designed to be addictive. The exponential growth of online casinos has removed the human touch, and punters are reduced to being part of the machine.

Gambling online can be done 24/7—cooling-off periods no longer exist, and chasing losses goes unchallenged. People who have self-excluded are often approached and tempted back to gambling. Free bets in VIP rooms are lures to hook often vulnerable people and draw them back into the fold. People have turned to crime to feed their addictions, families have been left broken, and people have committed suicide. In attempts to divert criticism, the public relations departments of the gambling industry are quick to point out the charitable organisations that they support. In fact, if those who run the gambling industry paid themselves less and their employees more, that money would be spent in local communities, where the benefit would be felt—less charity, more fair distribution of wealth.

The gambling industry also funds research into addiction and support for sufferers, and picks up the tab for the Gambling Commission, which regulates the industry, but it is not right that those who cause the harm have financial control of the research, education, treatment and regulation. The link between industry money and those services must be broken, and funding must be channelled through the NHS in the form of a smart statutory levy. The UK gambling industry employs more than 45,000 people and directly contributes more than £4 billion to the Exchequer. Those are impressive numbers, but the money spent on gambling does not yield as much tax revenue as money spent in the retail or food sectors, and we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that some of those jobs and much of that profit are the result of gambling-related harm.

I am not a prohibitionist, but I recognise that the gambling industry has to change; it must take responsibility for its products and its punters, and it must recognise the damage of addiction and play a part in reducing it. The industry has run amok since 2005, but in this digital age it is now time to grow up and act responsibly.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:34 pm, 29th March 2022

It is really good to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. May I start by paying tribute to my hon Friend Carolyn Harris for securing this debate and, more importantly, for her work over the years. She has been a brilliant campaigner on this issue and set out the problems very clearly in her speech, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who gave powerful speeches. I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate, particularly Sir Iain Duncan Smith. It is not often that I agree with every word he says, but I did today.

We have had a variety of contributions, but there is something that shines through—namely, the wide recognition and consensus that reform is needed. As we know, the Gambling Act 2005, which is the basis for regulation of gambling in the UK, has not been updated since it was passed. Today’s debate is a reminder of how unfit that legislation is in meeting the demands of the digital age. As we have heard today, the mental and physical health consequences of harmful gambling can be devastating in many ways. Many of us have met people who have been damaged, and whose families have been damaged, by gambling.

Aside from the cost to individuals, the Government’s own gambling-related harms evidence review showed that the cost to the Government is, at a minimum, at least £340 million each year. Despite that, it has now been two years since the Government committed to publishing a gambling White Paper. Meanwhile, someone with gambling-related problems dies by suicide every day. Government action is long overdue.

The experiences, the stories and the numbers speak for themselves, particularly when it comes to the rapid increase in online gambling practices. I want to particularly focus on that area, as many others have, given that it is the source of many of the harms that we have heard about today,

Among women in particular, online gambling is growing at an alarming rate. According to research by GambleAware, it almost tripled during the pandemic. We need only look at the data for 202-21 from GamCare’s national gambling helpline—it shows that 84% of calls made by individuals related to concerns about online gambling habits—to get a feel for the scale of the problem. It is a problem that we did not appreciate in 2005, but we must now address it and treat it as a public health issue. We need to do more to protect individuals against addictive and easily accessible games, and those protections must include safeguards and affordability checks, particularly for online slot and casino games, where the Government have been slow to act.

As I have said, change is long overdue. Only last week, my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield led an Adjournment debate on the tragic death of his constituent Jack Ritchie, who was driven to take his own life after battling a severe gambling addiction. Jack saw his addiction begin at his local bookies at the age of 17 before moving onto online gambling. That kind of addiction can come very quickly and have devastating consequences.

Jack’s story is a familiar one. I met a group of former gambling addicts about a month ago and they were from a wide variety of backgrounds; as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central pointed out, gambling addiction can hit anybody. They had all followed that same pattern: starting to gamble and then getting into online gambling, and it destroyed their lives. Unbelievably, at the time, banks were prepared to give them loans to fund their gambling habit. It is a problem that we must get a grip on. The whole aim of gambling adverts, incentives and VIP schemes is to maintain or increase the spend of their so-called valuable clients. Those harmful schemes are addictive in nature and offer supposedly free stakes—as my hon. Friend said, there is no such thing as a free bet—to lure customers in. We need to do everything we can to make sure that people like Jack who are aware of their addiction have the tools and support available to help them through their problem.

Will the Minister give an indication of the Government’s thoughts on imposing a mandatory levy on all gambling operators? A levy would help to fund educational resources and treatment services for people suffering as a consequence of their gambling. Colleagues will, I think, be aware that there is already the legal power to impose a levy on the gambling industry; it is already there in legislation. The Government have always insisted that the industry should support harm-reduction work on a voluntary basis, but the current, voluntary system lacks consistency, transparency and accountability. The big five gambling companies have committed to paying 1% of their gross yields towards safer gambling initiatives by 2023, but the variation between online casinos and their donations is a concern. As the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, many of us do not trust that all the gambling companies will act to do the right thing. Labour believes that operators can and must do more to support vulnerable people.

I hope that the Minister will also reflect on the huge increase in online gambling advertising, especially during live sporting events. That can lead to a normalisation of gambling among young people. I am keen to understand the Government’s thinking on how to tackle that—how they can create the evidence base to understand how that advertising affects gambling addiction and how that can inform future policy.

As the online space continues to develop—we are now looking at the issue of gambling in the metaverse, with the potential for virtual reality casino experiences and other experiences—we need to be looking ahead. I am keen to know what the Government are thinking in terms of plans to tighten up safeguards, with a view to the future and gambling in the metaverse. Obviously, we have the Online Safety Bill coming up. That is a matter for another day; we need the Minister to be clear and gambling-focused in his response today. There is currently a discrepancy between the regulation of physical gambling and the regulation of online gambling, with lower-harm games such as bingo being subject to tighter restrictions in some areas than addictive online betting. We need to know the specific steps that the Government are taking to ensure that there is parity. We have concerns that without action and a proper licensing process, the online space will continue to develop as a wild west when it comes to gambling products.

Most importantly given the extent of the issues and the problems that we have heard about, we need to know exactly when the gambling review is due to be published. With respect, we need a date. We have been waiting for a date for a long time now. What we need to see is a plan to tackle problem gambling that is fit for the modern age. There is clearly a political consensus on the importance of getting this right, on the need for reform, so the Minister can be assured of widespread support if the Government act effectively, listen and get the balance right.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

On a point of order, Ms Rees. I am very grateful to you and to the Minister for agreeing to allow me to do this. I do apologise. Because my hon. Friend Jack Brereton kept the clock ticking down on me, I was unable, and forgot, to draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for the £540-worth of match tickets to Stoke City versus Fulham at the Bet365 stadium in January. I do apologise to Members for that.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

The record is duly corrected. Thank you.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 3:43 pm, 29th March 2022

I, too, thank my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis for correcting the record; that is absolutely appropriate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank Carolyn Harris for securing this very important debate and all those who have contributed, in generally a very constructive manner.

I know how committed the hon. Member for Swansea East and many other Members—in fact, I think this applies to every single person who spoke today—are to gambling reform. I thank her and other parliamentarians for the many meetings that they have had with Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Ministers in recent months. Their perspectives and evidence on the issues that we are considering through the review of the Gambling Act 2005 are very valuable indeed. She and all other hon. Members who spoke today are quite right to make the case that reform is needed. It has been 17 years since the Gambling Act was passed, and it is clear that the risks of harm and the opportunities to prevent it are very different now from when legislation was introduced. We must act to recognise that in our regulatory framework.

In recent years, the Government and the Gambling Commission have introduced a wide variety of reforms to help to protect people from gambling harm. Those include the ban on credit card gambling, the FOBT stake limit reduction, and reform to VIP schemes. The review is an opportunity to build on those changes and to do more to ensure that we have the right protections for the digital age.

As the hon. Member for Swansea East will appreciate, I cannot pre-announce what will be published in the White Paper—much as she may wish to prompt me to do so—but we are in the process of finalising it. However, I absolutely recognise the severity of the harms that gambling disorder can cause and why we all have a duty to prevent people from being led down such a dark path.

The voice of people with personal experience of harm was thoroughly represented among the submissions to our call for evidence, and I, the gambling Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Chris Philp—and all our successors have met a number of people who have suffered because of their own addictions or those of people whom they love. They have all made clear how enormous and lasting the effects of gambling disorder can be, not only in the obvious financial losses but in relationship strain, family breakdown, mental health problems and, of course, suicide in extreme cases.

As my opposite number, Jeff Smith mentioned, just last week Paul Blomfield secured an Adjournment debate on the coroner’s finding that gambling contributed to the tragic death of Jack Ritchie. As my hon. Friend the gambling Minister said then, the findings are an important call to action for our Department, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education. We are considering the prevention of future deaths report carefully and will respond in due course on the actions being taken.

The causes of gambling-related harm are inherently complex to unpick and address. Individual circumstances play a role, but it is essential that we also look at the products, industry practices and wider factors that can contribute to or exacerbate them. Understanding the drivers and taking preventive action where it is needed is at the heart of our public health approach. Of course, understanding where it is needed is part of the challenge for the gambling review. About half of the population takes part in gambling each year, and the vast majority suffer no ill effects at all. The population “problem gambling” rate has been broadly stable since before the 2005 Act, with some recent signs of a decline. The White Paper’s measures will be based on the best available evidence to target risk proportionately. We want to prevent unaffordable losses and industry practices that exacerbate risk. We will also maintain the freedom for adults who choose to gamble to do so, and for a responsible and sustainable industry to service that demand.

Technology and data are central to developing effective and proportionate protections. As my hon. Friend the gambling Minister has said, there is huge potential in data-led tools, which can stop and prevent harmful gambling while letting the majority, who spend at low levels with no signs of risk, continue uninterrupted. There has been particular discussion in recent weeks—this was mentioned in the debate—about the role of so-called affordability checks, where a customer’s financial circumstances are considered as part of assessing whether their gambling is likely to be harming them. Such assessments are undoubtedly a key part of the toolkit for preventing the devastating losses that we have all heard about, but, to be workable and prevent harm, checks need to be proportionate and acceptable to customers. We are keen to explore the role of data such as that held by credit reference agencies or that already used by operators to facilitate frictionless checks.

Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Conservative, Newcastle-under-Lyme

I am pleased that the Minister mentioned credit reference agencies, because the current state of play is that bookmakers can get only the basic data—the credit score—and cannot use the credit reference agency to find out whether people can afford their proposed levels of stake-in. Would he and the gambling Minister be receptive to a change to the law to allow bookmakers to get more granular data about someone’s affordability—it would need to be done carefully—so that we do not have the intrusive checks that, as I mentioned, drive people away from licensed operators and potentially to the black market?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

As I said, I will not pre-empt the review’s findings, but my hon. Friend makes a key point about the responsibility and role of the financial services sector in the review. The Government will continue to work closely with the Gambling Commission on this issue in the run-up to publishing the White Paper.

Another much discussed issue is data-led protection in the form of single customer views, where operators share data to protect people most at risk. That is increasingly necessary given that the average online gambler now has three accounts, and those with a gambling disorder typically have far more. I am pleased that the Betting and Gaming Council’s trial of a technical solution has been accepted into the Information Commissioner’s Office sandbox process, which will mean close scrutiny from both the information and gambling regulators to ensure that the trial proceeds with appropriate safeguards in place.

Let me turn now to a few other items raised by hon. Members. On the statutory levy proposals, we called for evidence on the best way to recoup the regulatory and societal costs of gambling. We have also been clear for a number of years that, should the existing system of taxation and voluntary contributions fail to deliver what was needed, we would look at a number of options for reform, including a statutory levy, and we will set out our conclusions in the White Paper.

The horse-racing industry was mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr Robertson. The review is not looking directly at the horse-racing betting levy, but we are certainly aware of the close relationship between racing and betting. The main area of concern from the horse-racing industry is the affordability checks. As I said, these are important, but they must also be proportionate, and we are carefully considering the impact of all our proposals.

Many hon. Members mentioned advertising, and gambling advertising can help licensed gambling operators differentiate themselves from the black market. It also provides financial support for broadcasters and sport, but operators must advertise responsibly, and we are committed to tackling aggressive practices. We have called for evidence on advertising and sponsorship as part of the review.

Protections are already in place to limit children’s exposure to advertising—for example, the whistle-to-whistle ban mentioned by hon. Members. That led, for example, to about a halving in the number of adverts at the Euros last year compared with the 2018 World cup. Gambling adverts must not be targeted at children or appeal particularly to them. The Committee for Advertising Practice will soon publish more on its plans to tighten the rules in this area.

On the gambling black market, again mentioned by many hon. Members, we have called for evidence as part of our review, and we are looking at the Commission’s powers as part of that process. On customer redress, which the hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned, operators must be held accountable for their failings. The review will assess the current system of redress, and we will set out our conclusions in the forthcoming White Paper.

The hon. Member for Swansea East also mentioned the clustering of betting shops. She will be aware that local authorities already have a range of powers under the planning system and as licensing authorities under the Gambling Act to grant or reject applications for gambling premises in their areas, and we encourage them to use those powers as appropriate. We have also been reviewing the powers local authorities and other licensing authorities have in relation to gambling premises licences as part of the review.

On the issue of treatment, which was raised by Rachael Maskell and others, the Government absolutely take a public health approach to gambling. Gambling is a regulated sector, and we have protections for the whole population, with rules to keep gambling fair, open and free from crime. We also have specific protections for vulnerable people. The DCMS works closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, which leads on treatment and health issues. She will be aware the Government are committed to strengthening treatment and support for gambling disorder. This will build on changes and reforms that have already taken place in recent years. The NHS has committed to opening up to 15 specialist problem gambling clinics by 2023-24. Five of these are already in operation and more will follow soon.

The hon. Member for York Central also mentioned loot boxes, and we are delivering on a manifesto commitment to tackle the issue in video games. We ran a call for evidence last year to understand the impact and received over 30,000 responses. We are reviewing this evidence and continue to engage with the industry to determine the most robust and proportionate solutions to the issues identified. We will also be publishing our response and next steps in the coming months. If she is patient, we will report on that soon.

In conclusion, I absolutely recognise that we have an important responsibility to get reform right. We will build on the many strong aspects of our regulatory system to make sure it is right for the digital age and the future. The White Paper is a priority for the Department and we will publish it in the coming weeks.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East 3:54 pm, 29th March 2022

I would like to congratulate Bet365: it has mobilised speakers well today, and I hope that its protection of vulnerable customers is as tenacious as its ability to get MPs to come and speak on its behalf in a Westminster Hall debate.

The word I would take from today is “protection”. Some of us have spoken about how we want to protect vulnerable people, but others may be more inclined to protect the profits of the industry. I know which side I am on: I want to protect the lives of vulnerable people who are, on a daily basis, being exploited by this industry.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered gambling-related harm.