24 November 2011
The Evangelical Alliance joined other church groups and Christian organisations to give evidence this week to parliament about the impact gambling can have on society, and called on the government to increase protection for the most vulnerable.
The key policy changes that the Christian groups are looking for include a restriction on gambling for children. Britain is the only country in Western Europe to allow children to gamble. At the moment anyone can use fruit machines. They have lower levels of prizes and stakes, but aside from that they are just the same and the only restriction on their use is whether you are tall enough to reach the buttons.
The House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee is currently holding an inquiry into the 2005 Gambling Act. Following written submissions in the summer witnesses from the Methodist Church, Salvation Army, CARE and Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs appeared alongside the Evangelical Alliance.
The most recent British Gambling Prevalence Survey, published in early 2011, showed that the number of problem gamblers had jumped by 50 per cent to around 450,000 since 2007. Problem gambling is defined as gambling to a degree that it compromises, disrupts or damages family, personal or recreational pursuits. In preparation for the hearing one problem gambler told the Salvation Army: "Three people know of my addiction. My bookie, my bank and myself. Only one of us is prepared to take responsibility despite the others being legal and regulated."
In 2005 when the Gambling Act was passed significant changes were made to the regulatory structure for most forms of gambling, this inquiry was initiated to consider how effective the Act had been and what impact the changes have had. The inquiry has already heard evidence from representatives from casino, gaming and betting groups, and will also be taking evidence from the Gambling Commission before issuing its report.
A key concern for the Evangelical Alliance that was raised with the committee is ensuring local councils have the powers to turn down applications for more betting shops in their communities. On top of a long-standing concern recent research has shown that the density of machines is highest in places with higher levels of deprivations and less economic activity. Harriet Harman MP, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, also published a report looking at the number of betting shops in Southwark, including Peckham - the area she represents.
At the committee hearing it was suggested that local authorities should have similar powers as they currently do with alcohol licensing to introduce Cumulative Impact Policies. This means that they can define an area where there is already a high concentration of licensed premises and then restrict any more opening in that area. If extended to gambling activities this would give local communities a very real say over what gambling opportunities are available in their locality.
The church groups also called on the government to introduce a compulsory levy on the betting industry to fund research, education and treatment for problem gambling. The 2005 Act gives the government all the necessary powers to introduce this levy and it would provide a simple and efficient solution to a long-running struggle to secure funding. In the summer the previous arrangement, whereby the money was raised by the gambling industry but distributed by an independent body, broke down. At present the industry is directly funding research education and treatment, and at the committee hearing concern was expressed that such an arrangement represents a clear conflict of interests. A levy would allow complete independence in the distribution of funds without any danger that the money might go to projects that the industry views more favourably.
The Evangelical Alliance will continue to encourage the government to ensure gambling is adequately regulated and in particular that children and young people are protected. The Localism Act has recently become law, and it is possible that the powers given to local authorities will help them regulate gambling activity in their community; close attention will be given to the implementation of this Act, and to guidance issued to local authorities.