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24 February 2011

Problem gambling on the increase

New research shows that there are nearly half a million people in the UK with gambling problems. The Evangelical Alliance responded to the announcement in a joint statement with other church groups and Christian organisations calling on the Government to tighten rules governing gambling activity.

The Gambling Commission has recently published the third Gambling Prevalence Survey, following previous reports in 1999 and 2007. This report found that the number of people who have gambled in the past year had risen five per cent to 73 per cent, with the rate of problem gambling up from 0.6 per cent to 0.9 per cent. When this is translated to the entire population it means that there are now around 450,000 problem gamblers - up from around 284 000 problem gamblers in 2007.

Many Christian groups warned the Government at the time of the 2005 Gambling Act that their plans could lead to a normalisation of gambling. Significant changes were made to the rules governing gaming machines and casino access, and for the first time adverts for gambling were allowed. Tessa Jowell MP, who was the minister responsible at the time, said that if the changes led to an increase in problem gambling then the Government would take another look and see where changes are necessary.

Early indications from the current government suggest that they will take a look at whether changes need to be made. However, in response to the findings, John Penrose MP, the current minister in charge, also took aim at his predecessors. He said: "The Labour government liberalised gambling laws but failed to implement the safeguards needed to protect the public and as a result the number of problem gamblers has risen to almost half a million."

Problem gamblers are identified through their answers to a range of different questions relating to their gambling activity. If they score above a certain threshold then they are categorised as a problem gambler, and scores just below this place them in an 'at risk' grouping. The questions cover issues such as whether you gamble more than you can afford, if you have been criticised for your gambling activity, or if you borrow to finance further gambling. The survey used two different sets of questions which assess slightly different criteria. According to one of the measures there was an increase but it is not a statistically significant change, while the other measure did record a significant rise.

In response to the report, Malcolm Brown, director of mission and public affairs at the Church of England, said: "Problem gamblers become sucked into a distorted view of reality and often drag themselves and their families into insecurity and poverty. This is not just a matter of personal morality and character, but a problem exacerbated by the values communicated by the wider social and political context."

The survey found that problem gamblers are more likely to be young, male, unemployed and in poor health. People with a parental history of gambling and from an Asian background were also more likely to have problems. Rather than focus on one particular form of gambling, the report showed that problem gamblers engage in multiple different activities - typically more than seven. This covers a range of activities such as poker, fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs), football polls, and betting on non-sports events. Other evidence suggests that FOBTs are a significant factor in gambling problems, the gambling helpline GamCare has reported they are cited in a quarter of calls despite comprising just four per cent of all gambling activity. Helena Chambers of Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs noted: "Problem gamblers and their families often suffer stress, ill-health and debt. It's vital that they are supported, and the Government does not risk any further increase."

The Government is currently considering increasing the stake level for a popular category of gaming machine, and also allowing arcades and bingo halls to have more machines. The Evangelical Alliance has already asked the Government not to take forward their plans and this study gives further evidence as to why such a move would be dangerous. This follows changes introduced by the previous government that doubled the prizes and stakes for the gaming machines that are permitted in pubs.

A particular problem faced by local communities is that authorities do not seem to have the power to turn down planning and licensing applications - even when they do not want to give the go-ahead. A key test for the coalition Government's localism agenda is whether this transfers into meaningful powers for local communities to oppose developments in their community that would have a negative impact. The Localism Bill that is currently before Parliament appears to give local communities the opportunity to adopt binding development plans through local referenda. However, what impact this will have remains uncertain, and it would not apply to cases where planning permission is not required.

The Gambling Commission suggested that - due to government cuts - this could be the last study of its kind. It is essential for understanding the nature and spread of gambling behaviour that these surveys continue. Gareth Wallace of the Salvation Army, commented: "With increased problem gambling, the Government must fund another equivalent prevalence study. This is not the time to be walking blindfolded into and increase in problem gambling."