Wales has a gambling problem – the Assembly needs to take it more seriously

Picture: Craig Hatfield. (CC BY 2.0)

 

Simon Thomas AM

It was Disraeli that said “there is no gambling like politics”.

The last eight weeks or so have seen the biggest political gamble of this generation and like many high stake rollers, Theresa May not only lost her bet but she and her Conservative family will continue to pay a continuing price.

Particularly with the loan sharks of the DUP seeking to extort a high political price.

I say this not to be flippant but to emphasise that there is a real link between politics and gambling. I recognise amongst my fellow politicians a strand of high risk taking, dopamine-addicted individuals who thrive on the stake and the payout.

Indeed, perhaps the first conclusion is that politicians are the very worst people who should be regulating and legislating for gambling.

But the situation we have today is the direct result of political choices and political aims.

Let’s first accept the premise and fact that gambling now pervades our culture. Cigarette and alcohol advertising on sportsmen and women has been replaced by myriad online betting companies.

My Twitter feed is full of cheeky Cockney chappies who love a bet and get a laugh from it.

TV advertising marries both this friendly banter approach to gambling with a more sophisticated approach to try and portray online and onscreen casinos and glamour and tuxedos on your sofa.

If you can’t get to sleep on a hot, sticky night in Cardiff, there’s plenty of late night roulette to keep you entertained.

And somewhere, in very small letters, there will be the strapline, “if the fun stops, stop”. The only regulatory concession to a highly addictive, highly damaging pastime.

Gambling culture

We must acknowledge that we as legislators have created this situation. Unfortunately, we have little powers over gambling here in the Assembly though some powers over fixed odds terminals are being devolved.

The framework for gambling today is the 2005 Gambling Act, which I am pleased to say as an MP for Ceredigion I voted against – just one of 38.

But the cultural problem dates back further. As soon as we conceded that a National Lottery was a good way of funding worthy projects, rather than general taxation and charitable donations and fund-raising, we opened the door in my view to an unstoppable change in culture towards gambling.

Whether you agree with that or not, we can certainly examine the situation we are in today and find it worrying and unacceptable:

  • 61% of people in Wales have gambled in the last 12 months.
  • Strip out the National Lottery and that still leaves 44%.
  • Around 5% of people are at some risk with their gambling
  • 1% at a very high risk.

If you look behind these figures however we see something even more concerning:
Nearly 2% of men have a real gambling problem, just 0.2% of women, so there is a gender aspect to this.

Of particular concern is that at-risk gamblers run at a higher 7% in the 16-24 age group.

Cost

And though gambling is not devolved, its impact is. This is why I raised the issue with the First Minister last week and during a statement on the Labour Government’s legislative programme.

The cost of gambling has been estimated at:

  • between £40-150m in mental health services (Britain)
  • £140-£610m for hospital services
  • £310-360m for homelessness services

Though we will have limited powers over gambling, the accession of these powers will ensure that gambling and policy will be before the Assembly for the first time in effect.

In order to legislate in the limited area we have, the Assembly and its committees will need to gather evidence and hear from gamblers and those concerned with gambling.

No doubt we will be lobbied by gambling companies, many of which are in effect a server on the Channel Islands.

Whatever happens, the problem will become more salient, Assembly Members will become more aware, and perhaps we will start to take this problem more seriously.

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