Motion to Regret

Part of Gaming Machine (Circumstances of Use) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 – in the House of Lords am 7:00 pm ar 23 Mawrth 2015.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Jolly Baroness Jolly Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 7:00, 23 Mawrth 2015

My Lords, I stand before you as a government spokesman but also as a Liberal Democrat. However, I shall not bore noble Lords with the diets of Liberal Democrat raffles, which is the extent of my gambling.

I thank the noble Lord for bringing this Motion of Regret before the House, allowing us to highlight the measures that we are bringing in to improve the protection of gaming machine players. Allow me to begin by re-emphasising that the Government understand the public concerns around fixed-odds betting terminals—FOBTs from now on—and consider the future of their regulation to be unresolved.

Gambling has long been positioned in public policy terms as a mainstream leisure activity. Most people who gamble do so in this context: they choose how much they will spend. This is how they choose to use their leisure time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Golding, said. Generally speaking, they have fun so doing, but it is important to remember that all gambling—not just machine gambling—can and does cause harm for some gamblers, their families, friends, communities and employers. That is why we have intervened to regulate it.

To that end, I now turn to the Motion,

“that the Gaming Machine (Circumstances of Use) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 do not appropriately address the problems of gambling addiction, and offer no significant protections for vulnerable people from getting into debt”.

In April 2014, the Government announced their intention to take precautionary action in this area, with measures for new gambling controls and protections on track to come into force next week. The regulations in question today are designed to reduce the amount of unsupervised cash gambling on so-called FOBTs. We are introducing these precautionary and proportionate measures based on the available evidence. In addition, we have supported, and continue to support, independent research in this area and continue to oversee a cultural change on social responsibility.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about the independence of the RGT, which commissioned the research. The RGT is an independent charity and the research was commissioned from an independent and reputable provider, NatCen, a leading not-for-profit social research organisation. He also asked whether or not the industry co-operated and provided the information which the RGT asked for. There was an unprecedented level of openness and co-operation from the operators; it is the first time that bookmakers’ data have been scrutinised by independent researchers and also the first time that there has been access to loyalty card gamblers. This has resulted in the largest sample of problem gamblers ever taken in Great Britain.

All players using these machines will be required to use account-based play or load cash over the counter, forcing an interaction, when they wish to stake over £50. Making staff interaction a compulsory component of high-staking machine play ensures greater opportunities for intervention where patterns of behaviour indicate that someone may be at risk of harm from their gambling. In addition, account-based play allows players access to up-to-date and accurate information in the form of activity statements and real-time information about their session of play, which can help people maintain control. On that basis, we believe that these measures will help higher-staking customers benefit from more conscious decision-making, while increasing opportunities for interaction and intervention with appropriately trained staff, and therefore assisting customers to stay in control of their gambling behaviour.

Opponents of this measure call for a reduction in stakes on these machines to £2. We do not accept that this is justified or proportionate. The campaigners on this issue often fail to highlight two key points. The first is that problem gamblers usually gamble on a wide range of products. The idea that cutting the stake on one machine in one environment will somehow make problem gamblers see the error of their ways seems fanciful, as they are likely simply to take their business to the arcade or casino or online. The second is that not only do we find significant proportions of problem gamblers staking at lower levels but we find many of those staking at higher levels are doing so safely. The evidence points to a stake cut of this scale doing little to protect problem gamblers, and a lot to constrain the choice of normal leisure gamblers.

That is why we are pushing for better interventions that complement controls on the machines and the betting environment, with a greater focus on individual customers. The Government believe that this is a sensible approach that balances the commitment to reduce problem gambling and protect the vulnerable while, at the same time, protecting an enjoyable leisure activity for the vast majority of customers who visit bookmakers’ offices.

It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that, in addition to these amending regulations, the bookmaking industry has itself made progress, with support from the Government and the Gambling Commission, to further assist gamblers who display signs of problematic behaviour. The betting industry introduced new measures, under its code of conduct from 1 March 2014, aimed at improving social responsibility measures towards problem gamblers.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about staff numbers. I will get back to him about these. I am sure that all noble Lords have briefings from the industry, but one thing that is included is training of staff in these measures.

While a step in the right direction, we support the Gambling Commission’s move to make the measures mandatory in its updated licence conditions and codes of practice—or LCCP—published in February 2015. We believe that the measures we are taking are sufficient to improve player protection on a precautionary basis. These moves, combined with the measures outlined in the Gambling Commission’s response following its consultation on the social responsibility provisions in its LCCP, are justified on this precautionary basis.

I should like to re-iterate that not only are the Government responsive to evidence that is produced concerning gambling-related harm but they have also made great steps in improving the quality of the available evidence through their positive engagement with industry. This remains an issue which I am sure all sides of the House treat with the utmost seriousness. Striking the right balance between protecting a leisure activity and helping those who have fallen into harmful habits and preventing others from succumbing is the objective of all sides of the House.

I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that I was without an official for the first eight minutes of this debate, but I will pick up on a few of the issues that he raised. The point that parts of the industry are now recommending that staff encourage people to play two machines at the same time and encourage the use of debit cards over cash causes alarm bells to ring, as far as I am concerned. Before we prorogue, I will write to the noble Lord to give clarification on that issue.

It is also worth mentioning to noble Lords that I am here today rather than the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, who should have taken the debate, because, unfortunately, he has a close family bereavement. I offered to do this and I was happy so to do.

Other areas of concern included single staffing. I take issue over the lack of evidence—there is a debate to be had about whether the RGT is independent, but many organisations are funded. For example, Alcohol Concern is funded by the drinks industry and it comes out with very hard-hitting reports as well.

I thank my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones for being robust, as ever.

I close by emphasising again the importance of taking these precautionary and appropriate measures based on the available evidence. As I said at the beginning of my speech, the Government consider the future of FOBT regulation to be unresolved. The next few weeks will see all parties articulate their view on this issue once Parliament dissolves and the election campaign plays out.

I thank noble Lords for their contributions. We all want to offer protection to those who are vulnerable. This SI was written after a consultation and any future Government will have the opportunity to assess its success at their earliest convenience and make the changes that they think appropriate.

I hope that I have covered satisfactorily all the questions put to me and that the noble Lord will be sufficiently reassured to withdraw the Motion.