UK Labour Party Pledges More Help For Problem Gamblers

The Labour Party in the UK has come out strongly in support of more far-reaching measures to address problem gambling. It has called for problem gambling treatment to be made accessible through the UK's National Health Service (NHS), funded by a "Problem Gambling Tax" on gambling industry operators.

This comes in the wake of a recent record-breaking fine imposed on 888 Holdings for allowing self-identified problem gamblers to continue playing. These players had requested that they be prevented from playing at the operators' online casinos, by signing up for 888's self-exclusion programme.

An "outrageous" situation

Deputing Labour leader, Tom Watson took the opportunity of the Party Conference to take the issue of problem gambling firmly by the horns, saying that it was "finally time to confront" the issue. A Labour government, he said, would immediately introduce a compulsory levy on operators, which would be used to finance the NHS problem gambling treatment programmes.

Watson criticised gambling operators for their relatively miniscule contribution to helping meet the challenge of problem gambling, compared to the massive amounts of money the industry generates. Using GambleAware, a UK problem gambling charity, as a benchmark, he noted that the £8-million total annual voluntary contribution to the organisation by gambling operators last year paled in comparison to the £8-billion in gross revenue generated, calling the situation outrageous.

Better treatment for problem gamblers

Labour shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, has pledged to work with Watson in developing an exhaustive overview of the extent and depth of gambling addiction in the UK, and evaluating the current treatment measures available through the NHS.

The focus will be squarely on rehabilitation, combining an empathetic approach to those with a gambling addiction, with firm measures to ensure that operators take more financial responsibility for their treatment.

Problem gamblers needed to be helped towards freedom from their addiction, he said, noting that the issue affected many more lives besides the problem gambler. Calling it a "blight" on the lives of those impacted, he sent a clear message to gambling operators: start acting properly, start taking more responsibility, and stop targeting vulnerable players. He ended with an ominous message for those who refused to act in this way: do it yourselves now, or have it imposed on you later.

The £8-million 888 "glitch"

It's not just the Labour Party turning its attention to the problem of gambling addiction. At the end of August the UK Gambling Commission imposed a fine of £7.8-million on 888 Holdings, for serious dereliction of duty over its responsible gambling programme. This is a record fine for an online gambling operator, being virtually equal to the total contributions of gambling operators cited mentioned above.

A routine regulator audit found what has been described as a "technical glitch" in the 888 player control system, which unlocked accounts for thousands of players who had asked to be excluded from being able to play, via the system's self-exclusion mechanism.

It wasn't simply a matter of a few problem gamblers suddenly being able to play at 888 casinos. The situation quickly escalated, as more and more self-excluded problem gamblers began depositing and playing again. By the time the system error was discovered, more than 7,000 players who had requested exclusion had transfered over £3.5-million from their bank accounts to their casino accounts.

One case particularly caught the authorities' attention, that of a single player who place over 850,000 bets in one year, to the value of £1.3-million. Having already been identified as a problem gambler, the commission felt that 888 should have been more proactive in picking up the player's activity. It went further, implying that 888's lack of communication with the customer in the light of the information they had, brought into question 888's commitment to protecting problem gamblers from aggravating their addictions at its online casinos.

888 Holdings must have been quietly happy about the fine, despite its size, as it looked in danger of losing its gambling licence. However, one can be pretty sure that sanctions imposed on transgressions by other operators are likely to be more serious, given the current emphasis on treating problem gambling.

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Making gambling safe and affordable

This recent clampdown, if one can call it that, combined with the Labour Party's stance, signals that the authorities are starting to view gambling addiction as a serious social challenge. According to Labour's Watson, the UK has over 430,000 problem gamblers, with a further 2-million susceptible to gambling addiction. He believes that gambling operators should take far more responsibility for making sure that people do not gamble more than they can afford.

The UK Gambling Commission's Sarah Harrison concurs, responding to the 888 verdict by saying that gambling operators do not have an option when it comes to safeguarding players, and that not doing so would be taken seriously by the UKGC.