Politics

Tory election betting scandal is grim – but vulnerable people are gambling's real victims

The Tory betting scandal is a symptom of the 'normalisation' of gambling across the UK, experts have warned

Gambling disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable. Credit: canva

In February, Rishi Sunak claimed he “wasn’t a betting person” after broadcaster Piers Morgan challenged him to a £1,000 wager.

The prime minister might be an anomaly within his party. At least four senior Conservative officials are being investigated by the Gambling Commission for inside track betting on the date of the election.

The Tory betting scandal broaches serious questions about cronyism at the highest levels of government. But it’s a “symptom of another big problem”, experts have warned: the “normalisation” of gambling across the UK.

“Lots of people have a relaxed view of gambling – the idea that it’s a fun and easy way to make a quick bit of money,” said Simon Dymond, a gambling industry expert and professor of psychology and behaviour analysis at Swansea University.

“Clearly that’s how some politicians see it too. But there’s a risk that we get distracted from how more addictive forms of gambling hook increasing numbers year on year, and the devastation that causes for families and communities.”

Some 58% of adults in Great Britain gambled at some point in the last year. That includes those who indulged in the occasional lottery ticket or football final bid. But the industry – which makes 60% of its profits from 5% of gamblers – “isn’t so concerned” with casual punters, Dymond explains.

“The gambling industry isn’t interested in people who put an occasional flutter on a general election, or the outcome of the Euros,” he said.

“They want the people who are playing online slots in the bathroom, away from their families, people who have multiple user accounts, or who pop into the bookies at lunchtime. People who feel they can’t stop, who are betting at levels way over and above what they can afford. And the more they lose, the more the gambling industry wins.”

Unfortunately, the “normalisation” of gambling – of which the Tory betting scandal is a symptom – makes it a difficult problem to tackle.

Britain has one of the most accessible gambling markets in the world, with betting shops on every high street, laissez-faire advertising regulations, and widespread access to internet casinos.

Up to 1.44 million British adults are addicted to gambling, with an additional 80,000 children addicted or at risk of addiction.

The Big Issue’s Blueprint for Change is calling on the next government to focus on gambling related harm as a public health problem, particularly online gambling.

Change can’t come soon enough. More than three-quarters of problem gamblers had built up debt because of gambling, Citizens Advice research shows. More than a third of families with children couldn’t afford essential costs such as food, rent and household bills because of a family member’s gambling.

At its most serious, gambling can lead to loss of life. People suffering from gambling disorder are 15 times more likely to take their lives, according to research from Sweden.

An Australian study estimated that around 2% of suicides between 2010 and 2012 were related to gambling.

Poorer people are disproportionately impacted, said professor Elizabeth Goyder of the University of Sheffield.

The most vulnerable to harm from the gambling industry’s activities are inevitably those with fewest resources who are already experiencing financial difficulties who, in a cost of living crisis, may see gambling as the only possible solution,” she said.

The government must regulate the industry’s “ubiquitous advertising and promotion”, Goyder added.

Every year, the gambling industry spends around £1.5bn on advertising. It’s everywhere: from football shirt sponsorships to all over the tube.

A recently published government white paper recommended financial risk checks to prevent people from accumulating “life-changing losses”. The next government must pursue such reforms as a matter of urgency, Dymond added.

“When you consider it as a public health issue, it takes away the industry narrative, which is that this is just the problem of a small minority who are weak or ill or diseased, or have some underlying susceptibility,” he said.

“If you draw back a little bit, you see that this industry is designed to be one or two steps ahead of the next technological development, that is designed to make profit. We are all vulnerable to its influences, and we can all fall under its spell.”

It is important that the Gambling Commission takes the Tory election day betting scandal seriously, Dymond said. But with gambling front-and-centre in the news, it’s an opportunity to reflect on its impact on more vulnerable people.

“People who can afford to place a £100 bet on something that they may or may not have had insider knowledge on aren’t as big an issue as the many, many  more people who are gambling way beyond their means at levels that they can’t afford, day in, day out.”

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