The Gambling Related Harm APPG assembled last week to hear evidence on affordability checks. But the conclusions to be drawn were not exactly how it wanted them to be.
The debate on £100 affordability checks found itself driving down a parliamentary cul-de-sac this week as key members of the Gambling Related Harm APPG conceded that the checks would unlikely deter problem gamblers from gambling.
Despite a robust but somewhat prickly defence of the initiative by its main advocate, Dr James Noyes of the Social Market Foundation, former conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, APPG GRH vice chair Ronnie Cowan and Margaret Ferrier MP each voiced doubts on the efficacy of the idea during the affordability evidence hearing.
Noyes was joined by representatives from Monzo Bank, Arena Racing, the Horseracing Bettors Forum and a Lived Experience expert and former problem gambler – all called by the parliamentary group to offer their views on affordability checks.
But a unity of view on the matter was difficult to attain, as Sir Iain Duncan Smith demonstrated. “I’ve been listening very carefully to everything that’s been said today,” he explained, “and it looked to me like lots of positions were turning back in on themselves.”
IDS, a vociferous critic of the industry’s record on problem gambling, was quick to recognise the anomalies of checks: “The reality though is the question as to whether or not affordability as a target will actually reduce problem gambling? For me, the jury’s out.”
In fairness to IDS’s credentials as a tormentor of the gambling industry, this was a solitary – albeit significant – pulled punch. The Tory veteran railed against the industry’s “really appalling track record on checks especially on VIP rooms” as well as its poor performance on problem gambling.
But, his assessment on affordability checks did highlight the gaping distinction between a well intentioned idea and an effective one. He went on to tell his colleagues: “The problem you’ve got with all of this affordability is that it’s a little bit like saying to an alcoholic – what we really propose for you is that you only drink one bottle of wine a day rather than three. That doesn’t work because all they will do is to go back to their higher gambling – or in this case higher drinking.”
It was a sense of reality that led him to draw the conclusion: “So whilst I recognise checking where people’s affordabilities are, I’m still a little bit sceptical about what effect it will actually have on deep problem gambling. I can’t see the evidence that it will stop that because there’s lots of different ways to try and chase that.”
Ronnie Cowan, another fervent critic of the gambling industry, also expressed his concerns about the impact affordability checks would have on problem gamblers’ behaviour: “I have to admit to being a little bit confused to a lot of stuff I’ve heard this afternoon,” he told his colleagues at the hearing. “The whole financial affordability aspect of it is really an advisory thing. We’ve heard consistently over years of gathering evidence that people who are suffering gambling harm will find a way to gamble. And we come to learn every obstacle we put in their way helps and slows down the process…but I’m wondering if there’s still – and I may be shooting myself in the foot here – I have a slight concern that if we’re pushing people away from recognised sources of gambling that we actually are going to open up an avenue to a black market.” He added his note of caution: “ I understand what we’re trying to achieve… but I have a slight niggling doubt that I have to read more about if I am to be satisfied about it.”
Margaret Ferrier MP was of a similar mindset. She advised that “I’m not sure what effect the affordability check would have on stopping people that do really want to gamble; a real problem gambler.”
Whilst the parliamentarians wrestled with the fog from the affordability check idea, the interesting nuance came not from the politicians nor the intellectual, but from the real person in the room, former problem gambler Daniel Chandler. Now part of the Lived Experience panel, Chandler confirmed that he would be ‘very reluctant to share bank statements, PAYE and tax returns’ as part of the affordability checks, but if it could be done non-instrusively, then he would support it.
However, he did move the debate on to young people where £100 would be a significant sum of money to spend on gambling – and suggested that this would be an audience that could be picked up by some form of checks.
For Arena chief executive Martin Cruddace, the parliamentary procedure was like walking towards an ambush, but the only industry figure in the hearing managed to acquit himself well during the hearing. Although it probably didn’t matter; from the language and the tones, the politicos were clearly set on their mission. That is until the affordability curve ball was delivered.
After an hour and a half of the affordability hearing, one thing was clear, though: a clever idea is not necessarily a good idea.