If I Had My Way, I’d Tear the Building Down

Today, UK gambling is a £14.5bn industry. There are 8,423 betting shops across our towns and cities, and 183,813 gaming machines in Great Britain.[1] We have had such luck, of late, to see the Campaign for Fairer Gambling succeed[2] in its demand for a reduced legal cap on bets on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals – which in 2012 took £72m in Rochdale alone[3] – and force William Hill to announce the closure of 700 high street betting shops.[4] 700 was a good start. If I had my way, I would tear every one of those buildings down.

The sour sight of betting shops – always, it seems, in the poorer parts of towns, offering one last false shot at relief to those left with little else to hitch their hopes to – is, however, only the half of it. Some of the worst damage is done to people in their own homes, in online games where there are no legal limits.[5] In fact, 39% of the British gambling market now takes place online.[6] Both online and offline, the entire edifice of Britain’s exploitative gambling industry needs tearing down.

The UK has now the largest online gambling market in the world.[7] For many of our fellow citizens, gambling is not just a ‘vice’ or an indulgence, but an addiction, and the profits of predatory gambling companies are not just the charges of facilitating popular recreation, but the rewards of playing on human frailties and preying on the vulnerable. Gambling reaches far back in our history, but both the scale and the audacity of today’s betting companies are without precedent. Never before has this ever-disreputable industry been allowed to do what it did last year: to take £14.5bn from the pockets and bank accounts of British citizens. The number of complaints to the Gambling Commission has risen by almost 5000% over the past five years.[8] One of the two chief complaints is about betting companies refusing to pay out on winnings. The other is about them “failing to operate in a socially responsible way”.

Amid the many hardships affecting the millions of working poor in modern Britain, advertisements pollute the popular imagination with the false promise of an alleviation of ubiquitous financial pressures, while mainstream sponsorships allow a squalid and exploitative industry to adopt a cloak of legitimacy. Indeed, this part of today’s predicament is a poor legacy of the New Labour government, which significantly relaxed advertising restrictions on gambling with the Gambling Act 2005. We are now left with a peculiar media war between advertisers lionising the gambling industry on the one hand, and journalists exposing its grim reality on the other.

Online gambling companies have ways of encouraging addicts to put up more and more money, which are sometimes deployed with the devastating results found across countless tragic case studies.[9] A woman who made £382,844 of bets in a 24-hour period with one online gambling company was given “VIP status” and treated like a friend of the firm while she sank irretrievably into a quagmire of debt.[10] Meanwhile, some betting companies seem to display a willingness to exploit vulnerable addicts until their suicide, as in the case of Daniel Clinkscales (1982-2017), from my own county of Devon.[11] That is not to say these betting companies wish death on anyone; I am sure, that in the case of the late Mr Clinkscales, one particular company mourned the passing of such a lucrative client.

The Gambling with Lives website lists in remembrance some of those (by now there may well be more) who have died recently in the UK in suicides attributed by their families to gambling addictions.[12] It makes for sobering reading. Not even the young are spared from the exploitation playing out in betting shops and online apps: the first NHS gambling clinic for children opened earlier this Summer.[13] The Gambling Commission estimates that the number of British children aged 11-16 with a gambling problem is now as high as 55,000.[14]

Earlier this year, a man who had been financially ruined and driven to a suicidal state by gambling walked into a bookmakers and smashed up the screens.[15] What he did that day was criminal; what had been done to him was not. The criminal damage he inflicted to them amounted to almost £2,000; the money they had taken from him amounted to £1m. I direct you to the title of this piece.

Gambling addiction is a recognised mental health condition. If you are concerned either for yourself or for someone else, there is help available. www.begambleaware.org







[1] https://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/news-action-and-statistics/Statistics-and-research/Statistics/Industry-statistics.aspx

[2] https://fairergambling.org/

[3] https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/rochdale-stakes-72m-on-gambling-machines-1241638. “The equivalent of around £340 being bet for every man, woman and child in the borough.”

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jul/04/william-hill-may-axe-700-shops-as-fobt-reform-bites

[5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-49284169

[6] https://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/news-action-and-statistics/Statistics-and-research/Statistics/Industry-statistics.aspx

[7] BBC Panorama. 12 August 2019.

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-49284169

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/apr/22/online-casinos-ignored-obvious-signs-addiction-gambler

[10] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0004f0m

[11] https://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/news/local-news/devon-mans-family-wants-everyone-1065387

[12] https://www.gamblingwithlives.org/remembering

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/24/nhs-to-open-first-ever-gambling-clinic-for-children

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/nov/21/number-of-problem-gamblers-aged-11-16-rises-to-55000

[15] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/gambling-addict-who-lost-1m-14305473