Not too late for British gambling firms

With the UK government's threats to make responsible gambling contributions to the Responsibility in Gambling Trust (RIGT) compulsory making the headlines this week, the political blog at The Guardian made some pointed and valid comments on the slow voluntary payments of the past.

Blogger Andrew Sparrow noted that the government had left the door open for British gambling groups to make up this year's GBP1.2 million shortfall before it made the donations mandatory by law, but also pointed out that gaming firms already spend some money on anti-addiction initiatives on a voluntary basis.

Unfortunately, the voluntary contributions are not always made in a prompt manner, something which Sparrow reports has caught the attention of the Liberal Democrats' culture spokesman, Don Foster.

Foster claims that the government has been issuing warnings of this kind for more than five years. In November 2003, when the Gambling Act was still a draft bill, Tessa Jowell, the then-culture secretary, said she would rather not use the power to make donations mandatory, "but I won't flinch from doing so if I must".

Sparrow writes that Foster has found 12 instances of ministers issuing such threats to the gaming industry, including one in February last year when Sports Minister Andy Burnham said: "Unless the industry delivers a substantial increase in contributions by the end of this year and makes contributions in a timely fashion, I will seek the approval of the House for a statutory levy."

Sparrow advocates legislation, writing: "What is it with Labour and the gambling industry? Yesterday, Sam Coates in the Times reported that the Department for Culture is going to let gamblers bet more, partly because the industry is finding "trading conditions very difficult in the present economic climate", yet today the industry has been given a final warning on addiction funding – arguably for the 13th time. Foster brands the way ministers are dragging their feet a "disgrace".

"There's been very extensive lobbying from the industry to prevent this happening ... You may say that GBP 5 million is peanuts. But, remember, there has only been one year, 2006-07, when the industry has coughed up the target that was set them. They are just not willing to do so.

"I've put a call in to the culture department asking them why they don't just commit themselves to legislation now, given all the warnings the gambling industry has already had. When I get a response, I'll put it up."

True to his word, Sparrow did exactly that with the following response he received from the Department of Culture and Sports:

"A voluntary agreement remains the Government's preferred option for the funding of problem gambling treatment. However, the industry's failure to agree on satisfactory voluntary arrangements, and the fact that payments from some smaller operators have not been forthcoming, has made the introduction of a statutory levy an even more likely prospect.

"The gambling industry is large with over 4 000 operators licensed by the Gambling Commission - the majority of which are small operators. It is obviously proving difficult for the industry to get agreement from such a widely diverse group and it may be unrealistic in the current economic climate to expect the large organisations to continue to carry other smaller operators.

"Securing the future of funding for problem gambling treatment by whatever means is our priority and we want to see this issue sorted as soon as possible. A levy would provide a cost effective and equitable way of obtaining contributions if the industry cannot agree improved voluntary arrangements in the meantime."

It looks as if the UK government is losing patience with the slow responses and could "sort" this by introducing legislation at the end of the consultation period in March anyway.

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