Unlike with alcohol and drug addiction, the commission found that there was a “lack of knowledge” by police, prosecutors, courts or prisons about the way crime could be linked to problem gambling.
It said there was limited screening for problem gambling, citing just one project, in Cheshire, where 99 out of 760 suspects arrested by police were questioned and found to need help or treatment for their potential addiction.
The commission survey of 656 magistrates said suspects with gambling problems also had financial difficulties (58.7 per cent), alcohol addiction (31.2 per cent), relationship breakdown (29.9 per cent), drug addictions (21.5 per cent), job loss (20.5 per cent), and poor mental health (17.4 per cent).
It recommended tougher curbs on gambling firms’ advertising and online betting, saying: “The research presents a compelling case for adopting a public health approach that places greater restrictions on advertising and online gambling provision to safeguard children, people experiencing problem gambling, and people at risk of gambling related harms.”
Lord Goldsmith of Allerton
Cure the disease of problem gambling before it leads to crime
By Lord Goldsmith of Allerton, the chairman of the Commission on Crime and Problem Gambling
“This is a hideous disease,” says Paul Merson, the former England footballer, in a new BBC documentary exploring how he came to lose more than £7 million by gambling. “There are thousands of people out there like me who have a major gambling problem – compulsive gamblers who just can’t stop.”
If problem gambling is a disease, a cure is needed because in many cases it leads to crime. Rarely does a week go by without a media report on someone who has ended up in court for an offence linked to their gambling debts. The stories have become all too familiar to me in my role as chairman of the Commission on Crime and Problem Gambling.
Set up by the Howard League for Penal Reform, the commission is the UK’s first inquiry to focus specifically on the links between problem gambling and crime. The panel includes experts in criminal justice, public health and the gambling sector, and people with lived experience of problem gambling.
Over the past two years, we have heard evidence from a wide range of witnesses including regulators, gambling companies, police, prison and probation workers, and academics, as well as personal testimony from people whose lives have been ruined.
We heard from the family of a man who was given a long prison sentence for stealing hundreds of thousands of pounds from his employer. It would emerge that he had been betting so heavily that a gambling company made incentivised deposits totalling £35,000 to his account to encourage him to keep spending.
Another man, also jailed for stealing a six-figure sum from his employer, told us that for 20 years he only had the occasional flutter, but everything changed after he placed his first bet online. Over the next seven years, he lost his savings, reached limits on multiple credit cards and took out numerous loans to gamble more and more.
These cases in the workplace appear to be merely the tip of the iceberg. We have seen evidence that gambling can drive not only “white collar” crimes such as theft and fraud, but also street robbery, domestic abuse and even child neglect.
Addressing the state of play
We know that this is a big issue. The question is “how big?” And, to answer it – and to go some way to addressing it – we need to see change in every corner of the criminal justice system. The commission’s briefing, State of Play, published on Tuesday, lays bare a lack of knowledge or targeted activity within the system, from policing to the courts, to prisons and probation.
Some police forces were asking the right questions – a pilot project in Cheshire indicated that 13 per cent of people arrested may have a gambling problem – but witnesses told us that the police officers they encountered lacked understanding of gambling addiction or where support could be found.
Witnesses described having to educate their own legal teams about problem gambling when their cases came to court. One told us that their hearing had to be adjourned while the judge researched the matter.
We heard that hardly any support was available for people in prison and, where it was, there were barriers to getting it. Witnesses told us that gambling was a significant part of prison culture, making recovery more challenging.
Reform the Proceeds of Crime Act
Nowhere is the need for reform more evident than with the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. This legislation was brought in primarily to confiscate ill-gotten gains from people involved in serious and organised crime, but the commission heard of its use to pursue gamblers who had already lost all their money. Ultimately, it can be the gambler’s family that is punished, even when, as is often the case, they were unaware of the offending.
The Commission on Crime and Problem Gambling will keep digging. We have several research projects under way and in the pipeline. We are finding out whether each police force in England and Wales routinely screens for problem gambling when they bring people into their custody suites and, if so, what happens.
We will hear from more people who have been pulled into trouble after getting into gambling difficulties. There will be projects focusing on the experiences of women and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
Each of these studies will give us a deeper understanding of this issue and, most importantly, point the way to action that will prevent more people being swept into crime.
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